Neurodivergence and the Student Experience

A blue puzzle piece with a yellow heart surrounded by grey puzzle pieces
Abigel Lancaster 

What comes to your mind when you hear the term “neurodivergent”? Is it a learning difficulty, a limiting label? As the name suggests, neurodivergence is a difference in the way an individual’s brain is wired. Whilst having a neurological disorder, whether it be ASD, ADHD, dyslexia or dyspraxia, comes with its own unique set of challenges, and it is important to distinguish that neurodivergence is neither a positive nor a negative, it just is. Autism in particular seems to have a certain stigma attached. This is partially due to Andrew Wakefield’s refuted claims of a link between the condition and the MMR vaccine (a scandal that had a detrimental impact on the already poor understanding of autism as a condition). Individuals with ADHD seem to be able to reclaim their neurological differences and be proud of them, whereas autistic people tend to be branded as antisocial or lacking empathy.

As someone who was diagnosed with autism less than a month before I started my degree, I had my fears about how to navigate this “new” part of my identity. Although there are an estimated 700,000 people in the UK with autism, public knowledge of the condition still leaves a lot to be desired. Even I was severely misinformed before I did my research into the condition in an attempt to better understand my brain and how it works. Whilst I am not ashamed of having ASD, I had concerns over whether sharing the fact that I was autistic would change the way that people perceived me.

I feared that my inability to go clubbing every night would cause me to be “left behind” socially

My main worry when arriving at university was how I would respond to such a socially demanding environment, that was so vastly different to anything I had experienced before. In some ways my fears were justified. There is certainly a clubbing culture that exists within every university and Nottingham is no different. This can be difficult to know where you fit in as someone who may experience sensory issues or difficulty navigating social situations. Freshers was particularly overwhelming, and at certain points, I feared that my inability to go clubbing every night would cause me to be “left behind” socially. However, I now understand the importance of knowing what you are comfortable with and feel better equipped to handle the social aspect of university.

Academic struggles were also a concern of mine. As someone who does a humanities degree with limited contact hours, I knew the importance of independent study and had doubts over my ability to manage my time effectively without procrastinating until the last possible moment. However, this was an area which I adapted to more quickly than I imagined. Universities offer a wide range of adjustments for disabled students including (but not limited to) enhanced library support, extra time in exams and deadline extensions, and a personalised support plan tailored to the individual student and their requirements. These are also available for students with mental health difficulties and physical disabilities, and I would highly encourage any student to seek out any support that they believe they may be entitled to.

there is no one single autistic experience, just as there is no one single neurotypical experience

As someone whose diagnosis was so recent, I was particularly interested in comparing my experience with those of students who were diagnosed much earlier on in life, and who maybe had a better idea of how they would respond to being placed in such a new environment. It is often said that “When you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism” Despite certain similarities in the way that our brains are structured, we are all distinct individuals, and therefore the way in which we process and respond to the university experience will be completely different. There is no one single autistic experience, just as there is no one single neurotypical experience.

For example, Haiden, a first-year History student who was diagnosed with ASD at the age of 10, stated: “Throughout my education, I’ve struggled in social situations and with maintaining friendships, but I dealt with this better than I expected at university. I found that joining group chats before I arrived was helpful as it made me less anxious when it came to speaking to people in person. It also allowed me to meet other autistic people within my accommodation, which was a big help as this was already something major, we had in common. My main struggles were more academic – I had particular difficulty maintaining focus in lectures and processing auditory information, as well as just generally keeping on top of the workload. The University helped by offering me weekly meetings with a mentor, giving me extra academic support, and helping with key skills like time management. Because I was diagnosed at 10, it has made understanding my autism easier because I know what support I need specifically to be able to adjust to university, both academically and socially”.

Speaking to Haiden allowed me to better understand neurodiversity outside of my own lived experience, and I think it’s interesting to explore both the similarities and the many differences between the university experiences of autistic people. Ultimately, neurological disorders, like autism, undoubtedly make certain aspects of university life more challenging, whether they be academic or social. However, the specific struggles of each individual will vary drastically, and it is perhaps only by comparing experiences that we can begin to recognise the significance of autism as a spectrum. No one experience reflects the condition as a whole, and every experience is valid and significant when considering the impact of neurodiversity on the way a person responds to the university environment.

Abigel Lancaster

Featured image courtesy of Tara Winstead via Pexels. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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