202: Success in College and Beyond for Neurodivergent Students, with Alex Gilbert

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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The transition into college and then out in the “real world” are challenging enough, but can be even more daunting and complex when you have ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, or anxiety. Parents want to help their kids succeed and thrive but are no longer able to step in to help in the ways they had while their child was under age 18.  

In this episode of Beautifully Complex, Alex Gilbert, who has ADHD and dyslexia herself, outlines a plan to help neurodivergent students succeed in college and during the associated transitions.


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My Guest

Alex Gilbert (She/her) is a mom, a New Yorker, a Mets fan, a yogi, and a brunch enthusiast. She also has dyslexia and ADHD. After spending her career working in leadership development, she decided to start a consulting and coaching business that will help adults with learning disabilities and/or ADHD like herself who have been struggling in their careers and home. Her business, Cape-Able Consulting, was created to help them navigate their day-to-day workloads so that they feel supported and are able to reach their highest potential. Her biggest goal in creating Cape-Able Consulting is to change the stigma surrounding learning disabilities/ ADHD by reminding people what they Cape-able of.



Alex Gilbert 00:03

They can make this experience what they want. And it is a challenge, but they are up for the challenge because you have given them the tools to prepare them as much as they can, and they're going to stumble. And that's part of the experience of them learning to make it out on their own.

Penny Williams 00:25

Welcome to the Beautifully Complex podcast, where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started.

Penny Williams 00:47

Welcome back to the Beautifully Complex Podcast. Today I'm joined by Alex Gilbert. And we're going to talk about all things sort of college and neurodivergence. So some strategies for while you're at college, but also strategies for those students who are graduating and trying to transition into the workforce or into whatever they're going to do after college. So this is going to be such a valuable conversation for those of you who are in this place, now or soon, but also for parents of younger kids. This is information that's good to know ahead of time as well. So I'm really excited to share this information with you, Alex, I'm so glad to have you here. Will you start by letting everyone know who you are and what you do?

Alex Gilbert 01:38

Sure, first of all, thank you so much for having me. I am dyslexic, and have ADHD. And I was really privileged to be diagnosed at eight years old, and had resources all the way through college. And one of the things that people often talk about is, you have all of these amazing resources. How could you possibly struggle after you've had those resources? And the truth is, everything you learn in school, every resource that you had through college doesn't exist in the workplace. And even if they did exist in the workplace, it's totally different. You know, when you think about resources from a childhood age of, let's say, extra time, what does that look like in the workplace. So I had been really thinking about how I could support adults with learning disabilities and ADHD, once they graduated from college, and I was working in program and leadership development for over a decade. And I was laid off from my job due to COVID. And my husband and I looked at each other and said, Okay, now's the time. Now's the time when people are really looking for that support, and maybe looking to make those career changes and transitions, and don't know how to do it. And you're the perfect person to do it. So I started capable consulting in April of 2021. And it has been a passion of mine since I was 16. And I am just so excited to be here to support people on their journeys, whether they were diagnosis kids or diagnosis, adult and trying to figure out, what does that look like in the workplace and at home as an adult?

Penny Williams 03:10

Yeah. And I love that you have that insider perspective, it's so valuable, that you're helping people because of your own experiences, that it really makes a difference to the population that you're serving the people that you're working with. I love that. Thank you. Thank you. So where should we start with this conversation? It feels very overwhelming.

Alex Gilbert 03:33

Oh, we could start in so many places. Yeah, you know what I think what's funny about the fact that you even just said it sounds overwhelming is exactly how parents feel exactly how kids feel as they're entering in college. And you're looking at this whole system that looks totally different from anything you can recognize. And now where do you start? And I would say it starts inward? Where do you feel like you need support? Where do you feel like you are going to thrive? And I think we can start with maybe even applying to schools, we could talk about what it's like being on campus, I'm happy to talk about any of those things. This was also part of my journey in applying to schools of why I wanted to start my business was because of this journey. So I'm, I'm happy to go in a variety of different directions.

Penny Williams 04:21

Let's talk a little bit at first, I think, about the transition to college, and that could include applying and so forth. But I run into so many parents who are really worried about their neurodivergent kid going to college, especially right after high school, because you know, there are developmental delays, there are skill delays, and it feels like they may not be prepared yet for that experience. And so I often get asked how do I prepare them? What do I do to make sure that they can succeed when they go to college?

Alex Gilbert 04:59

I think these... They're great points. And I know first of all, any parent who feels that way, I can completely imagine you have been there to be their support system. And letting go and allowing them to be who they are is always a challenge. But they can do it. So I just want to start off by saying they can do it. As I mentioned, I've had this idea since I was 16. And it was because I was applying for colleges. And I had very low LSAT scores. And my resource room teacher at the time told me that I really represented a person who was not capable, which is partially why the name capable, came into my name of my business. But I was not capable of having the college experience that I wanted, because I had low test scores, and I had low LSAT scores. And that's what mattered. But the truth was, I had so many other skills, and I was on leadership teams, and I was president of this club. And I was such a good well rounded student and person that I needed to find a place that could fit those needs.

Unknown Speaker 06:06

And I think that that's one where I would start with a lot of these kids that we're talking about is what are their strengths? What is it that they're passionate about? What is it that they can lean into, to give them comfort to give them the support that they need, that no matter where they are, they always have that. And here, I was thinking, because this teacher was telling me, all I could do is apply to small liberal arts colleges or community colleges. And that really didn't fit my personality, I wanted to go to a much larger school, I wanted to go to Indiana University, which is where I did attend. And that was a huge college system. You know, that's 40,000 Plus undergrads and over 1000 students who use Disability Services, I was really overwhelmed by that process. And so I had to figure out how to navigate through that system. And one of the things that I did as I was in college was I became very close to the Department of Disability Services, and figured out what resources I needed to succeed in college.

Unknown Speaker 07:05

And then I created a mentor retention program for students with disabilities, to help them navigate through a large university system. And I did a ton of research on this topic, I even had to do a research project my senior year. And what I learned is that students who succeeded in college, were ones who knew how to advocate for themselves, and advocating for yourself really can start at home, how can they explain to you? What are their needs, and if they can learn how to explain what their needs are, then they can also figure out how to find it. And all of the students that graduated, had learned how to advocate for themselves, learn how to have conversations with professors and learn to find resources on campus, whether they got the support from disability services, or they just found it themselves. So I would start talking to your kids about what are their needs? And it can be very simple of just starting small, if that's something that you're worried about, what do you need to make a meal for yourself, and have them start there? If you start with something that's really big, and really overwhelming, they might kind of go back into their shell and say, I don't know, which is my least favorite phrase, of anyone who has a disability is saying, I don't know. Because the truth is, you always know, it's just a matter of finding the words that you do know, and this is what you know, and this is how you're going to explain it.

Penny Williams 08:35

Yeah. It's so tough sometimes to teach kids these advocacy skills, because I find often that teens sort of rail against being different and having different needs. And so sometimes it's sort of tougher to get through that sort of wall, and be able to teach them to really do what they need for themselves. And I think part of that is a conversation about how we all have differences and different strengths and weaknesses.

Alex Gilbert 09:07

Oh, for sure. I talked to adults about that themselves, you know, when they're in the workplace and trying to advocate for themselves, understand that everyone has needs, and I think those conversations are getting a little bit easier because of COVID that everyone has different needs, whether they were struggling with their mental health or you know, whatever it was in between that was just different than it used to be. And that's why I say I try and set realistic expectations with everybody. And I would say, again, with teens, we're setting the bar very low of what they can advocate for and who they are talking to to advocate for it. So as I said, if we're talking about we're giving you a space to make a meal for yourself, what do you need? That doesn't seem necessarily as intimidating as you're going to school. What kinds of bags do you need? What kinds of books do you You need, you know, how are you going to set up your dorm room? Those are too many decisions. And that feels overwhelming. But if we started things that are at home, or like starting at home, have, you're going to do your laundry? What does success look like for you in this scenario? Do you need a basket? Do you need detergent? Do you need to separate them? You know, again, we're starting really, really small.

Penny Williams 10:24

Yeah. And starting with things that are very doable, so that they can feel successful. Right? That's what I'm also hearing you say? Yeah, exactly. And that's so important. Yeah, so let's talk a little bit now about, they're at college. And they've learned to advocate for themselves, what sort of accommodations and services are available at that level for college students who are neurodivergent. So many,

Alex Gilbert 10:53

and it really depends on the type of school that you're at, you know, some small private schools probably have even more than some of the larger public schools. But there's a ton of resources on campus that are available to those who are neurodivergent, or have some kind of learning disability or any disability, versus the student who has none. There are tutoring centers, there are no different workspaces. There are closed workspaces. Every person who is going to school who has a disability will likely be applying to the Disability Services Department and getting a list of resources that are available, for example, some of the things that I had, because I'm dyslexic and have ADHD, I had a separate testing location, which meant I could take it in the office of disability services. And I could also change the time, I didn't have to take the test at the same time as everybody else. So when I had double time, on my tests, I had a separate place to go ahead, my test read to me, that was really something I needed, I could have also had notes made for me, from my professors, I could have had extra time with my professors. If I needed it, it really depends on kind of what was on maybe your IEP in high school or your 504 plan or things like that, that become available, I actually feel like, I mean, I came from a district that had a lot of resources. And I think that I even got even more resources in college than I got in high school. And they all provided something different.

Unknown Speaker 12:28

And I would say that not every service that I received was necessary for every class, you know, there were some classes that I did need double time. And there were classes that I didn't, there were classes that I needed to have the notes sent to me from their professor, and there was times that they didn't, it really is going to be very dependent on the course and the environment that they're in. Because, you know, the very beginning of college has much bigger classrooms, whether you are at a small school or a big school, the classroom setting is larger, you know, it's a lot of prerequisites that every student really has to take. And they might be more challenging because they are not of any interest to you whatsoever, but they're part of your general education. And so, you know, every part of that is different. I would say having a relationship with Disability Services is one of the best things you can do for yourself so that when you are on campus, whether your parents are close by or they're not. You have someone you can turn to and say, I'm really struggling meeting the deadlines for this class. How can I get the support that I need?

Penny Williams 13:42

Right. And Disability Services is monumentally important, I think, you know, we found in our experience that a larger state supported school, at least where we are had free tutoring for all students. Right. Exactly. It had mental health services for all students. It was understaffed, I have to say the mental health services. There's often a waitlist, I think

Alex Gilbert 14:04

it's even more understaffed. Yeah. Oh, yeah. Because of COVID. But yes, they are available.

Penny Williams 14:09

So for those students who don't want to use the disability services, some schools have other things where it can kind of fill in that gap. But I know that the ideal is that they use the disability services that are provided for the best opportunity for success.

Alex Gilbert 14:25

Yeah. And they know how to navigate the system too. And that's something that I have talked to a lot of people about who are making kind of this transition. You're talking to experts who know how to navigate the system. Know which professors are maybe going to be more accommodating than others who you know, in the next few semesters can help you figure out which classes you want to take based on the professors that are going to be most helpful. You might feel like you're going in blind but they are not. And so if you can have that conversation with Is someone and know that support. It's not that they're going to hold your hand. But they are at least going to give you a flashlight. So you're not walking in the dark.

Penny Williams 15:09

Love that. Yeah. So important. I want to talk a little bit about the role of parents here. Because I remember when I learned that, after high school, and after turning 18, I had no say, in helping my child, right? You know, if he was in college, I could not call up his professors or anybody and say, He needs this and that, that it was all up to him. I think it's so so important for parents to know that early, because that makes teaching advocacy skills for kids. Far more important,

Alex Gilbert 15:44

Totally. I talked to my parents about that a lot before I went to school. And I even remember, once I was already in school, there was freshman Parents Weekend, and it was maybe three, four weeks into school. And as I said, I went to Indiana University, but I'm from New York. So my parents were like, we're not coming back for freshmen parents, we can we just dropped you off like this, this is silly. And I and I said to them, like, I'm fine, I don't need you to come back. But then three, four weeks started coming up. And all of a sudden, I'm in the swing of things in school. And I'm nervous, you know, I have classes that start on different days in different locations and trying to get myself there and remember to eat and remember to do the readings and the homework and pass it out. And what if I woke up and went to the wrong class on the wrong day. I mean, all of the anxiety was now sitting in and my mom was like, okay, you know what, I'll come back.

Unknown Speaker 16:37

It was like you were right on schedule for freaking out. And here's what I'll say. I was an incredible advocate for myself, all through high school, I knew how to talk to my teachers, I knew how to get support that I needed. And I would push back a lot. Even if you have a child who is like that, they will likely still struggle, because this environment is different. And I think that we also need to leave room for that transitions are hard, very hard. It's not that they're incapable of that transition. It's the fact that that transition can be very anxiety provoking. So when my mom came back to visit and talk to me about all the things I was doing, she said, "you're already doing all the things that you were worried about, you were getting to the right class at the right time, you were handling all your work and at the right time." And it was just that reminder of, okay, you know what, I got this, and you might get those panic phone calls, but it's okay, to allow them to feel the things that they might be feeling, and support them and remind them of all the things that they are doing well, let's say their roommate is not neurodivergent. And not someone who has a learning disability or ADHD, that students also struggling with that transition.

Unknown Speaker 17:52

And just to remind them that this is unique for you and your challenges, but it's not unique to the experience. Yeah. And I think that that's important as a reminder, because, you know, you touch on the fact that people don't want to be reminded that they're different. And I think that that's part of this. Yeah, like, I don't care how strong that kid is no matter what, there is somebody that is going through a challenging time making that transition to college. So they're not alone. And I think that they should know that.

Penny Williams 18:23

Yeah, it is a really tough transition for a lot of kids, young adults. I figured that out when my daughter went away to college, that most of the kids around her and she herself are really struggling with that it's going from one environment into a very different environment with really no period of time to acclimate right, move in. And you get started within a couple of days. And like, you're just expected to stand up and get going and do it really well.

Alex Gilbert 18:57

Figure it out. Yeah, right. No, and it's really hard. And I think that's why a lot of students really struggle at the beginning of school, we also have to throw in the factor that COVID has changed a lot of that, too, that a lot of these students might have different anxiety that they didn't have before about being in a larger classroom or living on campus. And, you know, all of those different factors. This is not the college experience that you and I had, and it's not the one that their parents had either. And we have to leave room for all of those vulnerable periods, in addition to the fact that social media makes us also more anxiety provoking and what are they missing out on? And, you know, all of those factors to that plays against them. They can do it, but it's gonna look different and that's okay. And I think that that's part of the conversation that you have with them. Yeah, they can make this experience what they want. And it is a challenge, but they are up for the challenge because you have given them the tools to prepare them as much as they can and they're going to stumble And that's part of the experience of them learning to make it out on their own. Yeah.

Penny Williams 20:07

And mistakes are part of life. They're part of learning. You know, we want our kids to succeed. But we have to also remember that they need to make mistakes, and they need to figure out their way out of it on their own. If we jump in to rescue them, every time, they won't learn, I won't learn how to stand on their own two feet. I think that's something that parents struggle with as well, kind of letting go and letting what is play out, you know,

Alex Gilbert 20:32


Penny Williams 20:32

that's really valuable.

Unknown Speaker 20:34

I can tell you an experience that I had, it was my first semester of freshman year, I've talked to one of my clients, particularly I've talked to her about this experience a lot. I was taking a course called Finite Math, which, as someone who's dyslexic should have never been advised to take this class because it is all word problems. And I couldn't even figure out where the numbers started, let alone understand what I was reading, and then apply it and create the formula and everything in between. I went to this class, it was three days a week, I went to the class three days a week, I went to office hours, two days a week, I had a tutor.

Unknown Speaker 21:11

So I was now taking this class, well, basically, six days a week. And I still did not understand this whatsoever. And I was insistent that I was going to take it and I was going to manage it. And it was going to be okay. Even though I'm sure people told me I shouldn't have taken it. I talked to the professor and explain to him all the things that I was struggling with in this class and why I needed help. And this was a professor who had been there for forever. My cousin who had been there 10 years before had also had this professor, it was just, he was like an establishment in a way. And he budged for nothing. And here I was telling him all the things that I was struggling with, and that his homework, if you did his homework, you only got credit for it if it was right, and I would spend hours on it. And it was never right. I was just constantly frustrated. And I told him that he personally went and got all of my tests scanned, so that I could have it read to me on a like on a CD. He sat with me and answered every single one of my questions while I was taking the test. And then he personally made it at a different time so that he could do that.

Unknown Speaker 22:24

And I told this to the Director of Disability Services, and she said he did what, and I said, this is what I was explaining to him. He never did that for anybody else. And the reason he didn't do that for anybody else is because nobody else had those conversations with him explaining to him what they understood what they didn't, and how they were gonna get the support that they needed. I got a D in that class, I barely passed that class, it's stuck with me my entire college experience. But what I learned was that I was capable of doing really hard things, and making it slightly easier for myself by using my communication skills to explain what I understood. And that was the most valuable lesson I took all through college. And it didn't matter that it was my lowest grade.

Penny Williams 23:09

Yeah, yeah, it was such a good learning experience. Despite that, before we run out of time, I want to make sure we talk just a little bit about that transition out of college into what we like to call the real world and finding your footing. And I think that that transition is a million times harder than the transition from home to college.

Unknown Speaker 23:33

Definitely, definitely, you know, here I am telling you about all of the different ways in which I advocated for myself. And then I had created this mentor retention program for students with disabilities at a very large campus. I knew how to advocate for myself, I knew how to teach others how to advocate for themselves. And I struggled making that transition into the workplace because again, those resources don't necessarily exist for you in the workplace. Finding the right job for you can be really challenging. How do you advocate in an interview? How do you advocate when you're in the workplace? How do you even find the right workplace for your skills and your interests and really succeed? That was initially what I was thinking about when I started capable consulting was, how can I help college students make that transition easier so that when they get to their career, they can really thrive? And I created this course called College transitions to the workplace because I wanted to help you.

Unknown Speaker 24:34

Learn about yourself, learn about your needs, learn about what strengths you have, that you can apply to the workplace, and how to find the right environment for you and really make those transitions much easier. It's going to be a transition just like everything else. And I agree with you that I think that that transition from college to the workplace can be even more challenging than high school to college, which is why I think this course was so necessary, because I'm giving you the tools and the resources to learn about yourself, you don't know this version of you, and you're not expected to. And I think that that's something that we need to keep in mind, you know, a student version of you is not career version of you, and discovering who you are in this next phase of life takes time, and it's not going to happen in your first job or your second job, or maybe even your third job, it is always going to be a piece of you that is evolving as you learn about yourself. But this is where we can help you start that journey and feel like you have somewhat of a footing,

Penny Williams 25:43

you haven't, I think that the workforce is different and more challenging. Now, post COVID, or, since COVID. Started, I think that it's harder to find exactly what you're looking for, honestly, you know, there's a lot of jobs available, they're not necessarily jobs that kids who just spent four years or five years in college are looking for, it can be really challenging to find the right thing, or, you know, the thing you dreamed of, as you said, you know, the ideal job may not be your second or your third. And sometimes that takes a lot of sort of mental preparation for young adults to accept that they did go and they did get a degree. And they still have to work up to what they really want to be doing. And what they see themselves doing in the long run,

Unknown Speaker 26:38

for sure. And I think in some ways, the workplace in this phase of life is very different. And it can be a lot harder. But it could also give you so many more opportunities. If you look at it that way. There are jobs that didn't exist at the beginning of COVID that exist. Now there are things that these students understand about, let's say, working from home, and how to stay motivated to work from home that people who have been in their careers for 30 years had no bearings on, they didn't understand how to, like have meetings online and do that. And those are transitions that these students have as an advantage. You know, they've been doing this for many years, there's that, and it is going to look different. And that dream job that maybe when they started out in college is not necessarily the dream anymore. But we can still touch on the things that were important to them. You know, I was talking to the very beginning of this podcast about what are their strengths that might have strengthened while they were in college, or they might have rediscovered that they had other strengths and other interests while they were in college, maybe because of COVID, you know, they joined a different club or participated in a program or a course that was something they wouldn't have thought about before.

Unknown Speaker 27:59

Yeah, again, you know, who you were freshman year to who you are senior year of college is not the same person. And I would say that, who you are your senior year of college, versus who you are, in your first year of real life, I used to jokingly call this the freshman year of life is not the same either. You know, there's a lot of decisions to be made, whether you are living at home with your parents, where you're moving to a new place, you know, are you going back to school and doing a grad program or a master's or something like that? Or are you working for a few years and doing that all of these decisions feel very overwhelming. When you don't feel like you have the support. And that's one of the things that I try and walk through in this course is helping you make the decisions that are right for you. I don't want to make the decision for you, your parents don't want to make the decision for you. The parent doesn't want to make the decision for their kid, the only person who knows how to make the right decision for them is themselves. And if I can help you figure out what that version is of you and what your needs are by touching on the things that were important to you, we can push that forward. And that's the goal.

Penny Williams 29:11

Yeah, this has been so informative. And I know we hit on a lot of different times throughout the end of high school through the end of college. But I think that these are the foundational aspects that we need to be focusing on as parents and we need to be helping our kids focus on as they take on this journey of college for those who do that. And I think it's going to be so valuable for so many listeners. So I thank you for that.

Penny Williams 29:43

And I want to make sure that everyone listening, finds, Alex's website, and other links which are all on the show notes for this episode. And those are found at parenting, ADHD and autism.com/two. 202 for episode 202. And make sure you go there and connect and learn more from her and possibly take her course or work with her in another way with your student and make this process just a little bit easier, which would be so very appreciated for everyone, I'm sure so with that, we'll wrap up now, but I really enjoyed our conversation, Alex and I hope everyone listening learns more from you after this. Thank you for having me. And I will see everyone next time. Take good care. Thanks for joining me on the beautifully complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parenting ADHD and autism.com and the behavior revolution.com

Thank you!

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it. Have something to say, or a question to ask? Leave a comment below. I promise to answer every single one. **Also, please leave an honest review for the Beautifully Complex Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and appreciated! That's what helps me reach and help more families like yours.

I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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I'm your host, Penny.

Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

My approach to decoding behavior while honoring neurodiversity and parenting the individual child you have will provide you with the tools to help you understand and transform behavior, reduce your own stress, increase parenting confidence, and create the joyful family life you crave. I am honored to have helped thousands of families worldwide to help their kids feel good so they can do good.

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