Enabling neurodiverse learners

How might we make learning fun, achievable and successful for learners who do not believe that tertiary study is for them?

Some learners face additional challenges in education due to neurodivergent conditions such as autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, or Tourette Syndrome. Difficulties in studying are compounded by the stigma of being labelled lazy, stupid or disruptive. One of the goals of Te Pūkenga is to improve outcomes for all disabled learners in vocational education. Senior Lecturer Rachel van Gorp set out to investigate how tertiary lecturers might create learning experiences that address the challenges faced by neurodiverse learners, and utilise and enhance the capabilities these learners bring to their learning journey.

Rachel interviewed five neurodiverse learners, six lecturers from a range of disciplines, and two experts who specialise in disability support. From analysis of the responses collected from each group of participants, Rachel identified four themes:

  1. Early disclosure - identifying needs at the earliest point is essential.
  2. Challenges facing a neurodiverse learner in higher education.
  3. Building relationships and support with neurodiverse learners - making connections and acknowledgements to build an inclusive environment.
  4. Strengths which neurodiverse learners bring to the learning and teaching environment - encourage the discussion about the strengths of neurodiversity.

Lecturers need to ensure that they have good practical support so that their neurodivergent learner is at the forefront of all discussions. The findings confirm that neurodiverse learners do need to take responsibility for being part of the dialogue. A Neurodiversity Community of Practice has been established at Otago Polytechnic by Rachel and others, for lecturers and learners alike. Rachel used her findings to develop some tools and practical strategies that speak to the four themes and are designed to aid learners, lecturers, and support staff in their educational journey.

July 2023

Image credit: J T Photographe (Flickr). Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial NoDerivatives 2.0 license