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Nurturing Neurodivergent Students

Find out how you can help support neurodivergent students.

Many neurodivergent students face challenges based on their unique personal circumstances handling autism, ADHD, or social anxiety. While BYU strives to help all of its students succeed, neurodivergent students can be left behind because their struggles aren’t always visible to others. Autistic BYU student Cielo says, “I really, really, really, love BYU, but it is super hard to connect with others. It’s a battle every day for me to come to school.”

In an effort to help build systems specifically for neurodivergent students, Professor Jamin Rowan (English, American Studies) put together a panel to talk about these issues. His hope is that educating people will result in teachers and students making small but impactful changes to help neurodivergent students.

Five BYU students participated in the panel, held on Sept. 29, 2022, sharing the struggles they live with as neurodivergent students: Madeline Syphus (Psychology, ’24), Brielle Williams (Psychology, ’22), Reese Olsen (Computer Science, ’24), Avery Jayne (Animation, ’26), and Cielo Bake (Interdisciplinary Humanities, ’25). Each of them either has ADHD, autism, or social anxiety. They shared tips and tricks for how others can help.

How Teachers Can Help

Faculty members in attendance asked what they could do to better support neurodivergent students in their classes. The student panel shared what accommodations most positively impacted them in their schooling:

  • Pre-select groups of students for group projects. 
  • Make assignments easy to find.  
  • “Learning Suite (LS) is hard to navigate, everything is everywhere. I can do the assignment, but I need to know it exists.” Madeline explained.  
  • Have patience and respect.  
  • Madeline reminded teachers, “I’m not trying to inconvenience anyone, so don’t get irritated at me.”  
  • Publish PowerPoint presentations before the lecture. 
  • Pre-publish all assignments due that semester on LS.  
  • Keep the steps in assignments literal.  
  • Neurodivergent students often struggle with understanding the implicit meaning within texts. Brielle put it this way, “Me guessing what you want me to do never works.” 
  • Provide straightforward study guides for all tests.  
  • Reese warned teachers that “a misguiding study guide is worse than none.” 
  • Pre-record lectures. 
  • Provide practice tests on LS.  
  • A practice test automatically graded by LS can boost confidence and alleviate anxiety going into the real test.  
  • Give time and a half on tests. 
  • Have options for projects. 

How Students Can Help

Fellow students also asked how they can help their classmates, and the discussion turned to what fellow students can do:

  • Believe us. 
  • Trust that when a neurodivergent student says they have an issue, they really do have one. Avery said, “Just because I’m convenient [I.e., sitting quietly, not making a scene in class] doesn’t mean I’m okay.”  
  • Be knowledgeable.  
  • Neurodivergent students often suffer from executive disfunction, meaning they want to start doing a task but their brain has a hard time transitioning to that task. Giving them grace and helping with task shifting and transitioning can make a big difference.  
  • Get to know us. 
  • “It takes time to become comfortable with new people so try to get to know me.” Cielo advised.   
  • Don’t change seats in a classroom. 
  •  “I have MY spot in a classroom, and I will leave the class if my spot is taken.” Brielle said. 
  • Communicate that you care. 
  • Tell them “I care about you as a person, you’re not annoying or inconvenient.” 
  • Reach out if you didn’t see them in class that day. 
  • Be understanding.  
  • Neurodivergent students may overshare or overtalk. They are just excited to be able to talk with someone they feel comfortable around.   
  • Encourage us to come to events. 
  • Having a friend they know will talk with them at the event can make the whole thing much less stressful.  

We Can All Make a Difference

A panelist encouraged the audience to recognize that mental health is a spectrum, so not everything on these lists will apply to everyone. Be flexible in these situations. Reese shared how a positive classroom environment that encouraged him to participate helped: “I had humorous remarks to add, and they allowed me to do that, and we did better as a class overall.”

No matter how a student excels, every student wants to be given a chance to do so. Madeline said, “having my ideas heard and valued feels amazing!” Take a look at the lists above to see what items may apply to you. Even If you aren’t a student or teacher, taking the time to become educated about neurodivergence and being sensitive to the issue can make a huge difference.