It’s estimated that around 1 in 7 people in the UK are neurodivergent. Despite this, there’s a lack of understanding regarding the term.
This is most poignant when looking at the stereotypes centering neurodivergence within media, such as the hyper-intelligent guy with autism or the romanticised, autistic-coded manic-pixie-dream girl.
Alongside this is the trivialisation of neurodivergence within everyday language. For example, the phrase ‘oh, I am SO OCD!’ and the reiteration of the R slur.
So, what is neurodivergence, and how does it affect students at Lancaster?
A brief history
Created by Judy Singer in the late 1990s, the word refers to the differing ways that people think and process. Having autism herself, Singer aimed to shift the discourse regarding the way people view neurodivergence as a defect or disability.
She concluded that neurodivergence refers to the differing ways brains function in relation to a range of mental functions such as learning, mood, attention, and sociability.
The term includes people with dyspraxia, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyscalculia, autistic spectrum, and Tourette’s syndrome.
Neurodivergence and academia
Unsurprisingly, people with neurodivergence struggle within a system designed for neurotypical people. I interviewed a handful of students at Lancaster with autism, ADHD, and dyslexia, to discover how their neurodivergence affects their University experience.
Although all of the students interviewed expressed passion for their subjects, it can become difficult for them in an academic world not built to facilitate their needs.
A second year student, currently in the stages of getting an autism diagnosis, states: ‘Lectures can be a sensory overload’ although seminars can be worse as due to the ‘added stimuli or masking’.
‘Articulating my thoughts, keeping my hands still, finding a balance of how much eye contact I should make with the teacher – it’s so overwhelming I often end up dissociating which means I sometimes don’t take in what’s being said in class properly’.
A second year student with ADHD also expressed difficulties concentrating, particularly when lecturers don’t use slides: ‘I struggle to keep track of what they’re saying. It’s also harder for me to do very long readings. Often I have to re-read them several times before I actually understand anything I’m reading’.
As for workload, neurodivergent students tend to struggle more. This, alongside other cognitive functions, varies.
For example, one student with autism said that the mountain of work during first term lead to a burn-out induced depressive episode. In contrast, a third year student with autism says, ‘Intense academics is actually something I crave, because it allows me to get stuck into something I love!’
Due to their dyslexia, a LICA year student also struggles with a large amount of deadlines. They say that it’s ‘impossible to translate [what’s in their mind] onto paper. Once I start, it takes me double the time to complete work’, this applies to other forms of work too such as ‘cooking’ and ‘shopping’.
Additionally, a student with ADHD expresses how overwhelming lots of deadlines can be. ‘At the moment, I’m going through a really rough period, and really long readings and five deadlines in a week definitely makes it worse. I’m feeling overwhelmed all the time and don’t really have much sleep as there’s no time for that’
Another student with ADHD expresses a similar difficulty: ‘I love academia, but sometimes I feel like I wasn’t made for it. I get stressed a lot, and I get busy a lot. I often forget to eat, sleep, and sometimes even shower’.
Socialising at University
Friendships decrease the loneliness that university life often brings. Additionally, socialising can release hormones such as oxytocin which can decrease anxiety. Tapping into these benefits, however, can be difficult for neurodivergent students who find it hard making and maintaining friendship.
A student with dyslexia comments: ‘By the times I’ve pulled myself out of my head and fashioned what to say, five topics have already passed and Beyonce has come and gone. [Trying to keep up in conversations] leaves me saying the first thing that come to mind. Overtime, forming an image of me being mindless and weird.’
For a student with ADHD, their object permanence makes friendships is troubling, ‘If I don’t see someone every single day, or if I don’t message them often, I will forget to talk to them. I’ve lost a lot of friends because of this’.
In contrast, a student with autism states, ‘I feel like an alien […] Sometimes I isolate myself from my house and my friend because it’s too overwhelming. At the same time, I force myself to socialise because I love people.’
‘Because of this I’m very exhausted and dissociate during conversations which makes people wonder whether or not I actually like them because I seem so distant and in my head’.
Support offered to neurodiverse students
In general, support from the university has been mixed, with one student stating that ‘Lancaster University offers quite a range of support for neurodiverse students. With peer mentoring, transition programmes and the Autistic Social Society, there’s quite a lot on offer’ whilst others are displeased.
All the students I’ve interviewed, however, have communicated the benefit of being able to obtain extensions. However, for some, support has still be insufficient.
‘On one hand, my extension requests are always accepted without question. On the other hand, some lectures refuse to record lectures, which makes it really hard to write essays based off lectures in which I wasn’t able to fully focus. Also, I was denied from the University Mental Health Service even though I really needed it just because they thought only long term therapy could help’, said one student with ADHD.
Another student with the same neurodivergence echoes this statement: ‘The support I have received has been not too useful […] A lot of my classes are only online. I know that a lot of neurodivergent students find that easier but I can’t do online classes and videos. My brain can’t sit still, but it can – sort of – sit still in in-person lectures’.
What neurodivergent students want you to know
When asked what they wished their neurotypical peers knew, all the students I interviewed expressed a desire for understanding and acceptance.
‘I’ve been called childish and cringeworthy at university before whilst simply expressing my joy,’ stated a student with autism, whilst two people with ADHD expressed a want for those around them not to view them as ‘lazy’.
‘I wish people would know that we aren’t lazy and we aren’t stupid either. Intellectually, I can do it. I love my course. I just can’t focus at all. I wish people didn’t assume things about us’.