Creating Specialized Programming to Support Neurodivergent Students: Considerations, Readiness, Outreach

Creating Specialized Programming to Support Neurodivergent Students: Considerations, Readiness, Outreach

Laura K. Sibbald, Carol Rogers-Shaw, Karen Krainz-Edison, Sara Sanders Gardner, Cindy Lowman-Stieby
DOI: 10.4018/979-8-3693-0163-0.ch005
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The increasing numbers of neurodivergent students attending universities and the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADA-AA) create a need for university and community stakeholders to provide more inclusive opportunities for all students. This juxtaposes with the intersectionality of neurodiversity as part of an overall diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging effort. This chapter provides a pathway to develop an implementation process that offers acceptance for neurodivergent staff, faculty, and students across their campus and within their community through inclusive programming. It expounds upon the university-wide advantages of inclusive programming for neurodivergent students, identifies cross campus approaches to prepare for executing a neurodivergent programming plan, and reveals strategies to establish broad support from university and community members.
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Understanding Neurodiversity

The increasing number of neurodivergent students, staff and faculty on college and university campuses is adding to learning opportunities for both neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals. Although their numbers are increasing, their presence is still significantly lower than it could be. Statistics have revealed that “1 in 68 people are diagnosed with ASD” (Baio et al., 2018), and “more than 44 percent of students with autism receive some type of postsecondary education in the United States; people with autism make up 1 to 2 percent of students in universities'' (Cox, 2017, para. 4). Neurodivergent students are not attending higher education at the same rate as their neurotypical counterparts and/or they are not receiving the support they need to be successful for a number of reasons which may include: fear of being stigmatized, lack of knowledge about their diagnosis and opportunities for support, and a desire to be independent and like those who are neurotypical (Elias & White, 2018). Acceptance and appreciation of neurodiversity supports all students and the campus climate as a whole.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Accessibility: Accessibility is about opening the door to those with disabilities. Colleges and universities are required by law (ADA) to provide students with the opportunity to attend postsecondary education and offer certain accommodations, services, and assistive technologies to make that possible. It focuses on the individual needs of a neurodivergent learner which are necessary for them to access the campus and course materials. For example, books on tape and screen readers can make reading materials accessible for dyslexic students, and curb cuts and handicapped parking can create accessibility for those with mobility impairments.

Inclusion: Inclusion attends to the needs of all students, including those with disabilities, by creating an environment where all students can access and belong without necessarily needing individual accommodations; it recognizes and accepts learning and social differences, offering an extensive toolbox of supports that students of all abilities can choose from to find academic success and social acceptance. Rather than providing specific accommodations to individual learners such as extended time on tests, an inclusive academic setting would use Universal Design for Learning to develop courses where all learners can choose the materials, assignments, and assessments that best fit their personal needs.

Neurotypical: Neurotypical describes individuals who represent the dominant societal norms in cognitive, emotional, and sensory functioning.

Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADA-AA): The ADA-AA is a law passed by Congress in 2008 that clarifies elements of the ADA which was a civil rights law passed in 1990 prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities in employment, government services, public education, transportation and housing, commerce and telecommunication, and non-profit settings. The ADA-AA broadened the definition of disability to include, for example, intermittent disabilities or those related to chronic illness.

Disability Model: The models of disability are essentially abstract tools that provide various perspectives with which to view disability within society. Their differences center on views of the disabling impairment versus the social construction of disability. Examples include the personal tragedy, medical, social, human rights, and relational models.

Neurodivergent: Neurodivergent describes students who have a natural variation in cognitive, emotional, and sensory functioning. They think, behave, and learn differently than those who are considered representative of dominant societal norms. Neurodivergent individuals are present in educational, employment, and social settings. Students with dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, dyspraxia, and Tourette Syndrome, among other diagnoses, are described as neurodivergent.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB): DEIB reflect organizational goals, values, and beliefs. DEIB practices and policies are designed to create an environment where all individuals have the same opportunities, feel like they are a valued part of a community that represents a variety of races, abilities, genders, sexual orientations, ages, religious beliefs, and ethnicities, and can use their voices without being judged. A focus on DEIB can enhance collaboration, productivity, engagement, motivation, and innovation through greater understanding and acceptance of difference.

Stigma: Stigma is the negative viewpoint present in society of an individual who exhibits a difference that society regards as a mental, physical, or social deficiency. When an individual does not meet a cultural norm in their physical appearance, mental acuity, morality, or social behavior, society expresses disapproval through stigmatization where the person is perceived as tainted in some way. Common types of stigma are often based on physical deformities, mental illness, character flaws, or identity group stigma connected to race or ethnicity for example. The disapproval of those in society deemed normal can lead to discrimination and oppression. Individuals with disabilities often face stigma in educational settings.

Neurodiversity: Neurodiversity is a term applied to a group, recognizing that there are natural differences in the way human brains work, rather than applying the term disabled to exclude some individuals. Neurodiversity acknowledges and values cognitive, emotional, and sensory differences as assets within the group.

Transition: The process of moving from secondary education to postsecondary education can be complicated for neurodivergent students as their disability supports and educational management moves from coverage under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) which facilitates success heavily supported by teaching and counseling attention and assistance to adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which requires access and more student independence and self-advocacy. The change in disclosure procedures and accommodation options can produce challenges for neurodivergent students.

Disclosure: In most settings, students with invisible disabilities like ASD or dyslexia or depression may or may not choose to tell others about their disability. They can decide what they want to say about their disability, who they want to tell, when they decide to disclose, and why they want to share their disability status. However, in postsecondary education, students must disclose their disability status to the campus Disability Resources Office in order to receive accommodations. A visible physical disability can take the control of these decisions away from students. However, those with invisible disabilities may choose not to share disability information and/or pass as neurotypical to avoid stigma and discrimination, yet without accommodations they often do not succeed. Universities have specific requirements and steps in the disclosure process, such as documentation of the disability, that must be completed before accommodations become available.

Accommodation: An accommodation is a specific support practice or technology application in the teaching/learning process designed to meet the needs of an individual with a disability so that they can access college campuses and academic content. Accommodations are not modifications in course content or requirements but methods to support students with disabilities in effectively accessing materials and meeting expectations. Examples of common accommodations include availability of audiobooks, extended time or alternate locations for testing, American Sign Language interpreters, and voice-to-text or text-to-speech computer programs.

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