Taking Yourself To College

Taking Yourself To College

by Martin Villa

You’ve no doubt heard the saying, “College isn’t for everyone,” and if you’re someone who is neurodiverse or has a learning disability, maybe you think that’s true for you. But whether you are an A student or a student for whom nothing about getting an education has come easily, we want you to remember that college is always an option for you. We believe the question should not be whether someone should attend college, but where should they attend college, so we put together a list of some of the colleges and universities in Southern California that are making an impact for neuro-diverse students.

If you want to know if the fabric of your clothes won’t distract you from lectures depending on the institution, or if dedicated space for distraction-free testing will be enough, the answer is “no.” But know that all colleges will work with you to help you successfully complete classes. One thing we found in common among all SoCal colleges is that they will make reasonable accommodations based on your medical condition; but with some investigating, you’ll find that some will go over and beyond to help you.


If you are undecided about attending college, perhaps trying out what it would be like is a good start. And for an easier transition into what they call “college life,” and even independence, taking classes online could be the intermediary between who you are and who you want to be. Through online courses, while you will be testing the workload like any other student, not much social interaction is required, and when it is, there will always be advance notice. The best part is that for these colleges you can choose from as far from SoCal as you wish, as most of them do not require physical attendance at all.

For such online-oriented institutions, in May 2020, The Best Schools, an organization that helps future college students reach their goals for education and beyond providing information and statistical data of school rankings, careers, and degrees, updated their school finding tool for 2020 prospective students.

In this tool, you can find colleges and universities based on the highest degree you want to earn combined with the major you will choose, and any specializations you have in mind. Click on “FIND MY PROGRAM” on the tool, and see the successful future that awaits you when enrolling in the best online schools without relocating. Note that the coronavirus pandemic has forced a lot of other institutions to move into distance learning mode, too, so if you’re a fan of a specific school mascot, you might as well see if there are openings for you there!



Without exaggerating, the SoCal list of colleges is long, and that’s great news, as the chances you find your perfect match go parallel with the list’s length. That said, SoCal has plenty of systematic choices, too. You can choose from independent liberal arts colleges, nursing or dental-focused single programs, private colleges and universities, or even go for the federal and state public universities, for which California is known to have an elevated system and curricula, in some occasions leading research in science and liberal arts along with some of the Ivy League institutions in the country. The best thing is that these schools are always mindful of their current and prospective students’ needs, too.

At the University of California – Los Angeles, for example, the members of Autism Speaks U at UCLA, a student organization through Autism Speaks, look to increase awareness while educating peers and offering services to those on campus and in the community. “Through fundraising events and volunteering, we teach students and faculty members how they are able to make a difference and be a voice for the autism community in the Los Angeles area. Our goal is to foster an environment of understanding and learning how to better assist those impacted with autism.” Furthermore, to improve your college career and experience, UCLA offers this tool that helps you find other student organizations available and that might fit your needs. Check out the “Student Support” page and the “UCLA Accommodation Request” site for more assistance and ways they can help out!

Just like UCLA, The University of California System in general has many more great advantages, too. With student/faculty ratios of 18:1 and 22:1, almost the same as UCLA’s 18:1 ratio, supportive resources for the successful completion of classes is also the goal at the University of California – Irvine and the University of California – Riverside respectively. Furthermore, like in any other university in the UC system, instructors offer ”office hours” during which you can take advantage of 1-to-1 learning. Have a question you felt too uncomfortable to ask during lecture? Sign up for office hours to ask the professor directly.

UCI has also been recognized by many magazines, including the New York Times, as the university doing the most for its students in many areas; their student-driven Learning and Academic Resource Center that offers multiple, varied and weekly tutoring sessions led by students who have successfully completed the class is just one example. Under the Disability Services Center, the university also offers specialized support for students dealing with more than just the academic stress, including self advocacy skills improvement, online learning resources, and a note-taking support program that provides daily lecture notes. Students can also meet with the note taker if they have any questions about the notes or if something is unclear. Besides academic programs, the school offers mental health support at its Counseling Center, including different types of therapies to help students maintain good mental health during their college career. Click here to learn about many more academic special accommodations that include preferential seating, part time enrollment, and even priority registration with commuting assistance so you are given a more realistic chance to take classes at your most convenient time and location.



Along with the federal universities, the state universities are also a great college choice, and there are even more choices within this category. If you are looking for a vocational or technical career, for example, the polytechnic universities will be more resourceful for you. They will focus on providing an “applied science” environment giving you the skills necessary in hands-on careers such as architecture, culinary arts and more. Cal Poly Pomona’s polytechnic approach , for example, “is paired with a learn-by-doing philosophy. Blending theory and practice into all programs ensures that you get real-world experience and the ability to bring these skills to your first day on the job.” Furthermore, of all universities in the SoCal area, Cal Poly Pomona is one of the few that offer the most Spectrum-specialized student support through their Integrated Care Network, taking into consideration specialized support for students with ADHD and autism. Under the Autism Specialty Services, for example, coaches focus on helping their students elevate their executive functioning skills, engagement, and social skills to make their career more successful and provide an easier college-to-career transition.

That said, the non-polytechnic, state universities also have their own methods to help you. And just like in the UC System, every single university has its specialized disability center. At San Diego State University, for example, the Student Ability Success Center provides a variety of services and accommodations that are determined on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with an SASC counselor. But at California State University San Marcos, the disability center dives so much more deeper into specialized needs that they even offer disability friendly options in their student cafeterias and local restaurants’ food menus.



While the larger institutions require that you stay on track in order to graduate on time (a 4-5 year graduating period), the smaller community colleges and single-program institutions offer self-paced education for everyone so that you can take the amount of classes you can comfortably handle. Some community colleges even help you transition to a larger university if a certificate or Associates Degree is only the first of your degrees. Fullerton College, for example, is perhaps the institution with the highest transitioning rate for transferring students in Orange County. Unlike other community colleges, FC is large enough that its diversity also makes them able to offer services that support their students in different ways. Academically, they offer career and life planning services to help you make the most of your major, which they help you choose through a deep understanding of your skills, interests, life goals and strengths. And in the disability center, you can also use all applicable accommodation services that can include: registration assistance, priority registration, instructor letters, audio recording, note taking assistance, test accommodations, tutoring, and more.

While academics are great at being very straightforward and often focus on a single field of study, diversity is limited in the smaller, private, single programs. Here, the spaces are often filled by students with very common career goals, mindsets, and academic challenges. So while it’s a legal requirement that they offer support to their students with different abilities, they won’t be as innovative as in the larger systems.



Although smaller institutions are not as diverse, that does not mean these colleges have nothing good for you. It means that while public universities work on an all-inclusive system –religion, political affiliation, economic position, and other values that can affect your college life– privates will tend to feature and suggest greater preference for specific values ​​within which you might feel uncomfortable. But when coinciding with the majority of your own values, these will then give you more mobility, comfort, support systems, and even better academics than the public schools.

“One in particular that is a great fit for neuro-diverse students who have a low GPA and weren’t able to take rigorous high school coursework is Marymount California University in Rancho Palos Verdes,” says Janice Royal, Independent Educational Consultant and founder of Royal College Consulting.

And although successfully attending MCU, for example, could earn you a Bachelor’s degree with major-limited options, these limitation themselves could be “less overwhelming for some students than a huge CSU with hundreds of options, a small college environment (think individual attention, being known, getting exactly the help you need), and is not highly selective so accessible if a student struggled in high school,” Royal says.



Going to college can take away support systems you were used to. Parents, for example, cannot follow you and assist you as much as they do now compared to when living on campus. So, you might need to seek support somewhere else. While not an academic institution, College Living Experience can do that by providing a wrap-around support service that provides the necessary supports in areas of academics, social skills, living independently and career development.

“The CLE team works alongside each student to provide coaching and instruction through guided discovery within their natural environment. Our supports and services are tailored around each student so they may discover their true potential.”

According to Royal, this is the leading provider of post-secondary supports for young adults with learning differences, and can be just the right program to support a student’s transition to independence. “This program supports students as they live in a nearby apartment and attend college. Students at the Costa Mesa CLE attend Orange Coast College, CSULB, CSUF, and Chapman to name a few. For a student needing significant support for the first couple of years of college and independent living, it is an excellent option.”

Furthermore, plenty of other non-profit organizations can help with other than academics. Through Poppy Life Care’s network of services and partnerships, for example, we can help you improve your lifestyle, eating habits, and even physical health, which are always crucial for a more successful and focused learning.



Finally, there is no universal “going to college” picture. In fact, for most students (and especially neurodiverse students or those with autism), it’s nothing like depicted on TV. College can be competitive, challenging, and difficult in many aspects — physically, financially, and emotionally. What remains true for everyone, even neuro-typicals, is that we all feel the social anxiety of the first day, the first impression, the pressure of midterms, the finals, getting to know completely different people, and even the temporary anxiety that self-awareness brings in asking questions in a lecture hall filled with over a hundred (or more!) students.

Plus, while some people need help staying physically healthy, others will need help staying mentally strong as well. Just keep in mind that college is a place where people open up their minds and shed any judgmental habits by the end of the first term. The perfect time to attend college is whenever you decide to take that leap. Don’t be afraid to seek support, or to be yourself. But don’t fear the falls, the anxiety, the stress; they’re all inevitable. Being afraid should not be a limitation; if it was, no one would ever graduate!