By Samantha Jensen (she/her)

When I first encountered the concept of neurodiversity and began to understand what it meant to be neurodivergent, I was embarking on my university journey. At that point, my awareness of my mild dyscalculia diagnosis had only emerged during my high school years. It was a time when I grappled with self-consciousness, a sense of disorientation, and anxiety, particularly as I was just starting to engage in critical reflections about the world around me. 

As I was entering university, I remember wondering “How do I manage this new chapter with my diagnoses?” “Is there any support available for someone like me?” “Are there others who share similar experiences and challenges?” As my understanding of neurodiversity deepened, I became interested in exploring neurodivergent students in Higher Education (HE).  

Syharat et al. (2023) investigated neurodivergent graduate STEM student experiences. The results suggest that they often feel pressure to conform to neurotypical norms and avoid negative perceptions. Furthermore, participants also noted that they may have to self-silence to maintain stability and a positive relationship with their advisor. This research highlights the importance of attending to inclusive environments in HE. Moreover, it also illuminates the hurdles that neurodivergent students encounter during their educational journey.  

Another study by Pesonen et al. (2020) investigated a neurodivergent population specifically autistic students in both undergraduate and graduate students. The findings suggest that their experience was fluid and multi-dimensional in which multiple factors may affect students’ sense of belonging, transitional period and support. Building upon these insights it is crucial to explore the present initiatives that have been designed to support students in HE.  

Widely implemented initiatives have been designed to facilitate student success in HE such as Tinto’s “Model of Student Departure” (1975). His model highlights the importance of aligning individual expectations and commitments with university academics and social systems (Mccubbin, 2003). His argument is that students are more likely to persist and graduate when they feel integrated into the academic and social foundation of the institution. While Tinto’s model was not specifically designed for a neurodivergent population, some of its principles can be applied and adapted to HE settings (Leake & Stodden, 2014; Duerksen et al., 2021). Such as: 

Institutional experiences: Neurodivergent students face challenges related to executive functioning, sensitivities and cognition overload (Lithari, 2018).  Offering mentoring programs or support spaces for neurodiversity to connect and share their experiences (Sarrett, 2017; Dwyer et al., 2022).  

        • Studies have suggested that there is a need for inclusive learning environments and accommodate different learning approaches and sensory support. (Hamilton & Petty, 2022; Boothe et al., 2018). 
        • Training faculty and staff to be aware of neurodiversity and implement inclusive teaching practices. (Jacobs et al., 2022). 

Sense of belonging: A sense of belonging is critical for students when entering a new academic environment.  

        • Recognize and celebrate neurodiversity within campus diversity (Moriña and Biagiotti, 2022; Clouder et al., 2020)
        • Promote welcoming interactions and mentorship to build supportive relationships within classroom settings (Krzeminska et al., 2019)

    However, having attended an engaging seminar presented by Dr Lorna Hamilton, an Associate Professor at York St John University, I was inspired by her research on the concept of belonging within autistic adolescents and how we can enhance our understanding of them. Specifically, investigating what a neurodiversity-affirming HE classroom should entail.  

    Dr Hamilton touched upon varying perspectives of how autistic adolescents experience themselves in relation to others. Some may experience the feeling of being outcasted or different from their peers, while others may embrace their differences. Autistic adolescents may also navigate how to disclose their autism diagnoses as they are aware of the conflicting discourses. An example being that one described as feeling treated “less than human and different” by others, which often led to them masking their true selves. Another described feeling outcasted for not enjoying storybooks but instead preferred fact books (Hamilton, 2023). They acknowledged their difference but also found pride in feeling different. These perceptions and experiences of autistic adolescents in relation to others and their differences highlight the need for inclusive and understanding environments that affirm and support their neurodiversity.  

    Instead, autistic children should be treated with recognition and support in educational settings. These recommendations aim to address and overcome the barriers that neurodivergent students may face in the education system (Hamilton, 2023).  

    1. Teacher training, providing the necessary skills and knowledge to understand and adhere to the needs of neurodivergent students.  
    2. Promoting awareness and understanding of neurodiversity among staff, students and parents.  
    3. Inclusive teaching practices, adopting teaching methods that accommodate the diverse learning styles and strengths to allow flexibility.  
    4. Providing pastoral support, such as one-to-one assistance for additional support.  
    5. Creating a classroom sensory environment, to accommodate over stimulation and support sensory needs. 

    Dr Hamilton’s insights offer an opportunity to understand how engagement with neurodiversity can contribute to advancements in the field of cognitive science and provide the appropriate support. Engaging with neurodiversity can challenge the traditional medical model that focuses on deficits in neurodivergent individuals. By firstly, promoting a neurodiversity paradigm, research can shift their understanding of the strengths and abilities of neurodivergent individuals. Secondly, recognizing the importance of studying individuals in respect to their social and cultural contexts. This means considering the impact of societal barriers and stigma on the experiences and abilities of neurodivergent individuals. Lastly, there has been research to suggest the positive contributions of cognitive diversity in creativity and problem solving, hypothesis generation and innovative (Sulik et al., 2022). By acknowledging these advancements, we can provide the appropriate methods and approaches on how neurodivergent students need to be accommodated.  

    In retrospect, reflecting on my academic growth, this area of research has informed my understanding of my own neurodiversity and how it intersects with my current university experience. Dr Hamilton’s research examines the social contexts surrounding neurodivergent individuals, rather than solely concentrating on the neurodivergent population itself. Her insightful research aims to explore the physical learning environment, strategies, and support that can be provided to promote a deeper understanding of inclusive and impactful research within HE settings.

    About the Blog Post Author:

    Samantha Jensen (she/her) is currently a Level 4 Psychology student at the University of Glasgow (UofG), and very passionate about delving into the realm of neurodiversity in higher education. Specifically, ensuring that other marginalized groups receive the support they truly deserve. The process of writing this reflective piece has only intensified her enthusiasm for this subject area. It had also significantly influenced her previous summer research project, where she delved into the world of dyslexic students and their ability to code in a university setting. This passion of hers has propelled her into dedicating her final year dissertation to the exploration of neurodiversity within UofG. She is keen on uncovering the extent to which individuals feel the right amount of support and inclusivity in their studies. She is absolutely delighted to share her experiences and passion for the Student Voice within the TILE Network. This opportunity allowed her to contribute actively to the ongoing dialogue surrounding the importance of support and inclusivity in higher education.

    TILE Student Voice

    This is a section of the TILE Network that features the student voice in learning and teaching. We want to shine a light on the student perspective when it comes to teaching and learning practice and what better way to do this than letting the students express this themselves. This series also aims to give students to opportunity to engage in science communication and writing. Broadcasting scientific findings to a wider audience is a valuable skill and TILE provides students with the platform to practice that skill.

    If you are a student and interested in contributing to the TILE Student Voice section, get in touch: tile@psy.gla.ac.uk

    References:

    Boothe, K. A., Lohmann, M. J., Donnell, K. A., & Dean, H. D. (2018). Applying the Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the College Classroom. Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship, 7(3). https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1201588 

    Clouder, L., Karakus, M., Cinotti, A., Ferreyra, M. V., Fierros, G. A., & Rojo, P. (2020). Neurodiversity in higher education: A narrative synthesis. Higher Education, 80(4). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-020-00513-6 

    Duerksen, K., Besney, R., Ames, M., & McMorris, C. A. (2021). Supporting Autistic Adults in Postsecondary Settings: A Systematic Review of Peer Mentorship Programs. Autism in Adulthood, 3(1), 85–99. https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2020.0054 

    Dwyer, P., Mineo, E., Mifsud, K., Lindholm, C., Gurba, A., & Waisman, T. C. (2022). Building Neurodiversity-Inclusive Postsecondary Campuses: Recommendations for Leaders in Higher Education. Autism in Adulthood, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2021.0042 

    Hamilton, L. (2023). Rethinking One-Size-Fits-All: Education for Neurodiversity. https://tile.psy.gla.ac.uk/2023/05/05/rethinking-one-size-fits-all-education-for-neurodiversity-a-summary/ 

    Hamilton, L., & Petty, S. (2023). Compassionate pedagogy for neurodiversity in higher education: A conceptual analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1093290 

    Jacobs, L., Parke, A., Ziegler, F., Headleand, C., & De Angeli, A. (2020). Learning at school through to university: the educational experiences of students with dyslexia at one UK higher education institution. Disability & Society, 37(4), 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2020.1829553 

    Krzeminska, A., Austin, R. D., Bruyère, S. M., & Hedley, D. (2019). The advantages and challenges of neurodiversity employment in organizations. Journal of Management & Organization, 25(04), 453–463. https://doi.org/10.1017/jmo.2019.58 

    Leake, D. W., & Stodden, R. A. (2014). Higher Education and Disability: Past and Future of Underrepresented Populations. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 27(4), 399–408. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1059990 

    Lithari, E. (2018). Fractured academic identities: dyslexia, secondary education, self-esteem and school experiences. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 23(3), 280–296. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2018.1433242 

    Mccubbin, I. (2003). An Examination of Criticisms made of Tinto’s 1975 Student Integration Model of Attrition. https://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/localed/icubb.pdf 

    Moriña, A., & Biagiotti, G. (2022). Inclusion at university, transition to employment and employability of graduates with disabilities: A systematic review. International Journal of Educational Development, 93, 102647. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedudev.2022.102647 

    Pesonen, H. V., Nieminen, J. H., Vincent, J., Waltz, M., Lahdelma, M., Syurina, E. V., & Fabri, M. (2020). A socio-political approach on autistic students’ sense of belonging in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2020.1852205 

    Sarrett, J. C. (2017). Autism and Accommodations in Higher Education: Insights from the Autism Community. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48(3), 679–693. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-017-3353-4 

    Sulik, J. (2022). The Diversity Gap: When Diversity Matters for Knowledge – Justin Sulik, Bahador Bahrami, Ophelia Deroy, 2022. Perspectives on Psychological Science. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/17456916211006070?icid=int.sj-abstract.citing-articles.120 

    Syharat, C. M, Hain, A., Zaghi, A. E., Gabriel, R., & Berdanier, C.G.P. (2023). Experiences of neurodivergent students in graduate STEM programs. Frontiers in Psychology, 14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1149068