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Supporting neurodiversity in education

This guidance can benefit everyone in our community, but there are specific suggestions for personal tutors and research supervisors.

Green logo with white text reading Teaching Toolkit

11 October 2023

The world we live in is inherently neurodiverse. Humans are neurodiverse. However, neurodiversity is not always easily apparent, understood or easily categorised.

Many neurodivergent people will have a diagnosis such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia, or dyspraxia, or a combination of these. Others may not.Those with diagnoses may also choose not to share that information with everyone.

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What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is the variability that occurs naturally between people, in how our brains process information, and therefore how we experience the world.

This term refers to the fact that all our brains process information in different ways. This means there are differences in how we take in information from the world around us, and in how we put that information together in our brains.

For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us were forced to work from home. Some people found that having no commute and limited social interaction hindered their work output. Others, however, found a remote setup helpful to their productivity.


Why is awareness of neurodiversity and neurodivergence important?

This knowledge helps us to:

  • understand that everyone has differing needs, different experiences, and responds according to their unique experience of the world
  • create more inclusive communities and services
  • ask for, and provide, adjustments/accommodations that enable us all to thrive and contribute
  • fight stigma, discrimination, and prejudice
  • highlight the benefits neurodivergent people bring to workplaces, education, and communities.

The social model of disability

In the context of neurodiversity, the approach suggests that our focus should be on offering accommodations, support, and improving aspects that may negatively affect an individual's quality of life. We should not be concentrating on preventing, normalising, or curing neurodiverse conditions (i.e., neurodivergence).

This perspective contends that differing from the majority is not a deficiency.


Glossary of important terms

It is important that, when speaking to or about a specific individual, you should always remember to find out the language they prefer and try to replicate that. (See ‘Using inclusive language in education’ toolkit)

Neurodivergent

This is quite a broad term. Sometimes abbreviated as ND, being neurodivergent means to have a neurological system that functions in ways which diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal”.

Neurodivergence can be due to genetic or innate factors, as in the case of autism or dyslexia. It can also be a result of brain-altering experiences, such as trauma or epilepsy. Or it can be due to a combination of the two.

Neurotypical

In comparison, neurotypical, often abbreviated as NT, means having a style of neurocognitive functioning that falls within the dominant societal standards of “normal.” Individuals who form part of the neurological “majority” can be described as neurotypical.

Multiply neurodivergent

If a person has neurocognitive functioning that diverges in multiple ways – for instance, a person who is autistic, dyslexic, and epileptic – they may wish to be described as multiply neurodivergent.

Neurodiverse

When a group of people has one or more members differing significantly from others in terms of their neurocognitive functioning, the group is said to be neurodiverse. i.e., In a neurodiverse group, multiple neurocognitive styles are represented.

In research, neurodiversity has been defined as a nonpathological variation in the human brain that influences movement, sociability, learning, and/or attention, among other mental functions. Importantly, neurodiversity does not depend on a diagnosis. It considers the nature of human neurobiology as variable and diverse. 

Common mistakes

Many people mistakenly use ‘neurodiverse’ in place of ‘neurodivergent’.An individual is neurodivergent. Only a group of individuals can be neurodiverse.

The opposite of neurotypical is neurodivergent. The opposite of neurodiverse is neuro-homogenous (i.e. composed of people who are neurocognitively similar).


Creating neurodiversity-friendly environments

We can help support colleagues and students with neurodivergence by making small changes, such as:

  • Offering reasonable adjustments to an individual’s workspace to accommodate any sensory needs:

    • Sound: Providing a quiet break space, communicating expected loud noises (like fire drills), offering noise-cancelling headphones.
    • Touch: Allowing modifications to dress codes to accommodate tactile sensitivities
    • Movement: Facilitating the use of fidget toys, movement breaks, and/or offering flexible seating.
  • Using a clear communication style: Try not to use sarcasm, euphemisms, or implied messages. Keep verbal and written instructions for tasks as concise as possible and break large tasks down into smaller steps.

  • Specifying expected workplace/social etiquette: For instance, if you need to provide feedback, do so in a constructive and respectful manner, focusing on the issue, not the person or embrace and respect the diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and opinions of your colleagues

  • Giving advance notice of changes where possible: A meeting has been rescheduled to date and time

  • Not making assumptions – asking for a person's individual preferences, needs, and goals

  • Being kind, being patient.

An inclusive learning environment

Everyone, including neurodivergent students or staff can benefit from simple changes, such as:

  • Improving the accessibility of content and procedures. For instance, making learning materials available in advance, running accessibility checks on materials, delivering content through multiple/hybrid methods, ensuring reading lists are focused and up to date, using plain Englishetc.
  • Making information easy to find
  • Clearly stating expectations around deliverables, performance, or contributions in plain language, preferably in writing, in advance of start of research or teaching
  • Allowing or facilitating the recording of teaching or meetings
  • Using a range of assessment methodsin both invigilated and non-invigilated conditions, at different points across the year, module, programme, or degree
  • Stating clearly and regularly that alternative methods and processes can be available.

Note: this is not an exhaustive list.


Supporting students and scholars

Some guiding principles for supporting neurodiversity in learning environments are:

  • Challenge the assumption that everyone learns in a linear and stepwise manner
  • Create a flexible learning environment to cater to the unique needs of neurodivergent individuals
  • Promote meaningful interactions between neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals to combat misconceptions and biases about neuro-minority groups.

While directing students to support services' websites is helpful, it may not be sufficient, especially for newcomers or those adjusting to a new environment. Individual follow-up is crucial to ensure they are effectively accessing and benefiting from available support.

Supporting neurodivergent scholars

There are some general recommendations to help make the academic environment accessible, equitable, and inclusive for neurodivergentscholars.Proactive measures reduce the burden placed on neurodivergent scholars to disclose and/or seek accommodations.

These recommendations include: 

  • Collaborate with neurodivergent individuals to developresearch approaches that are tailored and of mutual benefit.
  • Implement universal design principles, offering various ways to engage, meet, and assess and create inclusive spaces. For instance provide multiple ways to engage in lectures (such as making videos available for asynchronous viewing, or having “watch party” lectures), online/hybrid meetings, and offering alternative means of assessment, where required.
  • Adopt open scholarship and collaborative practices to enhance flexibility and accessibility to enable neurodivergent researchers to contribute to projects more aligned with their strengths.
  • Moving away from the publish-or-perish culture and encouraging “slow science” to prioritise higher-quality publications, which alleviates pressure on both neurodivergent and non-neurodivergent researchers.

Supporting group work

In group settings, there are certain conditions that make the working environment challenging for abled and neurotypical people, and more so for disabled and neurodivergent people.

Some ways to help make group work more inclusive:

  • Smaller group sizes
  • Use of fidget or stim toys by all students – there is evidence that this benefits all but particularly neurodivergent students.
  • Promote open and voluntary conversations about diverse needs and preferences, perhaps share some of your own to start.
  • Clear structure and deadlines.
  • Provide a template learning contract for each group (that relates to module learning outcomes or project goals) for them to adapt as needed.
  • Option for students to partner with individuals they already know can be crucial, despite the potential conflict with encouraging diverse peer collaborations. See “”

Adjustments for PGR students

  • A robust student induction detailing services and support available (within the department and centrally) may mitigate challenges experienced by PGR students. It is imperative to conduct individual follow-ups to ensure individuals arebenefitting from the available support.
  • Advisors from the Student Support and Wellbeingteam can help doctoral students develop a tailored Summary of Reasonable Adjustment (SoRAs) that better support each student’s specific needs and performance.
  • Most PGR students would benefit from ‘buddy’ system in their first year. Year 2 or 3 PGR students from the same department or Faculty, could be partnered with new students to help them settle in at .

The role of supervisors

Supervisors possess valuable insights into a student's work environment, important interactions, project milestones, and more. During induction, supervisors should initiate discussions about adjustments with all PGR students.

The expectation is not for supervisors to provide all support for neurodivergent students, but they should engage in open conversations about accommodations and provide appropriate guidance/signposting.

Supervisors should have access to department or faculty-level guidance and support structures to facilitate open discussions with all students regarding well-being and accommodations. These adjustments, which need not be complex, should be mutually agreed early in the programme of study. For instance:

  • how to best communicate (email, in-person, etc.)
  • providing information in an alternative format
  • strategies for completing research logs, presentations, etc.

Key takeaways

  • Supporting neurodivergentstudents is vital to cultivate an inclusive and fair educational environment, which can have a positive influence on all students by fostering understanding, empathy, and a culture of inclusiveness.

  • Inclusive design and/or tailored adjustments, empowers neurodivergent students to thrive and create an enriched educational community.

Note: It is key to engage with the student to establish which aspects of their disability information, if any, should be disclosed and to whom. Adjustments should be provided in accordance with the student's confidentiality preferences.

  • It is important to develop adjustments in collaboration with neurodivergent individuals, rather than assuming what they might need or benefit from. Keep in mind the social model of disability and be wary of deficit model biases – adjustments for neurodivergent individuals are only necessary because our world was designed by and for neurotypical people, necessitating retrofitted adjustments.

  • Inclusion strategies and approaches designed to support neurodivergent students can benefit everyone.


Further information and resources

Resources
Video resources
External Resources

This toolkit is drawn from( staff only) by:

  • Aardra Chandra Mouli (Doctoral Researcher, School of Management)
  • Rebecca Lindner (Associate Professor, Arena)
  • Manjula Patrick (Associate Professor, Arena)
  • Jason Wong (Doctoral Researcher, Division of Psychology and Language Sciences)
  • Jinyue Zhang (Doctoral Researcher, Institute of Archaeology).

You are welcome to use this toolkit if you are from another educational facility, but you must credit the Arena Centre. 

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