By Criag Gibson
It was a long and arduous road, a journey for which I was unprepared to endure. Diagnosed with a learning disability in the first grade at the age of six, I spent the next twelve years in self-contained special education classrooms. In desperate need of additional academic support, my parents did what they felt was best, advocating for me along the way. They attended countless hours of I.E.P. (Individualized Education Plan) meetings, seeing to it that the goals and objectives that were outlined in my I.E.P. were diligently implemented from one year to the next. For twelve years my parents, without question, were my greatest support and my biggest advocates. They believed in me.
As an individual growing up with a learning difference, there comes a time when your parents will no longer be there to advocate for you every step of the way. There comes a time when you need to take control of the reins. There comes a time when you need to learn how to advocate for yourself, and your ability to do so effectively will ultimately determine the course of your life. It is either sink or swim.
I was fortunate. By the time I reached my senior year of high school, my parents not only advocated for me and my education, but also instilled in me a true sense of independence, allowing me to effectively advocate for myself in the post-secondary (college) setting. Surely, without this knowledge it would have taken me far longer to seek the help I needed to find success in the academic forum. Knowledge is power, so-to-speak, and I truly felt empowered.
Prior to the start of my freshman year of college, my mother and I met with the coordinator of the learning center with documentation in hand of my diagnosis (“Specific Learning Disability”). The coordinator provided us with not only a list of supports and services that were available for students with and without learning differences, but recommended, specifically, the services that would best meet my unique learning needs. From there, it was up to me to take advantage of all the supports and services that were available to me – and there were many.
Sometimes you have to fail before you can succeed. Initially, I made a futile attempt to succeed on my own, without the supports I so desperately needed to find such success. As a result of my blatant disregard for my diagnosis, and the many supports and services that were available to me, I failed my first college course (Geology). Truly, this was a real wakeup call, and I quickly came to the stark realization that if I was going to succeed at the college level, I needed to be proactive in seeking out the help and assistance that would allow me to find that success. Being proactive, I learned, was “key.”
From that point forward, I took full advantage of the supports and services that were available for students with documented learning differences. With math and science being my greatest areas of weakness, I sought out academic tutoring for those subjects, sometimes five days a week (depending on my level of need and availability in my schedule). I had a “scribe” that read me test questions and took tests untimed. It was also of great benefit for me to take exams separate from my peers, as I often had a great deal of difficulty blocking out background noise (due to my sensory issues). The elimination of auditory distractions better helped me focus, increasing my chances of doing well on a given exam.
With writing being my area of strength, I mainly took advantage of the supports and services that would allow me to find success in the areas of math and science. However, for individuals who need a little extra support with their writing, most colleges and universities have a full writing center. For students with documented learning differences, the institution may also grant an extension for writing assignments past the due date.
Consistently taking advantage of the many supports and services that are available for individuals with learning differences is absolutely critical if one is going to find success at the college level. It is most important, I believe, to be proactive from the start. Being “proactive” means not only recognizing one’s learning difference, but understanding what supports, specifically, the individual needs in order to be successful. Follow-through is of equal importance. It is one thing to be aware of the help that is available, and another thing to actually take advantage of the help that is available. The effective self-advocate has a firm understanding of his own learning difference, makes his needs known to the appropriate support staff early, and takes full advantage of the supports and services that are available. If one follows these three simple steps, academic success will surely be the end result.
Craig Gibson, M.Ed., was diagnosed with a learning disability at the age of six, and spent the next twelve years in special education. He has since earned two degrees, has published on the local and national levels, and is a Featured Blogger of the internationally acclaimed AutsmSpot.com. Craig is also the Editor in Charge of SensorySpot.com (sister site of AutismSpot.com). Craig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.