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How can higher education better embrace neurodiversity?

How can higher education better embrace neurodiversity?- article by Emma and Finola

Academics and students at Arden University explore how higher education can better embrace neurodiversity to realise the value neurodivergent staff and students can bring to enhance the overall learning experience.

In the UK, one in every seven people are neurodiverse. As student numbers remain at an all-time high, the number of neurodivergent students at university is also likely to be significant. In this article, a team of academics and students from Arden University explore how higher education has long been a place of difficulty and challenge for neurodivergent students, and discuss how universities can be more neurodivergent-friendly.

Research shows that less than 40% of autistic students at university complete their studies, with the majority likely to drop out part way through their course. With an increasing number of neurodivergent students at university, it’s crucial that these students have access to adequate support to help them successfully complete their studies.

As a society, we are both enriched by and reliant on neurodiversity, and it is important that we are open and listening to neurodivergent perspectives. In a university setting, this means having open-minded conversations with experts and neurodivergent people to address and tackle the specific barriers and challenges that neurodivergent staff and students may face.

Universities can often have a narrow understanding of the relationship between neurodiversity, ability and achievement due to the traditional nature of teaching environments and the way students are typically assessed. As a result, there is a tendency not to disclose neurodiversity among both staff and students.

The value of neurodiversity in higher education

The neurodivergent community brings a wealth of knowledge and experience, and it makes sense that they are involved in shaping the university learning experience. Experts by experience can offer valuable input into education, and can help craft inclusive academic environments that enhance diversity more equitably. To enable this improved support for neurodiverse students, universities need to first ensure measures are put in place to better accommodate neurodiverse academics.

At present, the higher education environment can often present several challenges for neurodiverse academics, including during the interview process, disclosure and the implementation of reasonable adjustments. Universities often place high importance on specific skillsets, including networking, and strong outputs in a high-pressure environment. However, neurodivergent employees can experience social fatigue, autism burnout and other common co-occurring neurodivergent symptoms. As a result, it’s important to reconsider recruitment and promotion practices, to ensure they are prioritising the individual and their unique skillset.

Many universities have reported success with interviewing and hiring neurodiverse employees when applying skills-based methods, such as cognitive assessments or work trials, which enable recruiters to focus on the applicant’s ability to perform specific tasks.

How can universities better support neurodiverse talent?

Universities with an inclusive staff cohort will benefit from a better understanding of neurodiverse students, and they will often have more reasonable adjustments in place to improve these students’ experience. There are practical steps that can support universities in becoming more neurodivergent-friendly, including:

  • Improving flexibility – for example, offering classes at alternative times and alternative ways of accessing materials for those who may not be able to attend physical lectures or seminars. Neurodivergent people are more likely to access education as mature students, which may also mean that they are balancing their studies with work and family life.

  • Re-examining the physical learning environment – consider the use of lighting, sound and space, as well as the content and pace of classes, ensuring you are mindful of the diversity of needs throughout.

  • Review assessments – consider whether assessments are neurodivergent friendly, or whether alternative assessments are available. In some scenarios, allowing students to develop their own questions can help. It’s also important to be extremely clear in an assignment’s details, deadline and expectations to prevent ambiguity.

  • Consider all teaching materials – these should be prepared with the needs of neurodivergent people in mind. For example, consider the background colour, reducing large blocks of text and reviewing the inclusion of keywords.

  • Accepting different learning preferences – everyone learns best in different ways Some neurodiverse students, may learn best with their eyes closed or while they’re undertaking another activity, such as crocheting, as this helps to keep them focused and prevent ‘zoning out’, a common symptom of many neurodiverse conditions.

  • Adopting a more relaxed pedagogical approach – for example, enabling more breaks during teaching, the opportunity to stand up and walk around and sympathy to individual needs. For neurodiverse students, attendance may not be consistent, but this doesn’t necessarily mean work isn’t being completed.

  • Create a peer mentoring programme – this can help students and staff to access individual support based on their unique needs.

Finally, universities shouldn’t need to rely on disclosure to meet the needs of neurodiverse students and staff. Instead, it’s important to acknowledge that neurodiversity can present itself in a number of ways, and that offering a more inclusive approach towards teaching, learning and assessments can enable universities to become more neurodivergent-friendly.

By Finola Farrant, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Arden University, Emma Owen, Lecturer in Psychology Arden University, Marta Jaksa and Fawn Lavina Hunkins-Beckford, Psychology students at Arden University.

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