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Neurodivergent College Students: Some Strategies and Resources

For quite some time, I’ve read a number of popular press pieces – and several academic articles – that discuss autistic college students through the lens of the future. For example, many of these articles characterize the presence of autistic college students as a “wave” that universities should “prepare for.” While I sympathize with the intent behind these articles, what they overlook, either consciously or unconsciously, is the fact that autistic college students are already here

First thing’s first: If you have an autistic college student in your class (trust me: you probably do and will), the best thing you can do in terms of accessibility is ask, listen, and reciprocate the intimacy of disclosure. Listening means flexing the curriculum to meet autistic bodies halfway. Meeting autistic bodies halfway means unlearning chrononormative and chronospatial constructions of knowledge. Autistic bodies move and tic outside bounds of straight, linear time and space. This isn’t just theory; it’s an embodied reality that exceeds learning outcomes and goals. How can we meet autistic bodies halfway in our pedagogy? First, we can co-construct an outcomes-based curriculum that is reciprocally built by and for the individual autistic person. What do they want from the course, and how can we help them shape that desire?

More specifically, if you have an autistic graduate student, know that they are professionals. Do not feel as if you cannot give them feedback. Constructive feedback and critique are essential in educational goals, and autistic people can – and should – hear your feedback. Here are some tips that might help you along the way, for both undergraduate and graduate autistic students.

Strategies

  1. Silence is not necessarily a form of disengagement. Particularly in seminars or more intimate settings, the compulsion and requirement to be constantly participatory relegates many autistic students to the margins.
  2. However, since autism is a multiplicity, many autistic students may participate excitably, particularly if the topic is of interest. One possible method here is to develop a system of participation that values autistic perspective while also carving space for other voices.
  3. A potential method (one of many) might be to pass out three or four visual cues (sticks, laminated cards, etc.) that all students use to self-regulate participation. This isn’t to limit participation, but to maximize rhetorical listening and community collaboration. Shout-out to Dr. Charlotte Hogg at Texas Christian University for doing this in the Fall 2018 semester!
  4. As with any method, this one could limit autistic participation – which isn’t what we want to happen. Again, communicate to students and ask *how* they prefer to participate. Text-to-speech apps? Blog comment sections? Tweets? Online forums? Index cards? Ask. Listen. Reciprocate.
  5. Incorporate autistic and neurodivergent authors into your syllabus. There are many, many #ActuallyAutistic authors and scholars whose work is instrumental in a number of fields and genres. Representation matters on a bodily level. Melanie Yergeau’s Authoring Autism is just a start. See also work by Lydia X.Z. Brown. Embedding autistic people into the curriculum is vital and it starts with us. 
  6. Office hours: Be sure to clearly label your office hours in multiple locations. Departments: it would be great to offer a list of all professors/instructors and their office hours at the beginning of the semester in an easily accessible location. Office hours should be posted in a centralized location online and offline.
  7. Autistic students are, like all students, here to learn, grow, consume, and produce knowledge. We are people with emotions, and we do express ourselves through language and our bodies. Autistics are excellent communicators if allistic or able-bodied people listen.
  8. If you are requiring office hours visits, make sure that your office is sensory friendly. I couldn’t possible encompass all that is encompassed by this, so what do you do? Ask your autistic student. Listen to them. Respond by making sure the environment is friendly.
  9. Feedback on written work: be honest, direct, and aware of autistic rhetorical tactics. Echolalia goes beyond bodily tics and vocalizations…repeating phrases, quotes, and images in papers is also another example of autistic echolalia in action.
  10. Autistic composing is, again, a multiplicity. There are no for sure linguistic markers of autistic writers. In feedback, communicate what needs to be revisedwhat needs to be withheld for future projects, and what needs to be expanded on and how in this particular project.
  11. How are you providing this feedback? If you are someone who prefers handwritten comments, please (at least) scan this feedback and email it to the student to ensure receipt and recall. Describe these comments if they are in hard copy. An accessible digital file would be best. Also, be open to facilitating a face-to-face meeting to verbally go through your comments if they are lengthy and/or the student/colleague requests such a meeting. But, please, do not solely rely on autistics to start this process. Feel free to reach out yourselves first. 
  12. Multimodality isn’t just a fad in composition studies. It’s the foundation of autistic possibility. Embracing multimodality means embracing multiple ways of knowing, producing knowledge, and representing that knowledge. See Jay Dolmage’s essay “Universal Design: Places to Start.” 
  13. Classes should be autistic friendly in both the curricular sense and in the spatial-temporal construction of the space. A general, anonymous survey at the beginning of the semester sent to *all* students, inquiring about sensory preferences, would be a good practice to incorporate. I say ”preferences” but this is not optional. If the environment isn’t friendly to autistic folks, then chances are autistic folks won’t be in the room or will not be fulfilled in their participation. Be open to what disability studies scholar Alison Kafer calls “flex time” or “crip time,” which is another way of saying that disabled and autistic bodies inhabit the materiality of time differently than neurotypical or able-bodied people.
  14. Try not to write isolated question marks or other symbols in the margins, even though this might help you. Un-contextualized feedback or markers can cause anxious reactions or confusion. If you are confused by something, say that and say what confuses you.
  15. Campus activism: does your university have an autism advocacy group? If so, who is running it? Are they autistic people? Are autistic people in their space? If not, work with autistic self-advocates to develop an autistic-led university advocacy group. For reference, Texas Christian University has an organization that is led by non-autistic people. Their work focuses solely on “relieving” burdens caused by autistic people on their families. This is a place to start. 
  16. Self diagnosis is valid. If your student doesn’t have a slip from disability services, know that disclosure is a form of intimacy and they trusted you with that information enough to tell you. Respect this form of emotion, and reciprocate in the form of radical accessibility. If you need literature to back you up on this, see: (1) Nicolas, Melissa. “Ma(r)king a Difference: Challenging Ableist Assumptions in Writing Program Policies” and (2) “Creating a Culture of Access in Writing Program Administration” by Melanie Yergeau. 

Additional Resources

Consider reading and assigning the following texts to your students, as part of the coursework curriculum and as part of the comprehensive examination lists circulated in your department(s):

By Cody Jackson

Cody Jackson is a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.

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