Embracing an Asset-based Model of Neurodiversity: Challenges and Academic Supports

Neurodiversity is a concept or movement that emphasizes that neurological differences should be recognized and respected as a variation of human wiring rather than a disease (Armstrong, 2011; Clouder et al., 2020). While autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is often identified as its primary focus, neurodiversity is an umbrella term that includes other neurological conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia (Bolourian et al., 2018; Gillespie-Lynch, 2017; Ortiz, 2020). The number of neurodiverse students is increasing. The National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 20% of ninth graders with autism and 21% with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), who completed high school in 2013, enrolled in a four-year public university. It is very likely that at some point in their practice, faculty will find themselves teaching neurodivergent students. (Kingsbury et al., 2020).

Major Characteristics of Neurodivergent Students

Students with ASD or ADHD have overlapping challenges in the areas of executive functioning skills, social-communication difficulties, and sensory sensitivities. Executive functioning encompasses self-regulation skills needed to succeed in college such as completing assignments on time, organizing study materials, and monitoring one’s progress toward specified goals (Gillespie, 2018). Social-communication difficulties entail the tendency to interpret language literally and an inability to read social cues which can affect interpretation of faculty’s instructions, and have negative impact on student-instructor and student-student interaction (Ortiz, 2020). Sensory sensitivities to noise and other external stimuli may impact students’ ability to cope in classroom settings (Cai & Richdale, 2016; Kingsbury, 2020).

Students’ neurodivergency related difficulties interfere with academic success and subsequently graduation rates. Research indicated only 41% of students with disabilities, including autism, enrolled in a four-year college will graduate with a bachelor’s degree whereas approximately 59% of the average, non-disability students graduate (White et al., 2016). The discrepancy in completion rates is disconcerting in view of the positive relationship between postsecondary education and the attainment of successful postsecondary education employment.

The advocates of neurodiversity emphasize that low graduation rates are not attributable to lack of academic ability. Neurodivergent students can grasp academic content; more than half of them have average or above average intelligence (Cai & Richdale, 2016; Ortiz, 2020). They stress the importance of providing educational supports to help neurodiverse students develop the executive functioning and social interaction skills needed to succeed in college and in the workplace (Gillespie et al., 2017, Ortiz, 2020). Finally, they affirm that the challenges that neurodivergent students face represent differences not deficits. As such, their neurological diversity is as important as the other diversities that higher education celebrates and supports in the student population (Nyhan, 2018). With neurodiversity awareness, acceptance, and a supportive culture, neurodivergent students can thrive in college programs.

 Accommodations and Limitations

The educational supports that neurodiverse students receive ensued from important federal legislation such as the American with Disability Act of 1990 and the Section 504 protections of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Campus Disability Access Services provides accommodations to students in the university environment. As important as the supports from DAS are, these services are often not enough for two reasons. First, for fear of stigmatization, and because of their perception that accommodations are discriminatory, some neurodiverse students do not disclose their disability. Consequently, they do not receive requisite accommodations, and faculty may not be aware of their challenges (Cai & Richdale, 2016; Clouder et al., 2020). Second, these accommodations do not educate faculty about the strategies for engaging neurodiverse students in learning in their courses (Ortiz, 2020).

The question then becomes: What pedagogical supports could faculty provide to make course content more accessible to neurodiverse students whether or not they disclose their disabilities? In the accompanying resource guide, I present two answers to the question:

  • Evidence-informed pedagogical strategies that faculty might adapt to support the learning of neurodiverse students.
  • Advice for creating a supportive learning environment for neurodiverse students.


Armstrong, T. (2012). First, discover their strengths. Educational Leadership, 70(2), 10 -16.

Bolouran, Y., Zeedyk. S. M., & Blacher, J. (2018). Autism and the university experience. Narratives from students with neurodevelopmental disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48, 3330-3343.

Cai, R. Y., & Richdale, A. L. (2016). Educational experiences and needs of higher education students with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46, 31-41.

Clouder, L., Karakus, M., Cinotti. A., Ferreyra, M. G., Fierros, G.A., & Rojo, P. (2020). Neurodiversity in higher education: A narrative synthesis. Higher Education, 80, 757-778

Gillespie-Lynch, K., Bublitz, D., Donachie, A., Wong, V., Brooks, P. J., & D’Onofrio, J. (2017). “For a long time our voices have been hushed:” Using student perspectives to develop supports for neurodiverse college students. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(544), 1-14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00544

Kingsbury, C. G., Sibert, E. C., Killingback, Z., & Atchison, C. L. (2020). “Nothing about us without us:” The perspectives of autistic geoscientists on inclusive instructional practices in geoscience education. Journal of Geoscience Education, 68(4), 302-310.

Nyhan, S. (2018). Disability or divergent characteristics? The Journal of College Admission, 241, 50-53.

Ortiz, L. A. (2020). Reframing neurodiversity as competitive edge advantage: Opportunities, challenges, and resources for business and professional communication educators. Business and Professional Education Quarterly, 83(3), 261-284.

White, S.W., Elias, R., Salinas, C. E., Capriola, N., Conner, C.M., & Asselin, S. B. (2016). Students with autism spectrum disorder in college: Results from a preliminary mixed methods needs analysis. Research in Developmental Abilities, 76, 29-40. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2016.05.010

Funmi Amobi is CTL’s Instructional Consultant and College Liaison

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One response to “Embracing an Asset-based Model of Neurodiversity: Challenges and Academic Supports”

  1. Jeremy Hershberger Avatar
    Jeremy Hershberger

    Thanks for providing this recourse guide and for discussing this topic. I am a neurodiverse person with a master degree and I certainly can affirm that pedagogical strategies that are friendly to neurodiverse students makes a big difference in both class performance and mental health of students.

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