College & Narcolepsy

For Planet Narcolepsy, Written by Lindsay Ropiak

The first piece of advice I could give you regarding Narcolepsy and school is this: disclose. Schools have in place special services for people with disabilities. Usually when you contact this department, you will need to fill out their paperwork for intake. This includes having your doctor write about your Narcolepsy and how it affects you. Generally, they will also make recommendations for the sorts of accommodations that you need in order to get through college successfully.

In my personal experience, upon completing my documentation and my requests, the Disability Services Coordinator wrote to each of my professors and requested my accommodations. She also provided her contact information if they had questions or if they needed to report that I was taking advantage of this for some reason.

Besides contacting my service coordinator, before each semester starts, I email my professors to let them know about my narcolepsy, cataplexy, and how it affects me and what it means to them. I like to try to do this even before registration for that semester; if attendance is going to be a major part of my grade, I need to make sure they can either be flexible or that I can take another section or a different course.

My professors, past and present, have been very understanding regarding my condition. I only wish I had known that this was a good idea before I got so far into this! But seriously, while not all instructors will care so much or be so flexible, not having my attendance count against me and posting movies and notes for me to use in my absence was amazing. Often, they do this for several students in a large lecture group. But one professor, who used an overhead projector which shook with the air system (triggering my cataplexy) let me know ahead of time for movies so that I could either listen and take notes (without watching the screen) or opt to skip class and watch the movie that she would upload for me. This same professor asked me to stay after class twice to learn about Narcolepsy from me.

Be open to questions. Give answers as best you can.

Give your best effort for attendance. There are tricks to keep you focused that I have used. I take notes, as detailed as possible so that it requires I pay attention to what is being said. If I don’t need notes– perhaps there is a student discussion or something– doodling keeps my hands busy so that I can listen. If you’re finding that you’re missing a lot despite your notes, try this next one.

Although it takes more effort and time, make sure that you read through the corresponding chapters in your textbook very carefully. Highlight the main points from the lectures. And make sure that you write down each of the terms and their meanings. Then, take notes on the main points. Then, you have written at least three times the material to help retain it in your memory. Finally, take the information that is still hard to grasp and write it on note cards. Review the note cards a few times a day. More exposure to the material significantly increases your chances of remembering it come exam day!

Some people are against taking medicine. But I highly recommend that if you intend to pursue your education that you find a treatment that can help alleviate some of your symptoms. It really helps to have a clear mind and at least a small window of alertness in order to take classes and do homework. Pre-diagnosis, trying to do my schoolwork was incredibly difficult. As soon as I took even 10mg of Ritalin a day I felt an incredible difference. With new medicine, and/or higher doses, I have seen a range of improvement, but never less than that first try. It’s not the same for everyone, but it has been a very important pillar in my continued academic success.

My final piece of advice may seem like a no-brainer, but it is really important to realize that you might have some limitations now because of Narcolepsy. Make sure that you don’t take on more than you have to when it comes to school and other activities. It is not fun to stay in school longer than four years, but it may be your best option to try and take fewer classes in order to earn better grades. I have gone part time and am about to begin my eighth year of undergraduate school. The first few years were insanely difficult, not because of the material, but because I didn’t realize what my symptoms were and how to balance school with that

Take fewer classes if it makes sense for you. Also, make sure to schedule them around your best times of day. For me, I take afternoon or evening classes a few times a week. The rest of the days I can use to hold a part time job and to do my homework. Then, the other times of day I know I need to take it easy because I just simply won’t be able to do what I want to. There’s a difference between giving in to a problem and acknowledging your limits.

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