Think Different

Author: Malcolm McDowell Woods

Published Date: 6/1/2023

Categories: Diversity Equity and Inclusion Education F1RST Magazine School of Education and Human Services Students University News

Embracing Neurodiversity

a watercolor drawing of a human brain.
As an identity group, neurodivergent students historically weren’t very visible on college campuses, where they’ve faced challenging academic environments. That’s changing, though, and schools are beginning to take note. Bey is confident this is an area in which Carroll can truly pioneer.

Carroll’s Embrace of Neurodiversity Promises a Better Experience for All

It’s in Pioneer Driven, Carroll’s strategic plan – a commitment to building a more diverse and inclusive community by expanding pathways for access and success.

Of course, making a transformative Carroll educational experience accessible to diverse populations of students is a multi-layered task. For some students, financial assistance such as the Opportunity Scholarship can open Carroll’s doors wider. Others may benefit from physical accommodations such as ramps and elevators to bring classrooms and offices within reach, while others may benefit from flexible scheduling, hybrid or even online classes. For others, recorded lectures, reduced classroom lighting or a quiet room to study could provide that access.

The solutions are as diverse as Carroll’s student population.

“The premise of who we are as a university is one that does not discriminate against the populations that want to come to school here,” explained Mohammed I.T. Bey. Bey is Carroll’s vice president of institutional inclusion, and he sees his job as helping Carroll provide a welcoming environment for all. “We need to make sure that we are meeting the needs of all the students on our campus.”

In recent years, a growing number of those students are identifying as neurodivergent.

“That’s a relatively new term,” noted Dr. Jennifer Labonte, a clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy at Carroll. She describes it as an overarching grouping of individuals, some of whom might have ADHD, dyslexia, depression or anxiety – “anyone from a neurological perspective whose thinking, actions and behaviors are different from what we consider the (neuro)typical individual.” It’s a broad term that adds to the challenge of educating faculty and staff about the topic.


An Australian sociologist popularized the term neurodiversity in the 1990s. Judy Singer, who herself has autism, began using the term to shift the focus away from the deficit narratives that had long surrounded terms such as autism and Asperger’s. Instead, neurodiversity recognizes that differences in brain function reflect normal variations among human beings.

As an identity group, neurodivergent students historically weren’t very visible on college campuses, where they’ve faced challenging academic environments. That’s changing, though, and schools are beginning to take note. Bey is confident this is an area in which Carroll can truly pioneer.

“Because we value each individual here. We value diversity,” he said. “We don’t exist without the students we serve. We need to make sure we are being equitable and giving them space to learn, grow and explore as well.”

Tessa Timler joined Carroll at the end of 2022 as director of student accessibility services. If there is any single individual on campus responsible for overseeing this effort, it is Timler, though she quickly spreads praise across the campus community. “We’re really pioneers to be taking such a progressive approach,” she said. To her, it all begins with a question. “What do you need from us?” She directs it at students who identify as neurodivergent and toward faculty and staff. In her view, creating that access for neurodiverse students requires educating faculty and staff and providing them with the tools they need to better provide equity.


To that end, the university has added professional development opportunities on neurodiversity. In January, Bey’s department paired with Academic Affairs to present a talk by Michael John Carley, an author, consultant and former executive director in the autism and neurodiversity worlds. He participated in the university’s DEI Summit in the fall of 2022. Numerous faculty and staff attended Carley’s speech in January, eager to learn more about neurodiversity. 

Events like Carley’s visit represent the first step in what needs to be a coordinated effort to change whole systems, maintains Bey. “As we grow in sophistication, my expectation is that we are more intentional with what we do and how we do it,” he said.

Bey hopes that future events like Carley’s appearance can lead to follow-up and additional opportunities for faculty and staff to engage on the issue so that the conversation doesn’t die. Awareness is essential, but Bey is eager to add to it. That means providing tools and opportunities for faculty and staff to experiment and explore concepts in supportive, collaborative environments.

“The struggle is that in order to do this, the challenge is in how do we rethink the system,” said Bey. “If you have a system that is structured to operate in a certain way and you are implementing changes, then at some point in time, the system will need to change.”


Across campus, signs of that change have begun to appear. On a typical day, the Gert Ullsperger Dining Room is lively at lunchtime, as students, faculty, staff and visitors gather at tables to eat, chat, study or relax. It’s a bright and bustling space, but for some, the fluorescent lighting and steady background noise of muffled conversations, food preparation and the clattering of cutlery on plates can be overwhelming. But in one corner of the space, behind a moveable wall, sits a smaller dining area with reduced lighting and less noise.

“A calm, quiet space” is how Dr. Theresa Barry, the vice president for student life, describes it. Its serenity is intentional, one of several spaces created in recent years designed to reduce sensory stimulation. “Anyone can use it,” noted Barry. “In fact, every time I go there, I look, and there are always a number of individual students using the space.”

The university has several such “sensory sensitive spaces” on campus – in the library, the Center for Student Life and Wellness and the Richard Smart House, home of the Office of Spiritual Life. These rooms have alternative lighting sources and sound-reducing features and, like the space in the dining room, are available to anyone. The big goal, according to Barry, is housing.

“We would love in the future to have a wing of a residence hall available for neurodivergent students,” she said, with different lighting, special soundproofing and increased quiet hours. “If we get enough students interested, I think we can make that happen.”

That possibility excites Samantha Werner, Carroll’s assistant director of housing and an advocate for neurodiversity. In her dream world, the university would create a neurodiverse learning community, a living space for neurodiverse students that could offer curriculum and academic support. That is likely a long-term goal, she acknowledged.


In the meantime, Werner beats the drum for advocacy and education. She describes the issue of accessibility for neurodivergent students as her passion. An American Sign Language major at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Werner also completed that school’s autism spectrum disorders certificate. At Carroll, she has served as a staff advisor for the student organization PIOS with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). This year, the group has expanded its focus to neurodiversity and is now known as PIO Possibilities.

The group’s president is Abigail Enck, a junior majoring in elementary education and special education. She also interns with the Office of Student Accessibility Services. “Last year, our focus was on supporting students with autism and specifically educating (the campus community) on autism acceptance,” she said. Broadening the group to embrace neurodiversity will allow them to reach more students, she added. It’s also about “getting the word out there about different brain structures and that different brain structures lead to diversity – instead of focusing on deficits. I think the message of the idea of neurodiversity, or the neurodiverse movement, is super impactful.”

Personal experience fuels Enck’s passion. She has a 19-year-old brother with cerebral palsy and autism. “I have seen the struggles and hardships that he has faced, navigating school and life in general. I just always knew that my brother was so much more deserving of opportunities than he receives.”

Educating students, faculty and staff about neurodiversity and embracing diverse perspectives, skills and strengths rather than viewing it as a problem or something that needs fixing is an important goal, according to Enck. “We really need to normalize and advocate for differences in brain structures.”


At Carroll, that process can be powered by a person-first perspective, according to Werner. “People want to help our students navigate their college experiences in a way that is authentic to them and supports their unique needs,” she said. “But I think the supporting factor behind that person-first mentality is that this is a population that wants to be educated, that is ready to pay tuition and is ready to contribute to the Carroll community. Many campuses can’t meet their needs, they can’t be successful there because of their neurodivergence, but Carroll is saying, ‘we see that, and we want you here.’”

But how is that access provided when each person’s needs may be unique? “You know,” Werner continued, “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. It means nothing because everyone is so different.” That’s the advantage of the person-first approach and intentionally providing that access. “It’s asking students what they need and responding to that versus making assumptions about what is going to best support them.”

A trial program run by Labonte in the occupational therapy program did just that. As part of their interprofessional training, students in health sciences learn to work collaboratively in multidisciplinary teams. “Everybody comes together. We learn what we each do and what our unique roles are,” explained Labonte. 

“So I had PT students, an OT student and a nursing student on my teams who were paired with an undergrad student.” The objective was for these teams to mentor undergraduate students to help them succeed in their “occupation” of being college students. For the trial program, Labonte specifically recruited undergraduate students who identified as being neurodivergent. The teams heard of various struggles reported by the students – including noisy, distracting classrooms, time management issues and social anxieties that limited class participation.

Working with the individual undergraduate students, team members worked to develop strategies that helped them better navigate the university experience (a consult with the Office of Information Technology resulted in noise-canceling headphones, which helped limit one student’s outside distractions, for example). “I was looking at it twofold. Number one, how can we help the undergrad students be successful, but also make sure for our graduate students that it’s an experience to fit their learning outcomes of how to work as a healthcare team.”

Labonte shared the program’s findings with Barry and then with a group of faculty and staff at a professional development lunch last fall. “Our first step was just to educate the faculty on what neurodiversity is – what it looks like - and kind of get them to start thinking outside of the box,” she explained. “Traditional university education has had a narrow focus.” She added that developing ways to educate the broader group is a win-win, because what helps that neurodiverse student will also help others.


The concept is called UDL, or universal design for learning. Visiting Assistant Professor of Education Tom Knutson spoke at the professional development event last fall alongside Labonte. He explained UDL this way: imagine a campus building with steps leading up to the doors. Not all people can access those steps. But when you put in a ramp that increases accessibility, you’ll also see other people using the ramp. Perhaps they are tired or have sore feet. The ramp is a solution that benefits all, regardless of their
motivation or status.

Creating greater access for neurodiverse students benefits everyone, added Knutson. “Labels are continuous variables, meaning that there are just as many students just on the other side of it who wouldn’t maybe be labeled, but who are very similar and more similar to students who maybe have ADHD or who have autism than those who don’t,” he said. “So it’s really thinking more broadly about the fact we’ve always had neurodiverse students in our classroom, and our instruction has always just kind of been what it was instead of really thinking about these different access points (that would help students). It’s not a new thing,” he added.

“And one thing that happens a lot is that these students become disengaged because the environment just isn’t welcoming. And you lose them. And a lot of times, those students you’re losing are the ones that, in the right environment, can bring so much to your
university and so much to society.”

Keeping those students engaged ultimately benefits all students at the university. It’s a fundamental matter of equity and inclusion. Added Bey, “We need to be creating an environment from the moment we recruit students to the moment that they graduate where they can see themselves and have the experiences that are relevant to them.”

Timler is confident it will happen. “We want to do this. We want to make sure our classrooms are accessible.”

How do you learn best?

That might be something you never really thought about – you just learn. But if you think back to your own experience in school, you probably remember various learning strategies you used to help you succeed. Perhaps you were a copious note-taker. Perhaps you crammed late at night with noisecancelling headphones to keep out distractions. Perhaps your comprehension was better with recorded lectures than with written notes.

The term neurodiversity recognizes that how individuals process information can vary significantly. Neurodivergence thus refers to a wide range of those differences, many known by more familiar terms such as autism, dyslexia and ADHD. The neurodiversity movement recognizes and celebrates those differences, combined with efforts to discard old ways of viewing them as atypical – or abnormal. As atypical means not typical, that old way of thinking about the issue drew distinctions between what was normal and what wasn’t. Neurodiversity is the idea that there is no “right” way to think or learn.

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