A Parent’s Guide: Supporting a Student with Special Needs

Guide for Parents of Students with Disabilities

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were 7.1 million students aged 3-21 who received special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in the US in the 2018-19 school year. That’s 14% of all public school students.

Unfortunately, a handful of them graduate from college, and even fewer students with special needs find employment.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that 17.9% of people with special needs aged 16 or older found a job in 2020, compared to 61.8% of those without disabilities.

The research also found that 21.7% of individuals with special needs who were employed in 2020 had some college or associate degree, while 25.7% had at least a Bachelor’s degree.

If your child with special needs is about to go to college, you must be aware of the unique challenges that await both of you. This guide will help you understand them and assist your student in their smooth transition.

Helping a Student with Disabilities Transition to College

As a parent of a student with special needs, you probably feel the need to swoop in and take over. You likely want to do many tasks that your child should do on their own. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t really help them build the necessary confidence and independence.

The best way to make the transition to college smooth is to help them understand and accept their strengths and weaknesses. That’s how you’ll empower them. Help them embrace their disability, as that’ll help them make the most of their future special education plan.

Once they go to college, they’ll need strong self-advocacy skills, such as requesting extra time or any other special accommodations.

It’s essential to help your child develop valuable skills before going to college. Build their confidence by teaching them how to live independently and speak up for themselves.

Help them find a college that offers proper academic, accommodation, and support programs. In addition, make sure it offers the necessary special education services, such as recorded lectures, Braille textbooks, hearing-assistive technologies in the classroom, or anything else they need.

Encourage them to explore the campus on their own, talk to their future educators, and learn more about the available college disability services.

You should also connect your student with a local physician or physical therapist whom they can reach out to when necessary.

5 Differences Between High School and College

College comes with more challenges for students with disabilities than high school. These are some of the most notable to be aware of.

  1. There aren’t any IEPs and Section 504 plans

    Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and Section 504 plans don’t transition to college. Colleges only have to provide proper accommodations to students with disabilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

  2. College disability services vary from one college to other

    Every college must provide disability services, but they differ from one college and university to the next. For instance, a college may allow students to record lectures but may not provide proper assistance for hearing-impaired students.

  3. New evaluations may be necessary for special accommodations

    Most colleges with disability services require students with special needs to get additional diagnostics. It’s a condition to receive the right accommodations.

  4. Students manage special accommodations on their own

    In high school, parents are responsible for managing any special accommodations for their child. In college, students need to do it on their own. That includes discussing everything with their educators and providing the necessary documentation.

  5. Colleges don’t always share everything with parents

    College students with disabilities must allow their educators to share information regarding special accommodations with their parents. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects their privacy, so colleges don’t disclose any information without a student’s consent.

Crucial Advice for Parents of Students with Special Needs

As already mentioned, the most important thing you can do for your child is to help them become independent. These are the essential steps for achieving that goal:

  • Help them understand their disability — learning more about their special needs will help to know how to meet them through proper support.
  • Encourage them to be independent — teach them to manage money, cook, do laundry, do their chores, look for support services, etc.
  • Help them build self-advocacy skills — they should know how to speak up for themselves, ask for accommodations, and ensure the college meets their needs.
  • Give them space — resist the urge to take over, because your child is an adult who must learn to do things on their own; it’s how they’ll reach academic success and make the most of their life.
  • Provide useful support resources — instead of you providing all the guidance, let your child learn from experts who share various tools and advice to students with disabilities.

5 Support Groups That Parents Can Join

There’s an abundance of online and offline parent support groups you can join, but you can start with these:

  • Center for Parent Information and Resources - It offers parent support groups on specific disabilities, a Parent to Parent program for emotional support. It also provides Parent Training and Information (PTI) programs and, in some states, Community Parent Resource Centers.
  • Parents of Children with ADHD Support - It’s a Facebook group with lots of useful tips, advice, and resources for parents of children with ADHD. You can use it to connect with parents, too.
  • Autism Parents Association - This is a Facebook page that shares advice for parents of children with autism, how to help them transition to college, and more. There’s also information on various support programs and trust foundations.
  • CHADD - A non-profit organization that provides Parent to Parent support groups and programs. It offers ADHD training, online courses, and downloadable resources.
  • Caregiver Action Network - This site provides support forums and shares useful information for parents and caregivers. It can also connect you with local volunteers providing advocacy training.

10 Parent Support Resources with All the Answers You’re Looking for

These are some excellent resources for providing your child with much-needed support:

  • Colleges That Don’t Require the SAT or ACT - If your child’s disability interferes with their learning and academic achievement, preventing them from passing the SATs, you can look into these colleges.
  • AHEAD - The Association on Higher Education and Disability helps students with learning disabilities achieve academic success through mentoring, coaching, and self-advocacy training.
  • College Living Experience - CLE helps students with learning disabilities transition to college, pursue a career, manage finances, develop social skills, and more.
  • DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, Technology) - It provides videos, articles, and other resources for helping students with special needs embrace technology in education.
  • AUCD - The Association of University Centers on Disabilities offers countless resources on education, assistive technology, cultural inclusion, employment, and more.
  • NCLD - The National Center for Learning Disabilities offers tons of resources for parents, students, and educators to help students have a quality academic, emotional, and social life.
  • Think College - This organization can help you find the right college for your child with special needs and help them make the transition.
  • American Youth Policy Forum - It shares videos, blog articles, webinars, and other resources for helping students with disabilities transition to college and pursue a career.
  • The Viscardi Center - This site offers educational programs and services for children with disabilities, and resources for college students.
  • LDOnline - This information hub has lots of guides and resources for parents of students with learning disorders, including preparing for college.


Helping your child with special needs transition to college may seem overwhelming, and it does come with certain challenges, but the tips and resources above could be more than helpful. They’ll help you empower your child and help them pave the way to independence and success.

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