We need neurodiversity in the college classroom

Camilla Tarpey-Schwed, Columnist

According to the Whitman mission statement, we are expected as students at Whitman College, to “develop our intellectual and creative capacities in a supportive scholarly community.” While I agree with this statement, and while Whitman has enabled me to personally grow in these capacities during my time as a student, I believe that the college should endeavor to structure our classrooms in ways that actively embrace unique and creative ways of thinking and learning.

 The college classroom is often arranged in a manner that leaves out neurodiverse students who may engage intellectually in ways that have not traditionally been supported or recognized in the higher-education environment. Rather than fearing or stigmatizing neurodiversity, it should be enthusiastically encouraged and welcomed within the classroom. 

Neurodiversity is a term that encompasses the notion that diversity in neurocognitive functioning is a part of the natural variation of human brains and minds. The umbrella of neurodiversity includes those individuals with learning disabilities, ADHD and autism. Neurodiversity rejects the commonly held belief that neurological differences should be pathologized, and instead, it advocates for the inclusion and celebration of neurodiverse folks. When such conditions are framed as “disorders” instead of “differences” it communicates the problematic belief that neurodiversity is undesirable and must be cured. 

I believe that one of the reasons why neurodiversity is framed negatively is because of the way that intelligence and successful learning are typically defined in the classroom. There is an underlying false assumption that all students process information at the exact same pace and in the same manner. This assumption has created a normative standard that defines what “normal” and “abnormal” learning should look like, and has consequently stigmatized those of us outside the standard. 

To provide an example, we neurodiverse students may be written off as lazy or underprepared if we do not respond, or if it takes us longer to respond in a class discussion. Nonresponsiveness does not necessarily indicate that we’re lazy or are not actively participating in class. Instead, it likely means that the particular class discussion was progressing at too fast a pace, or that the activity was not compatible with how we process information. 

In order to open up our classrooms to neurodiverse folks, we must challenge this normative standard of learning. To do this, I believe that it is critical to foster and normalize conversations about neurodiversity in the classroom. When neurodiverse people stand up and advocate for themselves and the ways they learn, they risk being ostracized because of harmful misconceptions about neurodiversity that some individuals hold. 

Advocating for oneself can be helpful but may not by itself trigger the necessary change to foster a fully inclusive learning environment. To further progress in embracing neurodiversity, we must form dialogical spaces that allow for misconceptions to be critically challenged and for differing experiences to be expressed and illuminated.