In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been discussing the opportunities that come with building inclusion particularly for neurodiverse students and colleagues. Too often we’re looking at neurodivergent people and those with diverse abilities from a deficit perspective, framing their abilities as disorders and/or impairments. Instead, we need to consider that we will not solve the big problems of today and tomorrow if we’re not authentically engaging all types of thinkers, learners, and teachers.

Currently, approximately 20% of undergraduate students and 12% of graduate students have a diagnosed dis/ability. It’s important to note that these statistics do not include those students with dis/abilities, including those who are neurodiverse, who have not received a diagnosis, and experts suggest that these percentages are much larger.

To best include and engage neurodiverse people, it’s important that we all, especially those of us who are neurotypical, better understand neurodiversity and how we more inclusively engage. Some of the groups that tend to come to mind when we’re talking about neurodiversity are those with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia/dyscalculia. It’s important to understand what these are, but also to understand that all of these happen on a spectrum, and not a linear spectrum. Neurodiversity can include impacts on social/emotional, physical, and/or mental process and function. These impacts affect different people in different ways. While these can create challenges for neurodiverse people, they also create unique strengths and ways of knowing, thinking, feeling, and communicating.

While we oftentimes think of neurodivergent conditions or “disorders” as the source of the “problem” that neurodiverse people need to overcome, what we hear from those in the community is that it is actually the neurotypical standards, ableism, and lack of inclusion that are the problem.

Thus, we must make biomedical science education more accessible and inclusive, so that we can engage the creativity and problem-solving abilities of our neurodiverse students and colleagues. Here are some simple steps forward:

  • Refrain from ableist language: Using words like “crazy,” “moron,” or “hysterical” have a history of being used, and as justification for violence, against some neurodiverse groups.
  • Offer a variety of paths to your learning outcomes: Remember that diverse learners also have diverse ways of learning. By providing educational strategies through discussion, visuals, experiences, and more, you can make your teaching more inclusive and accessible to more people.
  • Weed out surprises: Some neurodiverse people are supported when they are presented with information upfront about what will happen and/or what will be expected of them. Taking away surprises and guess work (including where the room is, what is on your agenda, and what you’re expecting from other participants) can allow neurodiverse people to better engage.
  • Consider accommodations as an opportunity to make your teaching and work more inclusive: Requests for accommodations in higher education are growing, and oftentimes these requests can feel like a burden. But remember, anytime someone has an accommodation for learning, that accommodation is only necessary because higher education has not been inclusive of or accessible for that person with accommodations. Thus, we can see these accommodations as reminders for ways that we might make learning and assessment more inclusive of everybody.