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Embracing Neurodiversity in Higher Education: Using Transformative Educational Practices to

Overcome Attitudinal Barriers for Individuals with Autism

Karen DeYoung

An Inquiry Project Submitted to the

MAED Program for Experienced Educators
Center for Programs in Education
Antioch University Seattle
December 10, 2013

Ed Mikel, PhD
Core Faculty College of Education

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of

Master of Arts in Education

Table of Contents
Acknowledgements........................................................................................................................ 3

Abstract........................................................................................................................................... 4
Introduction/Statement of Focus.................................................................................................. 5
Rationale......................................................................................................................................... 5
Review of the Literature................................................................................................................ 6
Student Voices.................................................................................................................................7
Disability Studies and Neurodiversity.......................................................................................... 9
Finding Solutions........................................................................................................................... 9
Theoretical Perspective............................................................................................................... 10
Statement of Bias..........................................................................................................................10
Methodology................................................................................................................................. 11
Participants .................................................................................................................................. 11
Instrumentation............................................................................................................................ 11
Findings & Analysis..................................................................................................................... 12
Introduction................................................................................................................................ 12
Initial Survey of Workshop Participants..................................................................................... 13
Summary of Initial Survey.......................................................................................................... 13
Transcribed Workshop Small Group Discussions....................................................................... 13
Summary of Small Group Discussions........................................................................................ 14
References..................................................................................................................................... 16

I would like to acknowledge the support of several faculty members at Antioch University,
Seattle, who have been so very helpful to me as I developed the seminar/workshop and wrote my
thesis paper. Without the depth and breadth of the core curriculum of the Masters of Arts in
Education/Experienced Educators program I would not have so readily developed the
perspective that I hope comes across in this paper. For that I am extremely grateful. I would
also like to acknowledge the wonderful contributions made by the autistic students who were
willing to share their experiences in higher education with me and with a wider audience through
the video of student interviews that was created as part of the seminar/workshop. Finally, I
would like to express my appreciation to my family; my husband and my two sons who each, in
their own way, contributed something uniquely valuable to this final Inquiry Project, with a
special thanks to my youngest son Zane, who contributed many, many hours helping to edit the
student interviews and who was instrumental in producing the final film.

Neurodiverse students face multiple barriers to access and success in higher education settings.
Individual attitudes, perspectives and knowledge are at the root of these barriers which include
structural and systemic barriers created when there is a lack of awareness and/or acceptance of
difference. Faculty, staff, service providers and administrators have varying roles to fulfill within
the educational setting. All roles are instrumental in creating an environment which can either
support or undermine neurodiverse students opportunity to participate in and benefit from the
college experience along with their neurotypical peers. This project has demonstrated that
participation by faculty, staff, and students in an interactive seminar/workshop can raise
awareness of the unique strengths and challenges face by neurodiverse students in higher
education. In turn, this experience should be one way that participants come to see the need and
the possibilities to create a better academic and social environment for neurodiverse students and
enhanced interactions with them by faculty, staff and other students alike.

Introduction/Statement of Focus
This Inquiry Project examined college faculty and staff attitudes, perceptions, and
experiences of neurodiverse students with autism. I hoped to bring into focus currently held
belief systems that may unknowingly be perpetuating marginalization of particular students. The
questions this project asked were: How can attitudes held by faculty, staff and service providers
create barriers or avenues to success for college students with autism and can raising/expanding
awareness of attitudinal barriers create shifts in understanding and perspectives on the part of
those individuals who interact with neurodiverse students in the classroom and on campus?
Through the vehicle of an interactive workshop I hoped to raise awareness of the unique
challenges neurodiverse college students face. By creating opportunities for critical selfexamination, shared discourse, personal narratives of neurodiverse individuals, and exposure to
current critical disability studies research in a supportive, collaborative environment, my goal
was to foster meaningful change in faculty and staffs interactions with neurodiverse students in
higher education.
Transformative learning is a way to create authentic and fundamental change: change that
empowers individuals and groups of individuals, through a process of critical reflection and
action, to become more aware of individual ...habits of mind and points of view (Moore, 2005,
p. 82). With deeper awareness of self, comes recognition of individual differences in perspective
and experience in others. As our society grows more diverse, we are challenged to become more
aware of how dominant cultural, social, political and educational systems may or may not be
meeting the needs of all our citizens. One area relatively new to discourses on multiculturalism,
pluralism and diversity is the broad domain of disability.
There is a growing research body in the field of critical Disability Studies that seeks to
validate the experiences of individuals with disabilities as they interact with the structures and
systems that exist in our society (Barnes, 2007; Beardon, Martin & Woolsey, 2009; Bertilsdotter-

Rosqvist, 2012; Chown & Beaven, 2012; Connor, 2013; Hastwell, Martin, Baron-Cohen &
Harding, 2012; Madriaga, 2010; Madriaga & Goodley, 2010; Mathews, 2009). This critical
perspective exemplifies transformative education in that it decenters normative thinking with
regards to the human experience, viewing disability as a product of society and environment
rather than a product of individual deficit or impairment; often referred to as a social model
of disability(Barnes, 2007, p.135).
Thomas Armstrong (2010) in his book, The Power of Neurodiversity describes
neurodiversity this way: Just as we use the terms cultural diversity and biodiversity to refer
to the rich variety of social heritage or biological life, we need a term that conveys a sense of the
richness of different kinds of brains (p.x). The broad definition of neurodiversity includes
individuals with specific learning disabilities (SLD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Anxiety
Disorders, Autism, Aspergers Syndrome, Tourettes syndrome and other neurodevelopmental
differences and is used as an empowering alternative to medical labels which describe and
attribute deficiencies rather than differences in brain development. For the purposes of this
project, my use of the term neurodiverse students is specific to students with Autism Spectrum
Conditions (ASC) or Aspergers Syndrome (AS) (Armstrong, 2010).

This Inquiry Project was an outgrowth of my journey as parent, professional and student
with applications that I believe have the potential to empower great transformation in the lives of
individuals with disabilities, their families, and society at large. I have a son with autism. I also
have a son who fits the criteria for being neurotypical. Witnessing the process of learning
through their eyes and getting to know their individual sensory experiences, their unique
intelligences has opened a window to the immense diversity of human experience and learning.
Parenting these two lovely and profoundly different boys led to my initial work in the field of

early childhood special education. As they matured and I observed their interactions with the
world beyond their supportive, nurturing home environment, my research interests shifted to the
challenges facing neurodiverse individuals who are on the cusp of adulthood. They too, just as
their neurotypical peers, have dreams and aspirations; yet there are structural, social, cultural and
environmental barriers that neurodiverse individuals and their families must confront on a daily
basis. Raising a child whose very being contradicts many of the normative assumptions of
human development disrupted my vision of parenting and impacted all other relationships in my
life. It challenged my identity as a mother, my relationship with my husband, my friendships,
extended family as well as my interactions with educational communities in which our family
From a very young age, our oldest son Cody (who was diagnosed with High Functioning
Autism at age 20) was a curious, intelligent and focused child whose verbal and intellectual
capabilities surpassed those of his peers and way beyond. At age two he was spending hours
outdoors with me as I gardened. We examined every creature we found in the yard and in the
soil. His fascination with the flora and fauna of our backyard was boundless. If he wasnt
interested in playing with other children it was because observing the creatures in our backyard
pond or walking down the street to spend hours observing the bustling activity of a Western
Thatching Ant nest was infinitely more enthralling. By the time he was reading independently
around six or seven years of age, he knew more than most adults about what was living in the
soil, under the rocks, under the bark, in the tree tops and in the water.
Cody grew up in an environment that made him feel alive, engaged and embraced. Within
the nurturing and supportive environment of our home, our son was able to explore and develop
his true capabilities. His education grew out of his interests and strengths, and he proceeded at
his own pace at home. Opportunities to interact with a wider community were through venues
that supported his interests and gifts. As a result, his interactions with others outside of his

family were by in large, positive and supportive, as he was able to present himself as uniquely
capable and competent.
From time to time my husband and I would falter in our determination to support our
sons unique path. Fearful that we were depriving him of the opportunity to develop normal
peer relationships and learn how to be in a classroom environment, which is what our current
societal schema presents to us as necessary, we would enroll him in public school. Each time
we did so, we were shown a vision of our son through the narrow and biased lens of an education
system that did not recognize or encourage diversity of learning, diversity of interests, diversity
of development. The image they showed us was of a withdrawn, unresponsive boy who was
picked on and bullied by peers, unable to follow instructions, unable to complete school work as
assigned and in need of educational intervention. Yet at home, our son was reading college level
books on natural history, entomology, paleontology, invertebrate and vertebrate biology and
conversing competently way beyond his age/grade level. Hours in a day were spent drawing
beautifully detailed and accurate depictions of the natural world. He eagerly learned about and
embraced his fathers Scandinavian cultural heritage and love of Norse Mythology, enjoyed
family celebrations and traditions, participated in our familys small home-based businesses,
participated in community events and helped out at home. In his home environment he was
thriving, in various school environments he was stigmatized and marginalized by peers and
teachers alike.
The contrast in Codys identities was staggering and begs the question: How many other
families and children have been deprived of the opportunity to thrive in an environment that
celebrates and nurtures individual strengths instead of withering under socially constructed
deficits? Similar feelings of depersonalized identities brought on by exposure to institutionalized
structures and systems were expressed by this parent:

When I first met Kim he was my son. A year later he was epileptic and
developmentally delayed. At eighteen months he had special needs and he
was a special child. He had a mild to moderate learning difficulty. He was
mentally handicapped At nine he came out of segregated schooling and
he slowly became my son again. Never again will he be anything else but
Kima son, a brother, a friend, a pupil, a teacher, a person. (Murray,
1996, in Murray & Penman, 1996, as cited in Goodley, 2010, p.221).
We found ourselves confronted with making a choice between viewing our son as a brilliant,
unique individual with tremendous passions and many focused interests, or a disabled child in
need of intense educational interventions. We chose the former; how could we not?
What is gratifying to me is to realize that in making that choice, my family and I were
embracing the essence of de-centering the norm, and re-centering our sons growth and
development as the norm. We rejected what socio-cultural expectations wanted us to hold up as
a standard of comparison because that standard created a version of our child which was untrue.
We made this choice not because we were well versed in critical disability studies research or
understood the difference between a social model of disability and the medical model of
disability, but because it felt natural and right. Choosing to continue to love and validate our
son for who he was allowed us to set aright the container holding our family system that had
been jarred by contact with a rigid education system.
Now, I fast forward to college, where Cody had an array of academic/career choices;
music, drama or art, biology, zoology, anthropology or paleontology? Eager for the chance to
engage in academically stimulating conversations about meaningful topics, the ability to take
classes in areas that were of interest and would help his reach his career goals, our son enrolled
at community college. The placement tests held no surprises, placing him in a remedial math

class. That had been the one academic area that had always proved difficult. Like many
typically developing young adults our son experimented with classes, switched campuses and
majors, took time off to travel and eventually received his General Studies Associates Degree.
Along the way he began to develop a heightened sense of anxiety, depression, anger and
frustration. Through many lengthy conversations we were able to identify that for him, the lack
of intellectual depth and narrowness of curriculum and instruction in the majority of his classes,
focus on group activities rather than individual learning, impersonal nature of the
instructor/student relationships, lack of quiet places to study and his overwhelmed sensory
system all were converging to create disequilibrium. At the time, we thought these were
challenges unique to our son, and had no idea that his experiences, sadly, were part of a
continuum of similar struggles experienced by other neurodiverse students on college campuses
(Hart, Griegel & Weir, 2010; Madriaga, 2010; VanBergeijk, Klin & Volkmar, 2008).
Nevertheless, Cody continued with his education, choosing to pursue Entomology as his career
goal. This would entail him attending a university distant enough to require him to live away
from home.
By this time, having worked for several years with young children with sensory
processing differences, autism and other neurodevelopmental differences, and having recently
taken classes in special education as returning undergraduate myself, I was aware that Cody
shared many of the characteristics of Aspergers Syndrome both as a young child and as an adult.
I knew that living in a dormitory situation was going to be problematic and not having a familiar
place to come home to at the end of a stressful day of classes would be difficult. I spoke to one
of my professors who advised us to have our son evaluated by a professional so that he could
take advantage of the supports and services provided specifically for students with disabilities,
including the potential to ask for a private room. This we did, with the result being that our son

was officially diagnosed with High Functioning Autism (which they differentiated from
Aspergers Syndrome due to symptoms being present before age 3, according to the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual, 4th edition (DSM IV) as well as a significant math disability
(Dyscalculia). In addition, he was described as twice exceptional: gifted and learning disabled.
Codys IQ results were both way above the mean (Verbal Comprehension) and way below (Math
Fluency). We now had a common vocabulary that officially identified our son as disabled.
Our son was relieved with the diagnosis. To him, it meant that there was now science
behind what he had always known about himself he was different, here was a scientifically
validated reason why, and nobody could dispute it. As he put it: At least now I know Im not
just some weird guy, I have a real brain difference that makes me the way I am (K. DeYoung,
Personal Communication, 2011). For me, prepared as I was for the professional confirmation of
our sons difference, it still came as a shock. It brought back into living color once again, the
dueling images of my son: Unique vs. Disabled. Nevertheless, we now had the documentation
(paid for out of pocket in the amount of $1,200) that the university was requiring in order to
provide accommodations. Our son requested and was granted, a private dorm room and within a
few short weeks was headed over the mountains to his new school.
My husband and I had met previously with the Disability Service Provider at his
university, to get a sense for what supports and services they offered. We were given generalized
information, but without Codys signature on a waiver they were not permitted to discuss with us
any information that related personally to our son. In contrast with support services in K-12
settings, where public school districts are required to identify and provide Free and Appropriate
Education (FAPE) for children in need of services, access to supports and services in higher
education is provided only after a student self-identifies their disability and provides formal
documentation. This creates an enormous challenge for families of students with disabilities, as

they are not automatically included in the communication loop at colleges and universities. In
fact, unless their child signs a waiver which allows the college to communicate with their
parents, colleges are legally obligated to NOT discuss the student with their parents (ADA, 2008;
FERPA, 2007). Consider the irony of a system which mandates professionally documented
evidence of a disability, and in the case of autism, a disability whose central hallmarks are
challenges with communication, sensory challenges, processing challenges, self-awareness, and
in addition, requires this same individual with the above challenges, to self-identify and selfadvocate in order to access the accommodations he/she is entitled to under the law (OCR, 2011;
ADA, 2008).
The support services that were offered through the Universitys Disability Service Office
were time and a half on quizzes and exams, a quiet room to take exams and access to a note taker
should he need it. These are commonly offered accommodations for many students with
disabilities (OCR, 2011). In addition, through TRiO Student Support Services (TRiO SSS), a
federally supported student support program, he was offered weekly appointments with a support
counselor for the first month. One on one meetings would give him a built-in support system, a
way of checking in with someone who could help with any problems that might come up as he
adjusted to his new environment (Washington State University TRiO SSS).
Like many things in life, good intentions do not necessarily translate into good practice.
Our son struggled to feel comfortable discussing his daily challenges with someone he didnt
know well, and someone who was unfamiliar with the realities of being a person with high
functioning autism. Understaffing in the TRiO office created a situation where phone calls or emails were not answered in a timely fashion, staff turn-over was high and counselors were
changed frequently. The Disability Service Office was separate from the TRiO office, located at
opposite ends of the campus, and our son found it difficult to understand which office provided
which supports. In addition, while accommodations are requested by Disability Service

Providers of the instructors, instructors may or may not comply, may comply inconsistently, may
think they are complying but in fact are not, and the student often finds themselves having to
advocate vigorously for themselves with individuals who are in a position of power over them.
For students who struggle with communication issues, coming from a position of marginalization
and having to continually remind a busy, over worked professor of their accommodation needs
creates a barrier that is next to impossible to overcome (Simmeborn-Fleischer, 2012).
Daily life was a struggle. The dining hall was over-crowded and noisy with many
students waiting in countless lines. Alternative dining areas were spread far across the campus
and required navigating through additional crowds of students that easily overwhelmed our sons
hypersensitive sensory system. His private room was located directly over the ventilation system
for the dining hall that was extremely loud and blew hot, pungent air in through his windows.
Naturally, he chose to keep his windows closed, preferring the stuffiness of a closed room to the
smells and roars of the dining hall ventilation fan. A heavily travelled walkway was located
below his windows as well and students walking past at all hours of the day and night created an
additional layer of auditory overload.
Classes were stressful and lecture halls were crowded, with students regularly talking,
texting and internet surfing, rather than focusing on the lecturer. Our son found this very
distracting and equally frustrating as he was trying hard to absorb the lecture. The library offered
no sanctuary, having no enforced quiet areas of study. Students regularly talked and joked and
tossed garbage at each other. The TRIO SSS office offered some quiet areas, however, as it was
a large campus, there was often not enough time during breaks to get from a classroom to the
TRIO office and then to class again.
An additional challenge was his math disability. Being a science major in todays times
requires that all students, regardless of which branch of science they are working in, take a
standard sequence of chemistry, advanced math, biology and physics, with a heavy emphasis on

math and chemistry. No matter that the career our son was focusing on, Entomology and
Taxonomy, would not require skills in calculus or chemistry. The accommodations provided to a
student with dyscalculia were the same as for any other learning disability whether a student
struggled with reading or writing, receptive or productive language, working memory, processing
time, fluency or comprehension. They were time and a half on tests and quizzes, separate testing
room and a note taker for class.
Tutoring was available. However, tutors tend to be advanced students with no training in
pedagogy, and certainly no training in working with students with disabilities. Inevitably, the
tutoring experience was stressful, anxiety provoking and consequently, unhelpful and
unsuccessful. Math instructors/tutors in our sons experience were the least supportive of his
needs, the least accepting of the fundamental brain differences that create a math disability. Too
many times to mention our son was told that he simply needed to work harder, do more practice
sets, spend more time on drills. At one point our son was being tutored twice a week by a private
math tutor, spending four to six hours a day on math homework in an attempt to pass a
community college introductory calculus class. Having difficulties with working memory, he
would learn the process one problem at a time, with each new problem seeming as unfamiliar to
him as if he had not just done the previous one five minutes earlier. As is common for many
students with specific learning disabilities, our son found it necessary to repeat math and
chemistry classes multiple times, while his grade point suffered (NCD, 2003).
There was one shining bright spot in his day. Through work study, our son was able to
work in the Entomology Museum under the guidance of the Museum Director, organizing and
cataloging their insect collections. Here he thrived; here he felt at home. It was quiet, he worked
independently and it was work he loved. He spent hours far beyond his required work study
hours; evenings, weekends, school holidays. In the museum he discovered what for him felt like
pure joy: intensely focused, detailed work challenging his intellect and nurturing his psyche.

Here he could rejuvenate himself. We were hopeful that this experience would be enough to
counterbalance all the stressors that accompanied each and every day of our sons life at school.
Sadly, we were wrong.
In the early morning hours, the day our son was due home for the Thanksgiving
Holidays, the phone woke us from our sleep. I answered. It was Cody, frantic, hysterical and
clearly out of control. The plan had been for him to take the bus home that day, which would
require getting up early, walking through campus and down the hill towards town and the bus
station. It was dark, it was snowing, and like many young college students, our son had waited
until the last minute to organize and pack himself up for the trip home. Whether it was due to his
autism or just typical youthful underestimation of time and organization, he found himself
hurrying out the door, with an overflowing backpack and an overstuffed suitcase, heavy with
books and papers.
By the time he arrived at the bus station, it was to find the bus overbooked and a long
line of students waiting for a mythical second bus to appear at some unknown time. It was the
perfect storm. The cumulative stress that he had been under all semester, coupled with his
inability to understand, in the moment, why he wasnt on the bus coming home boiled over and
he began yelling and screaming at the bus driver and everyone else while the station manager
called the police. We were extremely fortunate in that the local police had recently received
sensitivity training around student issues, including de-escalating volatile situations. One
officer was able to approach our son with a calm and reassuring presence, leading him away
from the scene and encouraging him to call his parents. It was at this point that we got the
previously mentioned phone call, and within thirty minutes, my husband was on his way, a mere
five hours drive across a mountain pass, in the middle of a heavy snowstorm, to pick up our son.
Exemplifying a great resiliency and strength of character that I attribute to the support of a
dedicated and loving family and a deep connection with his passions, our son did return to school

and finish out the semester, doing well in all his classes except for his calculus class, which he
failed. In the end, despite his wonderful experience in the Entomology Museum, the day-to-day
stressors ultimately outweighed the joy of the museum work and with great reluctance and
disappointment he made the choice not to continue into the next semester.
During this time of anxiety and stress for our entire family, I continued with my studies,
reading current research on issues in post-secondary education for individuals with autism in
theory, and living it daily in reality. Part of my undergraduate research involved creating a
parent discussion group for parents of college age students with neurodevelopmental differences.
The purpose of the group was to empower parents to create necessary change, support each other
as we discover our commonalities and differences, share resources and celebrate our children and
ourselves. Our discussions centered on educational practices in both K-12 and post-secondary
educational systems and included a great deal of personal reflection as to how those systems
impacted our children, ourselves, our families and our communities. Every story told
reverberated through the group and resonated deep within each of us.
In June of 2012, I received my B.A. in Early Childhood/Family Studies from a local
university and began to deliberate whether or not to continue my graduate studies at the same
institution. I had been accepted into the Masters in Early Childhood Special Education program
at my current university or I could create an entirely new pathway for myself at an alternative
university with more opportunity for self direction. Ultimately, I chose the alternative setting as
it would allow me the flexibility to pursue my developing interest in neurodiversity in higher
education; a topic that had been growing more relevant to me as I observed my own sons
experiences with post-secondary educational settings and heard narratives of similar struggles
from parents in the parent group.
It was the right decision. Since beginning at the new institution, I have been exposed to
course work in adult education, social justice, multiculturalism and diversity. As a result I have

been able to make strong connections between emancipatory research, disability studies and
neurodiversity which together create the inspiration and foundation for my thesis.

Review of the Literature

Research shows that since the late 1980s and early 1990s, the number of children with
neurodevelopmental differences has risen dramatically (Newschaffer, 2007). In fact, the
latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reveal that 1 in 88 children in the
United States have a diagnosis of autism (CDC, 2012). Since the establishment of the
Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), more and more children with disabilities
are participating in mainstream classrooms and are making plans for the future alongside their
peers; plans which include college (Hart, Grigal and Weir, 2010). Many individuals on the
autism spectrum have the intellectual capability to participate in college, often bringing with
them a highly developed, even superior knowledge of particular subjects of interest (Martin,
2006). For these individuals, much of their self-esteem and self-image is based upon their
intellectual capabilities rather than friendships, physical talents and popularity (Camarena &
Sarigiani, 2009). As a result, many college and university campuses are experiencing an increase
in students with autism (Hart, Grigal and Weir, 2010; Hastwell, Martin, Baron-Cohen & Harding,
2012; Simmeborn - Fleischer, 2012).
Despite the cultural norm of growing independence at the end of high school for neurotypical young adults, individuals with neurodevelopmental differences often experience delays
and/or restrictions in development, and parents find themselves continuing in a very active role
where other parents are not (Dosa,White and Schuyler, 2007). Many students have difficulty
with expressive communication that makes it hard for them to self-advocate; an expectation that
is assumed in higher education (Hewitt, 2011; VanBergeijk, Klin, & Volkmar, 2008). These

students often struggle with self-awareness, particularly when it comes to assessing their own
strengths and challenges and sometimes have unrealistic goals and careers plans (Janiga &
Costenbader, 2002). Parents (most often mothers) find themselves taking on a more active role
in the transition to college, such as that of service provider and coordinator for their children as
they leave the structured support of Individual Education Plan (IEP) services in high-school
(Taylor & Seltzer, 2010). Martin (2006) addresses this directly, stating:
Family input often plays a crucial role in enabling students with AS to manage at
university University staff have to balance the understanding that a high level of
parental involvement is likely, with respect for the feelings, wishes and aspirations of the
student with AS who may be trying to develop a greater degree of independence (p. 52).
Barriers to access are potentially created when institutions of Higher Education are obligated
under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to insist that the student with the
disability be solely responsible for identifying their needs and requesting accommodations
(OCR, 2011).
For the majority of individuals with disabilities, despite the fact that better supports in K12 education have caused a decrease in the number of high school drop-outs and an increase in
students with disabilities graduating from high school with a diploma, according to the National
Council on Disability (NCD), access to post-secondary education remains extremely difficult. In
addition, students with disabilities are less likely to stay in school long enough to receive a
degree, and those that do, often take longer to complete their degrees than students without
disabilities (NCD, 2003).
Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its subsequent
amendment in 2008 reinforcing the right of individuals with disabilities to be afforded access to
postsecondary education, adult learning settings such as community colleges and universities are
seeing increases in the number of students with disabilities (SWD). These individuals, along

with their families, have worked tremendously hard overcoming personal, institutional and
attitudinal barriers so that they might share in the college experience alongside their peers (ADA,
2008; Petrilla, 2009). Accompanying this demographic shift is the recognition of the support
needs for SWD participating in a variety of post-secondary education settings (MacLeod &
Green, 2009; OCR, 2011; Wolman, McCrink, Rodriguez & Harris-Looby, 2004).
Accommodations in higher education for SWD are fundamentally different from those in
K-12 education. In K-12 settings, served under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education
Act (IDEA), students with disabilities are entitled to Free and Appropriate Public Education
(FAPE), including aids and services and even modification of curriculum if that is determined to
be necessary (IDEA, 2004). Accommodations in higher education under the Americans with
Disabilities Act (ADA, 2008) are offered as aides to overcoming barriers to access [italics my
emphasis] which is substantially different from IDEA mandates. Standard accommodations in
college include such things as such as time and a half for quizzes and exams, having a quiet
room in which to take exams, and note takers. Various forms of assistive technology are now
becoming more available for students with physical impairments (ADA, 2008).
Increasingly, college campuses here in the United States as well as abroad are
experiencing growth in student populations with neurodevelopmental disabilities such as Autism
Spectrum Conditions, Aspergers Syndrome, ADHD, and Specific Learning Disabilities
(dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia) (Gobbo & Shmulsky, 2012; Griffin & Pollack, 2009; Smith,
2007; Wolf, 2001). While neurodiverse students may benefit from the standard accommodations
offered to all SWDs, their needs often lay outside of traditional academic supports (Hart, Greigal
&Wier, 2010; White, Ollendeck & Bray, 2011).
Unfortunately, there are many attitudinal and institutional barriers to accessing
postsecondary education for young adults with neurodevelopmental differences, not to mention
completing their degree and future employment (Rothman, Maldonado & Rothman, 2008).

Many neurodevelopmental differences are often hidden in that they are not automatically
apparent to those who are unfamiliar with the individual. Faculty, staff and students lack
awareness of the challenges facing these individuals and often respond negatively to their
presence on campus and in college classrooms (Adreon & Durocher, 2007; Camarena &
Sarigiani, 2009; Wolf, 2001). In some cases faculty and staff can be unaware of their legal
obligations under the ADA (ADA, 2008; Eckes & Ochoa, 2005). Attitudes toward disability on
the part of faculty and staff at colleges/universities often reflect a belief that postsecondary
education should remain the exclusive domain of those who meet narrowly defined standards of
educational and intellectual accomplishment (Hart, Grigal and Weir, 2010).
College life presents unique challenges to students with neurodevelopmental differences
(VanBergeijk, Klin, & Volkmar, 2008). The requirement for self-disclosure shifts the
responsibility of accessing appropriate supports from school staff and parents, as is the policy in
secondary education, to the student, who must take the responsibility to self-identify with the
institutions Disability Services Office. Many students are either unaware of their options or
choose not to come forward and self- identify as needing special accommodations (MacLeod &
Green, 2009; Madriaga & Goodley, 2010). For students whose neurological differences result in
challenges in communication and social cognition as well as difficulties with organization,
planning, motivation and self-awareness, lacking awareness of support services and/or choosing
not to use services can place students at risk of school failure (Hewitt, 2011; Taylor & Seltzer,
Students who do access student support services often find themselves working with staff
who have not been educated as to the scope of assistance these students need, offering instead a
limited, pre-packaged list of accommodations that falls far short of meeting their needs.
Indeed, many of these students struggle with depression and anxiety in addition to their
neurological differences which stems from living in a world that neither accepts nor

accommodates their differences. Most are constantly coping with confusing and stressful social
interactions with peers, faculty and staff (Adreon and Durocher, 2007; Gobbo & Shmulsky,
2012; Hewitt, 2011; White, Ollendeck & Bray, 2011). Despite the difficulties and challenges
neurodiverse students seem to present in higher education, it is important to keep in mind that
students with autism can perform on a par with their IQ-matched, neurotypical peers and may
be very high-achievers, but only where the learning and teaching environment takes account of
their often conspicuously uneven cognitive profile of strengths and weaknesses (Chown &
Beaven, 2011, p. 481). Martin (2006) reminds us, Celebrating differences and diversity rather
than perceiving people with AS as other, or impaired, is the positive position which is advocated
here (p. 52).
Student Voices
A crucial component of any research that seeks as its outcome the empowerment of
marginalized individuals is the inclusion of the subjects voice. Indeed, it can be argued that
without knowledge of the perspectives, lived experiences, goals and dreams of the individuals at
the center of the research, any conclusion, potential interventions and/or policy recommendations
are subject to question and potentially invalid (Barnes & Mercer, 1997). Madriaga and Goodley
(2010) quote Deal, 2006:
Traditional research has pathologised the individual by focusing on the problematic
nature of AS. We seek [sic] to address this imbalance by placing students with the label
of AS at the centre [sic] of the process. It is they who can best identify enabling and
disabling attitudes and practices found within their university. They are experts in
recognizing barriers within universities that a non-disabled, neuro-typical world
unwittingly take for granted (p. 118).
There are common themes that run through a variety of research articles written in
several different countries including, Sweden, United Kingdom, Mexico and the United States,

reinforcing the universality of neurodiversity and the similar challenges faced by both
individuals with autism and the structures and systems within which those individuals interact.
Common themes include a lack of appropriate accommodations and supports, lack of awareness
of challenges specific to neurodiverse students, and faculty, staff and peers potentially negative
responses to neurodiverse students (Beardon, Martin & Woolsey, 2009; Bertilsdotter-Rosqvist,
2012; Connor, 2013; Simmeborn-Fleischer, 2012; Hastwell, Martin, Baron-Cohen & Harding,
2012; Madriaga, 2010; Wolman, McCrink, Rodriguez & Harris-Looby, 2004).
Based on a review of the current literature (1996-2013), my personal observations of my
sons college experiences, narratives of the parents of college students with autism in my parent
group, including narratives of neurodiverse students I personally interviewed over the course of
conducting this Inquiry Project, the aspects of the college experience that appear to be the most
challenging for neurodiverse students may not be with the academics as much as with the socialemotional and sensory environments (Barnhill, 2007; Welkowitz & Baker, 2005; K. DeYoung,
Personal Communications, 2012-13). Neurodiverse students challenges in understanding nonverbal communication such as subtle facial expressions, body language, behavioral norms, their
possibly hyper or hypo sensory systems (auditory, tactile, visual, olfactory, proprioceptive) and
including a slower or faster processing time create atypical social behaviors and responses to
social interactions and physical environments (Madriaga, 2010). As a result, faculty, staff and
peers often respond in ways which aggravate rather than accommodate neurological differences
(Hastwell, Martin, Baron-Cohen & Harding, 2012).
One example of how expectations of normal social behaviors can be problematic for
neurodiverse individuals and whomever they are interacting with is described in Temple
Grandins newest book The Autistic Brain; Thinking Across the Spectrum (Houghton, Mifflin,
Harcourt. 2013). In this instance, Temple Grandin, a well-known autistic self-advocate, scientist

and lecturer, discusses new discoveries in structural brain differences between autistic
individuals and neurotypical individuals (Grandin, 2013). She says,
What a neurotypical feels when someone does make eye contact might be what an
autistic feels when someone doesnt make eye contact. For a person with autism who is
trying to navigate a social situation, welcoming cues from a neurotypical might be
interpreted as aversive cues. Up is down, and down is up. (p.36)
In addition to challenges in their socio/emotional/sensory environments, many students can have
specific learning disabilities that contribute significantly to their struggles (Connor, 2013;
Simmeborn-Fleischer, 2012; K. DeYoung, Personal Communication, 2012-13; Prince-Hughes,
Neurodiverse students regularly report feelings of isolation, frustration, depression, anger,
anxiety and loneliness. One students narrative described the experience of walking up to an
elevator and seeing everyone go take the stairs or saying hello to a room full of people and
getting nothing back. (Connor, 2013, p.122). Another students comment of a personal
experience stated, I just felt really bad that I was asking so many questions, getting in their way,
annoying them (Beardon, Martin & Woolsey, 2009, p.37). Yet another student stated, People
have to bear in mind that if you have AS you have probably been bullied for most of your life
(Aspect, 2007, as cited in Hastwell, Martin, Baron-Cohen & Harding, 2012, p.59). A quote by a
researcher who self-identifies as Aspergers shares this thought: Trying to survive in social
situations for people with AS is a bit like trying to get upstairs with a broken leg they could just
about crawl themselves up if they were lucky (Madriaga, 2008. As cited in Hastwell, Martin,
Baron-Cohen & Harding, 2012, p. 60). Similar experiences and feelings were expressed during
the interviews I conducted with local neurodiverse college students.
Research on the effects of sensory issues for neurodiverse individuals describe situations
in lecture halls, dining halls, libraries and dorm rooms where sights, sounds, smells, tastes, can

be so overwhelming as to prohibit many students participation in integral college settings. For

example: one individual was quoted as saying I have trouble following lectures in overcrowded
lecture theatres and I cant work in my room if people are loud in the corridor. Another stated,
taste and smell sensitivity cause nutritional issues (Hastwell, Martin, Baron-Cohen & Harding,
2012, p.60). An additional students remark on his particular sensory issues reported, The
student bar, when it is crowded with students, I just cant take it. I get sort of claustrophobia up
thereThere is no where [sic] to sit and there is no space to walkabout (Madriaga, 2010, p. 28).
Dawn Prince-Hughes, a well-known anthropologist, author and former Professor at
Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington identifies herself as a member of the
autism community. In her book, Aquamarine Blue 5: Personal Stories of College Students with
Autism (Ohio University Press, 2010) she comments, many brilliant students find the
university a formidable mixture of overwhelming sights and sounds, full of change and
disruption, and dependent upon social matrixes that are utterly mystifying. They quit university,
never to return (Prince-Hughes. p. xx). Students who are forced to abandon their academic
careers due to lack of awareness, understanding and support of their differences, creates an
injustice not only for the individual student whose future can be profoundly compromised by
failing to acquire a degree, but for the university community and the world at large. They too are
being deprived of the potential contributions these unique individuals could offer. As PrinceHughes says, persons on the higher end of the autistic spectrum may contribute revolutionary
developments within their fields and propel humanity forward in key ways (p. xxiii). She
knows of what she speaks, having gone from being homeless and living on the streets to gaining
a PhD in Anthropology and authoring several books. Her description of her struggles and
challenges in college mirror narratives of other neurodiverse students.
Evidence supporting the lack of awareness and understanding of those teaching and
serving neurodiverse students in higher education is highlighted in a Swedish researchers case

study of three Swedish university students with Aspergers Syndrome (Simmeborn-Fleischer,

2012). Through the use of narrative inquiry, she examines the lived experiences of these
individuals and in particular, examines the students experiences with and perceptions of the
formal educational/disability support system at their university. The students identify struggles
with everyday student life (p. 191) which encompasses aspects outside of academics such as
day-to-day activities, eating, laundry, socializing, spare time, time alone. Simmeborn-Fleischer
(2012) states,
Activities of daily living, for example, paying invoices and doing laundry, seem to
require much more energy for these students than for others. The balance between daily
life and studies therefore becomes disturbed. Tasks that are done routinely by people
without AS become large, overshadowing projects for these students. They simply do
not have enough energy to deal with studies on top of all the activities of daily living.
(p. 188)
A significant finding of the study was the students perception of supports offered by the
university as unhelpful. In fact, the institutional supports and services were perceived as adding
to students stress level and anxiety rather than their intended purpose of alleviating difficulties.
As SimmebornFleischer (2012) observes, Support services are built upon the students own
ability to communicate their particular needs, and when they are [sic] unable to do so, the
support fails (p. 189). She points out that in contrast to normative assumptions regarding student
choice and self-advocacy,
Freedom of choice is in fact no choice for these students: it is just one more complex
issue for them to deal with. If freedom of choice requires that you know your needs and
that you know what support to ask for, then it becomes a catch-22 situation if you cannot
identify your needs and have difficulties knowing what to ask for. (p. 191)
Faculty and Staff Perspectives

In a society that is increasingly culturally diverse the necessity of challenging students

biases and assumptions in order to facilitate a greater awareness and acceptance of difference
should be paramount. The arena of higher education, specifically the traditional liberal arts
education, has been viewed as the setting in which students are exposed to new and diverse ways
of thinking, broadened outlooks encompassing a more global perspective and opportunities to
acquire skills in various areas of interest for future careers. Nussbaum (1997) emphasizes the
nature of education that is liberal in that it liberates the mind from the bondage of habit and
custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the
whole world (p. 8). I would ask, if we have the expectation that an important component of the
college experience is to foster and celebrate diversity within the student body, should we not
expect the same from faculty, staff and administration alike?
Understanding how higher education faculty and staff view students with disabilities is an
important step towards overcoming barriers for all students with disabilities. Disability
categories in higher education cover a broad spectrum; from visual and hearing impairments to
physical impairments, learning disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, dependency/recovery and
neurological disabilities such as ADHD and Autism and in some cases includes Intellectual
Disability (GAO, 2009). Research shows that faculty/staff responses to SWD can vary based on
the type of disability. Prior knowledge of or experience with a particular disability, whether
personal or professional can also influence attitudes and expectations (Murray, Flannery & Wren,
2008; Murray, Lombardi, Wren & Keys, 2009). In particular, faculty/staff struggle with
understanding and accepting the unique challenges neurodiverse students face in higher
education (Chown & Beaven, 2012; MacLeod & Green, 2009).
The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) published a handbook designed to support
autistic students who are thinking of or already enrolled in college (ASAN, 2011). One
contributor stated,

Barriers take all sorts of forms at universities. Since autism is an invisible disability, it's
not as easy to make clear what you need in order to function properly, compared to a
student with a physical disability which is self-evident. Some people, such as professors,
administrators, and university staff may express doubt about the existence of your
disability. When I came to university, I had a difficult time with some people I was
working with, who doubted that I had the same disability as those kids on TV. This
made for a hostile working environment, because I was unable to convincingly convey
my need to have certain adjustments made for me to be at my top productivity as a
student and work-study. (Navigating College Handbook, p. 33)
Despite faculty self-reports of positive attitudes and expectations towards SWD, there
exists at the same time a different reality for the students, who perceive an unwillingness on the
part of faculty and staff to offer accommodations and negative attitudes towards SWD (Murray,
Lombardi, Wren & Keys, 2009). Informal interviews with faculty at my undergraduate
institution revealed an unfortunate skepticism regarding neurodiverse students capabilities in the
context of higher education coupled with a sense of professional burn out and fatigue. My sons
experience at a number of higher education institutions as well as the experiences shared by
several parents in my parent group whose children had been or were currently enrolled in a
variety of college settings have been similar, coping with skepticism, inconsistency in
implementing accommodations, and lack of understanding on the part of faculty and staff (K.
DeYoung, personal communication, 2012-13).
Current (2013) budget cuts have left programs and staff being asked to do more with less.
On many college campuses student/teacher ratios are large and opportunities to interact
personally with students are rare. Faculty and staff describe themselves as feeling over taxed
meeting current mandates for existing accommodations and may not be receptive to being asked

to provide additional accommodations for yet another type of disability (K. DeYoung, personal
communication, 2012; Scott & Gregg, 2000). These faculty attitudes are particularly troubling
as multiple research articles support the concept that faculty and staff attitudes and expectations
are directly connected to success for SWD (Brockelman, Chadsey & Loeb, 2006; Lombardi &
Murray, 2011; Murray, Lombardi, Wren & Keys, 2009; Scott & Gregg, 2000; Wolman, McCrink,
Rodriguez & Harris-Looby, 2004).
Another facet to the challenges faculty and staff face with growing numbers of SWD in
general and neurodiverse students in particular is the relationship between an institutions faculty
and its disability service providers. Both groups center on students learning but perform
different roles and hold different perspectives. Researchers describe an increasingly
adversarial climate where faculty members feel unheard and left out of the process of
determining the what and how of educational accommodations, and service providers complain
about faculty non-compliance (Scott & Gregg, 2000. p. 159). Ultimately it is the student who
suffers when faculty and staff are at odds with each other. An important role of disability service
providers and staff is to work collaboratively with faculty and administration to ensure that
faculty perspectives are taken into account as the institution strives to meet their legal and ethical
obligations to SWD (Scott & Gregg, 2000).
According to Scott and Gregg (2000), The role of faculty regarding students with LD is
simply to teach and mentor these students, as they would any others (pp. 158-159). However,
as the demographics of student populations change to reflect an increasing diversity of cultures,
socio-economic backgrounds, priorities, learning and brain differences and as higher education
becomes more aware of their obligations and responsibilities to educate such a diverse student
population, faculty may not have the knowledge or the resources they need to teach and
mentor all their students. Disability service providers should work together with faculty to
provide needed resources and supports.

Martin (2006) specifies: The role of HE [higher education] [sic] staff is to embrace the
positive and empower students and not to classify them in a way which may be disabling (p.
52). The role played by higher education staff in contributing to the culture and experience of
students with disabilities is frequently overlooked. Staff in many different capacities have
regular opportunities to interact with students in their roles as advisors, tutors, librarians and
staff, student organization staff, public health. As such it is important to include staff when
assessing overall climate on campuses for students with disabilities (Murray, Flannery & Wren.
Not all faculty perspectives of neurodiverse students are negative. In a study comparing
attitudes of faculty in the United States and Mexico towards students with disabilities, Wolman,
McCrink, Rodriguez and Harris-Looby (2004) describe a culture of teaching that transcends
specific culturesa psychic world or a common way of thinking shared by all teachers (p.
285). Their findings reveal that in general, faculty in both countries share a willingness to
accommodate SWD but that willingness is positively correlated with professional development.
The authors discuss an academic world that [sic] continues to transcend borders and build
interdependencies among communities of scholars as it relates to SWD (p. 293). They
advocate for the social integration of faculty and students with disabilities (p. 293)
through professional development opportunities, which they feel will facilitate a positive
response to SWD in higher education.
Additional research describes the personal and professional growth that has occurred as a
result of including neurodiverse students in their classrooms. In a paper written by faculty at an
institution of higher education on the East Coast with a history of positive supports for students
with autism, the authors state:
Our strongest argument in favor of continuing support programs for individuals
with AS is not just that we are able to provide an essential and effective service, but

rather the impact it has on us. We have discovered that even when we make limited
progress in helping these students with AS to change, we find that our own attitudes and
behaviors are transformed. Specifically, we have found ourselves to be more
understanding and appreciative of both our differences and similarities, and we regard
students with AS or autism as having a great deal to contribute both to our own learning
and personal growth, as well as to our College community as a whole. Spending time
with and befriending these students is not just about delivering an essential clinical
service, but about what kind of people we want to be and what kind of communities we
want to create. (Welkowitz & Baker, 2005, p. 186)
Scott and Gregg (2000) also include anecdotes of facultys positive experience with SWD. One
faculty member in particular was quoted as saying, attending to the special needs of LD
[learning disabled]students has actually been the primary source of my development as a
teaching professional, and the result has been greater effectiveness as a teacher of persons of all
characteristics (Scheiber & Talpers, 1987. p. 131. As cited in Scott & Gregg, 2000. p. 161).
Disability Studies and Neurodiversity
Critical Disability Studies and the Neurodiversity movement both seek to re-present
disability as a variation on a theme of human experience (to borrow a musical phrase) rather than
an abnormality (Connor, 2013). This perspective welcomes disability under the diversity
umbrella, including in higher education. Barnes (2007) suggests the role of higher education
institutions in the 21st Century is changing along with the very nature of knowledge
production itself (p. 136). Our participation in a market driven and technology dependent world
where information is widely available is changing where knowledge is produced and changing
what kind of knowledge we seek (Barnes, 2007).
Historically, universities were populated by the elite, privileged, and upper classes.
However the focus now is on providing access to students from diverse cultural and economic

backgrounds. Student diversity is now the norm, not the exception (Scott & McGuire, 2005.
As cited in Orr & Hammig, 2009. p. 192). Barnes (2007) further states: The university in the
age of mass education has been a major site for the articulation of democratic and progressive
values, for instance of racial equality, human rights, feminism and social democracy (p. 136).
Recently, those progressive values have begun to include students with disabilities (Delanty,
2001. p. 9. As cited in Barnes, 2007).
The field of Disability Studies is rooted in the relationship between disabled individuals
and the educational academy. The overall goal is to challenge the dominant viewpoint of
disability as existing solely within the individual and re-present disability as a function of
society; a construct that finds its meaning within a social and cultural context (Center on
Human Policy, Law and Disability Studies. n.d.). A commonly used term for this alternative
perspective is the social model of disability (Brownlow, 2010. p. 245) which provides a
counter point to the normative medical model of disability (Madriaga & Goodley, 2010;
Wheeler, 2011).
To date, neurodiverse students experiences in higher education are mostly undescribed
and the research is limited. Much of currently available research approaches neurodiversity via a
deficit or medical model of disability emphasizing individual struggles and limitations rather
than their strengths and gifts (Connor, 2013; Griffin & Pollak, 2009; Madriaga & Goodley,
2010). From this perspective a model of what is typical human development and learning is held
up as a standard and individuals with neurodevelopmental differences are judged by their
conformity to that standard. Any development, behaviors and cognitive processes that deviate
from that standard are considered a deficit. In the medical model the goal is to mediate the
deficit, fix the problem. Fixing, of course, can come in many forms; medication, behavioral
modification, educational interventions (Kapp, Gillespie-Lynch, Sherman & Hutman, 2012;
Wheeler, 2011).

There is another way to look at neurodevelopmental differences. In this alternative way,

individuals are appreciated for who they are, valued for their unique capabilities and accepted for
their differences, not marginalized for their deficits (Brownlow, 2010). This perspective has
been embraced by the neurodiversity movement, which was started by neurodiverse
individuals who didnt see themselves as broken. They view their neurological differences as
strengths: unique perceptions and perspectives that contribute to a more diverse and therefore,
better world. The neurodiversity movement allows us to say difference is a good thing. It allows
us to reframe our social, educational and cultural expectations that seem to be getting more
restrictive and standardized with each passing day (Armstrong, 2010; Brownlow, 2010).
Broderick & Neeman (2008) explore the use of metaphor in the discourse on autism and
seek to show how metaphor has been used to medicalize and diminish those in the autism
community, but also to support a counter-narrative (p. 459). They say,
The bulk of the support for metaphorically framing autism within a disease model comes
from within the non-autistic (neurotypical or NT) community, whereas the bulk of the
support for metaphorically framing autism within a neurodiversity model comes from
within the autistic community (and is inclusive of some non-autistic allies as well). In
exploring these competing cultural narratives, we argue for the crucial import that
counter-narrative can play in the process of cultural critique and resistance to ideological
hegemony. (p. 459)
There is an unspoken acceptance of dominant neurotypical consciousness and social
norms that promote a culture of disability rather than diversity throughout our society, including
in higher education. Brownlow (2010) in her research regarding the understanding of
neurodiversity and the construction of the term Neurologically Typical syndrome (NT) states:
The benchmark of NT traits as representative of normality serves as a reflection on power
relations operating within society (p. 254). Chown and Beavans (2012) literature and research

review of autistic students in higher education supports the concept of a dominant neurotypical
consciousness. Their research reveals negative labels often ascribed to students with autism
which reflects just such a consciousness; labels such as too challengingtoo different.too
difficultlack of conformity (p. 480). They suggest, labels are simply an expression of
a lack of awareness and understanding of autism on the part of neurotypical teachers and others
(p. 481).
College instructors, staff and service providers are adult learners who have unique
identities and relationships to learning environments that have been created through past
experiences and consequently they may or may not approach certain educational experiences
with an open mind (Mezirow & Taylor, 2009). The challenge of asking professors and college
staff who operate on a belief system about neurodevelopmental differences that is reinforced by
current social norms to embrace a new way of thinking is daunting. For example, Barnes (2007)
states, many lecturers are reluctant to accept the fact that it is both justifiable and necessary
to provide additional help and devise alternative modes of assessment for students with particular
access or communication needs (p. 142). Part of raising awareness of neurodiversity includes
critically reflecting on personal beliefs of disability and being open to new ways of looking at
Finding Solutions
Sanger (1990) tells us, Empowermentrelates to the potential for change within the
individuals deeper structures of sedimented knowledgeThe problem we face is how to disturb
these deeper layers of calcified experience in order to enable meaningful deep change to take
place and new kinds of structures to develop (pp. 174-175). Hansman and Wright (2009)
write: when teachers make the decisions of what knowledge is necessary and valuable,
education becomes no more than a mechanism for enforcing hegemonic values and social
control (p. 207). What is needed is not another mandate directing professors to implement

yet another set of accommodations (although this is part of our current mode of inclusive
education for those with disabilities) but rather an opportunity for faculty and staff to examine
how they view their students and themselves in their roles not only as educators and service
providers, but also as human beings in relationship with others.
Taylor (2009) discusses a core element of transformative learning as being critical
reflection. He defines it as questioning the integrity of deeply held assumptions and beliefs
based on prior experience (Mezirow & Taylor. p.7). Langes (2004) research study,
Transformative and Restorative Learning: A Viable Dialectic for Sustainable Societies
discusses adults experiences with disillusionment and fragmentation in their work lives as a
result of new neo-liberal economic policies and how a combination of transformative and
restorative education was able to help restore their connection to their core values and principles
and feel empowered once again to live and work according to their convictions. A theme
emerged from her research that I believe to be an important component in facilitating a shift in
consciousness on the part of the higher education community. She states,
one of the most significant discoveries in this study was not disruption but the
restoration [sic] of the participants foundational ethics to a conscious place in their
daily lives As the participants restored forgotten relationships and submerged ethics,
they transformed their worldview, habits of mind and social relations. (p. 135)
Langes (2004) research shows that finding ways to allow individuals to reconnect to previously
held beliefs and aspirations around their personal and professional lives, ways of viewing the
world before the frenetic work pace, longer work hours, exhaustion, stress, anxiety, burnout,
health crises and personal crises (Lange, 2004. p. 124) buried their spirits and squeezed dry
their capacity for compassion, can create personal rejuvenation and connection. Once the
reconnection and rejuvenation has happened at a personal level, wider community change can
follow (Mezirow & Taylor, 2009).

Fostering an interest in and dedication to social justice in higher education across

disciplines and between administration, faculty, staff and students is central to the concept of
supporting all students with disabilities, regardless of a particular embodiment of disability.
Oliver and Barton (2000) say,
Developing a constructive, collaborative working relationship with a range of
colleagues resulting in co-operation over teaching and research, will be an extremely
demanding task. Part of the relationship needs to be about clarifying values and
providing insights into not only a theory of social change, but also how that can be
brought about in practice. The generation of an ethos of mutual respect, lively and
constructive debate and the establishing of realizable goals will all contribute to a more
inclusive approach to research, teaching and learning outcomes. This development will
take time, serious effort, a willingness to listen and learn and an ability to deal with
conflict constructively at the level of ideas and values. (p. 12)
It is clear that faculty and staff alike need help in supporting this relatively new and growing
population of students (GAO, 2009; Hart, Grigal & Weir, 2010; K. DeYoung, Personal
Communication 2013; Van Bergeijk, Klin & Volkmar, 2008; Orr & Hammig, 2009; Smith,
2007). While professional development opportunities are available, the information provided is
not always appropriate or specific to the needs of neurodiverse students (Madriaga & Goodley,
2010; Scott & Gregg, 2000; Smith, 2007). Conversely, research shows that faculty and staff who
have attended appropriate professional development opportunities have more positive attitudes
and perceptions of students with disabilities (Brockelman, Chadsey & Loeb, 2006; Lombardi &
Murray, 2010; Murray, Flannery & Wren, 2008; Murray, Lombardi, Wren & Keys, 2009; Scott
& Gregg, 2000; Wolman, McCrink, Rodriguez & Harris-Looby, 2004).
For these reasons, part of this inquiry project entailed developing an interactive workshop
to facilitate collaboration between faculty and staff to identify specific areas of need around their

interactions with neurodiverse students. My intent was to utilize principles of transformative

education and emancipatory research which Oliver (1992) describes as fundamentally changing
the framework of social research from a positivist perspective to one in which the research is
done not just as research for researchs sake but with the intent of empowerment. To quote
Oliver (1992), The issue then for the emancipatory research paradigm is not how to empower
people but, once people have decided to empower themselves, precisely what research can then
do to facilitate this process (p. 111; Mezirow & Taylor, 2010).
In a similar way I believe that transformative education can be seen as emancipatory
education, in that it fundamentally changes the framework of the teacher/student relationship
from a dependent relationship to one of empowerment. Neurodiverse students on college
campuses are there because they feel empowered to pursue their dreams and aspirations just like
their neurotypical peers. If we were to adapt a model of emancipatory education then it would be
incumbent upon faculty, staff, administrators and service providers to support neurodiverse
students goals via the educational and social experiences college campuses offer. Specific to
neurodiverse learners, the transformative educational process creates a learning environment that
nurtures and respects individual life experiences and allows those experiences to contribute to
the learning process of both student and other individuals with whom the student interacts.
In an environment that embraces neurodiversity, individual differences in social
communication, behavior, learning, life interests and activities of neurodiverse individuals are
regarded as valuable and important contributions to a healthy and diverse society. By
encouraging those of us who identify as neurotypicals to become aware of our expectations
and assumptions of social and educational norms, we can then begin to accept that there are
others in our society who have different priorities, goals and perspectives than ours. It is clear
that this can be a challenge in higher education for staff, faculty and students.

Experiencing dissonance can be the catalyst for transformation (Mezirow, 2010). For
individuals who have not experienced the marginalization of disability, reversing a deeply
entrenched belief system regarding neurodiversity can create dissonance. We are comfortable
and complacent in our own concordance with the norm. The neurodiversity movement with its
critical reflection of assumptions of normal as embodied in the field of Disability Studies and
the injection of a diverse student body into higher education have the potential to work together
to act as a catalyst for great transformation. For neurodiverse individuals themselves, being
encouraged to embrace their differences and seen as valuable members of their educational
community is empowering. To quote autistic self advocate and author of the blog Autism
International, Jim Sinclair, as cited in Solomon (2012) says,
The ways we relate are different [sic]. Push for the things your expectations tell you are
normal, and youll find frustration, disappointment, resentment, maybe even rage and
hatred. Approach respectfully, without preconceptions and with openness to learning
new things, and youll find a world you could never have imagined. (p. 279)

Theoretical Perspective
The theoretical perspective that informed this inquiry project comes from a Critical
Disability Studies (CDS) approach. Pedagogy in Critical Disability Studies privileges disabled
individuals lived experiences including their interactions with the structures and systems that
define society, both historically and currently. Just as Womens Studies, Ethnic Studies and
Gender Studies have come about as a result of growing recognition of their significance as
social/cultural groups, Critical Disability Studies as an academic field reflects the growth in selfadvocacy of individuals with a variety of disabilities and the increased recognition of their rights
under the law (ADA; Taylor, 2011).

Significantly, Critical Disability Studies seeks to destabilize the dominant perspective of

disability as a solely biological/medical phenomenon. Its roots are planted firmly within the
environmental features and social mores which create conditions of disablement for individuals
whose biological/physiological identities fall outside the norm (Connor, 2013; Taylor, 2011).
Meekosha and Shuttleworth (2009) state: CDS has accompanied a social, political and
intellectual re-evaluation of explanatory paradigms used to understand the lived experience of
disabled people and potential ways forward for social, political and economic change (p. 49).
This theoretical perspective is integral to my personal experience as a parent of an autistic child
as well as my professional goals and research.

Statement of Bias
There cannot exist a wholly value-free experience. Insofar as we are each made up of the
interactions, relationships, cultural, political and economic environments in which we have
existed since our very beginnings, we are a product of those experiences. Were it not for my
experiences parenting two very different children (one who carries the label autistic, one who
carries the label neurotypical), my professional educational experiences in special education
witnessing the marginalization rather than empowerment of special needs students, the eighteen
years of experiences teaching struggling students my husband has shared, the narratives of other
parents of neurodiverse children and countless other life experiences of the joys and hardships
inherent in going against the flow of dominant social expectations, I would most likely not be
conducting this particular research (Behar, 1996).
For me, research is at its most meaningful when it tells a story. Research is at its best
when it reveals truths of injustice, misrepresentation, erroneous assumptions; when it blows apart
tightly held beliefs and practices of oppression and marginalization. Miller & Kirkland (2010)
say, we view social justice as seeking to unpack truths that challenge master narratives and

unveils counter-narratives that often go untold or ignored altogether (p. 3). In this case the
master narratives are created by those privileged with power and authority and the counternarrative is the voice of the oppressed and marginalized within our educational system.
Nowhere is the master narrative more evident and pervasive than in the field of Special
Education. Nowhere is there a more pressing need for social justice research than in the
education and development of individuals labeled as disabled. Miller & Kirkland (2010), in their
Glossary of Terms define an important term, Social Justice Methodology. The definition is as
As research methodology it presupposes a transformational outcome and grounds
itself within theoretical social justice perspectives, it examines topics related to social
justice or injustice, draws upon data analyses that are dialogical and discursive, and
represents the data in ways that authenticate the experiences of the individuals (p.xxi)
Historically, not only have childrens voices in general been lacking in educational research, but
even more so, the voices of the disabled; children and adults, their families and caregivers have
been excluded from research.
As a parent of a child with the label of disability, I have a bias against educational
practices that privilege the hegemonic neurotypical ideal of knowledge, ability and success.
As a person of privilege (white, well-educated, middle class) as well as a member of a
marginalized group, I feel compelled to disclose educational practices that privilege the masternarrative and exclude the counter-narrative. Witnessing my oldest sons struggles in higher
education despite his remarkable intellect and passion for his field has been the impetus for my
research. Corroborating research drawn from an international body of work parallels in many
way, my sons experience and reinforces the need to examine attitudinal barriers as one of the
important components of neurodiverse students experiences in higher education.

The purpose of this study was to identify, examine and attempt to alter attitudes and
beliefs held by higher education faculty, administrators and staff that could potentially cause
barriers to success in higher education for individuals with autism. Research aimed at examining
college experiences for students with disabilities, including individuals with autism and
Aspergers Syndrome reveals a number of barriers that these students face on a regular basis.
One of the most significant barriers as well as significant supports identified is the understanding
and support (or lack thereof) demonstrated by their college professors, staff and service
The research questions involved examining how higher education faculty, staff and
service providers perspectives and viewpoints towards neurodiversity could create barriers or
avenues to success for neurodiverse students in higher education and also if identifying and
reframing potentially marginalizing attitudes into empowering attitudes could create shifts in
understanding and perspectives held by faculty, staff and service providers. I took a participatory
action approach which has been defined as a way to:
understand and improve the world by changing it. At its heart is collective, selfreflective inquiry that researchers and participants undertake, so they can understand and
improve upon the practices in which they participate and the situations in which they find
themselves. (Baum, McDougall & Smith, 2006)
Multiple methodologies of both action and data collection were used and included two
survey/questionnaires and an action research component in the form of a seminar/workshop.
Research methods were qualitative in nature as I was attempting to uncover attitudes, biases and
perspectives of those working with neurodiverse students in higher education and any qualitative
changes in those perspectives or viewpoints.

The research setting took place at an alternative, private, liberal arts university, located in
an urban setting. The university currently enrolls approximately 1,000 students in both
undergraduate and graduate programs with a particular focus on themes of social justice and
community involvement. A participatory action research project in the form of an interactive
seminar/workshop was held at this institution at the beginning of the summer quarter, 2013.
The study participants were limited to this particular universitys faculty, administrators
and staff and graduate students. Recruiting took place via campus wide invitation. Flyers were
posted in prominent locations on campus and e-mail invitations sent to department heads and
administrative personnel. Information provided in the invitation included a description of the
purpose of the study and brief description of the seminar/workshop. Participants self-selected for
participation in the study and consisted of four faculty from the College of Education, one staff
person; a faculty services coordinator in the Bachelors Completion Program and one graduate
student in the College of Education. Nine graduate students, primarily K-12 educators,
participated in a second workshop shortly following the initial workshop. The second workshop
was held as part of a graduate course in Social Science Research.
A contact e-mail triggered a response of an electronic survey which participants filled out
and submitted as confirmation of their participation in the study. The initial survey/questionnaire
included six items with both open-ended and closed-ended questions and took 30-45 minutes to
complete. A Statement of Informed Consent was included in the initial online
survey/questionnaire. Participants downloaded the consent form and brought it with their
signature to the seminar. A follow-up online survey/questionnaire was sent out to participants
approximately four weeks after the seminar/workshop was conducted. The follow up
survey/questionnaire followed a similar format to the initial survey/questionnaire; it was online,

included seven items, with both open and closed-ended questions and took 30-45 minutes to
complete. Participants had three weeks to respond to the follow-up questionnaire.
Design and Procedures
Survey/questionnaires were designed to aid in answering the primary research questions:

How can attitudes held by faculty/staff/service providers create barriers or avenues to

success for neurodiverse college students?

Can raising/expanding awareness of attitudinal barriers neurodiverse college students

face, create shifts in understanding and perspectives held by higher education faculty,
staff and service providers?

The initial survey was designed to identify and reflect participants level of knowledge, attitudes
and perspectives towards college students with autism/Aspergers Syndrome. The follow-up
survey was designed to facilitate self- reported changes in attitude and viewpoint based on
participants experiences with the workshop as well as their experiences over the remainder of
Summer Quarter, 2013. The surveys utilized an online survey tool which allowed the researcher
to contrast and compare individual responses from both surveys as well as provide anonymity to
The seminar/workshop was designed with transformative practices in mind and combined
lecture, media presentation and guided conversations designed to facilitate greater awareness of
the unique strengths and challenges of college students with autism/Aspergers Syndrome as well
as provide opportunities for study participants to self- reflect and identify currently held attitudes
and beliefs of what it means to be a neurodiverse person in a neurotypical world.
Seminar/workshop components were as follows:

Brief introduction and history of the researchers personal experience as a parent

of a college student with autism, a leader of a discussion group for parents of
college age students with neurodiversity and how those experiences provided the

catalyst for the researchers transformative experiences as a parent, advocate,

student and educator.

An alternative view of what it means to be autistic; how the dominant medicalized

perspective of autism marginalizes autistic individuals and limits self-expression
and participation in all aspects of life.

Discussion of some of the challenges unique to students with autism/Aspergers

Syndrome in college.

Hand-out of definition of terms as described by autistic individuals. (20 minutes)

Participant introductions and opportunity to briefly share their interest in and

motivation for their participation in the seminar. (25 minutes or 2 minutes per

Media presentation of narratives of local neurodiverse college students. (10


Guided conversation to prompt study participants in sharing their understandings,

perspectives and concerns regarding their own professional interactions with
college students with autism/Aspergers Syndrome. Conversation prompts
written from the perspective of an autistic college student were provided for
discussion and analysis by participants. Guided conversations were recorded with
digital voice recorders for the purposes of data analysis. (25 minutes)

Discussion of evidence based, low impact strategies and suggestions on what

study participants can do to facilitate a more positive experience for their
neurodiverse students and promote a more inclusive climate for all students. (10

Total workshop length: 90 minutes

Findings & Analysis

This action/research project was designed to help faculty/staff/administrators in higher
education become more aware of the unique issues facing autistic students in college: their
strengths, their challenges, and how faculty/staff/administrators personal attitudes and
perspectives can impact, in either a positive or negative way, the institutions, systems and
relationships that constitute the higher education experience.
Data were collected in the form of two online surveys and written transcriptions of
guided small group discussions. The initial survey was sent out to all participants prior to the
workshop/seminar and a follow-up survey was sent out several weeks after the workshop had
been conducted. Small group discussions were recorded as part of the workshop/seminar and
transcribed at a later date for analysis. Data were analyzed using textual coding for elements
represented in the research focus statement and subsequent examination of themes and patterns
among these elements in the data at hand. Data from both surveys and transcribed guided
conversations were analyzed by the researcher as is common in the reflection and revision cycle
of action research, with the dual purpose of informing the research questions and subsequent
final report writing as well as assisting in the development of future seminars/workshops.
Data analysis began with the creation of a list of 19 terms which would help to identify
references to and/or evidence of both negative and positive perspectives/attitudes held by the
research participants. The list of terms was developed from commonly used vocabulary in
multiple peer reviewed research articles, texts, websites, media and personal conversations, from
both the medicalized perspective and the neurodiversity perspective. Examples of terms include:
Advocacy, Awareness, Disability, Disease, Equity, Inclusion, Neurodiverse, Neurotypical,
Normal and others (see addenda). Words included in the List of Terms were identified, counted
and recorded for comparison between data sources where possible. For example, in contrast to

the number of times the words disability or disorder were used during the initial survey,
during the small group discussions the number of times that word was used was reduced by fifty
percent, even though the amount of text generated during the conversations was obviously much
greater than in the written responses in the initial survey. In addition, the number of times the
words difference or diversity was referenced almost tripled when comparing the initial
survey to the follow-up survey.
Four themes evolved out of the initial reading of pre-workshop survey results and
transcriptions of guided discussion groups.
Stereotyping, pre or misconceptions and/or bias towards autism/neurodiversity
Knowledge of positive attributes of autism or neurodiversity; acceptance of diversity

Awareness of individual/systems or institutional challenges and/or barriers to success for

neurodiverse college students

New perceptions or awareness of neurodiversity; ideas for systems change

The first three themes inform the first research question, How can attitudes held by
faculty/staff/service providers create barriers or avenues to success for college students with
autism? by showing an awareness or description of individual or institutional challenges and/or
barriers to success for neurodiverse college students as well as stereotyping/pre or misconception
and/or bias towards autism/neurodiversity and including awareness and acceptance of
Examples of misconceptions or stereotyping of autism occurred multiple times in the
initial survey responses. Statements such as Students should be as self-reflective and
communicate as fully as they are able their experience and needs. I also believe that students
should be willing, to the extent they feel comfortable, to enlist the assistance of advocates, or

others to help express and press for what they believe would be helpful to their learning
(Respondent #1, Initial Survey) and The student needs to make sure to be talking with all of
these people and let everyone know what they need (Respondent #8, Initial Survey) were both
responses to a question about the roles of Faculty, Staff, Service Provider, Administrator, Student
in providing a supportive climate for students with autism/Aspergers Syndrome. What these
and other similar responses demonstrate is a lack of awareness of the core challenges for many
neurodiverse students in communication and self-advocacy. For some students, having to
approach their professor or advisor and ask for help with accommodations or any other issue
they may be having is in itself, a barrier (SimmebornFleischer, 2012).
Examples of thematic references such as the following audio transcription during the
small group discussion portion of the workshop/seminar reflected awareness/acceptance of
neurodiversity as well as an awareness of systems barriers. We want everybody to develop
along their [sic] [emphasis mine] path, we dont necessarily want everybody to develop the
same path. I really think that we do not want everybody to develop along the same path and I
think we are just as arrogant as hell when we think that we know what that path is! Which I think
sometimes we act like we do! (Faculty Group One, Speaker Three).
An example of the third theme, Individual/systems or institutional challenges and/or
barriers to success for neurodiverse college students was noted as follows: Colleges are not
designed to meet the needs of diverse learners. The cultural expectation to produce employable
citizens requires an environment that is not much different to the banking model described by
Friere. Granted the curriculum may have diversity with regards to identity and/or content, but
we still require students to express their intellectual aptitude in traditional and/or formal ways.
For instance, we teach writing more than oral presentation (Audio Transcription submitted as
written testimony at a later date due to technological error during small group discussion).

The fourth theme is directly related to the study question which asks, Can
raising/expanding awareness of attitudinal barriers neurodiverse college students face, create
shifts in understanding and perspectives held by higher education faculty, staff and service
providers? This theme of emerging new perceptions or deeper awareness of neurodiversity
and/or ideas for individual or systems change was observed primarily in participants follow-up
survey responses although there were also several references to new awareness/ideas for change
noted in the small group discussions as well as in some initial survey responses. For example,
one individuals comment during the small group discussion reflected an emerging awareness of
the limitations of the current system of providing accommodations in college for students with
disabilities. Well, thats what I wonder too and whether these accommodations for autistic
people, that whether they are really the accommodations that everybody should have? Whether
if everybody was able to pursue interests they care about the most and then let those branch out
and meet other people who are branching out in their areas, whether that might not be more
productive in the long run (Student Group Two, Speaker Three)
Initial Survey of Workshop Participants
The two surveys were designed specifically to solicit responses which would reflect both
current and emerging awareness and perspectives of neurodiversity/autism in higher education.
For example, in the initial survey participants were asked to describe their current understanding
of autism and where that understanding came from; media, education, personal experiences or
other sources. They were also asked to describe their thoughts on the role of faculty, staff,
service providers relating to neurodiverse students and if they had ever provided
accommodations to neurodiverse students. Responses ranged from a limited understanding of
autism and little to no interaction on campus with neurodiverse students to some exposure either
through a family member with autism or an interaction with a student who had self-disclosed
their autism. Overall, there appeared to be a relatively high level of understanding of autism as

presented by the medical and educational communities as well as media sources, with fewer
responses indicating an awareness or acceptance of autism as a diversity issue. A majority of
responses listed the commonly described clinical symptoms and characteristic challenges of
autistic individuals such as Respondent #3 who stated: I know that it is classified as a disorder
of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and verbal and non-verbal
communication. Also may involve restricted, repetitive or stereotyped behavior. It has to do with
processing in the brain altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize. I
believe Asperger Syndrome is one of the syndromes in the autism spectrum. Use of medicalized
vocabulary such as impaired social interactionrestricted, repetitive or stereotyped behavior
(Respondent #3) high-functioning disorder (Respondent #5) Autism is a social and
developmental disorderthere are no causes (Respondent#7) It is a mental disorder
(Respondent #15) neurological disorder. (Respondent #16) Use of the word disability or
disorder when describing current understanding of autism was frequent in the initial survey
responses with eight of the sixteen respondents specifically using either or both in their
responses. Two of the 16 respondents used vocabulary that exemplified the neurodiversity
perspective. I understand that the brain is a complex environment with varied ways of
expression. A/A syndrom(e)[sic] has been pathologized and cast as a less than optimal way of
being in the world. (Respondent #2) It is a neurological/brain difference compared to more
normative people. There are vast differences between every individual; one of the most notable
similarities however, is the challenge of interacting with other people in socially acceptable
ways/cultural norms. The learning environment of typical schools is usually not a space of
supporting students with neuro-diversity because of the way students are assessed, usually
ending up in larger and more difficult issues as they get older. (Respondent #10)
Many responses indicated a lack of awareness of interactions with neurodiverse students
on campus. This is possibly due to FERPA, which protects the privacy of students with

disabilities and omits any reference to a specific disability within a Letter of Accommodation
(LOA) which faculty receive from Disability Service Offices when a student requests
accommodations. One of the challenges for faculty/staff and students interactions with
neurodiverse students is due to the hidden nature of learning disabilities in general and autism
specifically. For example, Questions 4 and 6 on the initial survey asked:
Have you interacted with students with autism/Aspergers syndrome on campus? Did they
identify themselves to you as a student with autism/Aspergers Syndrome? and Have you had
to provide accommodations to students with autism/Aspergers syndrome? If yes, what types?
Of the sixteen total respondents, two answered affirmatively and the remaining fourteen
answered no. Half of those responding negatively indicated that they may have had interactions
but that no one had disclosed their autism. For example, Respondent #12 said: I am not aware
of any interactions that I have had specifically with students who have an autism diagnosis on
campus. Respondent #9 said: I do not believe that I have interacted with students with autism
or Asperger's because they did not identify themselves as such. Respondent #5 said: When I
have a letter of accommodation presented to me about a student of mine that letter does not
include a diagnosis - so I don't know whether I have ever had to provide accommodations to
persons with an autism spectrum diagnosis. Respondent #2 said: Possibly. When students
have a Letter of accommodation, their specific reason is not provided. With that said, there very
well could be students who have A/As.
Summary of Initial Survey
Of the sixteen total respondents, four identified as some combination of
faculty/administrator, faculty or faculty/student; one identified as staff and the remaining nine as
graduate students in the Department of Education. Thirteen respondents indicated having some
type of interaction with a neurodiverse individual either through a family member, student
(although only two were instances of interactions with neurodiverse students in the college

setting) or other work environment. The initial survey responses had a majority of references
relating to the first theme of Stereotyping, pre or misconceptions and/or bias towards
autism/neurodiversity, followed by Knowledge of positive attributes of autism or
neurodiversity; acceptance of diversity and Individual/systems or institutional challenges
and/or barriers to success for neurodiverse college students. The fourth theme; New
perceptions or awareness of neurodiversity; ideas for systems change had the fewest references;
which would be expected, given that respondents had not yet participated in the
workshop/seminar. References to the first theme of bias or misconception of neurodiversity were
primarily noted in the use of medicalized language, rather than any evidence of conscious bias or
stereotyping. In addition, statements made by some of the survey respondents indicated a lack of
awareness of how social norms can influence our perceptions of the interactions and behaviors
of neurodiverse individuals.
Transcribed Workshop Small Group Discussions
Small group discussions were conducted and recorded during the workshop/seminar
using digital voice recording devices. During the first workshop the six participants were broken
up into two smaller groups of three each and provided with a list of four questions. In the second
workshop the nine participants were broken up into three groups of three each. Each group was
given a digital voice recorder and instructed on how to record their discussion. The groups had
twenty five minutes to choose one or more of the discussion prompts, read through them and
share their responses with each other. Discussion prompts were provided in the form of unedited
questions from a neurodiverse college student (see addenda). The questions were somewhat
provocative and reflective of the frustrations and barriers experienced not only by this particular
student but similarly reflective of the narratives of other neurodiverse college students recorded
in peer reviewed academic journals. The nature of transformative educational practices can
involve experiencing dissonance, followed by a shift towards a new, more open and accepting

perspective. For this reason, unedited versions of the questions seemed appropriate as a way to
facilitate deeper reflection and discussion.
One discussion prompt geared towards staff and service providers asked:
What on earth do you think your job is? All you do is fill out forms instead of actually
trying to help the people who come to your office for assistance. The whole point is that
its supposed to be different for each person. It shouldnt just be, heres our menu of
services we provide, and so pick one. instead of saying how can we help you? this,
incidentally, is what they say, but not what they do.
While this particular question was geared more towards staff and service providers such as
Disability Services, faculty responses indicated an understanding of the underlying issue. One
response stated, Frankly, its easy to fall back on some established protocol. At least you get a
foot hold. But that may, in itself be the kind of the critical mistake, in fact, moving quickly to
protocols and to conventional responses as opposed to attempting to establish some sort of
conversation that leads to a deeper understandingyou want to believe that some of the
established strategies and protocols are effective, but they follow from a certain institutional
logicthe problem may be that the whole institution is just misoriented, anything that follows
from that misorientation is just going to essentially compound the problem and certainly not
address the problem in a fundamental way. (Faculty Group One, Speaker One) Another
member of this discussion group remarked, in fact, the objectives also change depending on
who your student is. I mean I know [sic] [speaker emphasis] that Im all the time making
allowances for students who have different trajectories. And I worry that Im going to be called
on that by somebody who thinks Im being unfair. But I think its unfair not [sic] [speaker
emphasis] to; given that the students arent the same. (Faculty Group One, Speaker Three)
A different discussion group tackled the prompt:

Most people who come to college with Aspergers are very bright and are coming to
college because they have an interest in something particular and they want to learn more
about it. Why is it that they are the ones who have to ask for accommodations, when
people who have no interests and no real desire to learn, pretty much have the easier
way? Everything is set up for the enjoyment of people who are the exact opposite of the
Aspergers mindset.
Discussion in this group evolved from an initial response reflective of a lack of awareness of the
deeper meaning behind the question: I would say the obvious reason is because they are the
minority? (Student Group Two, Speaker One), to an in depth discussion about current social
norms that dominate many college campuses wherein college is seen as a place for socializing;
I was there to learn and it seemed like a social activity or (Speaker Three), thats the
social norm, thats what youre expected to do go to college, party (Speaker Two),
college is a kind of a rite of passage thats totally separate from what the function is ostensibly,
which is to learn something. For someone who thinks in a very literal way, that would be kind of
hard to get through. (Speaker Three) Ahuh, if a person with Aspergers fails its oh well, they
have Aspergers. Thats why theyre failing, not because, you know, so I think its that the
environment wasnt set up for their (Speaker Two), yeah, its more blamed on their
disabilities. (Speaker One)
The Discussion prompt What do you think your job is if you are not going out of your
way to help your students learn? provoked an emotional response from one participant who
stated, I think I would feel very sad that a student in my class was feeling so, unhelped
because I feel like, as a teacher, I do everything I possibly can, every day, all the time, small or
big ways, to try and help students in whatever way they needif it was a child who could
articulate what they need I think that would be the first step. If they came to me and said, well
regardless, if they came to me and said youre not meeting my needs Id feel like, oh my gosh,

what is it that I can do, tell me. (Student Group Three, Speaker Two) Again, as mentioned
during the analysis of the initial survey responses, the participant, while demonstrating sympathy
and compassion for her students, nevertheless reveals a lack of awareness of core challenges for
neurodiverse students by making the assumption that not only would the student be able to
approach the teacher, but also be able to articulate how their needs should be met.
Another participant commented There certainly is a disparity in terms of having lots of
students to one teacher, and so I think unfortunately, the way our school system is designed is for
whatever is best for the largest group of individuals tends to be, I think, what teachers do more
often instead of making things more individualized.maybe thats where higher education needs
to begin. When you have a bunch of students come in to like a lecture hall or whatever, to make
that extra step of figuring out what it is that students need from professors in the higher
education setting, in terms of, you know, asking them to fill out a questionnaire or something
prior to starting their course. Just say, what are really specific needs that you have to make this
learning experience best for you? (Student Group Three, Speaker Three) In this thread of the
discussion the participant demonstrates an awareness of how professors could create a more
welcoming learning environment by providing a questionnaire to students to try to identify
different learning needs. On the other hand, what this approach assumes is that neurodiverse
students will know what their specific needs are, and can articulate those needs when asked.
(One of the biggest attitudinal and systems barriers to success in higher education for
neurodiverse individuals is the expectation of self-advocacy despite the challenge this presents to
many neurodiverse students; a skill which is not taught in elementary or secondary schools).
A fourth discussion prompt asked the question:
Why is the whole college geared towards people who are not there to learn something?
If this is supposed to be a place of learning and scholarship why do you lower your
standards and gear the school towards people who are not interested in scholarship? The

support services should have to be for the stupid people who get in on a sports
This prompt elicited a discussion in one group around what was seen as unfairness in the
seemingly preferential valuing of athletics over academics in society as well as on college
campuses. This groups conversation thread included these statements: it seems like that goes
along with what our society seems to find really important like, sports people get their entire
college paid for and they get their books bought for them and brought to their dorm room.
(Student Group Three, Speaker One) And they can take the easy classes. (Speaker Two)
And they can take the easy classes and kind of get pushed through so they can continue playing,
whereas individuals who are super smart and who have a lot of academic possibilities seem to
be kind of shut down because thats not the way the system is designed. (Speaker Three)
The same groups conversation shifted to a discussion on how professors lack of
pedagogical training can lead to marginalization and expressions of attitudinal barriers for
students with disabilities. One member described her own experience as a student with a
disability where she was given the accommodation of testing in a separate, quiet room, only to
find out later from her classmates that the professor had given the other students in the class the
physics equations during the exam, but neglected to give them to her. She stated: So I failed
the final yet got an A in the class because I think that he recognized his mistake and instead of
fixing it or doing anything about it, he was like, Im just not going to deal with her, because I
made a mistake, so Im just giving her an A when there was no way that I could have ever
gotten an A in physics. He was an adjunct professor, he realized he made a mistake, like with
someone with disabilities, and didnt want to deal with the conversationyou have special
services set up and yet its just kind of like an after-thought. (Student Group Three, Speaker
One) What would have been the most beneficial for you, like, if you were to redo that? Would it
have been him coming to you and like, oh my gosh, I made a mistake? (Speaker Two) And

given me the equations and a new test so that I could have proven to him that I understand the
material. That would have made me feel as if I had earned my grade and that it was, you
knowI think it proves that a lot of these like, you know, special services that youre supposed to
like, you know, something extra like in order for the school not to get sued or whatever, they kind
of devised this plan, but its very (Speaker One) Something that people dont, they dont
believe in it, its just something that they have to do. (Speaker Two) Right, or they themselves
have not been educated in how to, you know, a lot of professors do not necessarily go to like
teacher school, you know. Theyre specialized in their particular subject area, but not
necessarily taking, I mean, maybe it should be required for professors, so that if theyre going to
be teachers that they should have to take.(Speaker Three) Some kind of professional
development. (Speaker One)

Summary of Small Group Discussions

Not surprisingly, due to the interactive nature of the discussions held in small groups, this
component of the data collection provided the largest number of references to both the list of
terms and the four themes. In comparison with the initial survey responses, coding in this phase
of data collection identified a majority of thematic references relating to the third theme:
Individual/systems or institutional challenges and/or barriers to success for neurodiverse college
students, followed by: New perceptions or awareness of neurodiversity; ideas for systems
change and then Knowledge of positive attributes of autism or neurodiversity/acceptance of
diversity. The theme: Stereotyping, pre or misconceptions and/or bias towards
autism/neurodiversity had the fewest references. There was a pronounced shift in the types of
thematic references identified in the pre-workshop survey responses and those of the guided
discussion groups, indicating an increased awareness and sensitivity towards individual and
institutional barriers to success for autistic college students. This shift seemed to correlate with

the participants exposure to the concepts of neurodiversity in higher education presented during
the lecture portion of the workshop as well as the video narratives of local neurodiverse college
Follow-Up Survey to the Workshop
A second survey was sent out several weeks after the workshops were conducted. Followup survey questions were worded to reflect a shift (or not) in participants attitudes/perspectives
following their participation in the workshop. Several reminder e-mails were sent out to all
survey respondents over a period of three weeks in order to maximize the number of follow-up
respondents, however, only nine of the fourteen initial survey respondents completed the followup survey. Even so, all but one of the respondents indicated a change to varying degrees in their
perceptions and understanding of many of the challenges neurodiverse students face in college.
Multiple responses to the question, How has your understanding of autism/Aspergers
Syndrome changed (if at all) as a result of this seminar/workshop? reflected a deeper
understanding and awareness. None of the nine responses contained the words disability or
disorder. Responses such as: The first-hand testimonials changed my view and
understanding of autism. Learning how it feels to be different and/or to be treated as different
was illuminating. (Respondent 4) I now see autism/Aspergers as a potential/unrecognized
cultural asset. The issue seems to be part of the greater issue of social inclusion. (Respondent
13) It has changed in that I see it not as a disability but as just a diversity in brain process and
should be looked at in a different perspective than disability. (Respondent 3) were common and
indicative of a shift in attitude and perspective following participation in the workshop.
One respondent indicated that their awareness or perspective did not change. Based upon
their initial survey responses, this respondent demonstrated a current working knowledge and
understanding of neurodiversity as it related to higher education. That particular respondent also
indicated a confirmation of currently held beliefs following participation in the workshop. For

example, in response to the question, What, if any, impact did the seminar have upon your
teaching practices? the response was It provided affirmation in the recognition of creative
course design. (Respondent 2)
Most instructive were the responses to follow up survey question #3 which was a repeat
of the same question from the initial survey. This question asked: What is the role of Faculty,
Staff, Service Provider, Administrator, Student in providing a supportive climate for students with
autism/Aspergers Syndrome? For example, in the initial survey, one respondent replied,
Students at Antioch are encouraged to provide a letter of accommodation from the Disability
Support office on campus. This letter allows faculty the opportunity to identify ways that are
reasonable to provide an environment that serves all students equitably. (Initial Survey,
Respondent 12) This persons follow up survey response to the same question stated: I think
the role of faculty, staff, etc. is to be an open and honest communicator with all students,
including students who have autism to find out how they can be supportive, available and
approachable regarding each individuals education. (Follow-Up Survey, Respondent 12) A
second respondent replied to the initial survey question with a detailed explanation delineating
the specific responsibilities of each of the roles described in the question. Faculty are
responsible for arranging accommodationsstaff ensuring that facilities and resources are
made availableservice provider makes a determination and follow-up modifications.
(Initial Survey, Respondent One) The follow-up survey response stated: I think that all of these
stakeholders need to do a better job of having conversations with those on the spectrum. I
learned from this workshop that some of my assumptions about how I can provide a supportive
climate might be erroneous. One of the best things that I can do is discuss with individual
students the ways that I can best address their needs and support their learning. (Follow-Up
Survey, Respondent One) Both of these individuals follow-up responses were markedly
different in quality and tone when compared with their initial responses. Rather than refer

specifically to a definition of a particular role, the descriptions were more indicative of

relationships between individuals.
Responses to other follow-up questions were similar, indicating a change in attitude
and/or new awareness of challenges faced by neurodiverse college students. My perspective
has changed somewhat, regarding adults with autism. Seeing the videos of adults with autism
talking about their educational experiences and their interests made it clear to me that the role
of an educator is to be a support system and not a barrier.(Respondent 12) I have begun to
think about alternatives to my underlying assumptions about the value and even necessity of
group learning methods at least such methods without different forms and levels of support and
participation. (Respondent 1)
Summary of Follow-Up Survey Responses
Responses of those who completed the follow-up survey overwhelmingly aligned with
the fourth theme of New perceptions or awareness of neurodiversity; ideas for systems change.
In addition, there were only two references out of thirty seven total thematic references coded,
that reflected any mention of or reference to the theme of stereotyping, pre or misconceptions
and/or bias towards autism/neurodiversity. This is in direct contrast with the results of the
initial survey where out of a total of fifty seven thematic references coded, twenty one were
related to that same theme. Even when taking into consideration that the number of respondents
was greater during the initial survey than the follow-up survey, the number of references relating
to new awareness or perceptions of neurodiversity was substantially greater during the follow-up
survey. Ultimately, comparing numerical results between surveys was difficult and unreliable as
the number of respondents shrank from sixteen for the initial survey to only nine from the
follow-up survey. However, it was possible and perhaps more relevant to compare the larger or
overall thematic references between the three data sources.

Limitations of the inquiry project were due in part to the limited time frame in which to
recruit participants, conduct the workshop early in summer quarter, 2013, and allow for
participants to evaluate their experiences and interactions with neurodiverse students following
their participation in the workshop over the remainder of summer quarter. Indeed, as a result of
the time constraint and the fact that summer quarter had limited course offerings and reduced
teaching, it became necessary to amend one of the original research questions from investigating
the impact of the workshop on faculty/staff/student teaching practices and/or interactions to
investigating the impact of the workshop on faculty/staff perceptions and viewpoints towards
neurodiverse students. It is also important to note that as this research involved students with
disabilities, who are considered a protected group, I was prevented from knowing whether
workshop participants would in fact be interacting with neurodiverse students over the course of
summer quarter (ADA, FERPA).
Another limitation is that participants were recruited from one, small, alternative,
university with a mission of social justice work. It is possible that the attitudes and perceptions
of participants from this university could be potentially different than faculty/staff from larger,
more traditional universities and community colleges due to the nature of the student body,
faculty backgrounds and teaching experiences, including smaller class sizes. In addition,
participation in the initial workshop was small, with four faculty, one staff and one graduate
student. The second workshop was conducted as part of a graduate class in Social Science
Research with ten students participating (nine participated in the workshop), the majority being
K-12 teachers. As a result, the analysis and findings, while significant, may not be reflected in a
larger sampling. Further research involving a broader range of higher education institutions,
faculty and staff is needed.
Finally, this inquiry project was not designed to investigate neurodiverse students
experiences themselves and as such does not inform us as to the benefits they might experience

as a result of the workshop. Rather it was designed to help identify potentially marginalizing
attitudes of those who interact regularly with neurodiverse students on college campuses. Future
research is necessary which would include neurodiverse students in order to learn how they
themselves have been impacted by changes in attitudes and perspectives of faculty, staff and
even other students. Indeed, the need to include the voices of neurodiverse students in future
research and workshops whose intent is to improve higher educational experiences cannot be
over stated.

Students with disabilities are enrolling in post-secondary education in increasing
numbers. In particular, neurodiverse students and their families who have had access to
inclusive, mainstream classrooms in elementary and secondary education are including college
and career plans in their dreams of the future (Hart, Grigal and Weir, 2010; Hastwell, Martin,
Baron-Cohen & Harding, 2012; Simmeborn-Fleischer, 2012). Despite this encouraging news,
these students, while having successfully climbed hurdles and surmounted many obstacles to get
to where they are, find themselves struggling to stay in college. Many more neurodiverse
college students drop out or take longer to obtain their degrees than their neurotypical peers
(NCD, 2003; NLTS2, 2005).
Neurodiverse students in higher education have unique ways of experiencing their
environments. Many have differences in how their sensory systems receive and respond to input,
whether it is visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile or proprioceptive. Their behaviors and social
interactions reflect those sensory differences and often are misunderstood or misinterpreted by
others around them. The types of accommodations that are most typically offered to students
with disabilities do not always provide support in the areas that neurodiverse students may need.
For example, many neurodiverse students struggle with social interactions, including verbal and

non-verbal communication. This presents difficulties not only in class participation, but in social
interactions outside of class. The expectation of self-advocacy for all students with disabilities in
higher education often creates an additional barrier for neurodiverse students who have
challenges in communication. Consequently, many students do not utilize available services, or
if they do, it is after a problem has arisen (Adreon and Durocher, 2007; Gobbo & Shmulsky,
2012; Grandin, T., 2013; Hewitt, 2011; White, Ollendeck & Bray, 2011; Madriaga, 2010).
In addition to their individual challenges, many neurodiverse students also face attitudinal
and institutional barriers that they must overcome if they are to succeed in a higher education
setting. These attitudinal barriers are seen in the misconceptions, stereotyping and lack of
understanding of the unique qualities that neurodiverse students have to offer to their professors,
classmates, staff and service providers. They are seen in the standardization of accommodations,
in professors sometimes reluctance to provide accommodations, in the lack of flexibility
regarding how students participate in class and how they demonstrate their learning. They are
seen in some institutions lack of providing access to a physical environment that supports and
nurtures students with sensory differences; environments such as quiet study areas, quiet
residence halls, smaller classrooms and class sizes (Barnhill, 2007; Hastwell, Martin, BaronCohen & Harding, 2012; K. DeYoung, Personal Communications, 2012-13; Welkowitz & Baker,
Higher education faculty and staffs personal and professional prior experiences influence
how they regard students with disabilities. Many higher education faculty have expertise in their
field of study but lack knowledge of how to teach to the diverse student populations that are
increasingly found in college classrooms today. In addition, there is a lack of knowledge of the
types of challenges faced by neurodiverse students in higher education on the part of staff and
service providers as well. For neurodiverse students in particular, who often have experienced

rejection, isolation, depression and anxiety both in the classroom and outside of the classroom;
having a faculty member or staff person who is understanding and supportive of their goals and
perhaps even takes a personal interest in their educational experiences, can make the difference
between success and failure in college (Brockelman, Chadsey & Loeb, 2006; Lombardi &
Murray, 2011; Murray, Lombardi, Wren & Keys, 2009; Scott & Gregg, 2000; Wolman, McCrink,
Rodriguez & Harris-Looby, 2004).
When collaboration is encouraged across departments and between administrators, staff,
service providers and faculty, positive outcomes for all can potentially be recognized.
Professional development that supports and encourages faculty and disability service providers
to share their respective expertise and work together to create ways to support their students,
rather than be forced to work in isolation or at odds with each other can create professional and
educational environments that nurture students and staff alike. Administrators and campus
leadership can foster this type of collaboration through relevant and appropriate shared
professional development opportunities and by providing faculty and staff with the time and
resources to participate. This will develop not only a better informed and educated staff, but a
staff who feels supported and valued in their jobs, which in turn can create a more positive
climate for students, including students with disabilities (Martin, 2006; Murray, Flannery &
Wren, 2008; Scott & Gregg, 2000; Wolman, McCrink, Rodriguez & Harris-Looby, 2004).
Regarding individual differences in learning and behaviors as deficits and/or deviation
from the norm has been the status quo in education. As a result, highly capable individuals who
fail to demonstrate their learning in standard ways have been marginalized and deprived of the
same opportunities to pursue their goals and dreams that their neurotypical peers are afforded.
However, there is a way of looking at individual differences as assets; unique ways of looking at
and experiencing the world; different not disabled. Neurodiversity and Critical Disability

Studies embody that perspective which in addition, is linked with a social model of disability.
In this model, we are encouraged to become aware of how societal and cultural environments can
create disabilities where we could be embracing diversity (Armstrong, 2010; Brownlow, 2010;
Chown & Beavan, 2012; Wheeler, 2011).
Research has shown that faculty and staff perspectives and attitudes can be impacted by
their own personal and/or professional experiences with students with disabilities (Murray,
Flannery & Wren, 2008). With this in mind, the seminar/workshop was designed to facilitate
self-reflection and identification of potentially marginalizing viewpoints and/or attitudes held by
higher education faculty/staff and service providers. In addition to the initial and follow-up
surveys which were designed not only to inform the researcher but also to encourage selfreflection, small group discussions held during the seminar/workshop provided the participants
the opportunity to share their individual reactions and responses to a variety of strategic and
provocative questions. Those conversations along with the survey responses provided an indepth look at individual perspectives and attitudes across roles in the post-secondary educational
setting with administrators with faculty, staff and graduate students participating and sharing
their viewpoints and perspectives.
While many participants reported a personal or professional interaction or relationship
with a neurodiverse student or family member during the initial survey, they also were likely to
have described their working knowledge of neurodiversity through language which reflected a
medicalized or deficit based perspective. Vocabulary such as functional limitations,
disability or disorder , impaired social interactions, social disorder, mental disorder
are terms which indicate a deficit or problem, rather than a difference (Initial Survey, 2013).
Indeed, one of the ways attitudes and perspectives are subtly (or not so subtly) conveyed is
through language. Lydia Brown, an autistic student at Georgetown University and powerful self-

advocate wrote: We need to stop using language that marginalizes and oppresses and begin to
craft rhetorical and discursive constructions of disability that recognize our innate ability to lead
full, rich, and meaningful lives as [sic]disabled people across the lifespan (Autistic Hoya,
Comparing and contrasting data sources at three different time points; prior to the
workshop, during the workshop and following the workshop, provided an opportunity to
examine potential changes in the use of medicalized vs. empowering language by the participants
as their exposure to the concepts of neurodiversity increased. Evidence of this was supported by
the type and frequency of coded thematic references identified during the initial survey, the small
group discussions and the follow-up survey. As discussed earlier in the Findings and Analysis
section, while the surveys and group discussion transcripts could not be compared straight across
the board due to the differing nature of their design and implementation, nevertheless it was
possible to see a positive progression. Out of fifty seven coded thematic responses from the first
data source, twenty one were coded for stereotyping, pre or misconceptions and/or bias towards
autism/neurodiversity, seventeen coded for Knowledge of positive attributes of
autism/neurodiversity/acceptance of diversity, thirteen coded for Awareness of
individual/systems or institutional challenges and/or barriers to success for neurodiverse college
students and six coded for New perceptions/ awareness of neurodiversity, systems change.
The second data source, the guided small group discussions, produced one hundred and fifty
eight thematic responses. Out of those one hundred and fifty eight, only twenty three responses
were coded for stereotyping, pre or misconceptions and/or bias towards autism/neurodiversity,
while thirty three responses were coded for knowledge of positive attributes of
autism/neurodiversity, acceptance of diversity, fifty six were coded for Awareness of
individual/systems or institutional challenges and/or barriers to success for neurodiverse college

students and forty six coded for New perceptions/awareness of neurodiversity, systems
Finally, in the follow-up survey, even though only nine of the original sixteen
respondents completed their surveys, there were an overwhelming number of thematic references
to the fourth theme of New perceptions/awareness of neurodiversity/systems change contrasted
with almost no stereotyping or bias references. In fact, only two responses were coded for
stereotyping, pre or misconceptions and/or bias towards autism/neurodiversity while seven
were coded for Awareness of individual/systems or institutional challenges and/or barriers to
success for neurodiverse college students and twenty eight thematic responses coded for New
perceptions/awareness of neurodiversity/systems change. While there were no coded responses
in the last data source for knowledge of positive attributes of autism/neurodiversity, acceptance
of diversity one possible explanation is that a slight change in some of the follow-up survey
questions may not have prompted that type of response.
Additional feedback from participants in the follow-up survey indicated that the most
impactful element of the seminar/workshop was the video of student interviews. In this ten
minute film, two local area neurodiverse students talked about their goals, strengths, and
challenges as well as discussed misconceptions they felt were had by faculty, staff and/or
students during their college experience. For the workshop participants, having an opportunity
to hear first-hand accounts of neurodiverse college students own perspectives reinforced and
validated the information that was provided earlier in the workshop during the introductory
lecture. It brought to life the effects of marginalization and prejudice on individuals with a
different way of experiencing the world and helped to dispel some of the stereotyping and
negative assumptions the neurotypical world directs towards autism.

As one reads through current scientific and academic research in multiple fields;
Disability Studies, Diversity, Multicultural Education, Inclusion, Higher Education, Autism,
Neurodiversity, Social Justice and many others, it is evident that there is a great need for
attention to be paid to the experiences of neurodiverse students in higher education, not to
mention to all aspects of their lives and across their lifespans. Through my continuing
experiences as a parent, an advocate and ally of the neurodiverse community in which I have
chosen to participate it is overwhelmingly evident as well. This is an issue not only of
educational opportunity but of basic human and civil rights.
We have chosen as a society to believe that all individuals, regardless of ethnicity, gender,
economic standing, ability or disability, have a right to participate in all aspects of our society
including education. Whether you espouse the medicalized/deficit perception of disability or
choose a more empowering viewpoint, federal mandates under the ADA honor that belief for
individuals with disabilities (ADA, 2008). We as a society can only benefit from the diversity
that is nurtured and provided for under its guidance.
It is clear that a growing community of neurodiverse individuals are pursuing their goals
and gaining access to higher education. It is also clear that there are many barriers to success
unique to neurodiverse students. This Inquiry Report with its action/research component in the
form of an interactive seminar/workshop attempted to identify those barriers and begin a process
of breaking them down.
In a world which simultaneously produces tremendous diversity while demanding
conformity, barriers are created. Barriers in education come in many forms; physical, structural,
systemic, procedural and attitudinal to name but a few. I would argue that all barriers have their
roots in the attitudes, perspectives and viewpoints of the dominant culture. Knowingly, or
unknowingly, those in power positions act and react according to their own personal world view;

a view which may or may not reflect an awareness of other realities, other perceptions.
Understanding how our actions, as a product of our attitudes, can create avenues or
barriers to success in higher education was the fundamental purpose of this Inquiry Project. The
bad news is that we have learned of multiple barriers that stand in the way of neurodiverse
students; students who have already traveled a long, bumpy road to get to where they are.
Additional bad news is that we know it takes a tremendous amount of time, resources and
political will to change rules and regulations, policies and procedures. We also know those
necessary resources are stretched to the limit and beyond in todays economic and political
climate. The good news is that just as a pebble dropped into a still pond creates ripples which
grow and multiply, so too, does an individual create ever widening opportunities for change;
change that begins with their own behaviors, personal and professional practices which can
positively impact their own and their students experiences even before institutional change
The voices of neurodiverse students in higher education, as shown in the video, as
recorded in the research tell us they need the rest of us, we neurotypicals to change our
attitudes. They ask us to accept and be comfortable with their differences. They ask us to
acknowledge and value their unique strengths and understand their challenges. As Lydia Brown,
Georgetown University Student and dedicated autistic self-advocate so eloquently put it:
The experience of disability, of being disabled, arises when a person whose neurological,
mental, emotional, and or physical differences are atypical and divergent enough from the
neurologies and physicalities of the majority so that this person is forced to exist and live
in a society and world not constructed to incorporate natural supports and full inclusion
and access for people like this person. That is, the experience of disability and being
disabled is the result of the interaction of a persons inherent differences with a society

and its attitudes and policiesWithout significant changes in societal and individual
attitudinal barriers to access, there will be no meaningful systems change, no changes to
policies and institutions that create further barriers to equal access and opportunity and
full and equal participation in all facets and aspects of life (Autistic Hoya, 2012).
We should and we can change our attitudes towards disability in general and neurodiversity in
higher education specifically. This Inquiry Report is just one very small example of how to start
that process.

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