The transition from high school to college is difficult for many students. For twice-exceptional students, this transition can be even more challenging.
Enter the Belin-Blank Center’s Academy for Twice-Exceptionality, a program that strives to ensure that neurodiverse students have a positive and fulfilling college experience.
Twice-exceptionality refers to individuals who are both gifted and have a neurodevelopmental disorder, such as autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, specific learning disabilities, anxiety, or depression.
Twice-exceptional students are complex as they possess talents and advanced achievement but also may struggle with impulsivity, time management, social skills, planning, organization, or other skills many of us take for granted,” says Megan Foley Nicpon, professor of counseling psychology and director of the Belin-Blank Center (BBC) for Gifted Education and Talent Development.
The Academy for Twice-Exceptionality utilizes the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development’s expertise in twice-exceptionality to help students succeed in college.
The program, initially launched in 2021 by then BBC director Susan Assouline, started with two students. Just two years later, the academy supports 14 students.
“The Academy for Twice-Exceptionality provides a structure of support for neurodivergent University of Iowa students, encompassing academic skills, practical, and social emotional skills,” says Randy Lange, professional development and curriculum coordinator at the Belin-Blank Center. “Our students receive additional supports beyond what is offered through University of Iowa’s Student Disabilities Services.”
University of Iowa sophomore Anya Cam is one of these students. A biology major from McGregor, Iowa, Cram
completed her first year with the Academy for Twice-Exceptionality this spring.
“Being in college in general is a culture shock, it is very much different from high school in nearly all respects. With high school you are in the kiddie pool, in college you are being picked up and thrown into the deep end,” says Cram. “The Academy for Twice-Exceptionality is dedicated to helping twice exceptional students not only find a place in college, but also excel.”
Cram grew up with a love of animals and plans to attend veterinary school and become a veterinary surgeon after completing her degree.
“I’ve always felt a special connection with animals. I’ve grown up around animals, found a lot of enjoyment in life from animals, and have been surrounded with animals all my life and they’ve always made me feel happy when I’m sad,” says Cram.
Cram says that the Academy for Twice-Exceptionality has given her a different perspective and has helped her feel less different.
“It’s been great to get to know other folks with autism,” says Cram. “I’ve heard the saying ‘one person with autism is just one person with autism’ and I’ve really seen that because everyone is so different. For some cases it can be milder and some cases it can be more severe, but with each case you can tell that they are passionate about what they do.”
The Academy for Twice-Exceptionality also seeks to set up students for success in their careers post-college.
“Researchers have documented that individuals with autism are often underemployed or unemployed,” says Foley Nicpon. “The goal of the Twice-Exceptional Academy is to provide UI students with the supports they need to be successful, not only as undergraduates at Iowa but also in their future careers.”
According to the Autism Society, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is typically twice that of the general non-disabled working population. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that at least 85% of adults on the autism spectrum with a college education are unemployed.
The Academy for Twice Exceptionality helps its students prepare for life post-college through guidance with self-advocacy, problem-solving, and organizational skills.
Lange says that providing a supportive and comforting space where students can feel like they belong is a key part of the Academy for Twice Exceptionality.
“Social communication and interacting with others can be difficult for twice-exceptional students. This program allows them to be themselves and realize that they are not alone,” says Lange. “They also meet other students who are similar to them. It is exciting for us to see friendships forming over time.”
Foley Nicpon has spent the majority of her career conducting research surrounding twice-exceptionality, with the Academy for Twice Exceptionality being a major point of pride.
“I am so proud of this academy given it’s been one of the main foci of my career for the past 19 years,” says Foley Nicpon. “Randy Lange has taken the program to the next level, and I know through his and his team’s efforts, many students will have positive outcomes.”
Lange created the first ever twice-exceptional student scholarship in honor of his parents, Robert and Joan Lange. He says his parents loved children and knew the key role they would play in the future.
“My parents and the University of Iowa both have opened so many doors for me in my life. Creating a scholarship seemed like the perfect way to honor them both,” says Lange. “I wanted to give back and hopefully open a door for others. We all need some help at times in life, and I felt a scholarship paired with the Academy for Twice-Exceptionality could be the catalyst for success for someone.”
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