How to be your Own Self Advocate in College

Once I received my NLD / Autism diagnosis, I was out of high school and it was behoove of me to be my own self advocate. Having this diagnosis was extremely valuable for me going into community college.

I went to community college a week after the diagnosis, and I was buzzing with the joy of having a name for my unnamed shadow. I first went into the library of the college to finish the admittance paperwork. After an hour taking care of the remittance paperwork, I spent the remaining afternoon in the library looking up everything I could find about NLD / Autism. This blog is for anyone going to college or trade school. In the future I’ll write more about self advocacy in k-12 schools.

Grad photo
Author with his M.A. Degree in Curriculum & Instruction from UCD. Photo by family member.

Know Thyself

Once you have the diagnosis, take some time to reflect on what the diagnosis says and what that means for you in the future. Then work on a list of things that you can bring to the school to accommodate your needs.

Having a self-check list can help you communicate your needs to the school and teachers.

A handwriting excersise
A writing exercise I used to highlight disgraphia. Photo by author.

Also think of an elevator speech for your type of Autism. If you had to describe your needs in 30 seconds or less, what would you tell people as your self advocate?

For me I’ve said “I have Autism. I’m a great reader and I like science. My handwriting is hard to read, so please ask if you can’t read it. I may not like large noisy crowds.”

Find Your Tribe

All public colleges and trade schools are required to have a department of disability services (DS). You’ll have to register with them to receive accommodations at the school. A good habit to have in life is to have all your documentation for your disability in one binder. They will need some official proof of your unique needs, and they will also have you fill out some documentation as well. Depending on the schools criteria, you may also have to do some secondary testing with them.

Once that is in place, DS can be a great asset for you. They will provide a form for your professors to explain your accommodations. As your own self advocate, you will be responsible for presenting this to the teachers at the beginning of the year, and you will have to remind the teachers of it throughout the year. DS will also be your home base for supports and resources in your area.

You may even find a part time job working with DS. You can talk to them about work study jobs that help other classmates take notes, transcribe books into text to speak programs, or providing other assistance to students in DS.

DS may also host resource fairs and social events for eligible students. These are a great way to connect with your local disability community.

Disability resource fair self advocate
The Author with other members of DS at a college resource fair.

Along with DS, find local support groups for people with similar disabilities. As I spent that first afternoon researching NLD, I found a local support group for NLD parents. Finding others with NLD felt amazing, and to this day I still have life long friendships with various members of that group.

Knowing that you’re not alone with your disability is a great support for you in academia.

School Environment

With the school environment, you can make a map of spaces that work and don’t work for your sensory needs. Is the student union hall too crowded or noisy? Do you like or hate the strong smell of fresh ground coffee at the coffee shop? Where is a quite place you can go to study and decompress?

Also think about your classroom needs. Do you need smaller classrooms where you can hear the teacher, or can you stand large lecture halls. When you start planing your classes, you can walk around the school to get a feel for the classes you’ll be in and the travel time between classes.

Also plan out what you’ll do if there is a fire alarm or other emergency. These are rare at the college level, but most fire marshals require at least one drill a year.

If you have a bad sense of direction like me, print up a map with a route planed to all your classes, including alternatives. If possible, try to scope the routes out to see what is the most comfortable for your needs.

Self Advocate your Class Scheduling

This is huge for college classes. You can write your own schedule. I’m not a morning person, so I was generally able to select classes in the afternoon. You may also be able to give yourself more travel time between classes. I tried to space classes about half to an hour apart to give me time to decompress and take care of other things on campus. Depending on the class, there may be 2-4 time slots available for your core classes. Work with your school councilor to develop the best scheduling possible.

Bus, Trains & Automobiles

An important part of getting to college is just the journey there. If you chose to study out of state you will have to figure out how you’ll visit home. With the TSA not being known for being autism friendly, Amtrack may be a  more affordable option.

While the train can take you across state lines, local public transportation is a life savor for college students. Once you get your class schedule, you can use the public transport site to schedule your buss stops and alternative routs. Be prepared to meet a lot of people on the bus.

Cars may give you the flexibility to travel to college, but many autistic students may not drive. Parking at colleges is also at a  premium.

There is a Club for that…

Clubs and trade organizations on campus can be a great way to meet other students with similar interest. Avoid any fraternity houses around campus, as they tend to focus on parties over academics.

Check with the student union to see if there is a list of clubs and schedules. Most clubs meet once a week to once a month.

Keep Learning

Self advocacy is a life long skill. Academia does provide a rich area for you to learn about yourself, and how to be your own advocate. As you go through college or trade school, talk to mentors and other advocates to continue learning about your needs. You can also find other disability rights organizations like ADAPT or Autism Society of America to learn about more resources in your area.

Tassles worth the hassle self advocate
Various graduation tassels. Photo by Author.