Embracing neurodiversity on campus

Triton College has created spaces that are more flexible and inclusive for diverse learners. (Photo: Triton College)

Two-year colleges have been stepping up their efforts in recent years to support neurodiverse students, a population that includes those on the autism spectrum as well as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Organizers of such programming need to figure not only how best to support students, but also questions like how to recruit them in the first place, whether to integrate with other services like career centers, whether to partner with outside organizations and which ones, and what challenges they might face along the way.

This article is an exerpt from the February/March issue of Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community Colleges.

“Most, if not all, campuses have some kind of resource center or accessibility center,” says Betina Wildhaber, founder of the Neurodiversity Network, a nationwide campus resource, as well as student employment coordinator and career center lead advisor at California State University-Chico, who estimates that about 20% of people are neurodivergent.

While some access such resources, she says, “There are so many more students on campus who don’t, for two reasons: either they don’t realize it’s for them, or they don’t want to be associated with the center, out of shame or whatever it might be.”

Starting the journey to becoming a more inclusive campus involves putting together a team of people who are either neurodivergent themselves or motivated to be allies, who are very familiar with the community, and who have a strengths-based view of how to serve them, says Wildhaber, who arrived at CSU-Chico four years ago.

“You’re building your army,” she says. “You’re finding your community, which can be very much invisible, so the people start to feel comfortable coming forward. And then, bringing awareness on campus.” And raising awareness of your services beyond campus, she adds. “When somebody is looking up your school [online], are they seeing neurodiversity present on your campus? … It doesn’t happen overnight. But you have to ask what the problems are, where there are gaps and issues, and make sure you have the student voice included in those conversations.”

Longstanding autism program at Golden West

Students on the autism spectrum at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California, have been able to access a broad range of services for the past nine years as part of the College Autism Program (formerly the Comprehensive Autism Program) developed by staff, counselors and students in the Disabled Students Programs and Services (DSPS) department. Services include individual counseling for academic, social-emotional, career and transfer needs, coaching and case management oversight, peer mentoring and relevant workshops. Approximately 190 students are enrolled in the program.

Students on the spectrum also can participate in The LOOP, a student organization housed within the College Autism Program, which meets weekly and enables them to develop meaningful relationships and underscore their sense of belonging. Topics of these meetings have included the high school-to-college transition, time management, self-advocacy, dating and relationships, sensory sensitivities and the needs of LGBTQIA+ students. Students also can participate in a Discord and/or Facebook group and a monthly “movie morning.”

Denise Gonzalez Bon, DSPS adjunct counselor and autistic student counselor, launched the program due to an increase in students on the spectrum and a corresponding spike in behavioral assessment reports from professors who did not understand the behavior’s origin. “We saw a need to educate the campus, in addition to supporting the students,”

Gonzalez Bon considers The LOOP group to be the centerpiece of the effort. The 90-minute-long meetings on Fridays, structured as a non-credit class, attract about 35 to 50 students each week in person or on Zoom. “We talk about different characteristics of autism, characteristics students have always felt but didn’t know the name attached to it,” she says. “Nor did they know other autistic students were going through similar things.”

Other aspects of the College Autism Program include participation in Autism Ally Week in April, which incorporates informational sessions, ally training, and a closing dinner with a Mario Kart tournament. Students in the program also attend one another’s campus activities, ranging from soccer games to theater performances, Gonzalez Bon says.

Over time, the faculty and staff, including those who did not understand autism well at the outset, have become very supportive. Trainings are packed with 50 to 60 people every time. “There are not a lot of community colleges that do a whole program like this,” she says. “The student has to be registered with DSPS to be part of the program, although we’re working on adding self-diagnosed students to The LOOP.”

Planting S.E.E.D.’s at Triton

Triton College in River Grove, Illinois, has prioritized neurodiversity as an action plan on its strategic plan for fiscal years 2023 to 2025. Hilary Meyer, dean of academic success, leads a 20-person faculty and staff committee including a wide variety of departments and has quickly moved past theoretical goals to how neurodiversity inclusion plays out.

The group identified the Triton College Library as a community learning hub, hosting a district forum on neurodiversity in September that also included public and K-12 library partners. Another initiative has been the renovation of the school’s Academic Success Center to make it more flexible and inclusive for diverse learners, with a relaxing cool color palette, wheeled furniture, and a variety of spaces and seating styles.

The involvement of the Skill Enhancement and Employee Development (S.E.E.D.) certificate program has helped address concerns among those who embraced the overall concept but wanted to make sure Triton was doing it the right way, Meyer says. “Having the S.E.E.D. students partnered and placed in departments across campus reduced the fear,” she says. “Being able to work alongside them made the theoretical become personal.”

The college has launched a social club called Amazing Amigos, run by a counselor, where students on the spectrum can come hang out. While autistic people tend to garner the most attention within the neurodiversity realm, Meyer says it’s important to address the larger umbrella that includes ADHD, OCD, learning disabilities and potentially other learning styles — and to make distinctions among them, not conflate them. “That may not rise to the level of a clinical diagnosis, but people might still benefit from more inclusive practices,” she says.

Recruiting methodology

To boost recruitment for its program, Triton College placed a graduate of the S.E.E.D. program on the strategic planning committee that’s reaching out to neurodiverse employees and students, to ensure that those with lived experience plan events.

“It’s important to understand that there is nothing about us, without us,” Meyer says. “That’s a big concern and focus for those of the autistic community. Having students at the table can be tricky, though. Students, for various reasons, may not want to disclose their self-identity. … We want to make sure we’re not tokenizing or overburdening people, but that the voices of those who identify in the community are included and in the forefront of planning and efforts.”

Read the full article in the current issue of CC Journal.

About the Author

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an education writer based in Illinois.
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