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Neurodivergence in the classroom

This week, I’m attending a conference in Vancouver to represent Notre Dame’s Writing Center alongside some of my fellow tutors. All of us will give short presentations pertaining to a common theme: promoting inclusivity in writing center environments. While my peers will be covering topics such as multilingual writers, discouraged writers and writers who respond to different kinds of sensory-based learning, I will give a presentation discussing the specific needs of neurodivergent writers. For me, it is crucial for tutors to make sure these unique students feel valued by the academic communities they’re trying to become part of. Given that neurodivergent students are often ignored, I believe it’s important for writing center tutors to help these folks develop confidence in their writing. I also believe it’s crucial to help these students recognize themselves as scholars who have contributions to make to their universities.  

Of course, the responsibility to cultivate inclusivity for the neurodivergent is not exclusive to writing center tutors but is pertinent for all kinds of authority figures in educational environments, including teachers, professors, counselors and principals. Neurodivergent students face the arduous task of navigating a world that struggles to understand them. Rather than exacerbating these challenges, educational figures should try to help their neurodivergent students overcome societal stigmas. Unfortunately, many fall short. Whether it’s due to discriminatory attitudes, ignorance or general misguidedness, educators often make neurodivergent students feel unwelcome at school.

There are several mistakes educators might make toward their neurodivergent students. For instance, educators might try to force these students to behave “normally” through punitive measures. I remember a specific teacher at my elementary school who responded to my occasional nervous breakdowns by reporting me to the principal, which obviously only reinforced my anxious thoughts. I also recall certain teachers who resorted to yelling during my emotional struggles.

My experiences aren’t the only examples of this dangerous phenomenon. Autistic students might be reprimanded for stimming, even if this stimming is necessary for managing complex emotions. Students with ADHD who struggle with hyperactivity might be similarly punished. As a result of these punitive approaches, neurodivergent students might feel like their personalities are simply incompatible with succeeding in academic environments. They might then choose to “mask” their neurodivergent qualities, concealing them from the outside world, even if it means suppressing their concerns and fears. They might also feel like they don’t have anything valuable to contribute to their classrooms, which undermines their enthusiasm for learning. If unaddressed, these damaging mindsets can result in internalized struggles that persist well after schooling, complicating neurodivergent folks’ adult lives and the many challenges that await them, from interpersonal relationships to navigating the job market.

Another mistake educators might make is to be overly passive, leaving neurodivergent students out to dry, even if these students genuinely need help. While perhaps not as egregiously problematic as reckless punishment, this approach can still prove damaging, as neurodivergent students often require teachers and other figures to provide them with the necessary resources for academic success and emotional well-being. Fortunately for me, many of my teachers were willing to accommodate me by allowing me to momentarily leave the classroom to collect myself whenever I felt overwhelmed. Some were even willing to have one-on-one discussions with me to help me process my anxieties.

Sadly, not everyone has received such support. Some educators might hold a misguided belief that all students must be treated equally… even if that means neurodivergent students aren’t treated equitably. Other educators might put credence toward positive stereotypes, convincing them that these students don’t need any help. For example, they might falsely believe that the “savant” skills of autistic people make them naturally brilliant, making extra assistance unnecessary. “What do you mean he needs help with math? He’s on the spectrum! He can probably do it all in his head!

Because of all the possible pitfalls educators can fall into, it is even more important to elevate neurodivergent students’ perspectives, to let them explain what they need, to recognize their strengths as well as their weakness, and to give them the resources they need. Fortunately, as neurodiversity has become a greater part of the broader cultural consciousness, many educators have been making progress, whether it be by offering extended time programs for test-taking or by simply ensuring that teachers more thoroughly understand the different conditions students might have. Of course, there’s still significant work to do to make our classrooms more welcoming and accessible at every level from preschool to college. Schools can create more avenues for neurodivergent students to voice their concerns and access necessary mechanisms for managing stress and other obstacles, and they can rely on the expertise of neurodivergent educational leaders to help them formulate ideal policies. In any case, my hope is that students like me are heard by more people in positions of educational authority, making academic success something attainable for all.

Jack Griffiths is a senior at Notre Dame majoring in English with a supplementary major in global affairs. His areas of interest include neurodivergence, migration and the intersections between faith and public policy. When he’s not writing, you can find him singing with the Liturgical Choir, walking around the lakes or playing Super Smash Bros with folks in his dorm. He can be reached at jgriff22@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Autistic amplification

Your six-year-old self timidly clings to your mother’s hand as your eyes are bombarded with harsh rays descending in deluges making you feel like a sweaty performer for the world’s worst stage show as your reddening ears start to swell with the cacophony of babies crying, scanners beeping, suitcases rolling and intercom blaring as you look up to the towering ceiling but regret doing so because now you feel like a powerless pawn in your black tennis shoes from school that are starting to dig and nip at the toes on your feet that aren’t used to walking for this long until you arrive at the giant steel capsule in which you try to stay still for the next two endless hours.

I struggled to navigate large, crowded spaces when I was younger. The airport, with its incessant noises and obnoxiously bright lights, felt like an alien planet and I felt like a bewildered astronaut, with every little detail giving me a unique reason to feel unsettled. When encountering this full-on offensive of stimuli, I often had no solutions other than to cry or to mentally “shut down” and isolate myself within my brain, not saying even a word to anyone. The airport wasn’t the only thing I found intimidating. Pep rallies in my elementary school’s gymnasium overwhelmed me due to the constant shoe-squeaking as well as the wonky acoustics that made each yell seem exponentially louder. I also struggled to eat certain foods, even something as simple as spaghetti, because feeling the slippery texture in my mouth would give me goosebumps.

Even as a senior in college, I still often feel like that astronaut. Walking up the stairs of DeBartolo Hall during class transition periods makes me feel on edge with its hordes of bodies moving in all directions. I can get frustrated and overwhelmed if the noise from a nearby dorm party leaks into my room at night, almost always obligating me to listen to calm music on my noise-cancelling headphones, especially if I need to focus on finishing an assignment. And whenever I wear a suit for a formal event, I constantly feel my scratchy dress pants rubbing against my legs like a cheese grater.

I’ve learned how to respond to my sensory overload, how to recognize moments when I need to enter a quiet space by myself to calm my nerves and how to take deep breaths when taking in new and intimidating sights, smells, sounds, tastes and textures. Fortunately for me, my family and friends have dedicated a significant effort to adapting to my unique sensory preferences. Whenever my family and I sit down to eat at a restaurant only to discover that every seat is full and noise is everywhere, they make sure to ask me how I’m feeling, or they might bring up fun conversation topics to help me distract myself from the stimuli. My friends at Notre Dame recognize that I often prefer quiet, smaller meetups over large, raucous parties, so we form weekend plans accordingly.

In essence, those close to me understand that being autistic means that all my senses are amplified, and they know what options they can provide for me to help me navigate the stresses of overload. This support, alongside my growing understanding of how my brain operates, has allowed me to succeed in environments that would have seemed impossibly overwhelming to a past version of myself. For instance, I use my “full heart and voice,” as the Notre Dame cantor says, when singing bombastic choral anthems with the Notre Dame Liturgical Choir, and I thoroughly enjoy the atmosphere at Notre Dame Stadium on game days. Being part of loving, accepting spaces has helped me learn how to thrive in these situations.

Sadly, many folks have not received support from others to help them process sensory overload. Many neurotypical people simply do not comprehend this type of experience, leading them to respond in counterproductive ways when their neurodivergent peers seem stressed. Consider this example: a young neurodivergent child might cover her ears or cry as she enters a loud cafeteria, but faculty members might simply ignore her, or worse, try to diminish her experience, telling her that she’s simply overreacting. This compounds her anxiety. Not only are her senses being driven to the limit, but no one is willing to help her. She has become isolated, left to fight these complex nerves and fears by herself.

We can do better than that. We can acknowledge the anxieties people face in environments with myriad unique stimuli. We can provide more quiet spaces in our classrooms and workspaces. We can ask our peers what we can do to make sure they feel welcome and comfortable.

In any case, I’ll cease my rambling for now. If I made this any longer, I worry I would’ve made you feel overwhelmed.

Jack Griffiths is a senior at Notre Dame majoring in English with a supplementary major in Global Affairs. His areas of interest include neurodivergence, migration and the intersections between faith and public policy. When he’s not writing, you can find him singing with the Liturgical Choir, walking around the lakes or playing Super Smash Bros. with folks in his dorm. He can be reached at jgriff22@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.