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Understanding the needs of neurodivergent students

27 July 2023

The DiSTEM network joined forces with the Neurodiversity and Inclusion network on 5th July to start discussions around how we can better adapt our teaching and assessment practices for neurodivergent students.

Rachel Carney (Poet and PhD student from ENCAP) helped outline the importance of the terminology used. She explained that Neurodiversity is similar to the concept of Biodiversity as it emphasises the benefits, and not just the challenges. She also outlined the problems with the current ‘accommodation approach’ to inclusivity in HE teaching, as it is based on the assumption that a few sentences on a students’ record can adequately sum up their access needs. This approach doesn’t take into account the complexity of neurological difference, or the fact that many students will not necessarily have received a diagnosis by the time they enter university. The best pedagogical approach is therefore UDL (Universal Design for Learning) with its focus on treating every student as an individual, normalising feedback and adaptability, and building flexibility and inclusion into every aspect of teaching.

We then heard from Kat Williams – a PhD student from SOCSI and research director for Autistic UK who shared her research and knowledge, and explained how there was a need to move from neurodiversity seen as a medical model (the pathology paradigm) to a social model and acknowledge that neurodivergent people are not intrinsically disabled in any way but just disadvantaged by society and environmental factors. We learnt about the term ‘communicative normalcy’ where certain methods of communication are expected (as the norm) but are often challenging for neurodivergent people to navigate.

Mike Jones (Reader in ENGIN) then shared a very personal journey on how he has observed his daughter navigating traditional school learning and assessment whilst masking symptoms of ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) and reflecting on how ‘reasonable’ adjustments given in traditional education do not allow properly for the needs neurodivergent students have. He passionately implored that what we should be doing as educators is yes, preparing students for the real world, but also assessing students in an equitable way, and if we don’t we are losing talented students from the university because of the way we assess them.

Paul Wilson from the Wellbeing team then outlined how neurodiversity was being prioritised as one of the main themes emerging in the new Cardiff University strategy.

Useful further reading. The first link is to an NHS report about improving communication with autistic people. The second link is an article about why we should stop asking neurodivergent people to conform to neurotypical communication styles.