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Neurodiverse students need more than just accommodations

Sunday Blake dives into a new report on neurodiverse students' experiences in accommodation, and asks what further support is needed
This article is more than 1 year old

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

A quick read of a new report from Unite Students suggests that a lot of accommodation is a sensory and social hell for neurodiverse students.

The report looked specifically at the experience of neurodiverse students in student accommodation. The findings can largely be divided into three categories neurodiverse students struggle with: information overload, sensory, and social issues. It also provides recommendations proposed by participants as part of the report.

It is fantastic that Unite Students is asking neurodiverse students themselves for input on improving their university experience – and many of the solutions proposed are ones I have seen suggested and sometimes trialled elsewhere in the sector.

These operate largely around simple operational changes universities can make when onboarding neurodiverse students. They include bullet point summaries of all administration tasks for students with ADHD; early move-in options for students with autism; dimmer switches for students with sensory overload; in-room basic cooking facilities for students with social anxiety, and so on.

Great work – but I wonder if some reading can be done between the lines.

(not) all about the houses

Among the quoted student testimonies about struggling with information overload in Welcome Week or the blindingly luminescent lights were students who felt ostracised from their communities, not understood, and had experienced bullying.

Solving some operational issues neurodiverse students face will alleviate some of these social problems. For example, students in the survey spoke about the overwhelming experience of moving into student accommodation and having to move, unpack, and then meet new people on the same day.

So, yes – let’s roll out pre-arrival initiatives, video tours of bedrooms, the option to move in a day earlier, and anything else that will make neurodiverse students more confident about arriving at university. I fully support this.

But there needs to be more understanding of neurodiversity in the student body. As a student with ADHD explained to me this week – her need to isolate herself in Welcome Week due to information-overload burn-out made her housemates think she was rude, and she “was never really part of the group after that”.

We can delay this burn-out with interventions, but at some point during the year, a neurodivergent student who struggles with being overwhelmed will isolate themselves to recover. And universities must demystify this for their flatmates – who may not be familiar with neurodivergence.

Where the problem lies

Other suggestions included giving neurodiverse students the option of self-selecting to live in a flat with another neurodivergent student. In the qualitative data, there were proposed solutions for exclusively neurodiverse flats, and I have also seen this raised before.

Now, aside from a neurodivergent flat potentially causing issues where one student’s symptoms aggravate another’s (for example, a student with OCD, which manifests in fears of contamination, would not bode well in a flat with a student with ADHD who may forget about their washing-up for hours) it also doesn’t tackle why some neurotypical students might be creating (inadvertently or not) hostile spaces for neurodiverse students.

When the response to a neurodivergent student is to remove them from the communal space rather than making it accessible, we ringfence the student as the problem.

Plus, we know that women and people of colour are often overlooked or misdiagnosed before being correctly diagnosed later in life. These students would have to embark on the arduous and gatekept process of getting a diagnosis before they get offers of alternative accommodation or adjustments to meet their accommodation needs.

What’s more, a lot of the adjustments made in sensory spaces, such as ensuring that lights are not oppressively and clinically bright, or that walls are insulated enough to keep out the noise of traffic, or clear and timely communication as to when a fire alarm would be going off, or when a maintenance worker may be coming over, would benefit neurotypical students as well. As one student participant noted, when neurodiverse students express their needs, it is “an asset, not a problem”.

Right to belong

I am not criticising neurodiverse students for suggesting a dedicated neurodivergent space – this is so important, as is the whole report! That is especially so given these students report that they feel they are more likely to be rejected by others than neurotypical students are, and many participants praised the existence of student-led neurodiverse societies.

I am, however, criticising a culture where neurodiverse students feel that retreating and isolating themselves from rejection and ableism is their only option.

A few months ago, I saw a tweet from a parent documenting moving her autistic daughter from student accommodation into a private studio apartment. The reason for this was that the student faced ableist bullying from housemates, which led to her not feeling that she could not use the communal kitchen (another commonly reported issue in the report – one which concerns me given the report also found neurodiverse students were more likely than average to have experienced eating disorders).

I was glad this student had found a solution. But it is a shame she needed to move out of halls of residence and live alone.

Recent research has found that halls of residence possess enormous potential as places that foster a sense of belonging. They are where students enjoy meals, socialise and relax, and study alone or with others.

And recent Wonkhe/Pearson research found that the most likely space in which students forge connections after course contact hours was in their student accommodation.

It is vital that we pay attention to such research when thinking about solutions for neurodiverse students because, as the survey found, neurodiverse applicants were more likely than average to agree that they are worried that they will not belong at university.

Light bulb moment

Natasha Geyer stresses in her study the vital need for social support for new neurodiverse students. Without it, there is a risk of social isolation and a struggle to make meaningful connections (which may exacerbate existing mental health conditions).

When we address the tame, functional problems that are contained and easily solved using discreet interventions, we must not forget the wicked, culturally rooted problem of ableist and intolerant attitudes that contribute to feelings of unbelonging in neurodiverse students.

In the Unite Students’ focus group, there was a widespread experience of not fitting in, and one participant experienced bullying.

The Wonkhe/Pearson research on belonging demonstrated how important broad social inclusion is for neurodiverse students. Two autistic diarists had strikingly different feelings surrounding social interaction. One – whose mental health seemed to decline with each entry and wrote he had not made friends, repeatedly stated he did feel “part of a community”, while the other – who had been given a chance to make friends early on – said that “for the first time in my life people accepted me for who I am”.

Another quote from a neurodivergent student I interviewed in July 2021 has stuck with me:

I was bullied at school, but I assumed it was because, compared to them, I was weird and nerdy. So I couldn’t wait to be at university and meet other clever people – you know, nerds like me. Not like best friends but like finding my people. Turns out that even my people think that I’m weird.

There are some things dimmed lighting settings just can’t fix.

But we can’t force students to be friends!

Of course not. In fact, the Unite survey found that neurodiverse students were likelier to report little interest in the social side of the university. Yet they were equally likely to say they wanted to be an active part of the student community. And such a finding reaffirms one key Wonkhe/Pearson research finding: there is a clear dichotomy in students’ minds between personal friendships and being part of a learning community.

Staff have a role to play here too. The report recommends emphasising neurodiversity training for porters and maintenance staff so that “minor” concerns of neurodiverse students – such as slightly noisy fittings – are taken seriously. I would argue, too, that hall wardens can take significant steps to ensure inclusive event activities.

Hall wardens – who often mediate conflicts between students and respond to cases that escalate to harassment and bullying – must be trained in, and familiar with, how neurodiverse students present. If not, they will not be able to assess conflicts properly. This is especially pertinent as many neurodiverse people can present in ways perceived as hostile by others within the university community.

Effectively supporting neurodiverse students through these incidents is vital. It can lead to a stronger sense of safety and rebuild trust in educational institutions, places they may have previously been let down by.

Good work, keep going

This brings me back to the need to raise awareness of neurodiversity among neurotypical students and promote inclusivity and understanding towards their neurodiverse peers.

The report from Unite Students is a fantastic step in the right direction. It is essential, as we work through the operational issues surrounding neurodiverse students’ access that we must also work towards creating social communities that are welcoming to and inclusive of neurodiverse students (and staff!) lest we risk contributing further to the isolation they report.

5 responses to “Neurodiverse students need more than just accommodations

  1. “Staff have a role to play here too. The report recommends emphasising neurodiversity training for porters and maintenance staff so that “minor” concerns of neurodiverse students – such as slightly noisy fittings – are taken seriously.” Good luck with that, with many universities the ‘estates’ staff churn rate, even worse when they outsource to a facilities management company, means the few maintenance staff they have don’t have time for yet more courses/training. It may sound like ghettoisation, but if there enough ND students perhaps dedicated halls and staff is a better way forward?

    A number of my family are ND, so I’m not surprised many Universities are struggling with the issues.

  2. Two great points. Staff capacity came up loads in the Wonkhe/Pearson research I cite through this, and something that would need senior leadership investment if ND students (and staff!) were to be prioritised.

    Outsourcing is something that slipped my mind writing this yesterday – but you’re bang on. It could be that universities only worked with chartered companies etc. but as you said – time and resources would need to be considered!

  3. All so true, Sunday. Like neurodiversity in the broader population, it’s great that awareness of this is being raised. Of course, in the pressure cooker environment of a student population, where so many people from so many different places and backgrounds and at different levels of maturity are flung together into strange surroundings, it’s particularly acute. And, as you say, it’s even harder for those who may not have been diagnosed or be aware of their condition. You quite rightly focus on the more practical solutions that are easier and cheaper to implement; but one area that isn’t mentioned is access to therapy, psychiatric treatment and professionally prescribed medication. But I guess that’s a whole different ballgame, because it comes down to a question of resource and cost.

  4. This article really resonated with me and actually made me feel quite emotional when remembering my own university experience. I did not realise at the time that many of my experiences in university and student accommodation were related to neurodivergence, and have only just come to this conclusion recently.

    In all three years of my undergraduate studies (graduated in 2020), I lived with people I did not know beforehand and who I never made friends with or identified with. I experienced passive aggressive and plain aggressive behaviour from my first-year halls flatmates. I also struggled to make friends on my course, despite feeling as though I was doing all of the ‘right things’ and being told that it would ‘pass’, and I’d soon find my crowd. This never happened.

    In my second year private halls, it was a similar experience. I managed to move into a private house in third-year, and wasn’t outright made to feel bullied or awkward, they just didn’t want to know me no matter how hard I tried to get to know them.

    I left university with a degree, with a lot of fantastic work experience, and I went straight into a graduate role. But I didn’t have the ‘university experience’ I desperately wanted and saw others have, because it felt as though the tide was turned against me. I didn’t make any friendships from my time at university, which has been really upsetting.

    I’m not sure what the answer to all of this is, but I hope this article will bring to light to others a difference in experience that many face that has a huge impact on self-esteem and confidence at such a young age.

  5. Thanks for an enlightening article. I think my takeaway from this is that we should treat all ND students as individuals with bespoke needs (the same applies to all students with additional/different needs). Some of this can be done pre-start and some after arrival.

    The crux of the matter is that most universities are not set up to offer a more bespoke service to those students who require it. With the numbers involved, ensuring 5k, 10k or 15k students turn up at the right place, roughly at the right time is a huge logistical task. These days, unfortunately, university is often just a numbers game.

    I’m looking forward to giving this challenge some thought.

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