Dr. Temple Grandin is a prominent animal scientist and behaviorist who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three in 1950. She floundered academically until her high school science teacher recognized her gift for visual thinking.
“Mentors are essential,” she said during her 2010 TedTalk, which focused on reforming K-12 education but also underscored a need for supporting neurodiversity in college. Indeed, as places where students can apply unique strengths and explore specific interests, colleges can help individuals with autism and other conditions like ADHD and dyslexia flourish.
But this isn’t always the case: Students with brain differences still earn lower grades, experience lower graduation rates, and report dissatisfaction with available support services.
There is a reason for optimism, however. A growing number of colleges across the US actively promote neurodiversity, a term first coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in 1998. Neurodiversity promotes the inclusion of people who experience cognitive processing differences and typically applies to individuals with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia.
Core to the spirit of the neurodiversity movement is viewing differences as strengths. While no two individuals with autism are exactly alike, people with this condition can be exceptionally good at remembering details and performing rules-based thinking.
More than 80 US colleges are implementing programs focused on the needs of neurodiverse students, with many offering support for autistic students in particular. These initiatives target several areas, including supporting the transition from high school to college, developing social skills, creating a welcoming campus environment, and providing academic support.
Such efforts are worthwhile: Under the American Disabilities Act in the United States, accommodating neurodiverse students is required for higher learning institutions, and many other countries have similar laws. But this goes beyond compliance, of course: promoting neurodiversity in college is a way to uncover hidden gems of talent who can make significant contributions to society.
A rise in demand for support is also another critical consideration for higher learning leaders.
The number of students reporting an autism diagnosis has grown, and institutions must be prepared. Experts say the increase stems from changes in how the condition is diagnosed, along with a rise in awareness.
Neurodiverse students are entitled to support from their Student Affairs office, though they may not be aware of support available to them. Change can make the most impact on the ground level for students — or in this case, the classroom. Instructors and staff can make many adjustments to help neurodiverse students, whether giving more detailed instructions about class assignments or turning off the fluorescent lights.
All of these little things add up, but supporting neurodiversity also needs to be a systemic effort at the institutional level. Here are 5 tactics your institution can implement to help neurodiverse students succeed, including real-world examples.
The transition into higher learning from high school is often a bumpy ride: unstructured learning, huge class sizes, and crowds can present challenges for any student — neurodiverse students in particular.
One way to help individuals who struggle with new environments is by giving them a clear picture of what to expect. For example, at California State University, the Freedom in Elements program provides prospective students with autism with a preview of the college experience. Participants stay in dorms for four days and engage in arts and social activities. Extended in-person stays can be helpful, but if these are not possible at your institution, consider complementing shorter on-site visits with comprehensive, online virtual campus tours.
Strong social skills form the basis of a great college experience, helping boost mental health and a sense of belonging (a key driver of student retention). However, a neurodivergent student might find it challenging to read social cues or make new friends, which can lead to feelings of isolation. Thankfully, the ability to socialize is a teachable skill.
Explore avenues for offering social-emotional learning courses (online or in-person) in areas such as social awareness (which covers how to identify verbal and physical social cues), along with relationship skills (which covers initiating contact and cultivating friendships). Higher learning institutions can also encourage students to apply these skills by joining clubs or associations tied to individual interests.
For some neurodiverse students, executive functioning can be challenging, making it difficult to plan and complete assignments on time. Others might have difficulty approaching a tricky concept from a new perspective, and breaking free from set thinking patterns.
This is where student support comes in. The University of North Texas ENGAGE program is designed to provide neurodiverse students with support for fulfilling their personal, academic, and career goals. Support staff help students reach their goals through weekly check-ins, referrals, and group activities.
If your institution hasn’t done so, find ways to make neurodiversity support a key component of academic advising. Support services can provide students with meta-skills and specific strategies for completing assignments and performing well on exams, with staff trained to recognize the particular needs of neurodiverse students.
An instructor who doesn’t understand neurodiversity is more likely to react negatively to a struggling student. More training can help. The Neurodiversity Initiative at William & Mary, for example, seeks to educate the campus community about the value of neurodiversity, allowing faculty and staff to gain an appreciation for the strengths of people with brain differences. Colleges can also provide resources to help the campus community learn how to engage with neurodiverse students from a place of understanding and support.
This neurodiversity hub offers many resources, including a video for professors that provides tips on what kind of support students need most.
Look for ways to implement programs that harness these interests and use them as a gateway to fields such as science and technology. One of the characteristic features of autism, for example, is restricted interests. A student might be fascinated by jet engines or insects, spending hours and hours learning about these topics.
NASA’s Neurodiversity Network (N3) at Sonoma State seeks to broaden the participation of students with autism in NASA’s programs. The program includes learning modules that encompass the skills needed for STEM careers — a great way to put specific interests to work.
Neurodiverse students can encounter myriad obstacles in the higher learning environment, from social isolation to negative experiences with faculty and staff. But it doesn’t have to be this way. With robust neurodiversity programs, higher learning leaders can create a welcoming campus environment for neurodiverse students.
We need people who see the world differently and can create innovative solutions to pressing problems.
Neurodiverse-friendly college campuses — this is where the next generation of scientists, artists, writers, and engineers will thrive.
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