Jan. 16, 2024

6 principles to inform a supportive and neurodiverse campus

Discover effective strategies to support neurodivergent individuals in educational and work environments
Two autistic friends sitting outside using stim toys and laughing at their phones
Hiki App on Unsplash

A recent UCalgary study indicates that 17 per cent of its student population is considered neurodivergent, a term encompassing those with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), dyslexia, anxiety disorders, Tourette's syndrome and more.

Last fall, The Sinneave Family Foundation presented a webinar during UCalgary’s UFlourish. Now available to view online, the seminar addressed how to support neurodivergent individuals, specifically on post-secondary campuses.

Many neurodivergent individuals face challenges in the education system. A study by Statistics Canada investigated the independent role neurodivergence plays in post-secondary enrolment rates of youth aged 18 to 22, compared to their non-neurodivergent peers.

Findings suggest that only 48 per cent of youth diagnosed with neurodivergence enrolled in post-secondary. Youth diagnosed with both neurodivergence and a mental health condition were even less likely to enrol: only 36 per cent went on to post-secondary.

Neurodivergent individuals often differ from their non-neurodivergent counterparts in their thinking, behaviour and learning styles.

Presented by Jay Haukenfrers and Dr. Shane Lynch, the webinar, 6 Principles to Inform Inclusive Campuses for Autistic and Neurodivergent People, aimed to deepen the understanding of diverse neurodivergent experiences. Thus, providing principles and strategies for implementing inclusivity in learning and work environments.

Haukenfrers is the learning and connection co-ordinator at Sinneave, while Lynch, PhD, has more than 25 years of experience as a registered psychologist and director of innovation.

Here is a summary of Haukenfrers and Lynch’s strategies and ideas for meeting this challenge:

1. Communication: Fostering understanding through diverse styles

Effective communication is “the bedrock of any community, and an inclusive campus recognizes and respects the myriad of ways individuals express themselves,” says Haukenfrers. “By offering choices and considering various communication styles and methods, this principle paves the way for more inclusive dialogue.” 

Recommended strategies:

  • Speak clearly and give time: Be literal, clear and concise in your communication. Avoid the use of slang, nuance, idioms, metaphors and sarcasm as these forms of speech can cause confusion. Some individuals may require time to process what they are hearing and to formulate their response.
  • Consider communication styles: Ask about preferred communication methods to allow individuals to express themselves in ways that feel comfortable for them. Some individuals may prefer to communicate via text or email rather than face to face or on the phone.
  • Share the conversation: Encouraging communication by asking questions (e.g., one or two questions per topic). This will help to communicate that you are interested in hearing others’ opinions and provide space to share their thoughts.

2. Environment: Creating spaces that embrace neurodiversity

Lynch says physical and sensory environments play a crucial role in supporting neurodiversity on campus. “This principle stresses that traditional, non-neurodivergent campus environments may not cater to the diverse needs of neurodivergent individuals,” he says.

Recommended strategies:

  • Create space for discussion: Create a safe and approachable relationship that invites the person to discuss their sensory needs. Understand that sensory stimuli are more difficult to process if the person is anxious or upset. Conversely, uncomfortable or distressing sensory stimuli can cause strong emotional reactions. Believe people when they tell you about their sensory sensitivities.
  • Provide comfortable spaces: Offer physical spaces that are accessible, comfortable and considerate of diverse needs. This could involve flexible seating arrangements, quiet zones or alternatives to traditional open-concept offices. Allow the individual to have control over the sensory environment as much as possible.
  • Be flexible in various arrangements: Offer a variety of flexible work arrangements, such as start/end times, the number and timing of breaks, and the option to work from home. Consider providing online options for social interactions and meetings because the individual may experience challenges speaking in sensory-stimulating environments or integrating information during group conversations.

3. Structure: Balancing clarity and adaptability

For Haukenfrers and Lynch, structured planning is essential for any campus, but “an inclusive one recognizes the need for balance.” Rigid structures can be a barrier for neurodivergent individuals; acknowledging that structure and flexibility can co-exist ensures social gatherings of any form are well organized, yet adaptable.

Recommended strategies:

  • Create predictability: Establish familiarity with spaces, expectations and daily activities, such as start and completion times, due dates, and specific responsibilities and expectations.
  • Give advance notice of changes: Communicate changes using preferred communication methods (e.g., text, email, meeting notes and face-to-face reminders). Expect that some people may appear initially unwilling or unenthusiastic about unexpected changes — they may need more time for processing or more information about why the change is occurring.
  • Provide a variety of tools: Offer tools for diverse planning needs such as electronic calendars, to-do lists, task managers, productivity apps, goal trackers, how-to videos, paper/hard copy instruction sheets, step-by-step instruction binders with pictures, posted reminders and rules, notebooks, labels, checklists, physical organizers, and activity schedules.

4. Flexibility: Adapting to foster inclusivity

Flexibility is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and new ideas. This principle emphasizes that flexibility helps neurodivergent individuals with uncertainty, incorporating new information, adjusting to changes and perceiving setbacks as opportunities for learning.

 Recommended strategies:

  • Validate emotions: Acknowledge emotions so individuals feel heard and understood and are less likely to dwell on feelings of disappointment and uncertainty. Practise using empathy and modelling flexible thinking to help the individual move on to finding a satisfactory solution.
  • Keep an open mind: Create a flexible environment that views challenges with openness, curiosity, and as opportunities for growth. Rather than only offering flexible adjustments to individuals who request them, consider offering them to all individuals.
  • Allow various evaluation methods: Offer flexibility in evaluation methods, allowing for alternative assessments or accommodations that better align with the individual's abilities. For example, allowing choices in project formats, presentation styles or assessment settings.

5. Connection: Building bridges through openness and understanding

Socializing is a natural part of human interaction; however, its nuances vary. For Haukenfrers, an inclusive campus “ensures that everyone feels invited and valued,” she says. This principle underlines the importance of understanding diverse social styles and practising inclusivity in building relationships.

Recommended strategies:

  • Reduce anxiety: Identify and discuss strategies that will help to reduce or manage anxiety when the student or employee engages in social interactions, such as the opportunity to retreat to a quiet place or work independently.
  • Observe and ask: Observe, ask and learn about “social strengths” and accept that people may socialize differently than you. Meeting people where they are and avoiding judgment means that we accept and value the differences we see.
  • Develop awareness: Neurodivergent individuals may not use eye contact in the ways non-neurodivergent individuals do. Eye contact may be perceived to be too intimate, anxiety-provoking or interpreted as disrespectful. When interacting with someone who is not making eye contact, do not judge the situation negatively; rather, accept the varied social style and continue with your interaction.

6. Emotion: Navigating the spectrum of feelings

Understanding and expressing emotions is a complex aspect of human interaction. This principle focuses on the internal and physical reactions individuals have to daily experiences and acknowledges the wide range in emotional expression.

Recommended strategies:

  • Confirm and clarify: Engage in open communication by confirming perceptions of others' emotions and avoid making assumptions. Seek to understand why they are feeling that way and encourage individuals to clarify or explain their emotional responses.
  • Speak calmly: Maintain a calm composure, lower tone and speak clearly when asking about someone’s emotional response. Be mindful of your volume and focus on keeping your communication brief (short sentences).
  • Give time and space: If someone is experiencing intense emotions, you can ask them if they would like you to stay and help or if they would like space. Either way, give people time to process their emotions and to calm down.

Creating an inclusive campus for autistic and neurodivergent individuals is a collective effort that involves understanding, respect and proactive strategies. Embracing these six key principles can significantly contribute to a campus environment that promotes well-being for all.

Looking for more resources and education around supporting an inclusive campus? Check out neurodiversity-related workshops and events for students, and for faculty and staff.

UFlourish 2023 ran from Nov. 1 to 15 and was hosted by Student Wellness Services and Staff Wellness with the support of the Campus Mental Health Strategy (CMHS). There are several events available to watch online. To inquire about programming an event for UFlourish 2024, email uflourish@ucalgary.ca.

UCalgary’s Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) Initiative for Neurodiverse Students is another partnership with The Sinneave Family Foundation. It takes a systems-level approach to enhancing inclusion and accessibility in WIL programs, positioning neurodivergent students to thrive in WIL and beyond. Learn more.

If you have any questions about autism, the 6 Principles or
The Sinneave Family Foundation, contact them at info@sinneavefoundation.org or call 403-210-5000.

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