Saturday, December 3, 2022

College supports neurodiverse students

By Jessica Landman

Marlee Bickford-Bushy, the graduate mentor for student support services and student accessibility services, hosted her first Neurodiversity and Navigating college event Sept. 27, in the Alumni Conference Center. 

According to a Harvard study, about 20% of undergraduate college students in the United States reported having a disability, including neurodivergence. Neurodiversity is the differences in behavioral traits and how a brain may function in comparison to what is considered a “normal” brain. Some of those different variations include autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, down syndrome and dyslexia.

Bickford-Bushy was diagnosed with autism and therefore sympathizes with the struggles neurodivergent students like her may experience throughout their college careers.

“Neurodiversity entails the concept that each of us has different mind variations, and that’s normal,” Bickford-Bushy said.

The purpose of this event was to spread awareness and inclusivity as well as give all students a place to feel welcome and start anew after COVID-19. This program was mainly directed at first-year students to help with adjustment from the K-12 system’s structure to that of a college.

Bickford-Bushy said, “A lot of times we are told to be like everyone else, to have study skills just like everyone else, and that doesn’t work for us.” 

Available at this event were resources that helped students in building routines, understanding their needs and determining the importance of tasks to help fulfill them, as well as learning how to avoid shutdowns, meltdowns and burnout. These skills can help students thrive in college.

Some stations featured technology that has been useful for neurodivergent students, items such as fidget toys that could be helpful when dealing with attention deficiencies and well-known authors who have also struggled with problems related to neurodiversity in their past.  

Also highlighted at the event was the upcoming “neuro-pride” group on campus. Along with that is a new neuro-pride space that is in the works of being set up. 

This will become a “space made by neurodivergent students for neurodivergent students” according to flyers promoting the new space. 

Being a neurodivergent student in college can be difficult. Bickford-Bushy spoke on her experiences while attending high school.

“It was definitely different for me because you go in, a lot of times, with a concept known as masking, where you have a lot of anxiety, and sometimes masking can even lead to depression,” Bickford-Bushy said. 

Masking is a “social survival strategy” for neurodivergent people, according to the Healthline article “Autism Masking: To Blend or Not to Blend” by clinical psychologist Dr. Alex Klein. Masking behaviors can include forcing eye contact, faking smiles, scripting conversations and minimizing one’s interests to appear neurotypical — just like everyone else. People may choose to mask to feel safe, make friends, fit into their environment or succeed at their jobs.

Bickford-Bushy said these problems can often make it difficult for students to go into professors’ offices or ask for help. 

“It was great to come in, to see professors that were accepting. Also to work more with professors who wanted to know more about you,” Bickford-Bushy said. 

Bickford-Bushy said that in order to have the best experience in college, it is important for students to be open and honest with their professors about the challenges they face from being neurodivergent. 

There are a plethora of resources students can utilize on campus if they are struggling with neurodiversity. A good place to start would be Student Support Services or Student Accessibility Services to meet with staff to build schedules and habits that can optimize the college experience.

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