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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.