Understanding neurodiversity is crucial in today’s educational landscape, as it encompasses the vast spectrum of human cognition and behavior. Coined by sociologist Judy Singer in 1998, neurodiversity highlights the inherent variability of the human nervous system and brain. This concept challenges the notion of a single, normative way of thinking, emphasizing that diversity in cognitive processes is natural and essential to humanity. In post-secondary education, although all students can be considered neurodiverse, the system is designed for those who are most considered neurotypical, those who think and learn in a certain way, thus creating challenges for those who are neurodiverse in other ways. Therefore, understanding and proactively seeking methods to dismantle the barriers that are experienced are paramount for fostering an inclusive learning environment. This article explores the history, common usage, challenges, and strategies for supporting neurodiversity in the classroom, advocating for compassionate understanding and proactive support for all students, regardless of their neurological differences.

Understanding the Meaning of Neurodiversity

History of Neurodiversity

The term neurodiversity was first coined in 1998 by sociologist Judy Singer. Singer defines neurodiversity as a noun, as a biological truth which refers to the limitless variability of the human nervous system and brain, in which no two are exactly alike (Singer, 2017). The term is not a diagnosis and was not developed to create an ‘otherness’, as there is no neuro normal or natural, but that neurodiversity applies to everyone. We all think and learn differently as part of biodiversity. In other words, there is no one right way of thinking, and we can all experience and interact with the world in variety of different ways (Baumer & Frueh, 2021). Singer (2017) states that those who are a part of a neurominority are those with medically labelled conditions.

Common Usage of Neurodiversity

Despite the origin of the term neurodiversity as a means of describing biodiversity, the term often used as a means of describing only those who are in the neurominority, often those with neurodevelopmental differences, such as those with learning disabilities including dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and Tourette syndrome. It is often used in a deficit manner, meaning that we focus on neurodiversity for someone who struggles with learning, as opposed to focusing on the strengths that are brought by learning through differences. It is important to remember that there is no one way to define the characteristics of someone who is considered neurodiverse, as they are diverse, and that the challenges that they experience are brought on by the barriers created by societal norms. 

Neurodiversity in Higher Education

Neurodiversity and the conditions that are often considered under the umbrella of this term have gained more attention and understanding in recent years. Therefore, they are more commonly diagnosed than in the past. This means that students in our classrooms may have only recently been diagnosed or experience many of the following challenges but have yet to understand why. Keep in mind that receiving a diagnosis is often time consuming and expensive. Also, students who experience neurological differences often mask their differences, trying to imitate ‘neurotypical behaviour’, often resulting in exhaustion and burnout, a disconnect from their own identity, and distress (Hamilton & Petty, 2023). Anxiety is often a symptom of neurodiversity, as well as feelings of isolation and loneliness, being overwhelmed and frustrated, and a fear of stigmatization due to the lack of understanding from others (Clouder et al., 2020).

In higher education, students who are considered neurodiverse may experience any or all of the following:

  • Challenges with change
  • Struggles with short-term memory
  • Impulsivity
  • Lower levels of intrapersonal skills and engagement
  • Struggles with verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Poor quality sleep
  • Difficulties with notetaking during class
  • Impacts on executive functioning skills such as self-monitoring, prioritizing, time management, and understanding different points of view
  • Sensory overload
  • Lower attendance due to a variety of reasons, including the need for self-care

    Supporting Neurodiversity in the Classroom

    To support neurodiverse students in teaching and learning contexts, there are a variety of considerations to keep in mind.

    • Beware of the ‘hidden curriculum’ and communicate expectations

      Often embedded in education are unwritten expectations about behaviour, interactions, and studying that we don’t teach our students. These expectations can have a negative impact on minoritized students, especially those who experience barriers due to their neurodiversity. Consider your assumptions and be sure to communicate expectations even if you feel students may already know.

    • Adjust for sensory overload

      When possible, allow for quiet space and times in class, breaks, and allow students to wear headphones during in-class work or test time. Also provide time for movement, flexible seating options, and the use of fidget toys.

    • Consider your communication

      Avoid the use of sarcasm, euphemisms or idioms, and implied messages. Provide verbal and written instructions, also breaking down tasks into small steps. When talking to students who have disclosed disabilities to you, or those whom you suspect may be struggling due to neurodiversity, avoid language of pathology (such as high- or low-functioning), deficits, or symptoms. As with all students with disabilities, we want to remember that we are working compassionately to not focus on their limitations, but instead to remove barriers.

    • State the rules of etiquette

      Inform students of your classroom expectations and “rules” of etiquette, perhaps starting with a class contract at the beginning of term that can be posted each week.

    • Provide slides

      Provide your slide decks to all students prior to class.

    • Assist with note-taking

      Encourage a shared notetaking strategy in the classroom, such as a shared document in which students are assigned a week to share their notes for a bonus mark.

    • Consider your dates and deadlines

      When planning your course, attempt to work with other faculty teaching the same cohort of students to avoid overlapping tests and due dates. Avoid changing test and assignment dates. When unavoidable, give advanced notice and the reasons for any changes made. Also, consider soft deadlines, avoiding punitive late penalties.

    • Consider in-class work time

      Allow for class time to work on assignments when possible. Allow students who cannot finish in-class work on time to submit work online or at the next class.

    • Incorporate Universal Design for Learning

      Practice principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in allowing choices for student engagement, representation and expression of learning. For example, consider providing videos and text to explain a concept and allow students a choice in the means with which they complete their assignments.

    • Consider your group work

      If your course is designed for group work, but it is not a requirement as per the learning outcomes, consider allowing the group work to be optional. Also, consider how groups are made, supporting students to find partners/groups, and have discussions about how to work together as a group on the project.

    • Remind of student services

      Letting students know about the disability services and assistive technology available on campus, while keeping in mind that many students who are struggling may not be diagnosed with a disability. Students may be unaware of the services available such as peer tutoring or mentoring services which would be beneficial to them. Also, encouraging social interaction through clubs and events. Check to see if your campus has quiet break spaces and/or a Snoezelen room (a multisensory space) for students and share this information with them.

    • Beware of your assummptions

      When a student is in the classroom with their eyes closed, or has low attendance, or takes frequent breaks, it is easy to make assumptions about that student. Keep in mind that when you work compassionately with kindness and patience, you may be the instructor that can make all the difference for that student. If you have concerns, ask them questions, or seek anonymous formative feedback from your class.

    Summary/Key Takeaways

    Considering that humanity is neurodiverse, that we all learn and experience things differently, it is important to consider how those with disabilities or that think differently than what is considered normative in society experience when in post-secondary education. These challenges include, but are not limited to, difficulties with communication, executive functioning, and sleep, as well as sensory overload. Turning to principles of Universal Design for Learning, as well as providing other supports can help to decrease or even eliminate some of the barriers that students experience for their learning.



    Baumer, N., & Frueh, F. (2021, November 23). What is neurodiversity? Harvard health publishing.

    Clouder, L., Karakus, M., Cinotti, A., Ferreyra, M. V., Fierros, G. A., & Rojo, P. (2020). Neurodiversity in higher education: A narrative synthesis. Higher Education, 80(4), 757-778.

    Hamilton, L. G., & Petty, S. (2023). Compassionate pedagogy for neurodiversity in higher education: A conceptual analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 14.

    Singer, J. (2017). NeuroDiversity: The birth of an idea. Judy Singer.

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