Creating learning environments where neurodivergent students thrive

The University of San Diego (USD) is opening a new Center for Embodied Equity and Neurodiversity to train K-12 and community college educators, develop academic and career programs, and advocate for policies to support neurodivergent students, says The Hechinger Report

Neurodivergent is a non-medical term used to describe people who have one or more learning or developmental disabilities, including dyslexia; autism spectrum disorder (ASD); attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); or other conditions that lead to atypical ways of learning, thinking, and interacting with others. The number of colleges where at least 5% of students report having a disability (including physical disabilities) or other learning conditions grew from 510 in 2008 to 1,276 in 2022, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, according to The Hechinger Report. About two-thirds of college students with disabilities do not disclose their disability to their institutions.

Neurodivergent students often have difficulty with time management, prioritizing, and other skills typically needed to navigate college academics and socialization, experts tell The Hechinger Report. Students may need help taking notes, more time to take exams, or their professors to repeat instructions multiple times. Colleges offer accommodations that can provide some help if the student chooses to disclose information, but access to that support may depend on having a qualifying diagnosis, health insurance, or the needed assessments.

Related: Georgetown becomes the first Catholic, Jesuit university to launch a disability cultural center >

Changing the mindset

At USD, the Center for Embodied Equity and Neurodiversity is focusing not only on students with learning differences but also on embodied equity, or “an anti-discrimination approach that considers all aspects of people’s identities—including race, gender, ability, socioeconomic status—when addressing social problems,” says The Hechinger Report. Niki Elliott, a professor at USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences, is assisting with the center’s creation and hopes it will help equip educators to create learning environments where neurodivergent students can thrive. 

Related: ‘More communication and less suspicion’: How faculty can better support neurodivergent students >

“We really have to work to change the mindset of faculty to understand the ways in which these adaptations to their delivery and development of content could make all the difference for so many more highly bright and capable students to thrive in higher ed,” says Elliott, a former special education teacher who struggled in college with ADHD.

The center also offers a program that helps Black students with and without learning differences starting in the sixth grade so they understand their learning styles, learn to advocate for themselves, and discover what supports best fit their needs. Participating students who graduate high school and qualify for admission to USD will receive a full scholarship to attend. The center plans to use a similar curriculum for a new summer bridge program for neurodivergent students. 

“It’s one thing to ask schools to make accommodations for a learner. It’s a whole other empowering thing to help the learner take the bull by the horn and understand themselves,” Elliott said. “It’s teaching each person where their gifts are, how they contribute to a whole, and how to use that to navigate a successful higher ed experience.”

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