We all have the teachers who changed our lives. They paid special attention to us, taught with grace and generosity, and just seemed to understand us on another level.
For Navya Adhikarla, that professor opened her to a new understanding of herself. As an international graduate student, her professor helped her participate in class discussions, feel comfortable asking questions on class material, and, most importantly, navigate her neurodiversity and accommodations.
These experiences and more were shared at the Neurodiversity Student Perspectives Panel hosted by Neurodiversity Student Connections on September 26. The panel was an opportunity for faculty and staff to learn more about accommodating and understanding neurodiverse students.
Duke Neurodiversity Connections defines neurodiversity as “[recognizing] the diversity of human minds and the inherent worth of all individuals. As a social justice movement, the neurodiversity movement aims to celebrate the strengths and advocate for the needs of those with autism, ADHD, and other neurological differences.” The organization works with students like Adhikarla to create a positive campus culture and academic environment. You can read more about Duke Neurodiversity Connections and their resources on their website.
The three panelists came from a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Alex Winn is a recent 2023 graduate who is currently the technical director of the Duke Cyber team and does research with the Department of Mathematics. Jadyn Cleary is a senior at Duke who is in the Duke Disability Alliance and acts as the President of The Clubhouse. Navya Adhikarla is a graduate student in the Master of Engineering Management program. She serves as the Student Program Director at Duke GPSS. The panel was moderated by Sam Brandsen, Ph.D., who graduated from Duke and is currently a research scholar at the Center for Autism and Brain Development.
The panelists talked about the various barriers they’ve encountered at Duke: feeling ashamed to use their accommodations, a lack of psychological safety on work teams, and inaccessibility to resources. Cleary talked about the barriers within the accommodations themselves. She said that even when accommodations are given, it often feels like “[they’re pushing you into] how to make you act like a neurotypical student when you aren’t” instead of genuinely serving neurodiverse students.
However, a common thread was the power of a professor to change a student’s experience. All three panelists spoke about how individual professors were the ones to connect them to resources such as the Duke Student Disability Access Office (SDAO), the Duke Disability Alliance, the Clubhouse, Duke Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS), DukeReach, and Duke Neurodiversity Connections. Without these professors, the panelists said they wouldn’t have been able to find these resources themselves. Instead, it was simply luck that they had run into professors who could inform them of the support that Duke offers.
Because of this shared experience, the panelists wished for resources to be explicitly accessible by publicizing them during orientation week and other visible places. They also suggested creating resources like self-advocacy groups, catered career coaches, and specialized mental health services.
Another common piece of advice was for professors to “pre-accommodate” all students. This could look like allowing mental health days with no questions asked, giving multiple forms to complete an assignment (essay, voice recording, infographic, etc.), using various modes of communication, offering explicit instructions for assignments, and giving adequate time for all students to finish the exam. By doing so, professors eliminate singling out students with accommodations, preventing the fear of embarrassment from peers that neurodiverse students often face.
The panelists offered numerous specific examples of how Duke administration and faculty can create a more inclusive environment. At the end of the session, all three panelists urged professors to educate themselves on how to make their classrooms inclusive. But the overwhelming sentiment was asking for professors to care. Winn, in particular, emphasized the importance of the power of example when it comes to professors, graduate students, or TAs sharing their own experiences with neurodiversity: “Seeing others be comfortable in that way has always helped me be comfortable in that way.”
Adhikarla said about the professor who changed her perspective: “She really cared, that’s all she did. She really cared.”
By Emily Zou, Class of 2027