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stressed neurodiverse college student in class

Approximately one in five people live with neurodiversity conditions, including autism spectrum disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), attention deficit disorder (ADD) and a range of learning disorders such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. Stigma and discrimination from their peers, professors, and staff can make it difficult for these students to feel comfortable and accepted on campus. 

While educational institutions are starting to provide the academic support neurodivergent students need (for example, by providing personal assistants, coaching, and extra time to complete tests and assignments), students can’t succeed if they aren’t able to manage the day to day of college life. For many, it’s the first time they have been away from support systems that have helped them achieve the goal of college admission in the first place. It’s unfortunate then, if a student is unable to complete college due to difficulties of living on campus or has to endure years of stress and alienation. 

Many of the challenges that neurodiverse students face are things that neurotypical students easily adapt to. It’s up to college planning and operations professionals to adjust the campus to accommodate them. Here, in some of their own words, are ways educational institutions can make the campus more welcoming for neurodiverse students. 

Autism will make it really hard to adjust to dorm life. It’s noisy. It’s not the cleanest. Fluorescent lighting. Shared showers and bathrooms. Roommates. Cafeterias.1 

Often neurodiverse students have noise, light, or other sensory sensitivities. But there are ways colleges can create sensory-friendly environments to help students feel comfortable and safe. These could include providing individual dorm rooms, soundproofing rooms to reduce noise levels, and replacing powerful fluorescent lights with softer alternatives.  

I faced several serious struggles fitting into the college scene but one of the most recognizable day to day issues was: hand dryers. Almost none of the bathrooms on campus had paper towels. Seems like such a small thing but I remember every day just being frustrated that I would either have to face the loud air monster or walk out with dripping hands lol.2 

Colleges may not be able to give every student who wants one a private room, but they can improve by including spaces for private time, like secluded walking paths or spaces to eat alone. Campus planners can also explore adding alternative hallways and sidewalks so that students aren’t stressed by crowds when walking on campus. 

I got through school by finding spots on campus that were “my space.” The academic library that was really quiet, that particular bathroom where no one went, the handicap shower stall that was a single, the roof of that one building you could get onto and no one else used, the woods and gardens that the agricultural students were using as a lab but was often empty. Find your spots to relax when your roommate is in the room.3 

Neurodiverse students may have difficulty processing complex or ambiguous information. In addition to training faculty, colleges should train campus staff in appropriate ways to interact with students, starting with recognizing signs of distress.  

Getting around campus 

Neurodivergent students should also be encouraged to be independent. And since some may not be licensed to drive, campus transportation is especially important. These students may also need more help in identifying resources like stores or campus venues. Colleges can help by providing clear and concise directions for getting around campus (and that includes apps like our Rider App, which provides real time details for fixed route and on demand bus services). 

 …having a little store on campus with all the essentials that’s easily accessible and comfy that way I can stay on campus, also having a health center with most medications/mobility aids and easy access to care 24/7 is helpful.4 

Social activities 

College can be isolating for many neurodiverse students. Your institution can help by encouraging them to try new things. Many neurodiverse students have deep knowledge of subjects they are interested in and will be happiest if they can share with likeminded others. Schools can help by establishing small social groups that conform to their interests and are structured to mitigate the pressure of socializing. 

Finally, it’s important to remember that students aren’t the only neurodiverse population in the academic community. As this article points out, “…most attention toward neurodiversity in higher education has focused on undergraduates, yet neurodivergent graduate students, faculty, and staff also face important challenges.” Neurodiverse students have much to offer academic communities. With a little help, they can have the opportunity to contribute as well.