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Neurodiversity and the Student Experience

Insights from the OUE Research Team

According to Duke Neurodiversity Connections, a group that supports Duke students by increasing awareness and promoting inclusion of neurodiversity in all campus spaces, the term neurodiversity “recognizes the diversity of human minds and the inherent worth of all individuals. As a social justice movement, the neurodiversity movement aims to celebrate the strengths and advocate for the needs of those with autism, ADHD, and other neurological differences . . . We view neurodiversity as an asset to Duke University’s campus culture and academic mission.” Informed and inspired by the work of students and colleagues raising awareness and advocating for inclusion of neurodiversity in all campus spaces at Duke and beyond, for the first time this year, our research team asked participants to indicate if they identify as neurodivergent (an individual identifier, in contrast to neurodiverse, which refers to a group of people or to humankind as a whole) in this year’s Duke Undergraduate Check-In study (DUCkI). 

It is currently relatively rare for data to be collected on neurodiversity per se, but by some estimates, as much as 15−20% of the world population may exhibit some form of neurodivergence. In our DUCkI sample, 10.2% of respondents identified as neurodivergent. Consistent with the literature, a significant proportion of neurodivergent students (64.7%) also identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, compared with 17.3% of students who did not identify as neurodivergent. Approximately one-third (33.1%) of neurodivergent students also identified as students with a disability. 

Unfortunately, consistent with the broader literature on neurodiverse students’ experiences in educational settings, students in our sample who identified as neurodivergent also reported higher levels of loneliness, stress, and mental health concerns; more concerns about being judged negatively and stereotyped based on identity; higher levels of uncertainty about their belonging and lower feelings of belonging overall; less availability of social support on campus; and less confidence and efficacy navigating the support landscape at Duke. Despite these challenges, neurodivergent students also reported having friends on campus (including life-long friends), connecting with faculty and other adults on campus, and having a sense of enthusiasm and gusto for their academic work. 

Drawing on the principles of Universal Design for Learning as well as lived experience and professional expertise, colleagues at Duke recently published a practice-oriented guide laying out five “domains of inclusion” that should be addressed to develop more neurodiversity-affirming campus environments: sensory and movement; course structure; group work and presentations; tests and evaluations; and sense of security/belonging (Bransden, Blackshear, Coleman, Hallur, & Chandrasekhar, 2024). At the core of this effort is the recognition of key strengths that neurodiverse individuals bring to the campus community, and that working toward a more neurodiversity-affirming campus helps all students. To learn more, read the full article here.