The Challenges of Neurodiversity in Colleges

I’m very proud of William & Mary’s neurodiversity initiative.  I’m even prouder to see other schools following our lead.  Making college campuses more accepting of the neurodiverse is an important step toward making a more ND-friendly world. 

It’s time for neurodiverse faculty to come out, and stand as role models for students and staff.  Everyone knows how autism, ADHD, dyslexia and other neurodiverse conditions disable us as children. What we need to balance that are successful adults who attribute their achievements in part to neurodiversity.

In doing so, we demonstrate that there is a spectrum for all the neurodiverse conditions.  Some of us are more gifted; others are more disabled. In particular, many of us follow a pattern where we are less disabled the older we get as we learn to adapt to society and use our strengths to offset our weaknesses.  

Neurodiverse folks who are enrolled or employed in colleges may be the least disabled of our community, or we may just be the most determined. Or maybe we're just lucky or privileged.  Either way, we should be standing as role models - particularly for younger people and parents - to show what's possible.  That's the best antidote to talk like "He's autistic; he'll never go to college."  While its true that profound disability will leave some of us requiring substantial supports and residential care even as adults, most of us can grow up to live independently and we have great contributions to make.

But many societal hurdles stand in our way, and it's up to this generation to knock them down. We also have medical and psychological challenges, and it's up to us to lead the effort to develop the therapies and treatments we need.  Who better than us to articulate our needs and steer the needed research?

Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to get college staffers to come out, as this letter demonstrates:

Dear Mr. Robison -  As an Adjunct Instructor at the ____________, I've had the unfortunate opportunity to witness instructors & administrators demonstrate bias against autistic students. I need advice. I want to speak with the Dean of Academics about this institutional problem. However, I'm concerned that I may not be invited back to teach.  Do you have any experience with this sort of challenge? 

How can we expect faculty to announce their own neurodiversity when they see discrimination against neurodiverse people?  I would not have fear about speaking out at William & Mary, because neurodiversity advocacy is my role. But even here at this college, with a provost who's a vocal advocate of our mission, faculty tell me they are afraid to come out, as in this exchange:

“Even with the neurodiversity initiative, and the talk about neurodiversity being good, I’m still afraid coming out could jeopardize my promotion from assistant professor.  I want to help you but I have to look out for my career and family.”

What’s the answer to this dilemma?  I believe it comes down to courage and passion.  We must be brave enough to announce our neurodiversity to the world, knowing some will embrace us but others will discriminate against us.  We must speak up even knowing there may be a personal cost before there is a collective gain.  And that’s where passion comes in – we must believe in our cause so much that we push through the negative personal consequences in pursuit of a greater goal for all.

On college campuses, we must recognize that there are barriers to both students and staff coming out, and we should encourage both. 

What are some thoughts for bringing this about?

John Elder Robison

All words and images (c) 2015 John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and the forthcoming Switched On. He's served on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.


Unknown said…
Yes, lets knock down as many obstacles as possible! I'm here to help support all that I can, as a NT parent of a child with DD and as an advocate. It's going to take lots of perseverance, persistence and patience. Not to mention LOTS of LOVE. Bravo to bravest ones. I'm cheering you on from Maine.
Unknown said…
Some of our most brilliant minds are neurodiverse, on the spectrum...
My son was first diagnosed at 5 years of age. He was a behavioral problem and to get help in school labeled by the I.E.P. team as mentally disturbed. At about age 6 he was diagnosed with ADHD, at about age 8 with oppositional diffient disorder. A sweet, loving, beautiful intelligent, amazing person, afraid to do anything wrong and not be good at everything he had to do. Most of his greatest issues occured in public school a very inappropriate enviroment that was not capable of changing or adapting to his needs or ever being a suitable enviroment. An environment where there were few choices and often only one way to do things. Rigid in all the wrong ways, limited, for the wrong reasons. It did not have the resources to accomidate him. I kept asking questions until I asked tbe roght one. Now in his 4th year in a private school with other children on the spectrum. He is thriving. Not over night and a ways to go, but loves going to school. Finally the right diagnosis about age 9, Autism/Aspergers, Neurodiverse. When my son was age two I was pretty sure he had some form of Autism. It took some research, some persistence on my part and the right type of Doctor to get this accurate diagnosis. I took my son to see John at a book signing for "Raising Cubby". I did this to see what an adult that was neurodiverse looked like. I was amazed what he has accomplished and what he is doing for this population of neurodi erse people. I think a light bulb turned on in my son. My hope was he knows now that there is enormous opportunity for him. And there will be with the right support as the world is becoming more aware and flexible of how special, important this valuable resource of neurodiverse people can be . My son recently took the high school exit exam. He scored almost 100% without doing the essay portion of the exam. Brilliant. Now this kid should be able to go to college...
Daniel said…
I came out as autistic in the summer via a short essay, which was the most comfortable way for me as a writer (and gave the notion many weeks to sink in before I had to see anyone in person):

I'm thankful that it was well-received, though certainly not everyone on campus knows (or cares). On a positive note, I was asked to present at a forum for faculty. (Attendance is voluntary.) I accepted. It's through the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, and it's part of an initiative for colleagues to tell and hear life stories to promote community among us. I'm nervous about it but I know it's the right thing to do.
Jennifer Mazer said…
I went to college late eighties to early nineties. I was told I was autistic after
my second year by my parents. They had never told me I was diagnosed as autistic
as a child. I decided not to tell anyone as I could see from doing research no one knew anything. There would have been a lot of stigma.
I feel like a lot of the teachers in school in general thought I was lazy, rebellious, and some of them just let me pass.
I wish they had had prograns back in the seventies, eighties, and nineties...
Valerie said…
You wrote, "I believe it comes down to courage and passion. We must be brave enough to announce our neurodiversity to the world, knowing some will embrace us but others will discriminate against us. We must speak up even knowing there may be a personal cost before there is a collective gain. And that’s where passion comes in – we must believe in our cause so much that we push through the negative personal consequences in pursuit of a greater goal for all."
Yes. That's the way EVERY equal rights initiative has come about.
Keep up the good work, John. We need your voice. You come from a place many of us cannot, and many of those who might also be there, cannot.
I love what you have to say. I'm a professional ADHD coach and I make it well known I have ADHD, and that there are parts of it I wouldn't trade, and yes, some parts that can frustrate the heck out of me.

The other day a teacher I know who is in a new school this year said to me, "I wish someone would come and drop a crop duster with ADHD meds on my kids" - and later referred to her more challenging students as "dumb"
That's pretty sad. But what makes this sadder is she said this to me, even though she knows I have ADHD and two wonderful kids with ADHD.
But wait - it gets worse - she ALSO has ADHD, and she ALSO has a kid with ADHD.

This woman could be walking into her school as the advocate and champion for kids with ADHD. She could be open about her challenges and her gifts. She could be the one fighting in the staff room for less classroom management and behavior control, and more inclusive teaching methods and activities. There have to be teachers with neurodiverse brain wiring in every school, I'm sure - the statistics for ADHD, Autism, Mood Disorders, LD's and so forth, would make it highly unlikely that there wouldn't be. We need those teachers to stand up as examples if we are ever going to get the education system to understand that neurodiversity exists in every classroom and therefore, neurodiverse classrooms needs to be the norm.

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