While awareness of neurodivergence is on the rise, understanding isn’t necessarily coming with it. The world is currently geared towards neurotypicals, and as a result, neurodivergent people face unique challenges when it comes to learning and education.
Two conditions that can particularly impact education are ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). These conditions are not problems to be overcome; they are simply different ways of thinking. In this blog, we’ll explore the barriers that neurodivergent students encounter in their academic journeys, and offer some strategies to help overcome them.
You or somebody you know may be neurodivergent but appear ‘fine’. In an effort to ‘fit in’ neurodivergent may ‘mask’ their behaviours in an effort to appear neurotypical, when beneath the surface, they are struggling with some very unique challenges.
ADHD is characterised by difficulties with attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. If you have ADHD, you may struggle with staying focused on tasks and could have trouble organising your work. This can be particularly challenging in academic settings where there are numerous assignments and deadlines to manage. It can also be difficult to stay engaged in lessons and discussions, which can make it challenging to retain information.
One way to help manage ADHD symptoms is to create a structured environment. A big help here will be to have as much information on the academic year ahead as possible. Deadlines, assignments, timetables, whatever is relevant. This will allow you to plan your learning and assignments ahead of time, and plan out your work according to how you do. Do you hyper-fixate? Schedule in time to do so on a particular assignment ahead of time, so you’re not doing it the night before it’s due.
Are assignments too big of a task for you to face? Break them down into smaller, manageable tasks, prioritising the most important ones first. Additionally, try to find a study buddy to discuss the material with, or just an accountability buddy, who can check in with you to make sure you’re on track (and not getting distracted).
ASD can further complicate things as it can make it difficult to communicate and interact with others (Even over Zoom calls). If you have ASD, you may struggle to understand social cues or engage in small talk. This can make it hard to form connections with teachers and peers, which can lead to feelings of isolation.
There’s no easy way to overcome this, as these social cues were put in place by neurotypicals, and you’re not doing anything wrong. Not engaging in eye contact, or asking a question for clarity that somebody may see as rude is not an issue with you, but rather a problem with society’s current understanding of ND.
To navigate this, try to identify ways you can build relationships with others that feel comfortable to you. This could involve communicating with teachers, or peers you’re not familiar with via email, to remove the need for eye contact or social cues. You could also look for a study group with people who share your interests or engage in online forums where you can communicate with others in a more structured way. You may also find it helpful to discuss your needs with your teachers or disability services department to see what resources are available to you.
Many educational outlets offer a ‘safe person’ for those with a diagnosis; an advocate who can act on your behalf and assist in adapting learning to your needs.
Another challenge for neurodivergent students is sensory sensitivities. This can be particularly true for those with ASD, who may be sensitive to sounds, lights, or textures.
To manage sensory sensitivities, it can be helpful to create a learning environment that is comfortable for you. This could involve using noise-cancelling headphones to block out background noise or adjusting the lighting in your study area. Take breaks throughout the day to recharge and minimise sensory overload.
Finally, remember that you are not alone in your struggles. Many people with ADHD and ASD feel like they are a burden to people and choose to mask as a result, as they find it hard to reach out—but there is help out there! There are many resources available to help support neurodivergent students, including disability services departments, academic coaches, and support groups. Don’t hesitate to reach out to these resources for help and support when you need it.
Remember, you are not alone, and there are resources available to help support you along the way. For more information, head over to the Centre for ADHD & Autism Support website.