Neurodiversity gaining attention on college campuses

Pima Post

Many of us know someone with autism, Tourette syndrome, ADHD or dyslexia. 

These disorders belong to a group of disabilities known as neurodiverse conditions.

Currently, these students are not being served as well as they could be at many colleges and universities nationwide, including Pima Community College.

Getting accurate statistics on neurodiverse students presents a problem even at PCC. Ken Hosto, director of PCC’s Access and Disability Resources, in an email response, confirms that often students in need of ADR services fail to register with the ADR office.

“Something unique to students who have neurodiversities, rather than those who have physical disabilities, is that their disability is often hidden, meaning it is not obvious to others that the student has a disability,” Hosto says.

So, what makes neurodiverse students unique? 

According to Mak Harper, a psychology student at Pima and a neurodiverse student, “It’s not necessarily an advantage or disadvantage, and it’s not an illness – it’s simply a mind that thinks differently than what’s “expected,” says Harper in her email response.

Harper agrees with ADR’s Hosto, saying that this is especially true for neurodivergent disabilities. An autistic person can excel in one area that is rather difficult and still have problems in another area that is more simplistic.

“There needs to be more understanding that just because someone doesn’t seem to have a disability, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have one,” Harper says. 

According to a 2015-2016 report on the National Center for Education Statistics, it is estimated that about 11% of graduates are considered neurodiverse, though as much as 30% of any student body may fall into the above categories

While PCC offers accommodations for equal access through its ADR office, what is more important for neurodiverse students are the modifications that were available to them in primary and secondary schools. Examples can include less material on exams, extra time on lengthy assignments, or help with time management and organizing. 

“ADR’s job is to work toward access, but we cannot create situations where we can guarantee success for students,” Hosto says.

Specifically, accommodations are services that allow a student to access the curriculum and do not change how it is taught or student performance expectations. Modifications, on the other hand, do just that.

Colleges also can provide modifications but are not required to do so. Some colleges do allow modifications, many do not, and are not required to provide them.

Hosto clarifies that the ADR office’s legal responsibility ends with providing accommodations to ensure that all students have equal access to their courses and course materials if such accommodations do not fundamentally alter the program. 

Hosto establishes the difference between accommodations and modifications. 

“In college or university courses, the student will be required to meet the academic requirements of the course(s) without modifications,” he says. “I’ll re-emphasize those accommodations are not in place to guarantee student success, but rather for equitable access.“

As an example, rescinding the requirement of three years of a foreign language for admission, even if your high school overlooked it, would be a fundamental alteration.

This presents a Catch-22 for the neurodiverse population. Hosto states that each student registering with the ADR office has a one-on-one interview to establish the accommodations needed. However, because of transition differences between high school and college and the variability in functioning of neurodiverse students, many students do not know what accommodations are available or what specific accommodations they need. 

“For disabilities affecting the brain, “what would help” can be harder to identify, especially for individuals who identify as neurodivergent, because we are all so different,” Harper says. “Many neurodivergent individuals don’t know what would help them, or what’s available to help them, because we lived our lives not knowing we could have assistance of any kind.”

Neurodiverse students are searching for colleges and universities that offer greater support for autism spectrum disorders and other neurodiverse populations. Colleges and universities nationwide also realize that a timely look at current campus disability policies to support neurodiverse students better is needed.

Stanford University in California is doing more than looking at disability policies. Stanford has instituted a Neurodiversity Program to research how this student population can better be served. According to its website, Stanford’s program, while designed for research, is a unique opportunity for neurodivergent students to gain support in pursuing educational goals while helping change success rates for future neurodiverse students.

While colleges and universities are equipped with disability resource offices, they do not have a direct role in a student’s life like that found in primary and secondary schools. 

For instance, colleges are not tasked with follow-up. After registering with the disability office of their school, ADA students are pretty much left on their own. Students are not tracked, given specific instructions, or provided classroom modifications to the curriculum. 

College-bound ADA students need to be aware of this and plan accordingly when applying to higher education schools. 

PCC does offer a satellite program called PACE, Personalized Academic Coaching Experience, which is relatively new. PACE provides support and empowers students to become confident, independent, learners. PACE teaches students to be self-advocates for their support.

“The PACE coaches work with students on specific challenges they have related to being successful college students and focus on strategies like effective time management, advocacy skills, study skills, etc. to provide success strategies for students. Again, I’ll emphasize that this is a coaching program within ADR, and is not accommodation based (as accommodations are for access, not success),” said Hosto.

“The students that typically end up coming to PACE to have a coach need help walking through those initial steps,” says Cindy Maxwell, advanced program director of PACE, during a recent interview. 

PACE is tasked with modifications. Picking up where the ADR office stops, PACE provides 1:1 coaches, help with time management, and improving study skills. Maxwell clarifies that although they are not professionals, they do offer emotional regulation and stress tools. 

Other colleges also are adding support staff of specialists and coaches, or student peers. An example is the University of Arizona. UA has a program called SALT, or Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques. Similar to PACE, it offers those additional supports needed by differently-abled students. 

Essentially, ADA students and their parents must plan ahead. Curtail your child’s need for assistance, especially in areas where that assistance will not be available. Parents need to be less hands-on and more, “I don’t know, what do you think?” Allow students greater independence in decision-making. Work on time management skills so they learn to complete work in the time allotted.

When deciding on a college, be sure to ask about resources. Keep in mind that although colleges are not required to provide modifications, does not mean that they will not. Make a list and ask for everything. Let the college determine what it can and will provide.

That being said, there is much that neurodiverse individuals have to offer. In the community, businesses and employers are becoming more aware of the advantages in hiring neurodivergent people. Neurodivergent people have certain skills remarkably suited to employability, such as proficient memory skills, a focus on detail, creativity, as well as passionate interests. Aware of their functionality limits, neurodivergent people give more weight to their job responsibilities than most neurotypical employees.

Harper feels that no one thing defines “normal.” Differences are important and should not create an ostracizing or stigmatizing atmosphere for anyone. When neurodivergent people are given better opportunities to succeed, they do, and then they enter college and the workforce confident and successful team members. Harper emphasizes that the takeaway here is increased awareness and knowledge about neurodiversity, from the college and its teachers.

“I learned that at many colleges, including Pima, when a student is asking for help with a disability, they are expected to know exactly what they need help with and exactly what accommodations they need,” Harper says. “I think that, especially for neurodivergent students, this needs to change. (Think equity, versus equality.) Staff members should be able to discuss possibilities and make suggestions, and I understand that this will take some trial and error but expecting a student to know … creates an unfair environment.”