How universities are adapting to support neurodiverse studentsEmily Ray
Imagine a world where all individuals are free to use their strengths to learn, develop and create. This is a mission many universities are looking to embrace through the introduction of services, technology, and spaces designed to support students with a wide range of learning needs.
It’s estimated that around 15-20% of the world’s population has a specific learning difference such as ADHD, autism, or dyslexia (1). While it’s difficult to gauge how many students are neurodivergent, in the US alone roughly 20% of undergraduate students reported a disability, including various neurodiverse diagnoses.(2)
The last few years have seen a shift in the way society views neurodiversity. Scientists and practitioners have led the way in defining neurodivergent conditions as ‘different methods of learning and processing information’(3). And with a few adjustments, neurodiverse individuals can enjoy a successful and fulfilling academic experience in higher education.
An increasing number of universities are introducing new processes, accommodations and initiatives to help students with neurodiverse needs to flourish. Many of these initiatives aim to increase students’ awareness of their academic strengths, while also enhancing their executive functioning skills such as planning, time management and information recall.
These are some of the ways universities are adapting to meet the diverse learning needs of their students.
Pre-university summer schools to familiarise students with new environments
The transition from school to university can be an overwhelming experience for just about anyone. Not only does it present a completely new environment, there are hundreds of new people to meet and routines to adjust to.
Over the last few years, several universities across America have introduced a new summer school initiative for high school students with autism. These courses are designed to give students a taste of university life, and range from a few days to a full week living on campus.
During these programs, students are gradually introduced to new environments and experiences, including interactive classroom experiences and social activities. The idea is to help them develop the executive functioning skills needed to thrive in higher education and give them the confidence to make that leap.
Aurora University in Illinois goes one step further by offering a Pathways College Connections program which runs from September to April. High school students with neurodiverse needs are encouraged to join monthly events that take place on the university’s main campus and at local community sites. With activities ranging from informal social gatherings to theatre productions and art exhibits, this program gives students the opportunity to get familiar with college life.
Personalised support programs to enhance the learning experience
There’s ‘no one-size fits all’ approach to supporting neurodiverse students. University programs must be designed to meet the learning goals and needs of the individual.
In 2009, the University of Connecticut’s Centre for Studies with Disabilities launched a program called ‘Beyond Access’, which encourages students to ‘work smarter, not harder in a competitive academic environment’(4). It does this by working with each student to identify their individual support needs to help them strengthen their learning and social skills – and reach their academic, personal and career goals.
The program supports students across a range of areas, including class participation, interacting with faculty, managing stress, and effective note taking. These are delivered in weekly one-on-one sessions with a trained instructor, complemented by group study and social activities.
Screening for specific learning differences to give students the support they need
For many students, the diagnosis of a neurodiverse condition can be life-changing. Not only can it help them to access the academic support they need, but it can also help them understand more about the learning styles that work best for them.
Statistics show diagnosis has been growing sharply over the last few years. In the UK between 1998 and 2018, there was a 787% increase in recorded incidence of autism diagnoses (5). Meanwhile, in the US the reported incidence of adult ADHD rose by 123% between 2007 and 2016. (6)
City, University of London is one university that supports students in getting an official diagnosis. The neurodiversity support team provide screening for markers of a specific learning difference. If needed, the team can also make a referral for diagnostic assessment.
Assistive technology to support students with their learning
The range of assistive technology available to students in higher education has also increased in recent years. Today there are tools that can help with everything from notetaking to keeping on top of course reading and planning an essay – and this technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated with AI now powering some reading and writing tools.
Universities are starting to make a range of technology available to neurodiverse students. For example, Macquarie university in Sydney, Australia, gives students the chance to download software such as the Microsoft Office Suite and Echo360 transcripts for free (7). The growing number of assistive tools are helping break down many barriers to learning for neurodivergent students, including concentration, procrastination, and time management. (Check out our upcoming article on Best assistive technologies for college students).
Neurodiversity modules to educate all students
Giving support to students who identify as neurodiverse is only part of the solution. Several universities aim to increase awareness of neurodiversity amongst all students and staff.
This helps in several ways: first, it helps challenge any negative, preconceived ideas and educates people about the positive aspects of neurodiversity. Secondly, it can help more people understand their own learning needs as well as those of their peers. And it can also give people the confidence to get diagnosed if they suspect they might be neurodivergent.
Canterbury Christ Church university in Kent is one institution that offers an online module for everyone. Their neurodiversity at university course introduces individuals to the signs of neurodiversity, as well as educating on techniques and conditions for learning.
Sensory pods give students a chance to escape over-stimulating environments
Many individuals with autism struggle with sensory issues; while some people might experience under-responsiveness to certain stimuli like hunger and pain, others might experience feelings of over-responsiveness. This can translate into a sensory avoidance of anything from loud noises to bright lights and even certain kinds of material.
Universities are naturally bustling places, with thousands of students, faculty members and staff milling around at any one time. Some universities have responded to this by introducing quiet areas within their buildings. Dublin City University has gone one step further by incorporating sensory pods into the campus. Available exclusively for students who are or suspect they are autistic, these pods give individuals a chance to reduce sensory overload.
What does the future hold for neurodiverse students?
Today, it’s rare to find a university that doesn’t offer some form of neurodiverse support. While there’s a way to go before support is consistent across institutions, the availability of technology, diagnostics and support programs shows that universities are growing more attuned to the wide-ranging needs of their entire student population – which should empower more individuals to thrive and attain their academic goals.
 National Cancer Institute, 2022. Neurodiversty [online] Available at: <https://dceg.cancer.gov/about/diversity-inclusion/inclusivity-minute/2022/neurodiversity> [Accessed: 6 November 2022]
 Harvard Business Publishing, 2022. Is Your Class Welcoming for Autistic Students? [online] Available at: <https://hbsp.harvard.edu/inspiring-minds/is-your-class-welcoming-for-autistic-students> [Accessed: 6 November 2022]
 Verywell Mind, 2022. What is neurodivergence and what does it mean to be neurodivergent? [online] Available at: <https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-neurodivergence-and-what-does-it-mean-to-be-neurodivergent-5196627> [Accessed: 8 November 2022]
 University of Connecticut. Beyond Access [online]. Available at: <https://beyondaccess.csd.uconn.edu/> [Accessed 7 November 2022]
 Russell, G., Stapley, S., Newlove-Delgado, T., Salmon, A., White, R., Warren, F., Pearson, A. and Ford, T. (2022), Time trends in autism diagnosis over 20 years: a UK population-based cohort study. J Child Psychol Psychiatr, 63: 674-682. Available at: <https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.13505> [Accessed: 7 November 2022]
 The Guardian, 2022. TikTok trends or the pandemic? What’s behind the rise in ADHD diagnoses. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/jun/02/tiktok-trends-or-the-pandemic-whats-behind-the-rise-in-adhd-diagnoses> [Accessed 7 November 2022]
 Macquarie University. Assistive technology. [online] Available at: <https://students.mq.edu.au/support/accessibility-disability/assistive-technology> [Accessed: 8 November]