Neurodiversity & Higher Education

Neurodiversity is the idea that people experience the world in many different ways. While a majority of individuals who are neurotypical might experience a lecture, assignment, or group interaction very similar way, those who are neurodivergent may benefit from other teaching strategies. In our classrooms, we continue to see more students who are autistic, have ADHD, or have other learning disabilities. With the improvements in K-12 support, technology, awareness, and inclusive practices, there will continue to be more students in our college classrooms we as faculty may have not typically had or are not “traditional” students.

Within the context of this teaching guide, we will focus on college students who are autistic, have ADHD, or have learning disabilities. However, neurodiversity is a topic that continues to evolve. The research, classroom strategies, and resources here are intended to provide a starting point for both improved practices and conversations on how we can be more inclusive as a community.

Examine selected research on Neurodiversity & Higher Education.

Clouder, L., Karakus, M., Cinotti, A., Ferreyra, M. V., Fierros, G. A., & Rojo, P. (2020). Neurodiversity in higher education: A narrative synthesis. Higher Education, 80(4), 757-778.

Dwyer, P., Mineo, E., Mifsud, K., Lindholm, C., Gurba, A., & Waisman, T. C. (2022). Building Neurodiversity-Inclusive Postsecondary Campuses: Recommendations for Leaders in Higher Education. Autism in Adulthood.

Luchs, C. (2021). Considering neurodiversity in learning design and technology. TechTrends, 65(6), 923-924.

Mallipeddi, N. V., & VanDaalen, R. A. (2021). Intersectionality Within Critical Autism Studies: A Narrative Review. Autism in Adulthood.

Mellifont, D. (2021). Ableist ivory towers: a narrative review informing about the lived experiences of neurodivergent staff in contemporary higher education. Disability & Society, 1-22.

Classroom behavior for neurodivergent students can look like the following:
  • Students may appear inattentive or bored
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Intense focus on topics of interest
  • Unexpected emotion when stressed
  • Difficulty with organization
  • Difficulty with group work
  • Poor awareness of body space

These students:

  • May misread social cues or facial expressions
  • Social interactions/group work may be stressful
  • Stress-relieving activities may make others uncomfortable
  • Sensory perceptions can interfere with learning
  • Nebulous sense of time (can impact multi-tasking)
  • Have difficulty with changes and transitions

Set the tone early for your class with clear expectations—not just WHAT you expect, but HOW do you want it to be done.

As faculty, we all know that things change, and assignments shift. Even with this shift is positive, neurodivergent students may struggle with a change in the plan. Knowing that this may cause anxiety and frustration in those students, be prepared to spend more time discussing this change than you may typically think necessary. Provide a visual slide of the change, time after class to discuss the change, and/or an email to all students before class outlining the change to avoid additional anxiety.

Communication skills can be challenging for neurodivergent students, and as a best practice, let all your students know how you like emails to be addressed and what you expect is for communicating with them. This guide to Emailing Your Professor is just one example of what you could share with your students so that they know how what to expect in an email.

Let students know on the first day of class that you are open and willing to work with accommodations that they may need. Communicate that you are willing to learn when you are unsure, and make yourself an ally. Often faculty wait for formal requests from the Accessibility Resource Center (ARC) before supporting a student’s needs. Instead, consider reframing that as a burden that is placed on the student, to one where you as faculty can help support students from day one. This helps to alleviate student anxiety AND supports our staff on campus who have large caseloads working to support our neurodiverse students.

Social situations in class can also be a struggle for neurodiverse students. Provide explicit instructions on how to work in groups and classroom behavior including:

  1. How to divide up work
  2. Being flexible when scheduling meetings
  3. Sharing personal contact information
  4. Communicating with each other
  5. Adopting a collaborative mindset
  6. Provide additional options for class participation such as electronic comments, coming to office hours

Directly address non-verbal and verbal inappropriate behavior that may be distracting to other students by discussing it with the student. Remember that social cues are not always understood. Be direct but kind with your feedback and provide it in a way that is sensitive and appropriate for the individual.


Developed by The Office of Faculty Development, California State University Chico. Reprinted with permission. View the original guide.

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