Learning from Neurodiversity Movements to Inform Accessibility and Inclusion in CETL

Posted on Thursday, May 13th, 2021

Written by Lindsey Thomson

Canadian postsecondary institutions are under growing pressure to adapt and innovate approaches to teaching and learning. Many instructors are integrating community engaged teaching and learning (CETL) across a range of course levels and types. CETL courses ensure attention to critical learning outcomes for students as well as meaningful community collaboration and action (Morton, Varghese, & Thomson, unpublished manuscript). Students engage in unique opportunities to develop partnerships in research, knowledge mobilization, and other scholarly activities with community and develop skills in communication, collaboration, and problem-solving (Morton, Varghese, & Thomson, unpublished manuscript).

Increasing uptake of high impact educational practices such as experiential learning (Kuh, 2008) mean that course instructors and staff must ensure that core and elective courses that engage with community are accessible and inclusive of a large diversity of learners. There is much to be learned from neurodiversity movements that have steadily been gaining attention and advocating for neurodivergent folks within education systems and beyond. ‘Neurodiversity’ refers to the naturally occurring variation in the neurocognitive functioning of human brains and minds (Singer, 1998). Common examples of neurodivergence include folks on the autism spectrum and/or those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which are the main focus of this post given their high prevalence and overlapping and unique characteristics.

CETL can present neurodivergent students with unique opportunities and challenges to learn in the context of building authentic relationships with community, collaborating with fellow students, and critically analyzing social issues and contexts while applying their learning. This post focuses on three important points for instructors to consider when designing and implementing CETL courses to allow for equitable learning opportunities and approaches that encourage neurodivergent students to more fully develop and apply their unique knowledges and strengths while working collaboratively and contributing to community action.


Neurodivergent students are already widely present in the student body, but inequities in access to knowledge and formal diagnostic services are barriers to a full understanding of the extent of neurodiversity.

Approximately 1 in 8 (13%) of youth ages 15-24 identify as having one or more disabilities, with one quarter having both a learning and mental health related disability (Morris et al., 2017 as cited in Gatto, 2019). Many neurodivergent students are not registered with accessibility services on campus and do not know they have neurological differences. This is largely due to restrictive diagnostic criteria and lack of financial and physical access to diagnostic services. Further compounding inequities is a lack of understanding in terms of what ADHD and autism look like for folks who do not fit the ‘expected’ presentations, which disproportionately impacts marginalized groups (i.e. women, trans and/or non-binary folks, BIPOC, and more). Many folks who are unaware that they are neurodivergent and do not have access to learning supports and strategies learn to hone their strengths as well as compensate for cognitive, sensory, social, and learning challenges. These added burdens can often lead to overwhelm and burnout and are of particular relevance in CETL courses that demand high levels of collaboration, social engagement and understanding, and are made up of long-term projects with multiple stages and deliverables. For students who have obtained a formal diagnosis or are self-diagnosed, this often means spending significant time and energy learning to advocate for themselves across a variety of courses and instructors to ensure equitable accommodations.

An initial step for instructors to take to ensure greater accessibility more broadly in their CETL courses is to learn about and apply principles of universal design. Combining principles of universal design with more specific tips and strategies to support neurodivergent students outlined below can help address unique inequities that may arise in CETL course processes and outcomes.


Simple shifts in course expectations and practices can make a big difference for neurodivergent students who often have differences in executive functioning capacities.

Executive function refers to a group of brain functions include planning and organization, emotional regulation, mental control, and social understanding and behaviours that are housed in our prefrontal cortex (located at the front of our brain above our eyes). Executive functioning includes information processing and working memory, planning and organization, starting a task, judgement and decision-making, and impulse control. Given their unique characteristics and work flow, there are strategies and approaches that instructors of CETL courses can use to better support neurodivergent students and ensure meaningful and enjoyable engagement in collaborative learning.

For instance, long-term, collaborative projects can be challenging to plan, organize, and initiate. Consider:

  • Facilitating exercises that help students break longer term projects into sets of smaller tasks in accordance with (flexible) timelines
  • Speaking concretely about and clarifying group processes and roles to help avoid vague instructions that lead to confusion and decreases in motivation and engagement

CETL projects often come with large swaths of information. Find ways to distinguish the most important information and core concepts from more minor supporting details, including:

  • Beginning each class session with a brief review of key concepts covered in the previous class
  • Providing reminders of when students should be thinking about and/or applying key knowledge and skills along the way
  • Using consistent visual supports and ensuring clear and consistent transitions between different areas of content and course activities.

Clear guidelines and expectations around relationship development and student roles in collaboration can also be helpful in ensuring students have what they need to engage relationally and on project-focused tasks. Consider:

  • Providing space and support for students to co-create an overview of key questions, goals, and agendas for interactions or meetings with community partners
  • Presenting multi-step instructions for activities and assignments in-class through written materials and verbally
  • As an instructor, “modelling and moderating collaborative conversations between learners” (edutopia, 2015) will help ensure understanding of what best practices in community engagement may look like in the current scholarly and community context
  • Offering insights into and time for observing and practicing relevant interpersonal skill sets (e.g. active listening) with permission for students to define and enact different aspects to ensure engagement works for them (e.g. do not encourage eye contact for those who are uncomfortable and instead find other ways to connect, allow for breaks in attention and movement, etc.)


It benefits all students to build a culture of acceptance, understanding, and celebration around neurodiversity in the classroom and include trauma-informed approaches to teaching and learning.

In addition to specific strategies to support collaborative learning with neurodivergent students, building a culture of acceptance with a focus on strengths is of the utmost importance in ensuring equity and celebration of neurodiversity in the classroom and in partnerships in critical community engaged scholarship.

First, instructors should explicitly normalize and acknowledge the existence of neurodiversity and how differences in neurology can strengthen collaboration. Specific strengths of folks with ADHD and/or who are autistic include:

  • The ability to hyperfocus on tasks and learn and recall large amounts of information about a ‘special interest’
  • Creativity and deep thinking
  • Curiosity and critical evaluation of existing social norms and re-thinking traditional approaches to issues
  • Systems thinking and pattern recognition
  • Strong skills in writing and other language knowledge and skills (not exclusive to speaking or ‘verbalizing’ in terms of communication)
  • Idea generation, creative thinking and problem-solving; music and art-making; high energy and passion

Celebrating neurodiversity also means checking assumptions about the motivation, capacities, and intentions for learning. Markers of attention, engagement, focus, and flows of work often look different and it is important that instructors approach neurodivergent students with curiosity and support rather than negative attributions for behaviour that does not fit with what might be assumed to reflect the behaviour of ‘strong’ students. For example, noticing a student fidgeting or breaking their attention and focus by being on their phone or doodling on a piece of paper may be something that actually helps a student process information, or perhaps evidence that a break is needed to refresh in order to keep up attention resources in for the class more generally.

Finally, learning more about trauma-informed pedagogy is of particular importance for instructors who wish to build a learning environment that deeply supports neurodivergent students. Along with universal design for learning, trauma-informed pedagogical principles and practices may provide important benefits for neurodivergent students. These principles and practices may include:

  • Providing course content and pertinent information in advance (i.e. for class discussions and collaborative activities)
  • Providing content warnings on potentially triggering materials
  • Creating ‘brave’ and inclusive spaces for discussion (online and in-class)
  • Providing strong frameworks for building community and a sense of belonging (i.e. peer support and relationship building, model self-care and honest acknowledgement of especially challenging personal and learning contexts amidst pandemic)
  • Sharing power and involving students in decision-making around expectations and assignments
  • Checking in on students as consistently as possible and ensure documentation and communicate the value of their feedback



Intentionally building in strategies to support neurodiversity in the classroom and in CETL partnerships will go a long way toward supporting more equitable partnerships for students, instructors, and community partners by ensuring that neurodivergent folks are as able to bring their knowledge, skills, and unique gifts to the table.

At an institutional level, learning from neurodiversity movements also provides a strong critical lens for scholars who wish to challenge assumptions of who holds knowledge, whose lived experiences and interpretations of the world are privileged, and how to more fully integrate intersectional, feminist, and critical disability inclusive lenses on the processes of collaboration in which universities commonly engage with communities to meaningfully contribute to social justice.



ADDvantages Learning Center. (2021). Executive functioning: Brain training for those with executive functioning skills deficits. Retrieved from https://addvantageslearningcenter.com/executive-functioning/ 

Collegiate Coaching Services. (2020). Neurodiversity. Retrieved from https://collegiatecoachingservices.com/neurodiversity/

DiTullio, G. (2018). Helping students develop executive function skills. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/helping-students-develop-executive-function-skills

Maté, G. (1999). Scattered minds: A new look at the origins and healing of attention deficit disorder. Toronto: A.A. Knopf Canada.

Morton, Varghese, & Thomson. Unpublished manuscript.

Imad, M. (2020). Leveraging the neuroscience of now. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/03/seven-recommendations-helping-students-thrive-times-trauma

Neurodiversity: Some basic terms & definitions. (2014). Retrieved from https://neurocosmopolitanism.com/neurodiversity-some-basic-terms-definitions/

Spectrum Suite: Celebrating neurodiversity through education. (2021). Retrieved from http://www.myspectrumsuite.com/meet-judy-singer/

St. Amour, M. (2020). How neurodivergent students are getting through the pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/05/13/neurodivergent-students-face-challenges-quick-switch-remote-learning

UCI Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://dtei.uci.edu/trauma-informed-pedagogy/#:~:text=Trauma%2Dinformed%20pedagogy%20is%20pedagogical,Providing%20content%20information%20in%20advance

Waters, P. (2015). Encouraging neurodiversity in your makerspace or classroom. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/encouraging-neurodiversity-in-makerspace-classroom-patrick-waters


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