Find Support Through Neurodiversity Navigators

May 15, 2024

A college degree is ever more important in our digital economy. But for neurodivergent students, getting that degree can take some extra help.

Student riding bike on campus with green plants, trees and purple flowers framing him.

Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia Students Experience Less Masking, More Thriving

A college degree is ever more important in our digital economy. But for neurodivergent students, getting that degree can take some extra help.   

That’s what Bellevue College’s Neurodiversity Navigators program aims to do. The program offers a series of helpful courses and peer mentors to ensure neurodivergent students, such as those with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and more, thrive during their college experience.  

Bellevue College alum Victor A. Ramirez found the Neurodiversity Navigators program was instrumental to his college success.  

“The Neurodiversity Navigators program at Bellevue College helped me in many ways: by learning how to ask for help, by helping me navigate the bureaucracy for getting accommodations for my disability, and by helping me learn to better manage my stress,” Ramirez said. “It provided the foundation for my success in getting a degree at DigiPen. I highly recommend the program for autistic students.” 

After Ramirez earned his Associate of Applied Science in Digital Media Arts from Bellevue College in 2018, he enrolled at DigiPen Institute of Technology, where he recently graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital Art and Animation. DigiPen is a widely respected university known for its game development programs. 

Social Justice Model 

While offering additional support to neurodivergent students is becoming more of the norm on college campuses today, Bellevue College’s program is unique. Its focus is on helping students address barriers and shifting the campus environment so that it is more neurodivergent-friendly. Students’ specific strengths and interests are given an opportunity to surface and develop because less energy is spent trying to fit in, overcome barriers, or figure out how to navigate a college system. The result is a more accessible college for all students. 

“Our program is unique in that it is built on a social justice model,” said Sara Sanders Gardner, founder of the program. “This means that when we consider the needs of our students, we first consider the value that each brings to our community as a unique, diverse individual, and we seek to embrace this individuality by supporting each student in building on their strengths, not fixing perceived deficits.” 

One of the first neurodiversity support programs in the nation, Neurodiversity Navigators started 14 years ago as the Autism Spectrum Navigators program. Throughout the years, the program has consistently put Bellevue College in high national rankings for its service to students with autism and disabilities.  

Sanders Gardner, who designed and developed the program, is now the director. Using they/them pronouns, Sanders Gardner is openly autistic – as is the entire full-time staff. This hiring decision ensures that program procedures and practices are neurodiversity-affirming, and that the cultural identity of neurodivergent people is front and center. 

This strengths-based approach, along with career support, has been shown to be much more successful than approaches that try to make neurodivergent students fit in or “mask” better. 

Interested in Joining? 

Students in the program start in the summer before beginning their pathway courses at Bellevue College. About 90 self-identified students enroll in a first-year seminar course that helps them explore their identity and get ready for college.  

During subsequent quarters, students can take classes on executive functioning, self-advocacy, self-regulation, and social interaction, all designed to help students identify and develop their strengths. Students meet weekly with trained peer mentors (some half of whom are neurodivergent) to discuss challenges, identify solutions, and learn how to access college resources.  

In their second year, students take career preparation classes, building towards internships, careers, or continued education. Cohort classes are taken alongside students’ chosen program of study. Program participants also join peer mentoring groups, where they develop a sense of community and identity.   

Neurodiversity Navigators is complemented by the work of the college’s Disability Resource Center, which provides classroom and testing accommodations. The program also offers quarterly meetings that help parents with the transition of parenting a neurodivergent adult. Training for staff and faculty on how best to support and work with their neurodivergent population is offered regularly as well.  

“Over 14 years, we’ve trained most of the college on how to set themselves up for ensuring better communication and accessibility for neurodivergent students, to the benefit of all students,” Sanders Gardner said.