Neurodiversity awareness grows across campus

The differences between how two individuals' brains function and process information is called neurodiversity. The brain may develop or work differently -- which is normal -- in sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions. Neurodiversity includes autism, ADHD and learning disabilities.

Disability Awareness Week

Disability Awareness Week is Oct. 17-21 with events planned each day as well as displays at Parks Library and The Center for LGBTQIA+ Student Success.

Student accessibility services (SAS) launched its Neurodiversity Support Program this fall. It focuses on first-year students, but is available to all students and assists them in developing skills and routines to adjust to college demands.

SAS director Jamie Niman has conducted one-on-one executive function, or self-management, coaching since 2019, meeting weekly with students to work on skills like time management, organization, priority setting and self-advocacy. Graduate students Angelica Castro Bueno and Brenna Klesel also are coaches for the program.

Niman also uses experience prior to coming to Iowa State as a special education instructor to lead neurodiverse improv, which meets every other week. Open to all students, it puts them in situations to interact and make connections. It builds skills, and the interactions often become teachable moments.

"I was having a hard time getting students to provide feedback, so I printed off laminated emojis and had them respond that way," Niman said. "It gave them a way to express themselves and see people with like-minded feelings. It then led to a better discussion where they explained why they felt the way they did."

New additions

Niman expanded the center's neurodiverse offerings with group sessions that use a body double, someone who sits with a person as they work on tasks that might be difficult to complete alone. They can help students stay on task with homework or keep a schedule that includes eating meals. A body double monitors their progress with check-ins. The two-hour sessions three times a week are especially effective for individuals with ADHD.

"It is not a tutor, but the coach is available and adds an accountability piece," Niman said.

SAS also developed self-paced modules in Canvas to help students through the first-year experience. It focuses on three topics:

  • Navigating Iowa State
  • Adapting to change
  • Exploring community and well-being

The modules can be done before the start of the academic year or when challenges arise on campus. Most of the information came from issues raised during one-on-one coaching.

SAS staff also put together short videos of challenging situations for neurodivergent students, such as using CyRide.

"We're trying to take down the barriers they may have as much as possible," Niman said.

Library spaces

Parks Library conducted an anonymous survey in October 2021 of neurodiverse students registered with SAS to identify their needs. Library staff has conducted numerous anonymous student surveys, but this was the first time it included disability identity as a demographic. The results led to increased awareness for study environments that are quiet, lower distraction and include accommodating furniture and spaces.

A webpage under development will outline accessible and sensory-friendly spaces available in the building, and students can use StackMap Explore to find the spaces. There also is an emphasis on keeping tight aisles clear to assist with mobility issues, and the library's noise policy is being reviewed.

"We started to take note of things across the library that individually might sound like a small thing, but it really starts to matter the more you notice and address the issue," said Susan Vega García, library assistant dean. "We are working to raise the awareness of not only library staff but library patrons."

Universal design in instruction

Universal design for learning provides flexibility in ways information is presented, how students demonstrate knowledge and how they are engaged. Examples of universal design can include putting PowerPoint slides online for everyone to access, recording lectures, adding captions, posting to Canvas and testing students' knowledge through methods other than a written test.

Many faculty incorporated universal design in their courses -- without necessarily knowing it -- because of the switch to hybrid learning environments during the pandemic.

"If you design for the needs of neurodivergent students, you help to design for the needs of all students," said Lori Mickle, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) instructional technology specialist.

CELT developed an accessibility toolkit that helps instructors build their courses with a focus on inclusion and access. It also worked with SAS to form the neurodivergent student support team in January. CELT added more information to its website focusing on accessible design of courses, and SAS provided examples to instructors of accommodations neurodivergent students may require.

CELT also included neurodiversity in one of the scenarios departments can choose to learn about during inclusive classroom training. Mickle said it allows faculty to begin a conversation and learn from peers.