Pedagogical Approaches for Neurodivergent Learners in STEM
Sara Sanders Gardner and Marisa Hackett, Bellevue College
People like to use a variety of language when referring to their own disability, including identity first or person first. People should always ask for specific preferences when talking to someone with a disability. Euphemisms–such as challenges, differently-abled, or special needs–should be avoided.
What is Neurodiversity?
This term was created by the autism community and is defined as the vast neuro-cognitive variability within Earth’s human population. The term was coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the late 90’s, and recognizes the fact that every human has a unique nervous system with a unique combination of ability and needs. The term neurodivergent refers to an individual who has a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards.
Models of Disability
The moral model often refers to how the “problem” of disability comes from the individual, the family, or your ancestors–the idea that someone in your family has done something wrong in your family to cause your disability. The medical model looks at how the “problem” of disability is within the individual, which could be fixed with a cure or reduced by medicine or access to the medical system–suggesting there is a “right” way to live and be. The social model of disability reframes our thinking about disability from “fixing” a disabled person to focusing on changing society–the “problem” lies with society being inaccessible. Learn more on this topic in the video My Body Doesn't Oppress Me, Society Does.
Patty Berne and other disability advocates have created 10 Principles of Disability Justice.
The ten principles of disability justice are Intersectionality, Leadership of Those Most Impacted, Anti-Capitalist Politic, Commitment to Cross Movement Organizing, Recognizing Wholeness, Sustainability, Commitment to Cross-Disability Solidarity, Interdependence, Collective Access, and Collective Liberation.
Societal markers and lived realities determine access to resources; people who are perceived to belong to privileged groups are rewarded for their group memberships while others are disenfranchised and subject to regulation and violence. Intersectionality includes age, disability, religion, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, indigenous backgrounds, national origin, gender, and more. Learn more about intersectionality from Finn Gardiner in the video Intersecting Selfhood Trans: Identity, Autism and Mental Health Disability.
Edward T. Hall modeled culture as an iceberg, where we think about the aspects on the top, such as language and music, but notes there are aspects of culture that more deeply influence our behaviors and relationships, often below the “surface” of our awareness (the larger part of the iceberg that cannot be seen). Such aspects include facial expressions, eye contact, tones of voice, concepts of self, attitudes toward family, approaches to marriage, notions of friendship, and many more.
Cultural rules are flexible and many people can learn when and where to apply these different cultural expectations–this can be harder for neurodivergent people. For cultural expectations, it is great to follow these tips: try to give a generous and respectful interpretation to others’ way of being, own your boundaries while respecting others’ boundaries, and teach self-advocacy. If someone isn’t understanding what you are saying, try to express your ideas in different ways and let them ask clarifying questions.
Universal Design in Education
Universal design for education offers multiple ways to engage students, present information, and allow for expression and assessment. Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) is a model that offers students the purpose, task, and criteria in an assignment or activity with a rubric, and allows the teacher and student to have a common understanding of the tasks at hand. When educators provide structure, it allows students to understand what is going to happen and when, and they understand why each assignment is important. However, it’s also important to offer flexibility, since there will often be situations where students may need more guidance, time, or exceptions.
Other Core Practices and Tools
Always use students’ preferred names and pronouns and meet with students one-on-one to check in with them throughout the school quarter, semester, or year. Monitor progress and intervene as needed.
Use plain language in wording, structure, and design so that readers can readily find what they need, understand it, and use it. Use your college’s learning management system to create modules and organize materials into weekly work. Open up your course early to allow students to work and plan ahead.
Also make sure you are practicing self-care and finding community-care: taking care of yourself as a human beyond just an educator. Watch out for burnout and demoralization and take breaks.
Real Stories from Neurodiverse Students on How STEM Faculty Can Support Success
Ronda Jensen, Northern Arizona University
Discover Your Neurodiverse Advantage in STEM (DYNA STEM), funded by the National Science Foundation, aims to bring the important aspects of neurodiversity to the forefront of STEM, such as creativity, critical thinking, and differences in world view.
DYNA STEM worked with Auburn University, University of Missouri-Kansas City, University of Hawaii, Ohio State University, and other partners to gather qualitative data. Project staff talked to students—as well as faculty, professionals, educators, disability support specialists, and others—about neurodiversity, STEM education, and perceptions; DYNA STEM staff focused on student perceptions of these topics and how this aided in conceptualizing what inclusive STEM teaching and learning means.
Neurodiverse students reported they want
- specific and clear instructions (more is better than less);
- flexibility for self-guided learning;
- balance of peer learning, hands-on, and direct instruction–through a combination of lectures, projects, and other models of teaching and learning;
- a choice of options and activities or abilities to skip unnecessary steps if you’ve mastered a skill;
- visuals and graphics;
- opportunities to be creative;
- clear and logical applications to real-world STEM work;
- sensory stimuli focused on specific tasks;
- physical space options for standing, sitting, or other positions; and
- clear social expectations.
“Next Level” Inclusive STEM Learning focuses on universal design for learning, a trauma-informed setting, and adult learning principles. Universal design for learning features multiple methods of representation (information shared in a variety of ways), action and expression (options for demonstration learning), and engagement (options for learning new skills). A trauma-informed setting recognizes that there are triggers of trauma and creates a space that allows for students to feel comfortable learning. It focuses on safety (risk-taking as an acceptable form of STEM learning), trustworthiness (dependable follow-through), choice (options for engagement), collaboration (learning from each other), and empowerment (strengths-based approach and opportunities for leadership).
Effective Communication Strategies and Classroom Management for Neurodiverse Learners
Kathryn Holley, The Autism Center, University of Washington
This presentation covers general supportive strategies, setting expectations, communication strategies, and managing disruptions, which are concepts that can support all learners.
There are a large number of neurodivergent identities. One of the first ways we support our students is in the ways we think and talk about them. Using labels such as high- or low-functioning and thinking of autism as a binary spectrum is problematic; instead, we now acknowledge where students just need additional support. This can lead to a lot of competing needs in the classroom, which can sometimes require compromise or more spaces for people to have their preferred learning environment.
For example, reading a syllabus may seem very easy for some people, but can feel very overwhelming for others. Group projects can feel very overwhelming for many, but some people genuinely thrive during group work. The best strategies for setting expectations are based on the following:
- Utilize a strengths-based model, looking at individual weaknesses and strengths and how we can build on the latter.
- Engage in discussion to meet everyone’s needs.
- Understand the difference between “can’t do” and “won’t do”—there can often be a misconception that someone is saying they won’t do something when instead they can’t do it because the emotional or cognitive cost far outweighs the benefit.
- Adopt “Compassionate Humility.” Accept that despite what you might know, you will never fully know what is going on for the other person.
Communication is never as straightforward as it seems and looks different depending on the observer. Behaviors are generally the result of deeper reasoning, which can be symptoms of neurodivergent traits. Helpful communication strategies include the following:
- Use a variety of means to give and accept information.
- Cover expectations even for things that often go unsaid. Think about the “where” and “why.”
- Enact rubrics that can be explained to students. Discuss expectations around participation, assignments, tests, and other grade-related activities.
- “Chunk” information by teaching and delivering related information at the same time.
- Allow for frequent breaks.
- Make connections explicit: Repeat the same point or emphasize something by stating “this is important,” or saying “bolded items will usually show up on tests.”
- Provide sample products or give visual options to let students know what is expected of them.
Every environment comes with a lot of sensory experiences, which can be distracting or cause individuals to act differently than expected. Helpful methods for managing disruptions before they start include the following:
- Establish class norms: Set expectations around movement, talking, and other actions, and what is allowed in the classroom.
- Be direct: Give feedback as needed.
- Clearly communicate what you will do in the moment of a disruption: At the beginning of a quarter or year, always say what will happen in this situation so everyone is on the same page. Repeat as needed and follow through.
- Clearly communicate what you expect all students to do in the moment of a disruption: At the beginning of a quarter or year, say what you want peers to do so everyone is on the same page.
Other individual strategies may also be needed:
- Ask the student what they want you to do or not do.
- Share the burden of creating solutions.
- Be honest and realistic.
- Consider what is in your control.
- Assume good intentions.
Options for in the moment disruption solutions:
- Visual support: showing them an alternative rather than just talking about it.
- Model calmness: It can be hard to make rational decisions when agitated; offer calm decisions and choices Acknowledge and redirect–saying “I see that you are very upset. Take three minutes in the hall and I will meet you out there.”
- Survive with dignity: Talking through what is happening can help everyone understand and normalize what is happening.
Best Practices from an Online STEM Summer Camp Serving Neurodiverse Students
Tami Tidwell, Eric Chudler, and Scott Bellman, University of Washington
Neuroscience for Neurodiverse Learners is an NSF-funded ITEST project that provides hands-on experiences and networking opportunities to motivate students from neurodiverse backgrounds to pursue academic pursuits in STEM. Our program includes a STEM summer camp, as well as networking and learning opportunities throughout the year.
During our program, we communicate a lot before the sessions to let each student know what is expected of them. We also let them know whether assignments will be coming, and allow time for students to introduce themselves and opportunities to use audio or chat. We provide the order students will be presenting so they have time to prepare, and if we are going around asking questions, students can elect to skip and come back later. We also make sure that presentations are very visually focused and include a lot of interaction through chat, questions, and polls, which allows students to engage in multiple ways
We use a software called Padlet, where students can upload their work. We included a project where students had to make neurons from household materials and a project where students shared a musical instrument they made at home. We also invite students to take ownership of their learning by asking “what do you want to learn about the human brain?”
Behind the scenes, staff members set up duties and responsibilities for conducting online classes. Staff utilize a real-time communication tool (Slack) to allow for behind-the-scenes conversations, and we share our agendas, prompts, and discussions over a learning management system (Canvas) with all participants. For many of the students, this is their first time experiencing college-level tools. We talk to a lot of the students over chat, Zoom, and the phone one-on-one, which can include helping solve problems, making sure someone is somewhere on time, technical support, or even just helping someone talk through their anxiety.
We also offer near-peer support, which allows participants to see more people like them who have succeeded in these programs and in college. Sometimes it can be easier to talk to another student compared to talking to a professional.