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Assessing College Support Services for Students with ADHD

Kathleen G. Nadeau, Ph.D.

Most college support services sound alike when described in college catalogues. The unsuspecting student or parent would assume that support services are much the same from one school to the next, but this is far from true. Although several guides that have been developed to assist parents and students in selecting colleges with good learning disability support services, no such guide has yet been developed for ADHD support services.

Finding good support services

By making a little effort and by knowing the right questions to ask, you can easily differentiate between excellent, mediocre, and "barely there" ADHD support services. Below is a list of questions to ask. Only a few top schools will be able to give an optimal response to all of the questions below. A college disability support office that is able to give positive answers to the majority of the following questions should be given strong consideration.

Where and how to contact each college

Support services may have different names at different colleges. Search under Disability Services, Disability Support, or Learning Support Services. If you begin your college search with a lengthy list of schools, your first contact with disability support services can be by email. A rapid, encouraging response to your email is a good sign of adequate staffing and a positive attitude toward students with need for accommodations and learning supports. As you narrow your list of schools, an in-person interview with a disability support service provider is strongly recommended. Be sure to schedule that interview in conjunction with your visit to the school to coordinate it with the scheduled campus tour.

Questions to ask:

  1. Is the director of the Office of Disabled Student Services a specialist in ADHD and/or LD? If the answer is "no" the college is much less likely to provide good support services for students with learning needs.

  2. How many students with ADHD or LD are registered with the DSS office? The more the better! A large number of registered students suggests better funding and staffing for support services.

  3. How many ADHD and/or LD specialists are employed full-time by disability services? Beware of a large university that employs only one or two specialists.

  4. How long has the support program for students with ADHD and LD existed on campus? The longer the better. Good support programs take time to build.

  5. How long has the current director been in place? The longer the better. The program director is typically the individual who is the heart and soul of the ADHD/LD support program.

  6. Is there a formal LD program available for students on campus? Does the student have to make a separate application to this program? Are there additional costs associated with this program? Many students with ADHD also have learning disabilities and may need support services for LD as well.

  7. Is there an ADHD specialist or special services for ADHD students? Most often the answer is "no." A positive answer, however, is an excellent sign. Many support services assume that students with ADHD and LD need the same services. While there is certainly some overlap, students with ADHD typically need much more support in scheduling, time management, and daily life management.

  8. Is there an ADHD student support group on campus? Finding other students with ADHD and having an organized meeting at which you can "learn the ropes" is a big plus.

  9. Is there a faculty education program to familiarize the faculty with the needs of students with ADHD or LD? Faculty education about ADHD is very important. Today, many faculty members have little knowledge or training about students with ADHD and may even have a negative, skeptical attitude toward students who ask for accommodations.

  10. What kinds of accommodations does the school offer students with special needs? At minimum, a college should provide the possibility of a note-taker in each class, the possibility of extended time on exams, and the possibility of taking exams in a quiet, non-distracting environment.

  11. Is specialized tutoring available for students with ADHD or LD? Almost all campuses provide peer tutoring, however students with ADHD and LD typically need more specialized tutoring from a trained tutor.

  12. Are there seminars or courses for students with ADHD and LD that teach study skills or self-advocacy skills? A very positive sign if the answer is "yes." Entering freshmen can benefit tremendously from a specialized ADHD/LD study skills seminar. (Be sure that this is differentiated from a general study skills seminar available to all entering freshmen.)

  13. Does the DSS office facilitate the communication of the student's disability needs to each professor? Disability services should provide official documentation of the student's disability and the accommodations for which he is eligible. In addition, be sure to ask what types of supportive communication are provided from student disability services in the event that a professor is not cooperative in providing accommodations.

  14. How complicated is the procedure a student must follow to obtain alternative testing (extended time or on a computer)? Some schools require such a complex set of steps each time a student with ADHD receives alternative testing that it is difficult, if not impossible, for the student with organizational and time management problems to comply.

  15. Is there a specialist on campus who teaches planning, organizational and study skills? If "yes", this is a good sign. If "no," be sure to ask if the student disability office has a list of private professionals in the community that can provide such services.

  16. What types of writing supports are available for students with ADHD and LD? Are these different or more intensive than supports available to all students? Writing papers is often one of the greatest challenges for college students with ADHD. Because they have a particular set of challenges, it is most helpful if writing tutors are available who have specialized training and experience in working with students with ADHD.

  17. Is ADHD coaching available through the student disability office? Some schools with cutting-edge support services are beginning to train their staff in ADHD coaching techniques.

  18. Does the student disability office maintain a list of experienced professionals in the community who can provide ongoing treatment - medication and psychotherapy for ADHD? Such a list is routine in most disability offices.

  19. Do students with ADHD and LD have early registration privileges to allow them to select the courses and professors they need? A very critical accommodation, allowing a student with special needs to hand-pick professors and to customize his or her schedule. It is not a good sign if a college does not provide this accommodation.

  20. Does the school offer specialized academic advising through the DSS office for students with ADHD and LD? A very strong need! If students with ADHD and LD are sent, along with all other students, for academic advising by someone with little or no training in ADHD, the advising is unlikely to be helpful.

  21. Is there a way in which a student can identify faculty members who are knowledgeable about and sympathetic toward the needs of students with ADHD and LD? Few disability offices will provide an "ADD-friendliness" rating of faculty members, however many office will allow students to make such ratings and will keep a book of such ratings available for other students to peruse.

  22. Does the DSS office help to mediate disputes between student and professor regarding rights and accommodations? Unfortunately, many college professors are still not aware of the legal rights of students with a documented disability such as ADHD and some are even hostile to the idea of providing accommodations to these students. Students with ADHD should strongly pursue the choice of a college which has an active ADHD and LD faculty education program and which provides mediation when students encounter resistance from a professor who is asked to provide reasonable accommodations.

  23. What is the school's policy toward course substitution when a student's disability prevents him from fulfilling a particular requirement toward graduation such as a math or foreign language course? Are requirements ever waived? Under what circumstances? If a student with ADHD has a particular difficulty with math or foreign language, it is critical that the flexibility of such requirements be carefully considered before applying to a particular college.

  24. Are students required to fail math or foreign language before they can qualify for a waiver? Do these failing grades become part of the student's GPA? A critical question! Some schools that provide requirement waivers or course substitutions, first require a student to take and fail the required course. If this failing grade becomes a permanent part of the undergraduate record it can have a lasting negative effect upon the student's grade point average.

  25. Are students who currently receive services through the DSS office available for prospective students to talk with? Although it is important to talk directly with counselors in the student disability services office, it is also extremely helpful to get the "lowdown" from current students. Most support services offices should be willing to arrange this on an informal basis. Just spending a little time in the reception area of the disability services office can allow the possibility to interact with other students who receive disability support services.

  26. Are counselors available on an ongoing basis for ADHD counseling and support? A student with ADHD often experiences an emotional roller-coaster ride for the first year or more of college. Guidance, counseling and encouragement from trained staff can make the difference between success and failure during the first year or two of college.

Time spent carefully researching the support services and accommodations available at colleges that you are considering is time well spent. Too often a college is selected with little or no consideration of the services available for students with ADHD, and much too often such lack of consideration contributes to college failure.

Many high school students are "sure" that they won't need or want any special supports in college. Even if a student feels no need for supports, he or she is well advised to attend a college at which such supports are available if needed. Far better to have them available and not need them than to need them and not have them available!

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