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

Noting that colleges and universities are fielding an influx of requests for classroom accommodations from neurodivergent (ND) students, an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education calls on faculty to seek institutional support and establish clear lines of communication with ND students. Writing in a special report called The Accessible Campus, Katie Rose Guest Pryal, an adjunct professor of law at the University of North Carolina School of Law and an expert on mental health and disability, suggests several ways faculty can attend to the needs of ND students, those who experience mental and neurological functions that are different from what is considered typical, including students with autism and ADHD, as well as mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. 

Balancing student needs, degree requirements

Although requests for flexibility—deadline extensions, extended test time, and excused absences—are not new, the surge in those requests since the COVID-19 pandemic has left some faculty feeling frustrated, unsupported, and unsure how to grant accommodations, especially if they have to adhere to strict departmental or institutional standards.

Accommodations “are meant to provide students with equal access to university study” and “to support students with disabilities that may be episodic or unpredictable in nature,” Joseph P. Fisher, executive director of the Academic Resource Center at Georgetown University, says in an interview with Pryal. However, those requests should not significantly change a degree program’s core requirements. “In each degree program,” Fisher explains, “there are core-curricular standards that students can be asked to meet, with or without accommodation, and any approved accommodations cannot fundamentally alter those expectations.” 

To balance students’ needs and the requirements of their respective degree programs, faculty and their campus disability-service office need to collaborate and communicate with each other effectively, Fisher advises. Open lines of communication also help ensure that students can maintain privacy about disabilities or mental health concerns and have the support they need so they don’t have to negotiate for accommodations on their own with individual faculty members, which can lead to a power imbalance, Pryal notes.

How faculty can seek support

By reaching out to disability-service offices for guidance on integrating flexible accommodations and navigating request ambiguities, faculty can better avoid passing on their frustrations to their ND students, who already may be struggling with the stigma surrounding mental health and disability.

Faculty also need to be more receptive and empathetic to ND students’ needs, rather than approaching their requests with distrust, Pryal says. Faculty unfamiliar with granting requests may communicate more successfully with ND students by allowing students to lead conversations about their academic needs, especially in cases where disability-service offices are overwhelmed. 

In addition, Pryal encourages educators to seek ways to make their courses more accessible for all students by using a variety of inclusive course design suggestions so fewer accommodations are needed.

Cooperation is the best way to prepare students for success overall. “Instead of the ‘us vs. them vs. them’ attitude that prevails on too many campuses between the faculty, the students, and the disability-services office,” Pryal says, “we need a ‘one for all, and all for one’ approach to flexibility requests.”

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