Resources for College Practitioners

Supporting Neurodivergent College Students with Dr. Liz Norell



Learn how to support neurodivergent college students.

In this episode, I interview Dr. Liz Norell, Associate Director of Instructional Support in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Mississippi. 

The focus of the episode is her article, Recap: What Instructors Need to Know When Working with Neurodivergent Students

(Scroll down to access the transcript.)

We cover the following key topics:

4:26:08: Neurodivergent explained

8:38:00: Challenges neurodivergent students face and what faculty can do to help

15:12:50: What to do when you realize you might be neurodivergent as an older adult

21:17:00: Online learning environment tips for neurodivergent students

27:02:00: How to talk about neurodivergence tactfully
29:26:00: Tips for creating PD to help the community better understand neurodivergence  

31:22:75: Give people the benefit of the doubt

Select Dr. Liz Norell episode quotes:
"Neurodivergent means that somebody's brain processes information in a way that is not typical or what we would call neurotypical. So conditions that get lumped under the umbrella of neurodivergent include things like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia."
"Faculty should assume that the students who do have formal accommodations have jumped through so many hoops to get them, and these accommodations are not giving them a leg up. It's giving them a fair shot. That's something that I think a lot of faculty don't quite understand because they've never been through this process. They assume that these accommodations are trying to cheat the system or game the system in some way. That is definitely not it."
"Even students who've registered with disability services may qualify for accommodations that they don't ask for because the stigma around these diagnoses can feel really scary."

"Faculty can be better aware of the sensory environment of their classroom. Is there echoing sounds from the hallway? Are the lights really bright? In the autism community, you often hear people say things like the 'lights are too loud.'"

"I had a student who was very disturbed when she could hear other people chewing, and this was a night class, so people often had food. She asked if she could just stay outside the classroom until we started class. And we made a rule as a group after she said this to me in confidence so that we're not interrupting other people's train of thought, we're going to eat during breaks, but not during class. That was a really easy way to help her manage that sensory input."

"Faculty can also explicitly say to students, you may have something about you, whether you call that a disability or not, that makes sitting in a classroom for however long--our class is 50 minutes, 75 minutes, two and a half hours, whatever it might be--makes that difficult. So if you need to do something to make this easier for you, we can figure that out with or without an accommodation. Human bodies were not meant to sit still for 90 minutes or 75 minutes or even 50 minutes. And so giving students permission right at the beginning of the semester to stand up and walk around or maybe just step outside the room for 2 minutes and coming back, can be huge for students who are neurodivergent."

"Clear multimodal communication is incredibly important. So don't just rely on verbal directions because some of your students may have trouble recalling that later, especially those who are ADHD. And so having everything that's critical to course success in writing and then when reminding them of it can be really helpful."

"We often see faculty talking about how these students have no time management skills. Scaffolding in skills, timelines, structures so that students don't get to a point where this huge thing is due and you've never talked about it or interacted with them about it before--that's setting your neurodivergent students up for failure. Breaking big assignments down into smaller chunks. Scaffolding how to manage time, giving them examples, being willing to talk to students about how to do that. Don't just assume that they can. Those can be huge supports for all students, including those who are neurodivergent."

"In general, I have found that when I am more human with my students and talk about my own failures as well as my own successes, that that creates an environment of trust that enables them to talk to me about things that they might have not otherwise felt safe enough to tell me about."

"I went my entire life without even conceiving of the possibility that I might be autistic because it's really under-diagnosed in women because the social norms around female behavior are so ingrained in us that we become very good at masking. Masking is this process of hiding or trying to assimilate into the behaviors that other people would want you to have."

"I think if we all just centered the humanity and gave people the benefit of the doubt in our educational settings, no one would ever need any accommodations because we would already have the structures in place to create a human education system."

About Dr. Liz Norell
Liz serves as Associate Director of Instructional Support in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Mississippi. She has spent more than 20 years teaching in higher education, including stints in composition, journalism, new media, and political science. She completed a PhD in political science at the University of Texas Dallas, along with master’s degrees in journalism from the University of Arkansas, and library science from Texas Woman’s University. Liz’s first book, The Present Professor, is under advance contract from the University of Oklahoma Press’s brand-new series, Teaching, Engaging, and Thriving in Higher Ed, co-edited by James Lang and Michelle Miller and is expected to be published in 2024. The book is aimed at educators who know they want to create meaningful relationships with students but aren’t quite sure how to do that in authentic ways. Liz is passionate about equitable, inclusive teaching, constructive conversations across differences, and fostering meaningful learning. She was diagnosed with anxiety in 2016 and autism in 2023. In addition to her work with faculty to boost awareness of disability, especially hidden disability, in academia, she is working with a group of disabled-in-higher-ed peers on an edited collection of narrative essays about the intersection of disability and education. 

About Dr. Al Solano
Al is Founder & Coach at the Continuous Learning Institute. A big believer in kindness, he helps institutions of higher education to plan and implement homegrown practices to improve student success and equity by coaching them through a process based on what he calls the "Three Cs": Clarity, Coherence, Consensus. In addition, his bite-sized, practitioner-based articles on student success strategies, institutional planning & implementation, and educational leadership are implemented at institutions across the country. He has worked directly with over 50 colleges and universities and has trained well over 5,000 educators. He has coached colleges for over a decade, worked at two community colleges, and began his education career in K12. He earned a doctorate in education from UCLA, and is a proud community college student who transferred to Cornell University.

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