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Celebrating neurodiversity in Higher Education

Rather than simply raising awareness of neurodivergent people, Finola Farrant, Emma Owen, Fawn Lavina Hunkins-Beckford and Marta Jacksa argue that now is the time for universities to take concerted action to celebrate the collective neurodiversity of staff and students.

09 May 2022

Understanding the prevalence of neurodivergence in higher education is far from a straightforward task. As Clouder et. al (2020) note, a reliance on self-disclosure, the tendency to be condition-specific, as well as definitional variations, means that accurate statistical data are difficult to come by. What we do know is that 1 in 7 people in the UK is neurodivergent and that student numbers are at their highest level ever – with over 2.5 million students currently enrolled on higher education courses. The number of neurodivergent students is, therefore, likely to be significant. Nonetheless, traditional perspectives on neurodivergence – as a deficit and barrier to education – continue to cast a long shadow on learning and working in higher education.

Drawing on our experience as academics and students, we offer practical suggestions for an inclusive, neurodiverse approach to learning and teaching that would positively transform higher education for students and lecturers alike.

Defining neurodiversity 

Asasumasu uses neurodivergent as an umbrella term for a number of conditions, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette's syndrome, acquired brain injury, and mental health disorders. The term 'neurodiversity' was coined in the late 1990s by Sociologist, Judy Singer, with the overarching goal to herald a shift in society's perceptions of neurodivergence away from a deficit model and toward one in which neurodiversity is viewed as a difference in function, thereby levelling the playing field for everyone. 'Spiky profiles', for example, describe how individuals can be exceptionally high performing in some areas while struggling in others. The primary application of neurodiversity is in societal beliefs, educational accessibility, and the workplace.  

Neurodiversity contrasts with the medical model, which often viewed neurodivergence as something to be classified and treated, and conditions as isolated rather than co-occurring – such as ASD and ADHD. Singer describes neurodiversity as a subset of biodiversity and emphasises that humankind is both enriched and reliant on neurodiversity. Growing evidence suggests the importance of moving toward a Biopsychosocial model that integrates psychological theory and neurodivergent perspectives. In a higher education setting, this would mean developing progressive interventions that support respectful engagement while addressing specific barriers and health difficulties that individuals may face. 

Neurodivergence and Higher Education 

Higher education has historically been a place reserved for the privileged, leading to multiple barriers to access for neurodivergent people (Waisman and Simmons, 2018). Although in recent years increasing numbers of people have applied for, and successfully attained places at university, it nonetheless remains the case that pupils from the most advantaged areas are more than twice as likely to progress to higher education as those from the most disadvantaged areas. In addition, universities are spaces in which some individuals find it easier to demonstrate their full academic potential than others. This contributes to a narrow understanding of the relationship between neurodiversity, intelligence and achievement, which in turn reinforces the stigma towards neurodivergence which discourages disclosure amongst both students and staff. 

Approaching neurodivergence as a weakness rather than a strength also contributes to neurodivergent people being considered incapable and given academically inappropriate education and opportunities. Moreover, this intersects with epistemic injustice (ableism, racism, classism), which also negatively impacts academic access awards, retention, progression and completion (Bhakuni and Abimbola, 2021Olivos, 2006). At the same time, and while a legal requirement, reasonable adjustments can be perceived as giving 'unfair advantages' rather than mitigating proven, pre-existing disadvantages.

Reconfiguring responses to neurodiversity through the lens of inclusivity 

Humankind is enriched culturally, and cognitively and is physically dependent on neurodiversity. The inclusion of more diverse individuals in the education system is fundamental to our growth. The social model of disability acknowledges that it is, at least in part, environmentally determined and that failure to mitigate disability is a cause of disability. Applying this to higher education, rather than offering prescriptive adaptations for specific profiles, which are bound to demonstratable diagnoses, innovative and holistic approaches to accessibility are needed.

The pandemic has highlighted how the application of technology can be used to support inclusivity. Indeed, innovative and nuanced approaches to accessibility have positively correlated with academic and workplace success and reduced isolation. Valuing neurodiversity means drawing upon it directly, through experts-by-experience. There is a wealth of knowledge within the neurodivergent community, which should be involved in shaping the learning experience. Experts by experience can supply significant education and guidance both clinically and practically and can support both neurodivergent and neurotypical people to craft academic environments that better cater to diversity more equitably. 

Creating a neurodivergent friendly university

Entering higher education can be stressful for neurotypical people, but for neurodiverse people, it can prove particularly challenging if there is little or no understanding of their needs. Moreover, concerns about disclosure and fear of stigma and labelling can result in a significant gap in terms of required support and what is provided. While the Equality Act 2010 requires that accommodations be made as soon as an institution becomes aware of an individual's disability, or can be reasonably expected to become aware of it, a system based on inclusive practices would allow members of staff and students to work in the environment that does not disadvantage them and provides a more positive base-line experience. 

It is critical for organisations to become fully aware of the ways in which neurodiversity can present in students and academic staff in order to ensure that learning and workplaces are welcoming and inclusive environments for all. This will assist them in identifying and disseminating common difficulties and perspectives, as well as the many benefits that come with being neurodiverse. 

The technological adaptations made to learning and teaching during the pandemic have accelerated changes that can be further developed to create an inclusive, neurodiverse approach that will positively transform higher education for students and lecturers alike.

Below we set out 15 practical steps that can be taken to achieve a neurodiverse friendly university.

  • Adoption of a relaxed pedagogical approach (Acton and Hujig) allowing for more breaks during teaching, the opportunity to stand up and walk around and being sympathetic to individual needs including that attendance may not be consistent but that this does not mean work is not being completed.
  • Understanding that some people learn better and are more comfortable if they have their eyes closed or undertake another activity (such as crocheting) as this keeps them in the moment and prevents them from zoning out, which can often happen to neurodivergent people. 
  • The physical space of teaching should be neurodiverse aware in terms of lighting, sound and use of space.
  • Content and pace of teaching and university meetings should be mindful of the diversity of needs.
  • Sympathetic responses to requests for more information reduce anxiety and confusion.
  • Adoption of neurodiverse-appropriate language and stop using outdated terms such as low-high functioning.
  • Awareness that neurodivergent students may be entering higher education as mature students, having likely experienced multiple issues during their time in education and established other areas in life like family or work. This may add to the list of daily struggles a neurodivergent student faces.
  • Support and training to staff about what to do once a diagnosis has been shared.
  • Greater understanding that extensions to deadlines are reasonable adjustments for a disability. 
  • Review of assessments to ensure that they are neurodivergent friendly or ensure that alternative assessments are available.
  • Materials should be prepared with the needs of neurodivergent people in mind in terms of background colour, reducing large blocks of text, the inclusion of key words.
  • Different formats of study including part-time or online programmes should be available.
  • Clarity in terms of assignment details, deadlines, and expectations. Ambiguity can be particularly problematic, so precision and further explanation is helpful. Allowing students to write their own assessment questions can help.
  • Exemplars are extremely helpful for neurodivergent people. Spoken and unspoken information can be conveyed more simply by showing an example of what is needed.
  • Individual support and/or a peer buddy to help students and staff navigate their studies/workplaces.

All gain, little pain

The overarching goal of creating neurodivergent friendly universities is to level the playing field, which needs a greater representation of diversity in higher education from both staff and students. The changing face of higher education in terms of increased participation and the hybrid teaching model opens up significant opportunities for inclusion. The current landscape shows a growing recognition of the significance of cultivating an inclusive culture in which neurodivergence is better understood and celebrated.

Neurodivergent people are more likely to access education as mature students and are likely to be balancing multiple responsibilities such as family, work, and home life, as well as feeling nervous about returning to an educational setting after a significant break. In addition, they may have previously experienced a difficult time in education, which has eroded confidence. It is critical to understand that a more level playing field requires a cultural shift and concrete interventions, not just reasonable adjustments in terms of software and extensions, despite the importance of these components. Such an environment needs to be created at the point of staff and student recruitment, and represent diversity, acceptance, and facilitate and encourage those who may lack confidence and have faced discrimination.

A greater representation of neurodiverse academics in the sector would be central to this cultural shift. Historically, the higher education environment for academic staff has presented several challenges, such as during the interview process, disclosure, and the implementation of reasonable adjustments. It is common practice to ask an employee what they need to perform their duties; however, it can be difficult for people to articulate what they need or know what can be put in place; a more balanced dialogue would be beneficial. Specific needs of neurodivergent employees in the workplace include social fatigue, autism burnout, and common co-occurring neurodivergent conditions. Autism, for example, affects social functioning, it is also essential to recognise that there may be specific barriers due to processing difficulties. While neurodiversity has a number of notable strengths, including creativity, a sense of social justice, hyperfocus, and innovation, there is an expectation in academia to perform in a competitive world, which has historically placed a premium on specific aspects such as networking and output in a high-pressure environment. It is important to rethink this model, prioritise the whole person, and recognise that what is needed in higher education is a supportive and nurturing culture.

Equality can be achieved through listening and responding, understanding the barriers and specific health considerations that people face as a result of their condition, celebrating strengths, and creating a safe and healthy work and study environment that allows everyone to grow and thrive.

Finola Farrant, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Arden University

Emma Owen, Psychology Lecturer at Arden University

Fawn Lavina Hunkins-Beckford and Marta Jacksa, Level 4 BSc Psychology students at Arden University


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