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Neurodiversity and Autism in College

Teaching neurodiversity as a culture, rather than autism as a disability.

In the past five years, educators have seen a surge of college students diagnosed with autism and other neurological differences. In response, schools have adopted a variety of strategies to accommodate these neurodiverse students. Strategies differ, but the fundamental problem they are meant to address is the same.

As a group, autistic people are less likely to complete college than typical peers. Once out of school, autistic adults are less likely to be employed, and if employed, studies suggest their skills are often underutilized. Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide remain markedly higher than the general population throughout adulthood. If school is meant to teach the skills one needs to integrate and succeed in society, school is failing most autistic people.

The question of whether there are more students with autism today, or simply more students diagnosed with autism, has not yet been resolved. Some studies suggest that autism diagnoses are replacing “older” diagnoses, like intellectual disability. Other studies suggest that we are doing a better job of diagnosing autism but a significant number of children still slip through the cracks, to be diagnosed in college or later. The evidence for an actual increase in autism is limited and controversial.

That's important because it shapes our philosophy. Are we dealing with newfound awareness of something long neglected? Or is this an emerging public health crisis? Autism presents very differently across the spectrum and people espouse both views with great passion.

For most of its history, medical professionals, counselors, and educators discussed autism in the third person. The past decade has seen the emergence of first person autistic voices whose views are often at odds with what was said before.

One way in which first person descriptions tend to differ from earlier observations is in the characterization of autism exclusively as a disability. Medical depictions of autism were focused primarily on how autism limited and disabled people. Autistic people are more likely to focus on what we can do, and how our differences make us exceptional even though some aspects of autism are disabling. Autistic people also recognize the medical complications that often accompany autism, such as epilepsy or intestinal distress. Those co-occurring conditions may be highly disabling—even life threatening—even if a person feels their autism itself is not a disability.

That calls for a fundamentally different perspective when discussing autism, and it’s at the foundation of the emerging neurodiversity movement. Neurodiversity postulates that some degree of neurological difference is part and parcel of the human genome, which evolved in us because it benefits our species even when it disables some individuals. The emerging view of autism is that of a neurological difference that confers a mix of gift and disability. That viewpoint is now being extended to other inborn neurological differences, like ADHD and dyslexia.

Neurodiversity proponents raise an important question: If autism and other neurological diversities have attributes that benefit our species, shouldn’t we be seeking to accommodate it rather than cure or suppress it, while simultaneously minimizing suffering and the impact of disability?

In that view, the problems faced by autistic adults in modern society are not just their individual challenges. They also symbolize societal failures, fostered by exclusionary policies, ignorance, and other factors.

How should schools respond to that?

So far, most colleges have approached autism and neurodiversity as a student accommodation challenge, not as an opportunity to shape society through their graduates. Some schools are changing how they teach neurodiverse students. They may allow more time for tests, or allow the use of assistive devices. They may allow remote participation. Some have focused on physical accommodations—eliminating flickering fluorescent lights or adding quiet spaces, for example. Others look to enhancing counseling centers and one-on-one support. A few schools—like Vermont’s Landmark College—make neurodiverse students their entire focus.

Those are all great things—for neurodiverse students. None of those accommodation actions help inform or change the broader community. That is an idea that bears explaining and merits consideration as higher education policies and programs evolve.

A few universities, Virginia's William & Mary being one example, share the belief in accommodation of diversity, but additionally feel a duty to invest all their students with awareness of the emerging ideas of neurodiversity, just as they expect graduates to leave with an understanding of racial, religious, or sexual diversity.

While those diversities have some traits in common, there is one important difference—all the others are well known to the public, and most students enter college with some sort of opinion. Neurological diversity is still unknown to a large percentage of the population, including students, and even when it is known, it’s often not understood.

That means educators have an important opportunity to shape public opinion before it hardens in the face of awareness and wrong impressions. We might call the time someone learns about neurodiversity as a “teachable moment,” one where we can implant the seeds of acceptance and tolerance and even welcome. The alternative, as many of us have seen, is far worse.

Neurotypical people make up the majority of the population, and they will always outnumber the neurodivergent to a significant degree. That means that any program that purports to teach values of neurodiversity must out of necessity reach a primarily typical population.

Teaching autistic people to get by in a neurotypical world has its place, but there’s also room for discussion of what neurodiverse people bring to the wider world, and how that world may better accommodate them. Our universities are the best place for that conversation to start.

From there, we can take the conversation to the media, who still describes us as “suffering from autism.” Autistic people do suffer at times, but that depiction of us has become offensive. Much suffering stems from being misunderstood, and it’s as much an external issue as an internal one.

For autistics, though, the idea of “suffering” is complicated by the fact that many real disabilities do often accompany autism. Furthermore, autism is a very heterogeneous condition and one autistic person can have many challenges requiring constant assistance while another can live quite independently and comfortably.

When colleges graduate people who understand and respect the concept of neurodiversity they will take those values with them into the workforce. When that happens we can begin to make societal changes to better integrate autistic people into the modern working world. We will certainly get farther and faster, by tackling our collective problems as a community.

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences. He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Deptmartment of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and a visiting professor of practice at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

The opinions expressed here are his own. There is no warranty expressed or implied. While reading this essay will give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.

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