Higher education is failing neurodiverse students, argues Samuel Crutcher in his winning entry from the student category of the LSE HE Blog’s Essays in Education award. Can a growing student-led neurodiversity movement challenge the neurotypical bias of universities?
The Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh has described how beauty often grows from suffering: “no mud, no lotus”. The Covid-19 pandemic was certainly more than mere ‘mud’ for students. It created a mental health epidemic that grew with every rise in infection rates and social distancing regulations. For higher education (HE) institutions, it was a period of unprecedented change in terms of how pedagogies were designed and presented to students.
However, such periods of extraordinary societal disruption can also be seen as windows of opportunity where the policy agenda can be influenced. Think of the second world war and state welfarism, or Thatcher and the winter of discontent. Could a student social movement blossom in the pandemic mud, becoming even more beautiful than a lotus?
Seeding the neurodiversity movement
During the past three years, the neurodiversity of student bodies has risen to public awareness and we’ve seen a burgeoning student neurodiversity movement. Neurodiversity refers to humanity’s intrinsic diversity of brain functioning. The way brains work – socialising, learning, understanding, emoting, and so on – is along a spectrum. ‘Neurotypicals’ refers to individuals with brains that work in ways compatible with mainstream institutions. ‘Neurodivergents’ have brains broadly excluded from mainstream institutions. The neurodiversity movement politicises neurodiversity, challenging entrenched and prevailing ways of pigeonholing how brains work, and reforming societal institutions appropriately. Politicising neurodiversity means highlighting individuals’ asymmetrical access to basic social institutions, based on their degree of neurodivergence. Appreciating the exclusionary basis of societal institutions represents an entirely new way of appreciating the world. And, like all ground-breaking global paradigm shifts, the seeds for this movement were right before us all along. Just as the heliocentricity of earth’s position in the universe was always above our heads, and continental drift was always below our feet, neurodiversity was always inside our brains.
HE institutions present antiquated pedagogical practices that treat neurodiverse student bodies as neuro-homogenous.
More than ever, HE needs this movement. HE institutions present antiquated pedagogical practices that treat neurodiverse student bodies as neuro-homogenous (homogeneously neurotypical). Within HE, neurodivergents are disproportionately underrepresented among staff and students, and far more likely to drop out and experience stigma. And yet neurodivergents, by nature of their divergent thinking styles, possess comparative advantages – when positioned in environments that use their strengths and accommodate their impairments. It shouldn’t take until someone invents the lightbulb, the iPhone, the theory of evolution, or spearheads the a global climate action movement (or until I tell you that Edison, Darwin, Jobs and Thunberg were or are neurodivergent) that we appreciate this neurodivergent comparative advantage in creative thinking.
HE fails neurodivergents
But HE generally defines, interprets, and addresses neurodivergence among students in the wrong way. One issue relates to diagnosis. Accessing policy support for these divergent thinking styles requires obtaining medical diagnoses. Leaving aside the documented disproportionate difficulty women face in accessing a diagnosis or the unfathomably long waiting times for diagnostic assessments, we can appreciate the issue in that seeking any kind of accommodating environments firstly requires neurodivergents to self-identify as defective. Thus, those controlling medical diagnoses also control the political and educational potential – and identity – of neurodivergents. Every form of neurodivergence (dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism, or any other ‘condition’ that could conceivably be framed as a dys- or disorder) is tethered to psychiatric definitions. HE implicitly imports and imposes psychiatric harms.
HE fails neurodivergents by conflating all neurodivergence with disability.
Numerous models of neurodivergence exist, but HE shuts down possibilities to improve the lives of neurodivergent students the moment it gives exclusive responsibility for neurodiversity to psychiatry. HE fails neurodivergents by conflating all neurodivergence with disability, with responsibility for neurodivergent accommodations given to disability services and neurodivergence framed as disorders or conditions. Many neurodivergents would resist this. Neurodivergence is framed as being inherently debilitating, without any mention of comparative advantages or the ways HE itself produces these learning obstacles.
Sticking plasters in the form of extra time or rest breaks are apportioned; fundamental pedagogical structures remain untouched.
Giving neurodivergent students 25% extra time and rest breaks, rather than different examination or teaching formats, simply fetters them to an unequal playing field and tells them they can compete with neurotypicals peers ‘equally’. Sticking plasters in the form of extra time or rest breaks are apportioned; fundamental pedagogical structures remain untouched. The ways of assessing and teaching students lack a dynamic creativity crucial for neurodivergents’ varying capabilities. HE is largely designed by neurotypicals, for neurotypicals.
The rise of neurodivergent communities
Neurodivergents are epistemically harmed if their ability to understand themselves or be understood by others is undermined. I would like to ask the reader: how long have you known the term neurodiversity? I first heard it only in August 2020. Without understanding basic terminology, neurotypicals cannot support their neurodivergent peers, and neurodivergents cannot understand themselves and their relationship to society. Neurodivergents require terminology, such as ‘neurodiversity’, ‘neurodivergent’ and ‘neurophobia’ (my own proud coinage, describing institutions or individuals discriminating on the basis of neurodivergence) to describe and convey their experiences. This lexicon represents neurodivergents reclaiming ownership of their ways of navigating the world and emancipation from the neurophobic society that subjugates them. Neurodivergent students can reclaim ownership over their education when they finally realise that networks binding together neurodivergents exist – and have always existed. Student communities are the roots necessary for HE neurodiversity movements.
The momentum for the student neurodiversity movement is in full swing.
HE must bring neurodivergents together, providing a community. The era of atomising neurodivergents is ending. The era of collectivising how neurodivergence manifests is beginning. The momentum for the student neurodiversity movement is in full swing. Fourteen Russell Group universities now have students’ union neurodivergent societies and, first of any Russell Group university, LSE boasts its own students’ union neurodivergent officer.
However, a growing lotus flower is grounded in mud by its roots; these pedagogical transformations must be grounded in the collective consciousness of students themselves – within student neurodivergent epistemic communities. But what are ‘neurodivergent epistemic communities’? Epistemics means ‘related to knowledge’. Any space where individuals gather to generate and exchange knowledge to support neurodivergents is a ‘neurodivergent epistemic community’. From formal to informal spaces, neurodivergent epistemic communities dispel confusion and dismantle stigma constraining neurodiversity to the peripheries of HE policy discourse. Unshackling these constraints requires established theoretical frameworks proven to empower marginalised groups.
Embracing neurodiversity in HE
It is within the interrelationships between members of the same community that identities are forged, instances of systematic oppression are identified, and solidarity within united fronts is experienced for self-advocating. Neurodivergent self-actualisation means neurodivergent communities collectively identifying neurophobia and understanding themselves. This nascent social movement promises to give neurodivergents greater agency in understanding themselves and their place in the world, as they engage with different theories of neurodiversity. And that is what HE should be about: to understand the world and oneself. It’s time HE policymakers took neurodiversity seriously.
We have the golden opportunity for change.
The ultimate objective of the global neurodiversity movement is facilitating the transition towards the neurodiversity paradigm, where pigeonholing individuals into discrete categories such as ASD, ADHD or dyslexia becomes obsolete. The way neurodivergence manifests becomes just… the norm. Dissolving the discrete categorisations of manifestations of neurodivergence is no easy task. But the present offers unprecedented opportunities to make progress towards embracing neurodiversity within HE pedagogy. No mud, no lotus. We have the capabilities for change. We have the golden opportunity for change. We just require the motivation.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.