How Universities Can Better Welcome Neurodiverse Students

4 min read

Julia Sachs

Neurodiversity refers to variations in mental function that may make it difficult to learn or interact under traditional expectations.

Schools and universities can and should make an effort to help their neurodiverse students feel more welcomed and supported both on campus and off. Neurodiversity refers to variations in mental function that may make it difficult to learn or interact under traditional expectations. Neurodiversity can include anything from those on the Autism Spectrum to other Cognitive Processing Differences (often referred to as CPD) such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Dyscalculia. 

It’s important for educators and school administrators to understand that neurodiversity does not impact a students cognitive function or ability to learn, but instead implies that students will simply need to learn according to their own unique terms. Accommodating neurodiverse students is included in the American Disabilities Act in the United States, and many other countries have specific laws that require schools and workplaces to accommodate to the unique needs of neurodiverse people. 




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Each of the aforementioned conditions make up a spectrum of neurodiversity. It is estimated that around 11% of graduates are considered neurodiverse, though as much as 30% of any student body may fall into any of the above categories. Some studies suggest that many adults go undiagnosed with conditions such as ADHD due to how symptoms are presented, especially in women who may present attention deficit symptoms more often than hyperactivity. 

Neurodiversity does not impact cognitive function. The term implies a uniqueness in learning, communication, social, attention or mood and is meant to embrace differences rather than ostracize those that have been diagnosed. Those on the Autism spectrum may learn differently, but their ability to learn is still present. It is important that colleges and Universities both help neurodiverse students feel welcome, and provide them with the resources that they need to be able to learn according to their own unique abilities. 

What it means to be on the Autism Spectrum

The Autism Spectrum represents a diverse makeup of people that may experience a wide variety of symptoms that, overall, impact the ways that they communicate, learn, socialize, or process emotion. Those on the autism spectrum may experience some or all symptoms of the condition, but with the right tools and support they can thrive in an academic environment. 

Those with Autism may:

  • Be nonverbal
  • Lack understanding of social cues
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Socially withdrawal 
  • Struggle with conversation
  • Struggle in group settings
  • Be very interested in specific topics
  • Rely heavily on routine
  • Have sensory aversions to certain foods, smells or textures
  • Have difficulty adapting to changes in schedule, such as new classes each semester
  • Require specific accommodations from their school or University

Students on the Autism spectrum may exhibit all or only a few of these symptoms. It’s important to remember that the term spectrum refers to a wide variety of presentations, so one student on the Autism spectrum may have entirely different symptoms than another. Students on the autism spectrum should be met with understanding, and educators should plan to work with each individual student to determine a strategy for learning that will work with them. 

What it means to have ADHD

Students with ADHD may experience a variety of symptoms from hyperactivity to executive dysfunction. Though one of the biggest struggles that students with ADHD face is paying attention, the reality is that addressing these symptoms is not as simple as just limiting distractions. 

Those with ADHD may: 

  • Have difficulty focusing
  • Struggle with deadlines 
  • Have a hard time planning ahead, such as completing a rough draft of a project
  • Struggle in long class periods
  • Need to move around to stay focused on a task like reading or studying
  • Struggle with listening for long periods of time
  • Experience sensory aversions to certain foods, smells or textures
  • Experience sensory overload 
  • Require specific accommodations from their school or University

Helping neurodiverse students in the classroom

Whether it involves limiting sensory overload in the classroom to allowing students on the Autism spectrum to work quietly with headphones in to limit external noise, there are many small things that can help students on the autism spectrum learn more efficiently. Teachers should focus on integrating these changes into their class as a whole. Be concrete and specific with assignment instructions, limit distractions in the classroom and work with students to allow them to use tools that are beneficial to them, such as using laptops in class to take notes or allowing students enough time to finish tests. 

Addressing needs in the classroom should focus on helping ease stress caused by the various symptoms of neurodiverse conditions. Helping ease executive dysfunction, for example, might mean working with students by delivering clear instructions or a written plan for how to complete an assignment. 

Eliminate stress from changes in routine by having a set and detailed schedule, as well as a list of expectations. If students will have to read on their own outside of class, for example, provide context within lesson plans on how much time students may need to dedicate to their homework or reading each week. Avoid deviating from this schedule or creating a schedule with too much variety and instead focus on how you can get students to meet goals and expectations by splitting time evenly over the course of the semester. 

If instructors have concerns about the success of a specific student, the best thing to do is to schedule time with the student and, if possible, a guidance counselor to help determine a strategy for helping that student succeed in a class. Students should feel that there is a proactive approach to making them feel welcomed in an educational environment and not that their neurodiversity will get in the way of their education. For students that are not neurodiverse, providing equity in an academic environment to their neurodiverse peers will help even the playing field and create a more accessible environment for all. 

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