In a recent Twitter chat for PhDs, where the topic was “neurodiversity,” it became clear that many professors are working with very little information about what it means for a student to be neurodiverse. (Neurodiversity refers to situations where a person’s brain is “wired differently” than other people’s, and includes a range of diagnoses including autism, Asperger’s disorder, OCD, ADHD, dyslexia, and many learning disabilities.)
Dr. Michelle Dionne Thompson expressed great surprise at several of the issues raised in the chat, and I have asked her to share her experience here. If you are a neurodiverse student, this article may help you with self-advocacy because it makes clear some of the issues that professors may not realize are actually issues.
What did you think “neurodiversity” was before you participated in the chat?
I had NO IDEA what neurodiversity meant before the chat. My first question as a participant was what was neurodiversity.
What is/are your main contact format(s) with neurodiverse students (in-person classroom, email, online course, something else)?
My suspicion is that I have contact with many neurodiverse students both in the classroom and in online courses I teach. When students come with a statement of disability from University departments responsible for making sure there are accommodations for students with disabilities, most of the time they do not present their disabilities as falling under this umbrella. Once I had a student who said that she was ADHD and that the primary accommodation was that she needed more time on exams. Fortunately, my tests are all take home and students get 24 hours to complete them.
Based on the chat, I think I have had far more interactions than I am aware of. I have had a couple of students, in the eight years that I have been teaching, for example, ask me for my notes and I declined to provide them as I thought they were being lazy. They may have been asking for significant help with the classroom work and I missed the cue.
What was your most memorable experience with a neurodiverse student?
I have only one student who I knew was neurodiverse. She was fantastic, determined, and smart. On the Twitter Chat, the stereotype of these students is that they are lazy, and that was not my experience of her.
What are three to five main points that you’ll take away from this experience, and how do you see yourself applying them to your teaching in the future?
As professors, we are woefully unprepared to think about what sorts of accommodations any student with a disability, but in particular neurodiverse students need.
To manage this lack of preparation, we need to take the initiative to get the correct resource behind us to really create inclusive college classrooms. This means that before the semester begins, we need to meet with the Accessibility Centers on our campuses with our syllabi in hand. We need them to help us rework our assignments so that it is manageable for neurodiverse students.
We need Accessibility Centers to work with us to make the actual classroom more welcoming to neurodiverse students. This would mean setting up class time differently, including breaks and incorporating group activities. Some of what we do in the classroom may require hands on creation. While this is a challenge for the humanities, it is something that is doable.
What’s good for neurodiverse students is good for everyone. One recommendation on the Twitter Chat is that we build in breaks into the classroom. I love the suggestion because as the one in front of the classroom, we often need breaks. Their colleagues need them as well!
Neurodiverse students are not obvious. They also may not want to be public about their status. As professors, we need to make it clear that we want to make sure that they have a chance without singling them out.
Of those main points, which one do you think will be the easiest to implement in your teaching? How about the hardest? Why?
Professors are notorious for developing our syllabi for the semester at the last possible minute. As a result, I think that making sure it is ready two weeks ahead of the first day of class will be one of the harder things to do. As an academic coach, I encourage all who are teaching in the academic pipeline to plan their semester out and start working on things such as syllabi much earlier. I need to heed my advice because it applies not only to the syllabus, but also how I run class meetings.
I think one of the easier parts to implement will be reworking how the classroom runs on a daily basis. Building in breaks is just one part of it. I also want to make sure there is discussion time and time for students to write how they have integrated the material for the day. That is best for their long-term learning and I started to do some of this last semester. I could develop a clear structure for the class that everyone could rely on.
What institutional barriers to neurodiverse students’ ability to succeed surprised you?
As a Black woman who is a mother (with an assortment of other identities I will not get into), institutional barriers never surprise me. I will say that the invisibility of neurodiverse students on campus is an added barrier. There is a reason why the racial composition of the professoriate has changed so little over time. There is a reason why people with all manner of disabilities really struggle with completing programs or gaining tenure in this industry. It is no wonder that professors cannot be truly inclusive in the classroom because we are not trained to teach beyond the knowledge we have about the subject matter. While academia talks a good game about diversity, it ends up replicating a particular type of person. There are people who can squeeze into the door, but it is unnecessarily difficult and often at a high personal price.
Further, as academia changes its structure to greater resemble corporate America including integrating all manner of cost cutting measures, there is less full-time teaching staff available to put their attention on the needs of neurodiverse students. While tuitions rise, the kinds of supports neurodiverse students need may go unheeded.
What beliefs did you have about neurodiverse students that have changed because of the chat?
It is embarrassing to say this, but that neurodiverse students are there at all. Duh, of course! However, as a professor, I make all manner of assumptions about the students who are enrolled in my class. The assumptions say more about my limits and myself than they do about the people who are actually there.
What advice do you have for other academics who may need to teach or interact with neurodiverse students?
My first piece of advice is that you have likely interacted with neurodiverse students extensively and do not know it! Secondly, you need to start thinking about your semesters and what you do in class well in advance if you are to reach and guarantee the success of these students. If you do not know what this entails, go to your campus’ Accessibility Office well in advance. Incorporate the advice of the Accessibility Office without being defensive or insisting it is impossible. Finally, and all of this applies to me, do not assume that you cannot do whatever the recommendations are. We may need to speak with other people to figure out an elegant solution; however, there is no reason to sabotage students from the minute they register for the course.
Michelle Dionne Thompson, JD, PhD is an Academic and Legal Coach who helps women in both industries set and achieve their personal and professional goals. When she is not coaching, she teaches Caribbean History part-time in the City University of New York system. Michelle earned her doctorate at New York University and her law degree at the University of Iowa. She can be reached at http://michelledionnethompson.com.