Learning about Neurodiversity from your neurodivergent students

Blog by Dr Scott Rickard
28 March 2022

Have you ever wondered how you can better engage with neurodiversity in your student cohort? To mark Neurodiversity Celebration Week  and Autism Awareness Day, the University’s School of Computing Education Transformation Officer, Dr Scott Rickard, shares a possible icebreaker activity and tips to help you better understand this cohort and their needs in the classroom. 

A good starting point is understanding neurodiversity itself. Neurodiversity encompasses how everyone thinks irrespective of how their brain functions. Being neurodivergent encompasses only a section of neurodiversity. The other spots are filled by neurotypicals. Neurodivergents are most likely to be diagnosed with the one or more of the following: autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, Tourette Syndrome and trauma including PTSD. Another term for neurodivergent is atypical although it is less used by neurodivergent people themselves. It’s important to remember that some neurodivergent people also have medical conditions or physical disability which need to be considered when they are students.

Many neurodivergent people believe that there’s nothing wrong with the way our brains work and that it is time that neurotypical people adjusted their thinking to be more accommodating and inclusive of neuro difference. Perhaps they could be inclusive in the same way that they are with people from different religious, cultural or indigenous backgrounds, people with different ways of thinking about gender, and physical disabilities.

There is such diversity amongst neurodivergent people because of co-occurring conditions that it can make it tricky to know how your neurodivergent students might respond in your class. So it’s best to just ask them what they’d prefer and open a conversation around it at the beginning of the semester. Although it’s never too late to ask even after first term or towards the end of semester with the aim of improving the learning experience of the next cohort.

For a quick study on neurodivergent cultural norms to avoid saying harmful things to your students, Beth Radulski, a PhD student and Project Officer (Neurodiversity) within the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Students at La Trobe University has written this handy fact sheet about neurodiversity cultural sensitivity.

Get all your students involved, and learn about neurodiversity from them

A good way to get students involved is to ask them to contribute to a Padlet to show you what a safe course looks like to them.

  • Set their contributions to anonymous so they feel safe to contribute without judgement and reinforce that you are interested in their voices and requests.
  • Include a few points from the sample list below to avoid students confronting a blank page.
  • Include the Padlet up-vote option to gauge how many students agree with a point and to help them bond, even anonymously.
  • Allow students to attach images, memes, URLs, GIFs, in the Padlet. They might surprise you with how much they share once they get into the task.

I’ve set up a sample Padlet that you can explore to see how it works. I’ve asked ANU neurodivergent staff to add what improves a webinar or short course for them to demonstrate the diverse needs of your cohort. If you don’t currently have an ANU account then use this PDF from CLT Staff Education to create one.

A few points that you could include on the Padlet are:

  • No judgement if I stim. The need to stim is a student’s likely response to sensory issues which may be unusual to other students so an open discussion at the beginning of semester helps to ease this tension. 
  • I want to wear headphones without judgement so I can muffle loud sounds.
    • Example: I’m very noise sensitive and can’t focus if there’s too much noise and it becomes physically painful.
  • I want to use my mobile devices without judgement.
    • Example: Using my phone helps me to use up excess energy, or focus, and to manage my anxiety.
  • I need our tutorial/workshop exercises to be in writing.
    • Example: This should help some students focus in a louder than they’d like environment. Many neurodivergent students struggle with carrying audio instructions in their heads whilst their peers are chattering in the background. This leads to frustration and disengagement.
  • Please upload the tutorial/workshop exercises in advance.
    • Rationale: This reduces the anxiety inherent in neurodivergent students. Again it lets them know what they will be doing so they can prepare which reduces anxiety and their frustration preventing a meltdown or shutdown.
  • Can we please include short breaks so I have time to reflect and most importantly deal with my anxiety?
  • Can we have different types of tutorial/workshop activities?
    • Rationale: Learning experiences which involve close proximity can be problematic for sensory issues such as noise, touch or smell.
    • For example: A student may request that they can’t take part in the activity, such as a biology student at a live dissection, so have another option ready that still enables them to take part.
    • Second example: A student with sensory issues that involve touch, may not like being touched by others and will reject a physically based exercise in the same way that a student with cultural or religious reasons may also request a different exercise.
  • Please provide multiple content formats. I don’t mind podcasts, audio, or videos, but I need the transcript so I can focus on the content.

If you decide to give the icebreaker a try next semester or term, please let me know how it goes at scott.rickard@anu.edu.au 

If you need any help with designing for a neurodivergent cohort, please contact CLT at eddesign@anu.edu.au

Dr Scott Rickard is a neurodivergent staff member working as an Education Transformation Officer at the School of Computing in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. She is also the Chair of the ANU Disability Action Plan Education Provider of Choice Action Group.