I have landed in a season of transitions as a mom and as a professional. My oldest, Elliot, is headed to college in the fall, my youngest, Liam, will be starting high school, and I will start a new role this summer as Associate Dean at my same institution, Elon University. Transitions are exciting and daunting by the pure nature of them leading to change. I have thought about transitions often, especially when teaching a course with mostly first-years or mostly seniors. Coming into or heading to your next from my seat has always felt exciting as all the possibilities await. But for many it isn’t easy with the landscape of transitions being unapologetically uneven negatively impacting those entering with disabilities or neurodivergent identities. Transition to college is about agency and self-advocacy. I have always encouraged both students and families to transfer ownership of learning to the student and find this is sometimes a struggle. Many students had IEPs (individualized education plans) in high school and the system in college is different feeling like they are starting over to prove they need accommodations. Students with disabilities are seeking smoother transitions (Evie Blad, 2022), and I strongly encourage faculty, staff, and administrators to hear and respond to this call. As a mom of two boys one with and one without an IEP, I feel this unevenness of transitions all too often which gives me perspective on what families may have experienced and may be projecting on the college transition.

In our season of transitions, I am finding that the transitions for Elliot and myself feel quite different than the transition for Liam. This angst-loaded transition for Liam to high school is in part (hear a big part) tied to his AuHD (Autistic + ADHD) identity among other disabilities and all that comes with the systems, lack of information, and intentional roadblocks involved. This makes me “wonder” about the unevenness of transitions and the populations that maybe always run into hills, detours, and roadblocks on their journeys to next.

Elliot’s transition to college is mostly about identifying timing of the move, filling out forms to pick roommates, finding a summer job to bring in some cash, and finding as much time as possible to spend with friends. He is not worried about the curriculum; all the possibilities are exciting. He is not worried about medication or accommodations needed to be successful. Frankly, I am not either. Most of my feelings around his transition are filled with joy, excitement, and possibilities. Will he meet challenge? I am sure he will, and I welcome it. These challenges I envision will catapult him into adulthood and are challenges I foresee as a college professor. These are the lessons I am excited for him to learn, where I watch students bloom. This is the transition experience for many students entering college, but not all – and that uneven experience is giving me pause.

My transition into a new administrative role at my institution is also exciting and filled with joy. My angst comes primarily from moving my filled office to a smaller space across campus. Time to purge the notebooks from college I kept and shred student exams from 3+ years ago. This feels refreshing! I also have some uncertainty about how this role will change relationship with colleagues and mostly that is about walking that pathway with intentionality, kindness, and communication. I am not the first to transition to an administrative role in my institution and so there are lots of mentors and perspectives to gather as I make my own way. All of it feels like growth, hope, and possibility. I will say that most of my worry about this transition for me is how it will impact Liam’s support system and how we will juggle his needs with my added work responsibilities.

Liam’s current transitions – are – well – ridiculously aggravating, hard, sad, and filled with stomach flops at every breath. The school system for neurodivergent and intellectually disabled kids is just unsupported these days. He is and has always been in separate setting classrooms with extended content standards. We have had a year with constant teacher and staff turnovers, and administrators who gaslight parents and try to build barriers to knowing anything. Liam is verbal, but names are hard for me to understand. This means he is not able to share who does what to him, or who is missing because they were suspended or are sick. I write these things and only wish they were hypotheticals, but right now when Liam says somebody hit him at school, I have to ask if it was a friend or was it a teacher. The aides aren’t trained, and middle school kids are hard. Add on all the differences and disabilities that lead these students to need separate setting supports and the lack of training is a liability and unfair to all involved. Friends, colleagues – our special ed teachers are underpaid, over-worked, and completely unsupported. I wish I could say our school and district was alone, but this same story is in the news and experiences on social media and from friends and colleagues everywhere echo our fears, our angst, and our blah. As we head into the unknown transition to high school where the teacher hasn’t been hired and the programs were sort of shared when I asked – this transition feels terrible; it feels like heightened gaslighting with no other viable options. Deep breath, eyes open, hope and again reliance on good teachers in terrible systems.

But at least the medical system transition for his needs is… <Input record scratch sound here.> Actually those transitions are also unsupported, and frankly, in my experience, help and support is non-existent. I have been looking for a psychiatrist to help with medication management and our looming transition to adulthood. See kids with “developmental disabilities” eventually become adults and the care system for adults with “developmental disabilities” is – yes you hear it again – non-existent. I have tried for 1+ years to find a mental health practitioner to help with medication management, nothing more complicated. Liam has ADHD and he is autistic, so he is hyper and inattentive as well as having this label – autism – that I have learned in mental health treatment clinics means – red flag, avoid at all costs, try to tell parent something that makes no sense and push away – far away. See the system is broken for everyone and then those with assumed “higher needs” get the boot. Liam doesn’t necessarily have “higher needs,” and to be honest, I hate that I am even saying that on a phone to health professionals as if they are picking players for a softball team. My child is not an urgent risk to himself or society, we are trying to be proactive and build a road to supports. Yet here we are another year and an uncountable number of phone calls and tears pleading with the poor person just taking calls to please just let them meet my kid. He is so much more than what you see in his “file.” Our medical and mental health systems are so broken!

I think it is important to bring awareness of the uneasy and uneven of transitions. To be clear, transitions are and always have been a common challenge for neurodivergent individuals. They are often given visual cue cards, similar to the one pictured here, that display daily routine transitions that can be difficult to regulate emotions around. These are given to prepare, to signify a process of supports, to cue an expectation. To take this a step further, when I google “visual transition cards,” there is no shortage of picture cards displaying all types of transitions and social stories to support. You would think we could translate these needed systems to transitions throughout these young people’s lives and pay attention to what supports, cues, expectations are needed to be successful. Perhaps it is a great example of making something for a population that if we extended to all of us would benefit well – all of us. If you have read anything on inclusive and affirming practices this should sound familiar.

As I head into June where I will co-lead a research seminar on inclusive and affirming engaged learning experiences for neurodivergent students, transitions have to be on our radar in all research questions. These families and individuals have likely endured some version of the transitions I just described, which are my transitions in the month of May. Their experiences have also likely been met with angst and roadblocks. These students in higher education settings have also hit some wins that I expect were not easy or smooth. As we explore inclusion and affirming spaces, processes, and systems in our research, I can promise you that the voices of the scholars in the room will be reminding, and emphasizing, and screaming at every corner to be mindful of the gaps happening in all the transitions and amplifying the absolute no-go for systems and processes that make these into unmarked construction zones. We are over it!

Let’s instead put out navigation signs and build multiple options and paths to experiences. Let’s put in processes that gather data and feedback so we can identify where the holes, gaps, and improvement opportunities are within our settings. We have an opportunity to lead the way of how to implement inclusive and affirming practices – imagine if these could then be translated to medical settings, public school setting, and to families so they can advocate with us. Let’s not let labels deny access or close doors or minds. Our collective worlds are better when we embrace each other’s strengths and raise the bar of progress around challenges.


Blad, Evie. 2022. “Students with Disabilities Urge Smoother Transitions to College.” Education Week. November 1, 2022. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/students-with-disabilities-urge-smoother-transition-to-college/2022/11

RWA Psychology. 2024. “Transitions; Supporting Neurodiverse Children.” https://www.rwapsych.com.au/blog/transitions-supporting-neurodiverse-children/

Turner, Cory. 2024. “Students with disabilities are missing school because of staff shortages.” All Things Considered, National Public Radio. May 14, 2024. https://www.npr.org/2024/05/14/1251408094/students-with-disabilities-are-missing-school-because-of-staff-shortages

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor of exercise science at Elon University, the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar, and a seminar leader for the 2024-2026 CEL Research Seminar on Affirming and Inclusive Engaged Learning for Neurodivergent Students.

How to Cite This Post

Ketcham, Caroline J. 2024. “Transitions . . . Uneven and Uneasy.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. June 4, 2024. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/transitions-uneven-and-uneasy/.