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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

Best Gap Year Programs for Neurodivergent Students

Updated: Mar 5

By Patty Laushman


In my post last week, I talked about different reasons you might want to take a gap year between high school and college or other post-secondary options. In addition to giving yourself an opportunity to build skills requisite to college success, gap year experiences can be a whole lot of fun!


Most people are not aware of the various options available in gap year experiences, so in this blog post, I will talk about some different options, things to think about when exploring gap year options, and how to find these amazing opportunities.

neurodivergent woman listening to music while travelling

Gap Year Options

First of all, to dispel a myth, despite its name, a gap year experience doesn’t need to be a year. It can be a summer of experiential learning taken right after high school. It can be a semester long or a two-year program. Gap years can even be taken after college and before starting one’s career if the college experience has left you burned out.


Generally speaking, gap year opportunities can be classified in four ways:


  1. Structured programs or independently structured experiences: Structured programs abound, but they can be hard to find because there is no one database that houses them. Families also sometimes create their own programs to perfectly meet the needs and interests of their young adult.

  2. International or domestic: Many people think of gap year programs as existing overseas, but there are also numerous opportunities domestically.

  3. Study-related or work-related: Depending on your goals for the experience, you can find programs that relate to your intended field of study where you may or may not earn college credits, or you may prefer to explore different career options before committing to a field of study and focus on work-related activities.

  4. Specifically developed for neurodivergent students or not: There are numerous programs that cater to the general population that may or may not be a great fit for your neurodivergence. There are also programs out there that cater specifically to neurodivergent students.


Here are some different types of opportunities.


Volunteering

neurodivergent group of volunteers preparing donations

Volunteering is a popular way to spend a gap year. There are many opportunities to serve a community or organization or ecosystem in the U.S. or abroad.


Enrichment Courses

Enrichment courses are a great way to find your passion and build a skill set that helps you get into a rewarding career. These types of experiences can be found in trade schools, community colleges, language classes, arts organizations, and agriculture.


You can also audit college classes that enable you to improve critical skills such as writing, without the pressure of being graded. Shoring up critical skills like this can enhance the college experience.


Study Abroad

Studying abroad as a gap year experience can get you college credits while learning overseas in more flexible models than at the typical university.


Working

Some students choose to spend some time working before starting college, or receiving room and board while developing greater independence and financial literacy.


Independent Travel

autistic woman with hat and backpack travelling

Backpacking through Europe, South America, or other locations and staying at low-cost hostels is a very popular way to learn how to navigate new places and experience great adventure.


Experiential Semester

These are structured experiences that include mentorship and hands-on learning with a cohort of peers that focuses on a theme.


Interning

Interning is a great way to try different jobs or careers on for size before committing to an education path. There are internship opportunities available in the U.S. or abroad.


Benefits of Taking a Gap Year

In addition to taking a breather between high school and college, there are benefits to gap years that are particularly helpful for neurodivergent students, depending on your strengths and challenges. Gap years give you an opportunity to develop the following skills.


Executive Functioning Skills

Many neurodivergent people struggle with executive functioning skills. Absent-minded professor, anyone? This includes things like planning, initiating, and completing tasks.


Are you able to turn in assignments on time, plan for bigger projects, and make progress along the way without leaving everything to the last minute?

If you’ve had an executive functioning coach, will that person continue to work with you into college?


These are all important factors that are essential to college success, and gap year programs can give you a chance to strengthen these skills.


Self-Advocacy Skills

Do you learn differently than others? Many students with differently-wired brains have had an IEP or a 504 Plan throughout their schooling and need some accommodations to access curriculum.


Are you willing to both ask for and use the accommodations you need for academic success? This is not always easy to do, and gap year experiences can give you an opportunity to practice this without a risk to your GPA. For example, you could strengthen both an academic skill and your self-advocacy skills by auditing a freshman writing class at a community college.


Things to Think About

Will it Hurt My Chances of Getting Into College?

neurodivergent college student

Some people wonder if a gap year will hurt chances of getting accepted to college, which is a reasonable question. Typically, the answer is no. If you absolutely know where you want to go to college, apply to both college and the gap year program simultaneously (since their applications deadlines will often sync up). Then when you get accepted, defer your enrollment for a year.


Most colleges will allow this, including Harvard and Yale, who actually encourage this. You’ll want to work with the admissions office in advance about what your plan is and what you expect to gain from your gap year experience. Most will be completely on board with the idea, especially if you plan on creating a portfolio of your experience.


Will I Actually Go on to College?

Parents often worry about whether their student will actually return to college after the gap year experience. The Gap Year Association’s 2020 alumni survey showed that 85% of students completing gap year programs went on to college, 11% went into the workforce, and the rest extended their gap year experience.


Will I Be Safe?

Another thing both parents and students often worry about is safety. Gap year programs typically involve young adults who have not lived away from home before, and safety is of paramount importance. The level of safety protocols vary by program, but safety is one of the factors the Gap Year Association looks at when accrediting a program, so if the program is accredited by the GYA, you can rest assured that it’s safe.


What About Cost?

Cost is a big factor in choosing a gap year program, and it varies widely from program to program. Some actually pay you to participate, some may cover just room and board, and others will cost thousands of dollars.


Special Concerns for Neurodivergent Students

Different programs have different levels of support for factors that neurodivergent students might need.


Daily Living Skills

autistic woman cooking at home

Some neurodivergent students are still receiving support from parents in daily living skills they need to master before they can be successful in college.


For example, some neurodivergent students struggle with independently performing their morning routine and differ in ability to follow a schedule. Can you set an alarm, get up in the morning, and follow the day’s schedule? If not, some programs will help you develop these routines.


What about sleep? Are you able to go to bed at a reasonable time and wake up in the morning rested, or do you stay up late and sleep half the day? This is not unusual in neurodivergent students, but most gap year programs will require you to get yourself to bed at a reasonable time and be awake during the daytime.


Can you plan a menu, shop for groceries, prepare the food, and clean up afterward? If you will be living in a dorm situation, can you select meals that will give you a balanced, healthful diet? Do you have any dietary restrictions? You’ll want a program that meets your needs for nutrition.


Do you know how to plan out an abundance of unstructured time? In high school, your weekdays are fairly structured until the afternoon. After high school, it may seem you have an abundance of free time, but the reality is that you will need to figure out how to structure that time to complete all your responsibilities.


Medication Issues

Medication is another factor to consider when choosing a gap year program. If you are on medication, take it consistently as prescribed, and are completely independent in taking it, that’s great! Depending on where you are going, you may also need to find out if you will have access to a pharmacy. Some programs will not have access to a pharmacy, so you’ll need to plan ahead and bring enough of your medications with you.


Some neurodivergent students have medical marijuana cards. If this describes you, you will need to check the program’s rules because some have a zero-tolerance policy for drugs, and this includes marijuana, despite whatever your state’s laws might be.


Electronics

Let’s talk about electronics. How much time do you spend on electronic devices? For many neurodivergent students, electronics are essential to calming their minds or sensory systems. They may also be a core part of your socializing. Are you hooked on gaming? Depending on the program, your access or time on electronics may be limited or you may literally not be able to access the Internet. Be honest with yourself, and if this is going to cause a problem for you, work on a plan for dealing with this.


Essential Eligibility Criteria

Finally, some programs have “essential eligibility criteria.” These are skills that you must have upon entering the program, no exceptions. For example, Semester at Sea requires that participants be able to swim. The kinds of disability protections you may have leveraged in school may not apply. You’ll want to find out if the program you’re interested in has any of these requirements.


How to Find the Right Gap Year Program for Me

neurodivergent group applying to gap year program

Here is the fun part -- exploring different options! There is no one database for finding gap year programs, but a great place to start is the Gap Year Association.


The Gap Year Association (GYA) is a nonprofit membership community for educators, students, gap year programs, consultants, counselors, and post-secondary institutions with a shared vision of making at least a semester of quality gap year time accessible to every high school graduate.


Recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission as the Standards Development Organization for gap year education in the United States, GYA oversees a robust accreditation process for gap year providers and consultants.


Check out their free Gap Year Guide.


Go Overseas is your guide to 15,000+ programs that will change how you see the world. There are 50,000+ community reviews available to help you choose your next adventure. The program includes both work abroad and study abroad programs. They also coordinate periodic sponsor fairs throughout the county that finish up in mid-March each year, but when they are available, you can find the schedule here. Scholarships are available.


Experience the world and discover your passions. Build real-world skills, make lifelong memories, and return home a better you. For ages 18-22.


Since 1965, EF (Education First) has sent millions of people around the world to have life-changing experiences. Their gap year program is the culmination of 50 years of expertise in educational travel, language learning, and cultural exchange— their “greatest hits,” if you will.


Landmark College offers summer programs to assist a wide range of students with learning differences, including high school students, graduating high school seniors, and students enrolled at colleges around the country.


All of the programs are designed to enable students to identify their learning strengths and differences. Students learn specific strategies to be successful in formal academic settings and grow personally and academically in an intentional and supportive academic community. The instructors consist of current Landmark College faculty as well as teachers from the surrounding area who are experienced in working with students who learn differently.


The Summer for Success program is a three-week immersion experience for rising high school juniors and seniors and recent graduates who learn differently. It’s designed to help these college-bound students build the skills, confidence, and preparation they need to successfully transition from high school.


This program is about self-discovery, skills development, and confidence-building.


They promise students a great time as they learn to become better learners while forging new friendships with fellow students from across the country. Most importantly, students get to experience what it’s like to live — and learn — on a college campus, and better understand their learning differences, recognize early stumbling blocks and know what they need to succeed in their first year of college.


Mansfield Hall is a living and learning community which provides residential, academic, executive functioning, social, and independent living skill support to students who are going to college. They are not a degree-granting institution, but all of their participants are in college.


Located in Burlington, VT, Madison, WI, and Eugene, OR, students come from around the country in order to be a part of their residential community which provides a comprehensive and holistic support system to facilitate a successful transition into college and independence.


Each location offers a flagship state university, a community college, and private colleges or universities. Although participants are welcome to pursue a traditional admissions track, they DO NOT need to formally apply to, or be accepted at, the local schools in order to make the Mansfield Hall decision and start out taking real classes, for real credit, right away.


autistic adult enjoying internship

The College Internship Program (CIP) is a private young adult transition program for individuals 18-26 with autism, ADHD, and other learning differences offering comprehensive and specialized services.


CIP’s programs uniquely address the needs of young adults with learning differences by focusing on the generalization of skills while living within a community of peers in a supported apartment living environment. Each student’s unique needs are met individually as they transition to independent living, college, and employment.


CIP is the result of strategies developed over 35 years working with hundreds of young people with exceptionalities helping them develop the self-knowledge and skills to live happy and productive lives.


The Focus Collegiate Summer Cohort is a college readiness experience for students who need extra support before they land on their campus. Cohort students reside in a private residence hall in Boston’s exclusive Back Bay neighborhood where they learn to thrive and share their experiences with other college bound students.


Academic independence and life balance are not the only items on the agenda. Escape rooms, ropes courses, bike excursions, Charles River kayaking, ferry rides in Boston Harbor, and city tours acquaint students with the liveliness of Boston as they navigate local trains, buses, ferries, and experience local cuisine, culture, sports, and music.


Students will also round out their Boston experience and develop their perspective-taking skills by engaging in a variety of structured social activities.


Dynamy’s domestic gap-year program is designed to help students pursue their interests and passions, discover their full potential, and find their direction. Choose between one semester or a full year. Their program follows an innovative experiential educational model, which provides students with meaningful opportunities to gain real-world work experience, explore career interests, and build critical life skills before taking life’s next steps.


Students receive hands-on experience with everything from internships, outdoor challenges, one-on-one mentoring, community involvement and apartment life while learning to live independently. On top of that, they partner with Clark University so students have the opportunity to enroll in three different classes and earn up to 12 college credits.


BroadFutures is revolutionizing the way young neurodivergent people enter the workforce through paid internships. Their unique approach builds confidence, improves communication skills, and enhances job performance. They incorporate experiential learning opportunities that serve to challenge comfort zones and empower young people to achieve transformative, positive, and successful futures.

Their curriculum focuses on professionalism, communication, and stress tolerance, while incorporating the arts, yoga, and mindfulness. Interns learn in a risk-free environment where they practice work situations, receive feedback, and enter the workplace more successfully and confidently.


Hire a Gap Year Consultant

neurodivergent adult talking to gap year consultant

If you are overwhelmed by all of the options, you are not alone. A gap year consultant can be your best resource. They will be able to answer your questions, know the ins and outs of many programs, and be able to match you with the very best program to achieve your goals for your gap year experience.


I recommend contacting the Gap Year Association to find a certified consultant.


Conclusion

In conclusion, taking a gap year can be a great option for students who want to take a break between high school and college, or who want to take some time off after college. There are various options available for gap year experiences, and they can be structured or independently structured, international or domestic, study-related or work-related, and specifically developed for neurodivergent students or not. Additionally, gap year experiences can provide many benefits for neurodivergent students, such as helping to develop executive functioning skills, self-advocacy skills, and daily living skills. It is also important to note that taking a gap year typically does not hurt a student's chances of getting accepted to college, and many colleges actually encourage it. Overall, a gap year can be a great opportunity for personal growth, skill development, and adventure.


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