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A proactive approach to neurodiversity in higher education

21 Mar 2022 | Rachel Nowicki It's Neurodiversity Celebration Week. Rachel Nowicki, Disability Support Advisor at the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, reflects on how a proactive approach to inclusivity can benefit everyone.

Start with the student

The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology is a new higher education provider – the first in England to be granted the right to award its own degrees through the New Degree Awarding Powers route. The wonderful thing about setting up a new institution is that you have an unparalleled opportunity to think about what you stand for, what matters and how to design things the right way.

In our case, we started by thinking about our values. Given our intention, at least in the short term, only to offer one programme and to take in a relatively small number of students (approximately 150 across four year groups), we decided that being student centric was essential. Building our institution around our students and their needs. Understanding how to provide a bespoke experience for the individual.

This core value has guided our approach to student experience and support, including our proactive approach to neurodiversity.

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Everyone is different

Every single one of us has both talents and things that we struggle with; we are all neurodiverse, to a greater or lesser extent. For example, I’m very detail orientated and thorough, but I struggle to engage with written tasks and am prone to procrastination.

For some people, the variation between those strengths and weaknesses is more pronounced, which can be disabling, manifesting in neurodivergent conditions like Autism, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia and ADHD. Genius Within refer to individuals with these conditions as ‘neurominorities’.

The transition to higher education is a pivotal time for neurominorities, many of whom have developed sophisticated coping strategies that have masked their conditions and eluded diagnosis. For some, these strategies can crumble in the face of increased independence, the removal of existent scaffolding and a new routine. For others, their coping strategies will continue to be effective, but the playing field won’t be level and their true potential won’t be unlocked.  

A proactive approach from day one

When we welcomed our first intake of Dyson Institute students in September 2021, we offered every one of them the opportunity to undertake a neurodiversity screening, run by an external specialist. The objective of this screening is to identify neurodiversity in the domains of the brain that affect thinking and learning. The output of the screening is an in-depth learning profile highlighting neurodivergent traits.

In some cases this profile simply provides the student with an insight into how they learn best. In others it can highlight a potential neurodivergent condition, providing a basis for further investigation and potential diagnosis. Importantly, having an individualised learning profile can affirm needs that individuals have felt but were unsure of how to verbalise, helping them to speak up and ask for changes that will benefit them.

While this screening was optional, every single one of our students chose to take up the offer, enabling us to create a picture of neurodivergent traits across our community of learners. Almost a third of our students have been diagnosed with a neurodivergent condition. I hope this speaks to a culture of acceptance and normalised conversations.  

From awareness to support

Alongside standard measures like assistive software, ensuring availability of lecture notes in advance and providing lecture transcription, we’ve ensured that all our academic and student support staff have undertaken neurodiversity training. As well as explaining neurodiversity, this training explained the screening process and how to best utilise the profiles generated.

With the student’s permission, their neurodiversity profiles are shared with their Academic Tutor, who then discusses with them their potential areas of strength, of development and how to individualise their approach to learning. Our Student Support Advisors (we have one per academic year group, which each consist of about 40 students) are able to provide tailored support for challenges that can be particularly acute in neurodivergent individuals, such as organisation and stress management. Anyone who has a neurodiverse trait also receives access to online learning modules to help them understand their trait and learn strategies to manage or channel it.

I’ve personally met with our academics to talk about best practice in inclusive teaching, and shared materials and resources. Understanding the bigger picture of neurodiverse traits that are common within our student community has enabled our lecturers to adjust their teaching style, improve the accessibility of their materials and think about the learning resources they recommend.

Additionally, our programme is a degree apprenticeship delivered onsite at Dyson, which means that we’ve also had to support line managers and workplace colleagues to understand neurodiversity and how to help the Undergraduate Engineers in their teams turn their learning traits into working styles. This might include making time for preparation ahead of meetings, providing more specific instructions for required tasks, or making environmental adjustments.

It’s early days at the Dyson Institute, but so far, student feedback about our approach has been encouraging. It’s been particularly rewarding to hear how having an insight into their neurodivergent traits has empowered some of our students to understand themselves, make positive changes and thrive.

From support to celebration

Without support, neurodivergent conditions can be disabling. But with support, they can be conduits for brilliance. Strengths (depending on the traits in question) range from hyperfocus and detail orientation to excellence in creative problem-solving and communication.

Employers are waking up to the potential of a neurodiverse workforce. An EY report found that individuals with dyslexia, for example, are ‘hard-wired’ to meet the skills needs of a changing world, while the Harvard Business Review has published about the ‘competitive advantage’ that neurodiverse hires can bring to a business.

I’m proud of the proactive approach we’re taking to neurodiversity at the Dyson Institute, but there’s certainly more we can do. I’ll define success in my role by embedding a culture not just of support, but of celebration. Where conversations about neurodiversity are commonplace. Where needs are clearly articulated. Where neurodivergent conditions are seen through a lens of potential to be unlocked, rather than problems to be solved.

 

Rachel Nowicki is the Disability Support Advisor at the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, a new higher education provider specialising in engineering education and work-based learning. Rachel is passionate about how we can celebrate individual differences and proactively support every student to succeed.

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