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College for Neurodiverse Learners with Dr. Perry LaRoque

perry laroque taking flight

Dr. LaRoque is the founder and president of Mansfield Hall, an innovative residential college support program for diverse learners. He earned his doctorate in special education from the University of Wisconsin and has served in a variety of leadership roles serving at-risk youth and people with disabilities. In his book, Taking Flight, Dr. LaRoque offers an essential guide to college, providing practical information and strategies for the millions of diverse learners, nontraditional students, and people with disabilities who attend college every year.

? Want to listen? This post is based off of Episode 56 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts | Spotify | Youtube

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Transcript of College for Neurodiverse Learners with Dr. Perry LaRoque

We are grateful for this transcription offered by K.M. Heck.

SULLIVAN: Welcome to the Neurodiverging Podcast! Thank you for being here! Today we’re  interviewing Dr. Perry LaRoque, I’m so excited you’re here!

Would you be willing—I know you have a doctorate in special education and you’ve done so much work serving students with disabilities, would you be willing to tell us a little bit just about  what you’ve been up to recently and your background?

LAROQUE: Yeah! Well so I’ve, crazy enough, been in the field now for… more than 25 years,  which is kinda scary to say. I started off as a special education teacher—I actually was raised  at a summer camp, and so I was, for all the camp brats out there, I was a camp brat, and  came from a long line of educators.

My dad was a school psychologist, my mom was a preschool teacher and director for like 43  years. My brother who works with me now is a school psychologist, my sister’s a guidance  counselor, my sister-in-law is a third-grade teacher, my wife is a clinical psychologist, I mean it gets, it goes on and on and on! My grandmother taught in a one room school in northern  Wisconsin.


LAROQUE: So I, we, have education in the blood. So I was really… more interested  and motivated to work with students who had diverse learning needs. And so I went to University of Wisconsin and did my undergraduate, specifically focusing on kids with behavioral and emotional disabilities, and talked for a few years, ended up teaching also at a  psychiatric— children’s psychiatric hospital inpatient, which was wonderful and then decided  to go back to get my doctorate in education— special education, and sorta got roped into academia for a while…

SULLIVAN: [over-talking] Mhmm, don’t we all? [laughs] 

LAROQUE: Yeah.. and I loved it! And it was great! And worked at University Wisconsin, Whitewater and SUNY Potsdam and then ended up sort of finishing out my career at  Northern Vermont University, which was formerly called Johnson State College, where I ran the special education graduate program.

And I bring all this up because one of the pieces that sort of had— you know, kinda kept  coming back to me throughout this entire career is sort of— as I would say in a presentation  of like— “Where does the sidewalk end for our students?”, and I was just seeing this huge gap of services once the student was leaving high school.

When I was teaching in California, I said to my co— one of my co-teachers, I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if our students could go to college?” and he’s like ‘Oh yeah it would be great, but  that’s never gonna happen.’ [dismissive/sarcastic tone], and that was like in the 2000s. And sorta that kinda kept coming back to me as why— why not? You know, why couldn’t students— or why couldn’t anybody go to college if that’s what they wanted, to continue their learning.

And then when I was a professor I was kinda working on the inside and looking at all of these  just really talented students who weren’t failing out because they weren’t motivated or weren’t  failing out because that they didn’t have the desire to get the degree or they weren’t smart  enough, it was just that the system and the structure in which we’re asking to operate in just wasn’t appropriate for ‘em and we were losing all of this talent and this, this diversity because of the system and not because of the actual students.

I originally had partnered with the University of Vermont when I was a professor at Johnson State and we applied for one of the first federal grants to offer students with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to participate on a college campus and the THINK College Program is still up and running at the University of Vermont.

And we brought that program to campus, it was absolutely amazing! And then… I sort of  helped to spin that program into what’s now the College STEPS Program, co-founded that,  and that program is now across the east coast, supporting students with disabilities in  colleges all across the east coast, which is wonderful…


LAROQUE: And what ended up happening for me was that I was still seeing this group of kids — so the original THINK College grant— the eligibility for it was for students with an intellectual disability and the federal government basically said ‘Use the criteria of a 75 IQ or below’,  which most professionals think is nonsense.


LAROQUE: But it was— it was how we got our money and so we really could only serve  students who qualified and so… we were getting a lot of phone calls from families saying, ‘I heard about your program, can you work with my son or daughter?’

And I’d say, ‘Well they’d need to have an intellectual disability…’

‘Oh well they’re really bright, they’re really motivated, they’re really smart, they just really have — they’re gonna have a really hard time in college, they need all this additional support, but if  they get that support they’ll be really successful’

And we’d have to say no… and on the flip side the college was reaching out to us. And  Johnson College at the time, and probably still to this day, dealt with a higher population of  students at risk.

SULLIVAN: Mhmm [attentive tone]

LAROQUE: And so they were dealing with students with some diverse learning needs as  well, where they were coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, this kid would be great for your  program!’ and we’re like ‘Well, we need to have a demonstrated… intellectual disability in order for them to qualify…’ [ends with a disheartened tone]

SULLIVAN: [slightly overlapping] Mhhmmm [sympathetic and also disheartened tone]

LAROQUE: And so this niche of kids, sort of this— that were falling through the cracks in my  mind, was really what spawned the idea for Mansfield Hall. And so I created Mansfield Hall in 2013, we’re going on our 10th anniversary coming up here which is pretty exciting!

SULLIVAN: Yeah, it’s really great!

LAROQUE: Yeah and so— the time…— It flew by.

SULLIVAN: [laughs] 

LAROQUE: I had like no kids and now I have an eight year old, a six year old, and three year old so it’s like, you know, personally and professionally

SULLIVAN: [over-talks] That’s where your time went, yes. [laughs] 

LAROQUE: Yeah [laughs] And so you know really we wanted— I wanted to create a program  that would provide these students with the support necessary for them to become successful in college and so we created Mansfield Hall in Burlington, Vermont and then just given the demand we expanded it to Madison, Wisconsin and now to Eugene, Oregon and we just announced that we’re launching a program in Redding, England, just outside of London.

SULLIVAN: Wonderful!

LAROQUE: And so— so that was… sort of the big project that I’d taken on for the past 10  years and we recently added a program called Virtual Hall which is online learning and  support so it’s sort of all of the support we’d provide for a Mansfield Hall student, but now we provide it virtually and students are able to be anywhere in the country and get a level of  support that they need to do well in college. And then through all of that I somehow I had time  to also write a book “Taking Flight: The Guide to College for Diverse Learners and Non Traditional Students”, which is really just sort of the road map for a student to kind of figure  out… how do I do college not like… not the pieces of like how do you learn in college, but  more of like how do you overcome the system? So in some ways, it’s like an insider’s guide to  reducing this cognitive load at all the hidden rules and demystifying this experience and  making it a more level playing field and sort of the shortcuts and how does a student with a  disability really be successful on a college campus.

SULLIVAN: [attentive sounds throughout] 

LAROQUE: So, that’s a long answer to what I’ve been up to!

SULLIVAN: [laughs] You’ve got a lot of things going on! Yeah!

LAROQUE: [chuckles] 

SULLIVAN: I think I read your book— time has got away from me, but I think it was in March,  and I immediately recommended it to like six people I knew because— I think— So I’m a  coach and I work with a lot of.. a lot of college students who have made it into either a two  year program or a traditional four year program, but are really struggling from not being able  to access the supports they need with the disability services that are on campus or not  knowing what to ask for or not having the exact diagnosis code you need to get the thing, and are sort of falling through the cracks as you described.

And some of it is stuff, as a coach, that you can work on. Like we can support executive  function, learning we can support, but a lot of it is systemic. 


SULLIVAN: It’s how education is built, and I really appreciated how direct you were in your  book about that because, I tell students that all the time. The systems are ableist, the systems are built for, [laughs] you know, for what education was and who it was for in the 1800s and not… who it is for now and what it’s supposed to be now. And I really appreciated that your  book was so practical and so clear in like ‘this is what we asked for’, ‘these are some of the  things you can get’, ‘this is how you frame your asks so you get the result that you need’ and  really acknowledge the system wide issue of the education system and broader systems as  well in a way I haven’t seen in other kinds of books that are just are sort of like… ‘Here’s how  you learn executive function skills!’, ‘Here’s how you study!’, like that stuff’s important! But it  doesn’t fix what a lot of these kids are struggling with so I just wanted to say I really appreciated that.

LAROQUE: Yeah.. there’s a lot of hoop jumping—

SULLIVAN: [interjects] Oh my gosh… 

LAROQUE: And I think that’s— we take that for granted you know? I mean my wife works with refugees, and she brings this up all the time and we have— there’s a lot in common actually  in sort of this population of people living in America whether they have a disability or whether  they’re new Americans of sort of managing these bureaucratic systems and she’s like ‘Well  jeez it took me half a day to fix this problem with our bill! I can’t even imagine what it would be like for someone who’s using English as a second language or someone with a disability who  can’t advocate on behalf of themselves!’


LAROQUE: And in many cases, even… right down to the term, “non- traditional student”,  applies to first-generation college students and we wanted to expand the focus of the book to  also be people who don’t know how to do college 


LAROQUE: Right down to when a professor says that you can’t do extra credit or that you  can’t turn in an assignment late, most of us look at them and be like ‘Yeah, until you ask! Nicely! and then they’ll let you do it. But for a first generation student or for a student with a disability who can’t advocate for themselves, might just take that as gospel, where half the  class is getting around some of those rules or, you know, getting the benefit of the doubt— I  call them the benefit of the doubt points…


LAROQUE: You know? I’ve developed a relationship with this professor so it’s gonna be a  little be harder for them to give me this minus instead of the plus or… when I had to get into  this class at the last minute, because I stopped by and… you know, flashed my puppy dog eyes at the secretary every day, they’re the one with all the power at the college any way, they got  me into the class!


LAROQUE: And so, I wanted to make sure that we were able to… just be really explicit about  the actual process.

SULLIVAN: And I think that’s a lot of what I liked because, as an autistic person myself, who  works with a lot of autistic people, you know, it’s not universal, but a lot of us do have  different… kind of culture, different social norms that we’re used to using. And so like you said, that sort of literal we’re looking for the explicit rule and we’re not gonna always read— some  of us can, a lot of us who are not are not gonna read implicit… sort of gestures or knowledge  and get that knowledge the way that a neurotypical student might.


SULLIVAN: And so, it’s just— I think that’s a lot actually to… think back about what I liked  about the book ‘cause it really did directly say, ‘This is what you do!’, ‘This is the information  that is not being told to you that you can really use!’.

So I really appreciated that sort of… that kind of permission? To push a little bit?  LAROQUE: Yep…

SULLIVAN: And to really like, you know, ‘Disability offices are supposed to give you this, it’s  okay to ask for it!’, kind of language was really helpful to me, personally, and I, you know, I  passed it on to a lot of students!

LAROQUE: And I think that the heart— I think that the biggest myth about college and, I’m  gonna include some more of the… you know, autism specific programs popping up at colleges  across the country, —


LAROQUE: —as well intentioned as all of that is… and I think it’s wonderful! I mean when  Mansfield all started ten years ago… I think there were like… 15 or 20 college-based  programs total and now I think there’s over 300?

SULLIVAN: There’s a lot more, yeah.

LAROQUE: Yeah! It’s absolutely amazing! I still think there is this… that there is still a heavy  amount of responsibility on the individual student to still go out and get what they want. And  there’s no amount of us as coaches or professionals that can do it for ‘em. And so, when I  was first writing the book the publisher said, ‘You know you’re writing this book to this  audience of young adults and quite frankly young adults don’t buy that many books.’  [chuckles] ‘And so could you change it to the parents?’ And I said, ‘No! Absolutely not!’  Because it’s not the parents that have to do this, it’s the kid. You know? It’s the st— young  adult, that has to be out there and they’re the ones that are gonna have to push this system if  they want anything out of it. And the idea of like if I sit here and just kinda wait… it’s a harder  transition for a lot of these high school students because they were on… most of them were  on IEP teams where decisions were being made for them.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, that’s a huge piece!

LAROQUE: [overlapping] Maybe with their input, maybe not with their input… You know I—  Unfortunately, I still feel like most IEP meetings are run like the kid isn’t in the room and… that

doesn’t help in college because suddenly you’re the only person in the room and you’re  having to try to pull all these people from all over campus into your room to help you and if  you’re not doing it, no one’s gonna do it for you.


LAROQUE: And I think that that’s where the book was really meant to empower and to  encourage students that like— Listen, this is a game that you’re gonna have to play, no one’s gonna play it for you.

SULLIVAN: Mhmm… and I think you’re very right! That a lot of these students are not really  getting the chance to… be the authority in their own life and they’re not really always learning  the skills that they’ll need in college— Like they might be fine in the classes if they can access the information, right? But the skills to get the services they need to access the information  are just not something that they’ve been allowed to… be trained for or have the experience of  in high school and in younger grades. So… I know collaborative IEP meetings are becoming a thing! I really hope that they explode [laughs] and become so much more popular.

LAROQUE: [overlapping] I mean— Collaborative— [disgruntled mic shuffling noises] I, okay,  so, I learned about collaborative IEP meetings in 1995 when I was getting my undergraduate  degree and so it’s funny that you say, ‘They’re becoming more of a thing!’ we been— when it’s been—

SULLIVAN: You’ve been pushing, I’m sure!

LAROQUE: We’ve been pushing! For years! And it just—

SULLIVAN: [overlapping] Takes forever.

LAROQUE: [overlapping] At the end of the day, we’re dealing with a much bigger problem.  Poorly trained teachers and all these other pieces where it’s like, yeah! Absolutely! Because… students learn how to learn…— many students learn how to learn implicitly in high school and  so the assumption is that by the time they’re in college they’re able to explicitly do it.

SULLIVAN: Exactly!

LAROQUE: And we know that’s just not the case with students with disabilities or with  students with diverse learning— whatever it is. But they’re thrown into a system where it’s like ‘Oh it’s up to you now!’ [mildly sarcastic] ‘You’ve got to— take what you want!’ [mildly  sarcastic] And… without the skills to do that, students are at a significant disadvantage.

SULLIVAN: Yes, completely agree. Yeah and I totally… hear you and believe you about it  being, you know, a thing 20…30 years ago. I think as an autism advocate too, there’s sort of a  parallel run of ‘Well…we knew this stuff. We’ve known this stuff for 40 years. Why is it just  now being implemented?’ and it is the difference between the system getting— the system  gets in its’ own way, right?


SULLIVAN: Where pushing as individuals and people on their own are trying to do good work, but systemically we’re a hot mess. So…[laughs] 

LAROQUE: Yes, yeah

[many yeahs were exchanged] 

SULLIVAN: So can you give— I know we’ve talked a lot about this generally, but for folks who have— Some of the listeners of this podcast are either… some of them are adults who are  going through the college experience now, but many of them have younger children who are  autistic/ADHD/some other kind of neurodivergence, some of them have co-disabilities with that…

SULLIVAN: Are there some specific examples of challenges that you can offer that somebody might come into college and hit right away in terms of accessing the support they need?


LAROQUE: Waking up in the morning.  


LAROQUE: [laughs] 

SULLIVAN: [chuckles] It’s a good start!

LAROQUE: People ask at Mansfield Hall, ‘What’s the most difficult thing we do?’, we wake—  waking students up in the morning! And it really starts there and I’ll— it’s both an analogy and  reality that no one, in any program… in the country, is gonna wake a kid up in the morning.

SULLIVAN: [attentive mhmm] 

LAROQUE: And I should say there’s— of course there are programs that will do it, but there  are not enough college based programs that are at that level of… the first thing that has to  happen is that a student’s gotta get out of bed!


LAROQUE: And…the level of support that’s needed to do that, if a… high school senior is still  not getting up in the morning on their own and starting their day, they’re not gonna do well in — they will fail in college!


LAROQUE: And so, you know, everything goes from there, right? I mean it’s like, you have to  get up, you have to follow your schedule, you have to go into your meeting, you have to go  make a meeting, you have to identify what you need to do for that day. That level of executive  functioning can’t happen until you wake up. Once you wake up that level of executive  functioning is advanced for most adults


SULLIVAN: Yes. It is. [sympathetic chuckle]  

LAROQUE: And so,… I feel like the challenges really are about managing that daily schedule  independently. And… we like to say at Mansfield Hall and, I think I talked about this in the  book, but there—there should be three questions on a college exam. My admissions director  at Mansfield Hall often says that there should only be three questions on a college exam,  entrance exam, and the first one is:

Are you able to accurately and independently identify when you need help? That’s the first question, the second one is:

Do you know where to get that help? 

And the third one is:

Do you know how to use that help on an ongoing basis? 

And if you answer no to any one of those three questions, you’re not ready for college.  Independent college that is.


LAROQUE: Because so many of our students can do one or more of those, but can’t do all  three of them, and if you don’t know when you’re struggling but you know where to get help,  you know how to use it, it doesn’t really matter. 


LAROQUE: If you know when you’re struggling, but you don’t know where to get the help that you need then it’s— then there’s nothing more you can do about it! Or if you know where to  get the help, but you don’t know how to keep coming back to that help or how to use that  help, then you can really start to struggle. We’re in college towns and so our students attend  any one of the colleges in town so we’re like the super-dorm in a college town and so like  we’ll use Burlington, Vermont as an example.

So we have, what, a third of our students that attend university of Vermont, about a third of  them attend Champlaign College and then about a third of them attend MAT—er, not MATC,  that’s in Madison… the Vermont Community College



LAROQUE: And so… the services and supports at all of those colleges are fantastic! They  really are! They’re great! University of Vermont has a wonderful writing lab, they have  wonderful counseling services, they have a great math lab, they have great disability ser—all  of these things are wonderful! But they’re all in different buildings… and they all involve you  walking through the door to get it. 


LAROQUE: And that just there and I think that people underestimate what it takes to just walk through a door! And we forget about that! Oh just go to the math lab! Or just go to the writing  center! If you need help just go to the writing center!! For someone with social communication challen—

SULLIVAN: [overlapping] It’s not that easy! [laughs]

LAROQUE: [unintelligible] —anxiety or somebody with whatever it is even right down to I’ve  got to schedule an appointment on an app and I’ve gotta reply to that app and all of those  challenges just to get into the door are preventing someone from accessing that support! And  so we forget about that! Like you can have— you can send your kid to the best college in this  entire country who has the best level of support and the best writing lab and the best methodology, but if they don’t walk through the door to use the support, its worthless!!


LAROQUE: And so, I’m actually doing a training at a college on Friday, two different trainings,  and one of the questions I have to ask the college is ‘You have great support, but are you  getting— are you going outside of your door to get the students in the door?’



LAROQUE: And oftentimes what we hear from college professionals, ‘Well, hey listen, my job  kind of ends at my office door’. It’s like well… but we’re dealing with a whole different group of kids now who you might actually have to step out and go find ‘em! If you really wanna support ‘em and serve ‘em! They’re not gonna walk through your door! They might be sleeping!! Are  you willing to go knock on their college dorm? And most colleges just really aren’t up to that  challenge yet, they don’t have the resources, they don’t have the expectations that they need  to do that… we’re still working within a system that… you know—I’ll tell you a story, but…

SULLIVAN: [chuckles]

LAROQUE: We’re still working with a system where it’s being run by people who are looking  at the bottom line.


LAROQUE: I’ve often said to people, ‘Don’t forget that one of the categories in the US News  World Ranking Reports of Colleges is about the acceptance rate. The lower you accept, the  better your college is. Think of that in reverse, the more you reject from your college, the  better college you are! And so we are still seeing colleges that are looking at—to really  streamline towards… getting the quote unquote “smart kids” in their college campuses and  then they’re building these additional programs for the other kids, right? To kinda participate, but their focus still isn’t on the quote unquote “other kids” right now. Their focus is on how are they creating research dollars and getting the smartest, brightest kids in the country who’ve done the most, you know, school activities and…


LAROQUE: the best SAT scores! That’s still reality! We’re still up against a very ableist  system that is now making exceptions for the other people, we’re still— there’s still a lot of  other— we’re still being othered, in many ways.

SULLIVAN: Yes, yes very much so. Yeah… I, you said so much and I have so many  responses and I’m not sure which direction to go! I think… I was really struck, just to go back

to your waking up in the morning, because I think I worked with like… four different clients last week— adults! Like… in their 30s, 40s, 50s! Who are still having trouble getting up in the  morning to do the things they need to do. So your kind of, framing of that as a very advanced, you know, to get up and then go do all of the things as being advanced executive function is  very striking to me, and I don’t know why I haven’t thought of that before, because it  absolutely is and so many younger students are still struggling with that so much, that it  makes a lot of sense that.. that they’re facing so much trouble just getting— like you said, just  getting into the door!


SULLIVAN: And certainly as an autistic person like there are so many… ways that it is hard, for me for example, to go to a writing center and have to deal with a new person and deal with a new sensory environment, and you know, find the path there and make sure I know all the  exit routes and stuff, right? That builds all this extra stuff attached to going in that I think you  know even if the college wasn’t financially focused and if it really was everybody was just  trying to serve the folks who are coming in, it would still be difficult for them to understand  what I need. And so, that, you know… also on top of the, you know, the ableism, the class  issues, the like layers of kind of junk..


SULLIVAN: [laughs] Systemic stuff in the way!


SULLIVAN: You know I think that’s really important to point out to folks because, I think a lot  of parents have such high expectations for their kids even, you know, hopefully including  disabled kids of all strokes—


SULLIVAN: —to go to college and to get through college is like this huge achievement! Right?


SULLIVAN: And so, it is so important to be able to support our students all the way through in  all the little ways that offer them that achievement! And I also hope that the brains that are  looking at the numbers start to realize how much…. You said what? The brightest and the  smartest, right?


SULLIVAN: Have been the most active and it’s like— we’re starting— I think that folks are  starting to understand that there are plenty of bright, smart people who do amazing in their  fields… who, you know, who weren’t bright in high school and who had struggled through  college and then come out the other side and—


SULLIVAN: —to work on their special interest! And just go! Right?


SULLIVAN: And certainly there are folks who are not too and they are equally worthy of  getting through college! But that, that sort of having to… spin or twist your idea of ‘What does  it mean to go to college?’, ‘What does it mean to be “smart”?’


SULLIVAN: Quote unquote… you know, it’s a lot of layers!

LAROQUE: [overlapping] Yeah, well I think— I think, you know, oftentimes I talk about…where  does my, you know… fire come from, right?


LAROQUE: I just… I just, completely believe that learning is a civil right, right? SULLIVAN: Absolutely! 

LAROQUE: And education is a civil right!

SULLIVAN: Basic human right!

LAROQUE: Seen it used against people for millennia! And that… I have a belief that if there is a student, regardless of disability or not disability, who has a desire to learn, they have a right to learn.


LAROQUE: And if they wanna do it in a college setting, they should and oftentimes— I was  on an NPR… show in Illinois in a college town and I said, ‘You know, if the college is so good  at doing everything, right? If universities are so good at everything they do, why don’t they  figure out how to teach all kids?’ Like why does it matter?? The best and the brightest is  irrelevant if we don’t have the diversity and the perspective!

SULLIVAN: Abso-lutely!

LAROQUE: And what I’ve learned throughout my career is that what we’re missing in society  is these voices,  that diverse perspective of students with disabilities, whether it’s learning  disabilities or autism or whatever it may be!

SULLIVAN: Also— yeah— broad…

LAROQUE: Because we operate in a world in which we’re all together,… but then we go to  colleges which were… kind of all separated from the greater world…


LAROQUE: And so… I feel like I’m hoping colleges move in that direction. I have… I have hit  enough snags throughout my career to realize that suddenly someone in some department at  some big college at some point makes some ruling that is so unbelievably discriminatory in  my mind and they’re saying it like its just a no brain— brainer kind of thing that this change is  gonna be slow. 


LAROQUE: Even right down to— I mean I think— Sorry, I’m gonna get on a soapbox…  [chuckles] 

SULLIVAN: That’s okay! That’s what we’re here for!

LAROQUE: We spent all this time, you know, watching this special education process happen throughout the 70s, and the 80s, and the 90s and it took us almost 20-30 years for someone  to be like ‘Hey shouldn’t we include students in the general education curriculum more?’ They  were like ‘Oh yeah that’s a good idea! Lets start doing that!!’ [mocking tone] Right?? And so  now we’ve done this really great piece where… special education used to be a classroom or a setting where it’s now services and we’re offering these opportunities for students to be in the  classroom and kinda with their general ed. peers and which avoids all sort of the… you know…  problems with curricula that were existing with special education classrooms. And now we’re  like tackling— my generation of professionals are now tackling this college challenge, right?


LAROQUE: But our approach to it right now is to create these separate things alreadySULLIVAN: Yeah… yeah!



LAROQUE: And I know there’s a bit of like, we have to in order to get it to work, but we’re  almost now in some ways feeling comfortable that if, you know… western college, making up a  name, Western College®, has a program with kids with autism, that we’re happy to see these  20 kids walking around campus together in a group! When we’ve learned all these lessons over the past 30-40 years in regular education that it doesn’t work that way. It’s not… it’s not  equitable, it’s not fair, it doesn’t do the students with disabilities any challenges— any wins and it doesn’t give any wins to the students without disabilities—


LAROQUE: — who would really benefit from the broader perspective of having these  students within the classroom and participating in a very normal, quote unquote “normal”  societal way. As in…normal means that… there are people with disabilities in every walk of  life that we live in! 

SULLIVAN: Yeah!! That— it’s just expected as part of.. it’s part of the world, right? LAROQUE: Right.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, yeah… I think that’s a really good point! Because, there has been this huge push towards generalized education and… I hadn’t.. I was identified after my… after I finished  my masters and so I didn’t get any support! So looking back its like, agh! It would have been  so helpful! But it is true that grouping us all into these little… you know, little groups is not… I  mean it’s— I don’t know, I guess I have mixed opinions. It’s important, I feel, for other autistic  adults and other disabled adults to know other—


SULLIVAN: —people in their community who are also disabled, right? And a lot of us are so  segregated from… because disabled people are so segregated from—

LAROQUE: [over-talking] Yup!


SULLIVAN: — the world in general, we’re also segregated from each other. LAROQUE: Yuup!

SULLIVAN: [overlapping] And so we can’t form these bonds! And so in some senses it’s like,  okay a group of disabled students doesn’t sound like the worst thing from that very small perspective. But broadly! You’re completely right that it’s important to be integrated into the  larger society and to [thinking taps] have people know you! And… you know, to know other  people!


SULLIVAN: And to broaden that whole perspective! And I hadn’t… really considered that from  the point of view of being a college student in a small group of disabled students who’s just  sort of … stuck… stuck in that. It’s really interesting

LAROQUE: [interrupting] Right… Well we forget— yeah and you know [laughs] you’ve seen  the special education pendulum swing back and forth and…

SULLIVAN: Yeah yeah! [quickly, in agreement]

LAROQUE: And you know, I think that early 90s, early 2000s are you know there was just this really big push of… with the mainstreaming and the inclusion that… and the getting away from group homes and separate [settings? indistinct] that we also lost sight of the fact that people  tend to congregate around interests. 


LAROQUE: And.. people with disability or… people with autism tend to oftentimes, and of  course this is diverse as any other population, but tend to… bond over what their interests are! Or what their struggles are! Or what their challenges are! And so, I completely agree! And  what I love about Mansfield Hall is that… you know, the majority of our students are

neurodiverse. You know, many have the autism label, many don’t, but… it’s the first time that  many of them have ever been able to kind of live in this communal setting where… other  people understand their uniqueness and accept it!


LAROQUE: We work with students that are just the most accepting people on the planet! And  they really start to develop these relationships that they hadn’t ever developed before and  they can carry that with them in wonderful ways throughout their entire day! So when it comes to going to this campus that is built for neurotypical people, they have that bit of.. you know,  courage that they’ve developed from this group of people that they’ve— that they identify with  in order to bring that to that campus. And so by no means… in fact in many ways I— you  know I… I think that it’s wonderful for people to find that tri— you know, find their tribe! I’m  sure you [unintelligible] But to find their people that they can, you know, empathize with and  understand. And! We see the pendulum swinging to the direction of like, now creating that for  just those people where we start to lose the broader perspective of everybody sort of in that  sort of world. So how do we have that balance—


LAROQUE: — between a student with autism sitting into a college classroom and exhibiting  behaviors that people go, ‘Oh…what? Whatever, they must have autism. It’s no different than  that person over there having hiccups’ I can forgive or accept or whatever for either behavior

because I’m in this worldly perspective and I’m able to be in a classroom where everybody  learns a little bit differently and that’s fine!


LAROQUE: Than for us to have to ask a professor permission to have a student with some…  unique challenges to enter their classroom.


SULLIVAN: Yeah… yeah… well thank you very much for that! Do you have any… particular  advice for students who are looking to enter college in the next couple of years and what they  can… do to give themselves the best shot at making this transition?

LAROQUE: Yeaaah…

SULLIVAN: What are some things they should be looking at now or.. learning or skills to  develop?

LAROQUE: Yeah.. you know it’s interesting because I think the answer to that question, I’m  sure if there’s kids/students listening they’re like, ‘Oohh, they’re gonna tell me to study hard.’  And I.. Study hard! I’m saying that!! [dad tone] 

SULLIVAN: [chuckles] 

LAROQUE: But.. move to independence like… start to— you, yourself, and I’m talking to  those high school students right now… you, yourself, you need to start becoming more  independent! Because what is gonna be required for this college experience is a higher level  of independence than what you’re exhibiting right now. And so I think that… what we can see  with accommodations and support and services is that it starts to get a little cozy. And we  start to rely on those things and it’s a little bit easier for us to have mom and dad start doing  things for us or my teacher or my special education advocate or my coach, right? That really  the.. what’s gonna be necessary is that you’re not learning independence skills and advocacy  skills the first year you’re going to college, but you’ve started to develop those years before.


LAROQUE: People can tell you and put it on your IEP, that you need to be more independent, all these other things, but you really have to make this choice that… you are going to start to  recognize the challenges that are ahead of you and start to conquer those on your own. And  so, how do you start to become more independent? How do you start to.. start managing your daily life, your adaptive behaviors, your executive functioning skills? How do you start to prepare to live on your own? I, you know, my belief is that if someone… wants to learn something, they can learn it!

SULLIVAN: Absolutely!

LAROQUE: I think that that’s where we have to start with everybody! Right? But… you as an  individual need to start figuring out how you’re gonna learn those things despite the context in which they’re being provided to you. So you’re not gonna go to a college classroom anymore  and no ones gonna say, ‘Well if you don’t like to write papers, then go ahead and, you know,  do a diorama…!’ That’s gone!!


LAROQUE: You’re gonna have to write the paper! And if you think that that’s gonna change, it is not gonna change. And so… and we’d love it to, don’t get me wrong, Danielle!

SULLIVAN: Yes! No, I’m with you!

LAROQUE: But it’s not gonna change! And so— certainly not gonna change in the next  couple years! And so how do we start to learn these skills to do them and to overcome them  and to work harder. Someone that I worked with… who had a pretty significant learning  disability, I said ‘What—‘ and she was so successful as a teacher, I said, ‘So what… what do  you think— What’s the biggest thing that you take away from all of this? You know… What did you do? Where does your resilience come from?’ and she said, ‘Hard Work.’ [exasperated  tone]


LAROQUE: She said that, ‘I just had to, at some point, I had to realize there’s no  accommodation in the world that was gonna make my life easier. That it was gonna level the  playing field, but I had to work twice as hard for it.’ and so how’re— doubling down and  working harder and to be able to overcome those challenges is really what it starts taking and  practicing that now is really important.


The other thing I talk about a lot in the book… is to stop thinking about college as a place you  apply and a place you go to and then a place you graduate from. That college is a journey… 


LAROQUE: And so… to really be realistic about what that journey might look like… and what  you want out of it. And so, again [faint child’s call for mom in the background] if— there might  be familial pressure to go to Princeton and have that bachelor’s degree, but really pay  attention to what it is that you want out of that degree. Are you getting it so you can hang it on  your wall? Or are you getting it so that you can live comfortably? And then start to chart that  process to how to get there— I used an example in a book of a friend that, I changed her  name, but how she ended up going to four different colleges before she graduated!


LAROQUE: And she got a wonderful degree! And she’s smart! And she works with us!! I won’t tell her who it is. [teasing tone]

SULLIVAN: [laughs] 

LAROQUE: And she works with us! And shes phenomenal! Right? She found her path to get  to college through four different colleges. She didn’t get it right until the fourth one.  Fortunately, had built up enough credits to not take another ten years


LAROQUE: But.. you know that idea of starting to think about community college and  certificate programs and, you know, guaranteed transfer programs. Madison College in  Madison, Wisconsin you get a, might say this wrong, 27 credits and a 2.75, you’re  automatically accepted in the University of Wisconsin!


LAROQUE: Why would you go to University of Wisconsin for the most difficult classes in the  biggest classrooms, when you can go to a small classroom setting and take those classes in  a better environment?? And those examples go across the board, Lane Community College in Oregon… and so there’s all of these other pathways to those bigger universities if that’s your  direction you wanna go. With getting there, being really smart and respectful to your learning  needs.

SULLIVAN: Needs, yeah. Thank you so much! I really appreciate your time!  LAROQUE: Yup!

SULLIVAN: Listeners! Please check out all the links below, we’re gonna have the book and Mansfield Hall and all the things! And I hope you’ll go find them! Any parting words Dr. LaRoque, before we sign off?

LAROQUE: You can do it! You can do it! I know— I feel like, to the parents out there and I’m  gonna bring this up at a talk I’m doing this weekend, we all are parents and we can all agree  on one thing and that is that the biggest outcome we want for our kids in the world is for them  to be happy! And so… don’t get in the way of their happiness! And help them figure out how  they can be happy, not how you can be happy for them! And so… I think that that’s— those  are my parting words! Don’t forget that we’re just— the goal of life is to be happy so let’s just  make sure we have our students on the pathway to happiness!

SULLIVAN: Beautifully said, thank you so much for being here!

LAROQUE: Thank you Danielle, this was great!

1 Comment

  1. It’s great to see a focus on creating a supportive college environment for neurodiverse learners. Dr. Perry LaRoque’s perspective on offering individualized accommodations and fostering inclusivity is truly valuable. Thank you for sharing this insightful conversation and providing resources for those navigating higher education with neurodivergent needs.

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