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Neurodiverse education helps all students

By Cait Bennett October 13, 2021

"What does neurodiversity look like?"

I was asked this question several times while campaigning since “Mental Health and Neurodiversity” was a core part of my platform. While the term neurodiversity is not new, it is underutilized and misunderstood. As a technology school focused on “innovative pedagogy,” recognizing neurodiversity is not only vital to ensure the wellbeing of neurodivergent students, but is also key to future educational advancements.

The term neurodiversity was coined by sociologist Judith Singer as a new philosophy for analyzing differences in the human brain. In short, neurodiversity refers to the natural variances in our brains. The dominant paradigm in the medical field is that some people have brains that diverge from the normal or are neurodivergent. I will use the term neurodivergent to refer to people with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and other neurobehavioral disorders. Neurodiversity is an extension of biodiversity; just as it is evolutionarily advantageous for the human species to have genetic diversity, it is advantageous and natural to have diversity in the way we process our environment.

Neurodivergent students are especially likely to suffer in the highly standardized, traditional academic environment. Detail-oriented labs and exams are often a struggle for those with ADHD, and loud and bright classrooms can be overwhelming for those with autism. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires schools to provide reasonable accommodations for these students. However, it’s not just neurodivergent students that suffer according to the neurodiverse philosophy. If all human brains are fundamentally different, and not everyone learns and processes the same way, then our educational options should reflect this.

For a leading example of neurodiverse education, I’ll turn to Dr. Shayla Sawyer’s Introduction to Electronic Circuits class, which I experienced firsthand. Dr. Sawyer began teaching Circuits with the traditional lab format; students would complete a set of steps that helped them build and test an example circuit. This is bottom-up thinking: processing details that lead to a final solution.

Dr. Sawyer noted that some students were top-down thinkers, who conceptualized a final solution and filled in the details from there. So, she created Alpha and Beta Labs where students could choose between a bottom-up step-by-step approach or a top-down design problem for their lab component. Through the years, Dr. Sawyer’s labs have gone through multiple iterations, including an increased emphasis on the design process, and a shift to Omega Labs that allow open-ended design problems.

Dr. Sawyer’s class is the “innovative pedagogy” the Institute should highlight and encourage. She acknowledged the inherent neurodiversity in her classrooms and developed creative solutions to accommodate and take advantage of these different thinking styles. Neurodivergent folks benefit from these changes— for example, students with ADHD often struggle with detail-oriented work and prefer a top-down approach. But, since each individual processes information and develops solutions in a different way, Dr. Sawyer’s innovation enhances all students’ experiences in her class.

There are a few ways you can get involved with encouraging neurodiversity on campus. The Academic Affairs Committee of the Student Senate is working on a variety of projects all focused on our students’ academic wellbeing. Students can also get involved with the Faculty Senate’s Curriculum Advisory Committee, which is charged with encouraging educational innovation and reviewing changes to curricula. You can apply for a position on the committee here. To create a healthy environment for neurodivergent students and drive our educational paradigm forward, all faculty should analyze their classes through the lens of neurodiversity.