Neurodiversity Is Diversity
How educators can support students who learn differently
I teach at Landmark College, a private liberal arts institution located in Putney, Vermont, which is designed exclusively for students who learn differently, including those with learning disabilities (such as dyslexia), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism. My neurodivergent students often share stories of stigma that made them feel like they did not belong in school. They muddled through adversity while honing skills to get by, especially in environments not geared toward their strengths. At Landmark College, students learn the academic curriculum while exploring their experiences with ADHD, learning disabilities, or autism. Many reach goals they did not think possible. The college invites graduating students to speak publicly at commencement, and they tell stories about making it against the odds. A common through line of these speeches is “I did not believe in myself, but look at me now!”
This is not the outcome for all students with learning differences. For many of these students, earning college credit may take enormous effort or may not happen at all. Many of us—and our children, parents, friends, and coworkers—live with a disability that affects a major life activity, such as school, work, or social relationships. Discrimination against people with disabilities has been unlawful since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 (it was amended in 2008 to clarify and broaden the definition of disability). Yet disparities in employment and education still exist, suggesting that more can be done to achieve the ideal of inclusion. People with disabilities are much less likely than those without disabilities to be employed (17.9 percent versus 61.8 percent) or to have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher (20.6 percent versus 40 percent), according to 2020 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many students with disabilities have conditions that affect learning, and the neurodiversity paradigm can be helpful for working with this diverse group. Coined by sociologist Judy Singer in 1999, neurodiversity refers to the idea that all brains function differently and that this diversity is natural and beneficial for our species. Neurodiversity includes neurotypicality and neurodivergence, the latter of which refers to developmental conditions such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. In this paradigm, neurodiversity is a stable part of human diversity that should be accepted and valued, not a set of pathologies to be cured. The umbrella term is popular among students for its positive perspective on difference.
“Many students face bias,” says Timothy Beck, an assistant professor of psychology and the codirector of the Landmark College Center for Neurodiversity, which works for social justice by amplifying neurodivergent voices and creating community both in and outside the college. “They have been stereotyped by other people and institutions, and it’s harmed them. The neurodiversity paradigm gives them a way to reframe their own learning, connect with resources, and feel confident.”
“We need to normalize and humanize the concept of being neurodivergent,” student advocate Holly Kasten says. “Otherwise, too many of us are on the outside.”
The neurodiversity approach is not without critics. Those who have seen or experienced disability know that difficulties are real. They may fear that normalizing neurodivergence will cost them needed support, or they may view neurodiversity principles as insensitive to the difficulties they face. Critics of neurodiversity may think that looking at disability as diversity means denying challenges that make life hard.
While it is understandable to worry about the consequences of deemphasizing a medical model approach, the concern is based on a false dichotomy between diversity and disability. Neurodiversity is both. People think and act differently. Strengths associated with neurodivergence are beneficial, and cognitive diversity can make groups perform better, according to research such as a 2019 study by Ishani Aggarwal and colleagues, published in Frontiers in Psychology. On the other hand, neurodivergence can cause problems. Even the most accepting environment cannot erase disability, and legal protection remains important.
In 2019–20, 14 percent of public school students ages three to twenty-one received special education services, with neurodevelopmental conditions being the largest category of qualifying disabilities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 9 percent of US children have been diagnosed with ADHD, 8 to 10 percent with a learning disability, and 2 percent with autism, according to federal statistics. All of these groups have higher rates of anxiety and depression than the general population. Students at Landmark College have these and other diagnoses, including nonverbal learning disability, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and more. Labels change, and their validity may be contested, but this collection of terms shows mental diversity. Within that diversity, students report similar challenges.
Kasten, a psychology major at Landmark College, and Nicole Yee, a design major at the Rhode Island School of Design who spent a year at Landmark College as a visiting student, spoke with me about their work as interns at the college’s Center for Neurodiversity. Collaborating with other students, Kasten and Yee created programming on campus, led a student group called the Neurodiverse Brains Club, and presented on two panels at national conferences, telling their personal stories in a public setting to raise awareness. Currently, they are working on a research project with a team of students, who would like to see the concept of neurodiversity used in education because it has helped them. “Students should not have to feel ashamed,” Yee says. “Disability is diversity.”
Kasten and Yee outline the following problems that neurodiverse students face in college:
→ Not feeling accepted by faculty and staff. Yee explains that lack of acceptance is a significant barrier in the education of students like her. “Not being accepted creates isolation, feeling left out,” she says. This can negatively affect academic performance. By demonstrating that they care and are willing to adapt their teaching, faculty can do a lot to remove barriers to learning.
→ Having too much to manage. Exercising executive function can be difficult for many college students, but it can be an even bigger hurdle for students who have a diagnosed learning difference. Executive function refers to the neurocognitive ability to manage one’s thinking and effort to meet goals, and ADHD and autism often affect it. “What do I see on campus?” Kasten asks. “Students having trouble with meeting standardized deadlines, getting work in on time, initiating tasks, sustaining momentum, and keeping perfectionism at bay.”
→ Encountering bullying and engaging in masking. Whether students have experienced overt bullying or subtler exclusion, they may adapt by expending extra energy to fit in. Hiding neurodivergence, called masking, might increase social acceptance, but it has costs, including higher levels of stress, anxiety, and burnout, according to Kasten. Examples of masking are copying social behaviors even when it feels unnatural, forcing oneself to make eye contact, or leaving the classroom to avoid reading out loud. Everyone filters their instincts in a social setting, but the difference for neurodivergent people is the degree to which they do so.
→ Facing mental burnout. Students report that their mental health suffers in a context of not feeling accepted, not keeping up with demands, and experiencing stigma. “Anxiety can be the result of these struggles, which affect self-worth and are often hidden,” Kasten says.
“Students talk about dealing with the mental health consequences of stigma associated with neurodivergence,” Beck says. “Anxiety, stress, and masking come up frequently in student stories.”
Ultimately, these and other challenges make getting ahead harder. “Outcomes have improved in recent decades,” says Adam Lalor, codirector of the Center for Neurodiversity and director of the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training, which conducts applied research and promotes effective educational practices. “More students with disabilities pursue postsecondary education, and that’s good news for equality.” Still, he cites continuing inequities, noting that neurodivergent students, compared with their neurotypical peers, complete fewer four-year degrees, earn lower salaries, and take longer to complete their education.
Many educators receive minimal training about disability, according to Lalor, and busy educators may find it hard to access disability training on the job. So what are some easy ways to make education better for neurodivergent students? Educators can play a positive role in the experience of neurodiverse students just by being supportive. They can also learn more about neurodiversity and consider small, informed changes to their educational practices. One beneficial change educators can make is to focus more on students’ strengths.
Focusing on strengths is a mindset, not a checklist of takeaways. It does not require overhauling a syllabus or studying the neurobiology of learning. It does mean paying attention to what students do well, especially those who show signs of learning differently.
Quick: identify your top five strengths and then your top five weaknesses. Both categories are important, but one may be more readily available to you than the other. For neurodivergent people, weaknesses may have been a defining feature of their experience. I regularly hear disclosures like this in class: “I have working memory problems and bad executive function.” Students must know their weaknesses to identify their needs, but it is also important that they know their strengths.
That is a core insight of the neurodiversity paradigm, Beck explains. “This mindset takes the fact that everyone’s brain is different and sees that as valuable, both to individuals and communities,” he says. “It’s a way of looking at behaviors considered ‘symptoms’ and exploring how they are adaptive.” Neurodivergence is not a problem to be cured but a natural phenomenon that has benefited humans. Those benefits can be seen by exploring strengths associated with neurodiversity.
In a qualitative study of successful adults with ADHD, published in ADHD Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorders in 2018, Jane Ann Sedgwick and coauthors interviewed six gainfully employed men recently diagnosed with ADHD. In open-ended interviews, participants talked about how ADHD shaped their lives, for better and worse. Core strengths of cognitive dynamism, courage, energy, humanity, resilience, and transcendence were thematic in the participants’ stories. The central insight of the piece is that ADHD has many positives that should be understood and preserved.
Stories of successful dyslexic individuals—including performers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and many others—can be found on the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity website. With a mission “to increase awareness of dyslexia and its true nature, specifically to illuminate the creative and intellectual strengths of those with dyslexia,” this organization provides an example of framing dyslexia as both a diagnosis that confers legal rights and an identity that is made visible and celebrated.
When asked about strengths, twenty-four autistic adults across a spectrum of support needs cited hyperfocus, attention to detail, good memory, and creativity in interviews that Ginny Russel and colleagues conducted for a 2019 study in Autism in Adulthood. Participants noted that these traits are not always advantageous and sometimes cause problems. For example, hyperfocus is beneficial when you’re working on a single task but not if you need to switch to something else. The authors argue that studying strengths associated with autism may help destigmatize the condition, but they also caution against being too simplistic. Strengths depend on context.
Some strengths seen among the students at Landmark College have roots in adversity rather than the specifics of their learning profiles. Students, for example, may have had to advocate for accommodations in school systems with limited resources or receptivity. “Students I work with share a passion for social justice and a willingness to jump into conversations about fairness,” Beck says. “They have a desire to learn about diversity, equity, and inclusion because they’ve had to fight for their rights.”
At an individual level, ADHD, autism, and dyslexia are linked to strengths as well as difficulties. When educators focus on strengths, they can reduce the stigma neurodiverse students face. At a community level, neurodiversity, like cultural diversity, can benefit groups and expand human potential. For example, a working group made up of people who think differently brings more ideas to the table, making problem-solving more creative. It’s important, though, to be realistic about how hard having a disability can be.
“Don’t talk about it in the wrong way,” Yee says. “Don’t idolize, and don’t treat disability as delicate.” Both Yee and Kasten caution against sugarcoating neurodiversity, noting that it comes with real challenges that can make life difficult and that a successful educational approach must take difficulties into account, too.
“I have sincerely brilliant friends who struggle to get assignments done on a deadline because it’s so hard to start,” Kasten says. “They have tremendous ideas, but they need a different way to engage. Then they will thrive.”
The following teaching approaches are designed to give students a different way to engage. Some are simple; others take more time and resources.
→ Demonstrate acceptance. Signal that neurodivergent students belong, too. Faculty can add a short statement to the syllabus about accommodations, such as “All students learn differently, and I am open to talking about what works best for you. If you would like strategies to approach this class or are entitled to accommodations, you are welcome to come to office hours to discuss.”
Other ways to show acceptance may include using the work of openly neurodivergent writers and creators in course content; putting a sticker—such as the rainbow double helix, a symbol for the neurodiversity movement—on a laptop or backpack; or even disclosing one’s own disability identity if applicable. “Knowledge that others like you are out there can be incredibly powerful,” Kasten says, “especially in positions of authority like teaching and supervising.”
→ Explore universal design. The concept of universal design for learning (UDL) is to design classes that are maximally accessible at the outset, so students have different ways to engage. “Universal design for learning gives us the opportunity to succeed based on the merits of our own strengths,” Kasten says. “It supports us where we are not strong, giving us the opportunity to persevere through challenges rather than cutting learning off.”
Principles of UDL include offering information in different modalities, giving students multiple options to demonstrate what they know, and ensuring websites and classrooms are accessible. “Take into account modes of learning,” Kasten says. “PowerPoint slides, videos, study notes, readings, and lectures are all ways to disseminate information. Use them all. Some students do better with one mode over another.”
→ Provide structure. Establishing consistent classroom routines can help students navigate the class confidently because they know what to expect. Many college students take four or five courses concurrently, each designed differently, which puts demands on organizational ability. To lessen the energy students spend figuring out what is expected, faculty can stick to the syllabus, make sure course web pages are easy to navigate, give weekly plans, provide clearly written directions and grading criteria for assignments, be explicit about expectations for nongraded work, preview and review content at transition points, and give timely feedback. The implicit logic of a course is not always obvious to students, and more explicit structure can help them stay on track.
→ Be flexible and listen. “Planning and providing a structure can give students confidence and help them orient to the course,” Beck says, “but it’s also important to check in and encourage students to give feedback. Be ready to change course.” Kasten and Yee note the importance of collaboration between faculty and students. “If the goal is to teach students, what better way than to listen to how students learn?” Kasten says. “This is far from easy, but you can change people’s lives.” On a practical level, this may mean giving leeway with deadlines, allowing students alternative ways to show their learning, and providing content in a variety of formats.
→ Support self-knowledge and self-advocacy.
Neurodiversity lasts a lifetime, a few years of which may be spent in a postsecondary institution. In addition to meeting the typical goals associated with college, neurodivergent students benefit from developing self-knowledge and self-advocacy skills. Faculty and advisors can encourage this process by asking students how they learn best, posing meta-questions such as “What worked for you when writing this paper?” and “What helped you calm test anxiety?” Faculty can cue students to keep track of effective study techniques, useful technologies, productive locations, and times of day when they are most alert. Connected to self-knowledge is self-advocacy, which faculty can promote by broaching the concept with students and by being accessible.
Like other student groups, neurodivergent students can be exposed to implicit messages about their worthiness in a classroom. Over a lifetime of schooling, these messages can get internalized, affecting self-worth and confidence. Educators, Yee says, can focus on acceptance to counter negativity: “Instructors can do tactics suggested by universal design or another pedagogy, but it’s an attitude of acceptance and flexibility that really makes a difference.”
The above pedagogical approaches are among those that have worked at my institution, but they may not be universally feasible. Landmark College’s mission is centered on educating neurodiverse students, and it is designed to have small classes and individualized support.
For an educator who is just beginning to work on improving education for neurodiverse students, Lalor advises starting small with the goal of sustainable change. “Talk to someone, read a book, or watch films,” he says. “Get to know what neurodiversity is like. Then read and soak up content about educational practices, but go slow. When you get excited by an idea, pick one small change to make.”
Another theme often heard in graduation speeches at Landmark College is “I want to make the future better for neurodiverse people.” Like students elsewhere, our students develop academic skills, make friends and career plans, and dream of a future when formal schooling is done. They also create knowledge about neurodiversity in society.
Like Kasten and Yee, many of our students advocate for the community by speaking publicly. Those who do not speak out contribute in other ways. For example, senior capstone projects often incorporate neurodiversity. Students can pick any research question, and they often tackle how to make life better for learners like them. Recent topics have included the transformative role of the learning disability memoir, equine therapy for autism, ableism in standardized testing, strategies for ADHD boredom, and cognitive behavioral therapy adapted for neurodivergent clients. Student work like this provides examples of the diverse priorities of neurodivergent people.
Educators can use student-friendly approaches to teaching as tools for broader inclusion, not just for neurodiverse students. When educators focus on strengths, acceptance, flexibility, and representation while exploring the lived experience of marginalized students, their work can benefit learners across identity categories. “All students have strengths and weaknesses,” Yee says. “To support learning means to make class accessible for all kinds of people.”