Should I Consider a Gap Year as a Neurodivergent Student?
Updated: Nov 7
By Patty Laushman
Making decisions about the future is a big deal for any high school student, but if you are neurodivergent, the decision can be more complex. One option that may come up for college-bound students is taking a gap year between high school and college or other post-secondary plans.
Gap years can offer opportunities for personal growth, skill-building, and self-discovery, plus they can be a whole lot of fun! It's important, however, to carefully consider whether it's the right choice for your unique needs and goals.
In this blog post, I'll explore some key factors to consider when deciding if a gap year makes sense for a neurodivergent high school student, and in another post, I will offer tips on how to find the right gap year opportunity.
College capable or college ready?
It may surprise you to learn that grades are not the only indicator of college readiness, nor are they the best predictor of college success. It’s important to think about – when you were in high school (or if you are still living at home) – what contributed to your success?
How independent are you? Total independence is not ideal or even healthy, but you may have had an IEP or a 504 Plan that provided extra services and accommodations. Were you homeschooled or did you attend a smaller school that was able to provide more individualized attention? Did you have access to tutors or executive functioning support from a coach or your parents?
If this describes you, what’s important to recognize is that you had a team of people supporting you, and this is great! But once you begin college, the onus shifts to you to recreate that team.
If you’re living away from home, your parents are not going to be there to wake you up in the morning, make sure you take your medication, or get you going for the day. Your professors will not ask you why you didn’t turn in the homework or make sure you are making incremental progress on big projects. Professors will simply make the appropriate adjustments to your grades based on what you turn in.
Making the leap is absolutely doable, but the responsibility for creating the circumstances of your success is yours alone. It’s a huge step up in responsibility from where you’ve been in high school, and unless you are ready, you may crash and burn in a way that takes a long time to recover from.
There are many ways to ensure college readiness, but in this blog post, I will focus
on just one – to build a gap year experience that creates opportunities to build skills that could trip you up if you show up to college unprepared. It’s also really important to remember that gap years are not just personal growth experiences; they can be really, really fun!
Signs you may not be ready for college (yet)
Take some time to reflect on where your strengths and challenges lie today. Sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge our weaknesses, but please remember that this is not a permanent state, just a snapshot of where you are right now. This will help you make a great decision about whether you’re ready to begin college or may benefit from an extra year to get ready. You may also decide that a gap year sounds like a great time and the personal growth benefits are just a bonus.
Struggles with managing assignments
Many neurodivergent students struggle with starting and completing assignments. If you have a big test, are you able to create a plan for studying and stick to it? If there is an assignment that is a big project, do you tend to wait until the last minute and then pull an all-nighter?
No one is perfect, and we all procrastinate a little with activities we don’t prefer, but if you need the support of others around you to make this happen, it’s critical to acknowledge this and have a plan for how to get that support in college.
If you really struggle with this, then a gap year may be just what you need to improve these skills.
Struggles with life skills
In college you will not be “at school” from 8:00 am to 3:30 pm each day. Your classes will be intermittently spaced throughout the week. Will you be able to manage all that “free time?” It may seem like you have a lot of free time and really enjoy taking advantage of that, but the reality is that you will have a lot of tasks to manage that YOU will be solely responsible for managing, things that others may be almost invisibly managing for you right now.
For example, you may dream of the day you can play video games or do whatever your passion is without parents or others interfering and pressuring you to limit your time. This will certainly be the case at college, but the question is whether you can STOP doing these things and do something else when necessary.
At college you will also be solely responsible for what time you go to bed and what time you get up. Most college classes happen during the morning and afternoon, and you need to be rested in order to be successful. Do you have the skills and discipline to get at least seven hours of sleep and do it at night rather than in the daytime?
What about eating? Whether you have a food plan in the dorms or are responsible for shopping and preparing your own meals, you will need to make sure you are eating regularly and choosing nutritious foods that support your health and wellbeing.
Do you need to be reminded to bathe or brush your teeth? In general, many neurodivergent students still struggle with this into adulthood, but in the environment of college demands, the executive functioning skills required to maintain good hygiene may be especially strained.
Laundry is an often-overlooked skill that college students arrive at college not knowing. I remember my first month in the dorms, when one of my dormmates washed his white socks with a brand-new red shirt. It turned all his socks pink! He gave me all his socks and then asked me to teach him how to do laundry. 😊
Taking a gap year gives you a whole extra year to ramp up slowly into these skills.
Struggles with self-regulation or mental health issues
If you are neurodivergent, you have developed over the years at your own pace. In some areas you may have been ahead of your peers, and in others, you may have lagged behind. One area that neurodivergent students often struggle with is self-regulation.
Self-regulation is the ability to manage your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in order to achieve a desired outcome, and it's a critical skill for college success. Neurodivergent students may face unique challenges in developing and maintaining self-regulation, which can impact their ability to thrive in post-secondary environments.
Neurodivergent students may also struggle with mental health issues that interfere with their ability to be successful in a college environment. Taking a gap year can provide an opportunity to work on self-regulation skills, improve mental health, and build strategies for success.
Taking a gap year can be a great option for neurodivergent high school students considering post-secondary education, but it's important to carefully consider the decision.
It's crucial to reflect on your strengths and challenges, especially in regard to managing assignments, life skills, and general independence.
College requires a high level of responsibility, and unless you are prepared, it's easy to get overwhelmed. A gap year can provide an opportunity to develop skills necessary for success in college, as well as providing personal growth experiences and fun adventures.
Ultimately, the decision to take a gap year should be based on your unique needs and goals, and with the proper preparation, a successful transition to college can be achieved.
Next week I will talk about different types of gap year experiences and where to find your perfect fit!