Helping neurodivergent students navigate higher education | Windows and Mirrors

The Neurodiversity Navigators program at Bellevue College offers various services to students who are on the autism spectrum.

Like many people, Josh Gibson went to college after he graduated from high school.

He started attending the U.S. Naval Academy in the summer of 1995 and made it six weeks before leaving. He had done well in high school but when he got to college, things just fell apart. But instead of taking time to figure out what went wrong, he immediately enrolled at Oregon State University that fall.

“I got one good quarter before I flunked out,” the Redmond resident said.

Once again, instead of taking time to figure things out, he immediately enrolled at the University of Washington (UW). And again, he got one good quarter in before flunking out of school.

This time, Gibson’s parents cut him off as he needed to figure things out on his own. Gibson started seeing a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. He took a break from school and began working at entry-level jobs.

It was a little more than three years before he went back to school at UW. This time he got in three good quarters. During this stint at school, Gibson made the dean’s list and was put on academic probation in the span of one quarter. The two notification letters actually arrived in the mail within a week of each other. And while he didn’t flunk out this time around, Gibson said things just petered out for him and he ended up withdrawing from UW. He added that he had done so much damage to his grade point average that he couldn’t get into any STEM-related field except oceanography and that wasn’t what he wanted to study.

Gibson’s fifth attempt at college happened about six years later. He returned to UW with the intention of studying economics — which he described as the science of business — but he couldn’t get his grades up enough to get into the program.

“I just kind of gave up and left,” he said.

It may have taken some time but it looks like for Gibson, sixth time may be the charm as he is now attending Bellevue College (BC) studying cybersecurity. And whereas his previous experiences in post-secondary education never lasted more than three quarters, his current stint began in spring 2018 and Gibson is in his seventh quarter at BC and scheduled to graduate in spring 2021.

So, what’s different this time?

Well, for one, Gibson was diagnosed with autism and this is first time going back to school following his diagnosis. But even armed with this knowledge, things didn’t start out well and Gibson had a breakdown at school.

So his wife did some research and discovered the Neurodiversity Navigators (NN) program at BC.

Self advocate

According to its website, NN’s mission is to “provide educational opportunities to increase self-knowledge” to neurodivergent students.

Program director Sara Gardner said the program initially started as a pilot in 2010 — previously named Autism Spectrum Navigators — before becoming established in 2011. During that first official year, there were 18 students in the program. This fall, Gardner said they have 130 students.

Gardner was a part of the one-year pilot and was retained to build the program. She was told to grow the program and grow it big.

“Since I’m autistic, I’m very literal,” she said. “That’s what I decided to do.”

In addition to working with students in their full program, Gardner said they also provide support to students who are not enrolled in the program.

NN services include regular meetings with a trained peer mentor, cohort orientation prior to students’ first year, a career-preparation class each quarter with other program students, quarterly parent meetings, facilitated communication with instructors and campus awareness and training.

Gardner said the program is designed for students to support themselves as autistic students.

“They’re learning to be more themselves,” she said, rather than trying to “fix” them. Because there is nothing wrong with them.

The program doesn’t teach students social skills. Instead, Gardner said they help students figure out how they can best interact with others. And part of that includes interacting with people who are not on the autism spectrum. Studies show, Gardner said, it is not difficult for people on the spectrum to interact with each other. The difficulties come when they interact with people who are neurotypical — and vice versa.

So NN helps students figure out what their barriers are and advocate for themselves.

For example, Gardner said she cannot socialize in loud restaurants and she has difficulties processing things when people talk too fast.

The majority of students who enroll in NN start their freshman year and they can stay in the program as long as they need. For some, that means the whole time they are at BC; for others, that could mean just that first quarter. And some leave the program and come back.

“It’s very individualized,” Gardner said.

NN also offers equity training to BC staff that is required for new employees.

Gardner said they work closely with all departments that interact with students to make sure staff is well versed in what it means to be autistic.

An empowering experience

Samantha Pak/staff photo                                Abby Leaver enrolled at Bellevue College after learning about the Neurodiversity Navigators program.

Samantha Pak/staff photo Abby Leaver enrolled at Bellevue College after learning about the Neurodiversity Navigators program.

While Gibson may have stumbled upon the navigator program by chance, Abby Leaver came to BC specifically for the program.

Originally from Spokane, Leaver learned about the program after her aunt attended an information session for her daughter — Leaver’s cousin — who is also on the spectrum. Leaver’s aunt told her mother and the two women began looking into the program.

At the same time, BC was in the process of building a resident hall, which would address Leaver’s need for housing while she attended school on this side of the Cascades.

Leaver — now in her second year and studying musical performance — said the language the program used, as well as the fact that it is run and facilitated by people on the spectrum, stood out to her.

In addition to advocacy, she said NN also holds students accountable to their studies and accepts students into the program only if they want to be there — just like college on a whole. It’s a supplemental program, not required.

NN has also given Leaver opportunities for representation. For example, she has represented the program on panels and at information booths. And that “felt really powerful,” she said.

Training wheels

Both Gibson and Leaver described NN as a program that has helped make their college experience more manageable.

Gibson initially thought he wouldn’t need the program but now describes the support he receives as instrumental. He said when you’re in high school, there is a lot of structure with parents and teachers often holding you accountable for going to class and keeping up with your academics. Once you get to college, all of that is gone.

For people on the spectrum, there needs to be a transition period.

“I lost 14 years of my life to just nothing,” Gibson said about all of his previously failed attempts at higher education, a time period in which he didn’t really grow in any way.

He said NN helps students avoid that.

Gibson likened high school to a tricycle and college to a bicycle. There is no in-between or training wheels period. For him, NN is the training wheels.

“You’re not entirely on your own,” Gibson said.

I asked both Gibson and Leaver what advice they had for BC students who are on the spectrum, regarding the program. While they acknowledged that not everyone may need NN, they both encouraged students to at least reach out because the staff are good people to connect with and will advocate for you whether you’re in the program or not.

Gibson said no student on the autism spectrum should go straight from high school to a four-year college or university. He said students should “get something in between.”

“It’s kind of hard without that,” he said.

Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at