Nov. 17, 2023

How to build a neurodiversity-inclusive campus

Researchers aim to improve academic success of autistic students by examining mental health experiences
UCalgary provides sensory-friendly spaces for neurodiverse students, including a room in the Taylor Family Digital Library
UCalgary provides sensory-friendly spaces for neurodiverse students, including a room in the Taylor Family Digital Library Werklund School of Education

An increasing number of neurodiverse students, including those on the autism spectrum, are attending post-secondary education worldwide. Despite the demographic shift, supports for this community remain inadequate and graduation rates for autistic students have stalled at approximately 30 per cent.

Dr. Carly McMorris, PhD, and Jennifer Williamson are leading a new research project that addresses this imbalance by exploring the mental health experiences of autistic university students.

“Many higher-education students struggle with mental health, but neurodivergent students are extra vulnerable since they experience elevated rates of mental-health issues relative to the general population,” says McMorris, an associate professor in the Werklund School of Education and founder of The Enhance Lab.

“Approximately 40 to 70 per cent of individuals with ASD experience a mental-health issue, which makes it essential that we hear directly from the students.”

Impediments to learning

According to McMorris and Williamson, the challenges that impact the mental health and academic success of autistic students are myriad.

Sensory overload is a common difficulty, with study spaces and classrooms being too loud or brightly lit. Strong odours can also affect well-being. 

Neurodivergent students are often further burdened by having to provide proof of diagnosis in order to access accommodations offered by university disability support offices. Many cannot meet this requirement as securing an autism diagnosis can be time consuming and cost prohibitive.

Williamson, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology, adds that unfounded assumptions about neurodiversity are also a factor.

“There are lots of negative stereotypes and stigma. People with ADHD often get stereotyped as lazy and told to just try harder. The term ‘autistic’ being used as an insult can contribute to poor mental-health outcomes through internalized ableism.”

Raising awareness

Despite growing recognition of the needs of neurodiverse students, few universities across the country have stepped up to the plate.

McMorris was senior author of a recent study that found only six per cent of publicly funded post-secondary institutions in Canada offer autism-specific support.

Fortunately, McMorris and Williamson say the University of Calgary is becoming a leader in this area.

In addition to including neurodivergent-focused events during UFlourish, several sensory-friendly spaces have been introduced cross campus, advising and workshops are available through the Neurodiversity Support Office, and UCalgary’s partnership with The Sinneave Family Foundation is helping students thrive through the Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) for Neurodiverse Students program.

Student involvement is a central component of the work-integrated learning initiative’s success.  

“One of our key guiding principles is to work with students as partners to ensure that lived experiences are reflected in the work we are doing,” explains WIL Associate Director Greta Heathcote. “What we are hearing from students is that our partnership work and including them in the process right from the start is inspiring, empowering, and helps to grow a neuro-affirming community and culture on campus.”

Still, both researchers believe more can be done to raise awareness among academics and staff.

“A really good step for individual professors and staff would be to educate themselves about neurodiversity and ways they can support neurodiverse students in their classrooms,” says McMorris.

She suggests checking out Autism Training Academy. Founded by Werklund alum Dr. TC Waisman, EdD’20, the academy provides an online introduction to autism micro-training course free of charge.

Academics can also implement Universal Design for Learning principles that focus on making classes more accessible, including offering flexibility with assignments and ensuring slides are accessible for text readers and colour-blind students.

No one-size-fits-all solutions

McMorris and Williamson are hoping to contribute to the strides being made at UCalgary with their research.

Recognizing that the requirements of autistic individuals are often heterogeneous, the duo is recruiting additional participants who have been diagnosed with autism or self-identify as autistic to share their personal experiences and perspectives.

Williamson, the project lead, is in the early stages of the study, but is already uncovering several common themes in their analysis.

“My participants generally like existing neurodiversity supports at UCalgary,” they say, adding, “Social support is important, especially with fellow neurodivergent people who ‘get it’ and know how your brain works.”

Williamson believes making higher education a more inclusive neurodiverse-friendly place and fostering the success of neurodiverse students benefits all involved.

“Neurodivergent students can contribute unique strengths to the university community, including critical thinking, attention to detail and creativity — this can be in terms of artistic talent, but also the ability to link ideas in new and unusual ways.

“By providing more neuro-affirming supports, we can ensure that autistic and neurodivergent students have good quality of life, actually enjoy university, and graduate.”

Understanding the Mental Health of Autistic Students in University: Students interested in participating in the study can find full details on the UCalgary Research website.

Carly McMorris is a child clinical psychologist and an associate professor at the Werklund School of Education and an adjunct associate professor in the departments of Psychology at the Faculty of Arts, and Paediatrics and Psychiatry at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). She is also a member of the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, the Owerko Centre, the Hotchkiss Brain InstituteThe Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education, and O'Brien Institute for Public Health​​​​​​​ at the CSM. 

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