This resource page on Neurodiversity was written and compiled by Dr. Melinda Rhodes-DiSalvo, Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at Ohio University.

Introduction to Neurodiversity

Critical to the success of learners in higher education is a sense of academic and personal belonging and instructional approaches that make our teaching more effective for all students. For those identified as neurodiverse, a sense of belonging is especially impactful and may be developed through careful attention to course and instructional design and practices.

This attention, coupled with increased understanding of neurodiversity, prepare faculty in all disciplines to provide meaningful learning activities developed with an asset-based approach.

Neurodiversity as it applies to higher education involves a recognition of different ways that our learners experience the curriculum, the co-curriculum, our courses, course content, modules, assignments and assessments. Neurodiversity necessarily calls for a diverse and flexible set of instructional strategies for a growing population of learners who are not neurotypical. Neurodiverse students come to our classrooms with different challenges to traditional concepts of teaching and learning and different strengths.

Neurodiversity Terminology

Neurodiversity is a broad term, and our learners can help us identify respectful language to describe differences. Generally, neurodiversity describes variations in cognitive functioning. Post-secondary educators are most familiar with the variations described as dyslexia, ADHD and autism, but we should be aware of assumptions, preconceptions and misconceptions about those and be informed of other variations.

Neurodiversity does not equate with student lack of cognitive function or ability to learn.

University and college instructors must understand that the number of neurodiverse students in their classrooms is likely much higher than they believe. Most important, “in teaching neurodivergent students, the only thing you can control is what you do in your own classroom” (Pryal, 2023). Neurodiversity encompasses:

Neurodiverse Learners in Higher Education

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2022), most students with disabilities do not inform their colleges or universities about their status. In a longitudinal study that began with 23,000 high school students and followed them over seven years, researchers found the following:

  • Only a third (37%) of students reporting a disability informed their higher education institutions.
  • Students at four-year institutions were more likely to receive accommodations than at 2-year colleges, showing a “support gap” (87% versus 57% respectively).

In a spring 2022 report, the American College Health Association reviewed data from 69,131 students at 129 schools. Respondent findings include:

  • 34.9% reported having been diagnosed with ongoing or chronic anxiety.
  • 15% reported having ADHD.
  • 2.9% reported having Autism Spectrum Disorder.
  • 1.2% reported having a speech or language disorder.
  • 4.7% reported having another learning disability.

Neurodiverse learners report the following negative experiences:

  • Feeling unaccepted by both instructors and by staff.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by tasks, deadlines and prioritization (executive functions)
  • Feeling the need to “mask” differences to increase acceptance.
  • Being bullied or excluded by peers.
  • Decreasing mental health associated with stigma (Schmulsky, 2022).

Accommodated people with disabilities also endure remarks about receiving “special” treatment for disabilities that are allegedly exaggerated or faked. (McFarlane, 2022)

Pedagogy and Neurodiverse Learners

Pedagogical approaches to support neurodiverse learners are not unique to that set of students. They fall under the umbrella of Inclusive Pedagogy, Compassionate Pedagogy (Pedagogy of Kindness) and Universal Design for Learning. These frameworks are strong foundations for any course and instructional design. Embracing these frameworks also addresses one of the critical reasons students who are neurodiverse don’t ask for assistance or accommodations: Receiving the necessary accommodations from our higher education institutions (no matter how well intentioned we are) is cumbersome (Pryal, 2023; McFarlane, 2022).

Reasonable accommodations should be tools of equality yet can feel more like punishment than remedy. To receive accommodations, people with disabilities must disclose intimate details about their health. The accommodation process that follows disclosure is arduous, dissuading many people with disabilities who need accommodations from requesting them. Even if accommodations are granted, institutional enforcement is not guaranteed. Instead, the labor of implementing reasonable accommodations often falls to disabled people themselves.

According to Clouder et al. (2023), many colleges and universities appear to be “neurodiversity ‘cold spots’ despite the existence of support services; the dislocation maintained by low levels of staff awareness, ambivalence and inflexible teaching and assessment approaches.”

Making our own classrooms welcoming for all learners, adopting key pedagogical frameworks and designing highly effective, universal learning activities and equitable assessments are individual and impactful responses we as higher education instructors can have to issues of stigma and systemic challenges.

Welcoming and Creating a Sense of Belonging for (Neurodiverse) Learners

Teaching Strategies for (Neurodiverse) Learners

Consult with Your Center for Teaching and Learning

Members of the Ohio College Teaching Consortium’s centers for teaching and learning will be able to add recommendations and provide consultations on the pedagogical approaches and strategies outlined above and may also be able to refer instructors to other departments and units who offer support to neurodiverse students.

OCTC members also regularly present programming on inclusive pedagogy. Check the OCTC upcoming events for more information.

References and Recommendations

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