Neuroscience for Neurodiverse Learners provides students an opportunity to develop unique strengths, even through a pandemic

Wayne Gillam

Neurodiverse learners are defined as those with academic challenges related to conditions such as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Traditionally, these conditions have been seen primarily as disabilities, but times are changing, and more people, companies and organizations are beginning to recognize the unique strengths of those with neurodiverse conditions and characteristics.

A new program developed jointly by the Center for Neurotechnology (CNT) and the Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology (DO-IT) Center at the University of Washington (UW) recognizes this fact. It provides neurodiverse high school students with resources and tools they will need to be successful in fields related to neuroscience. Students learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and receive mentorship aimed at helping them to develop their own talents and abilities, all in an online learning environment.

In the spring of 2020, Neuroscience for Neurodiverse Learners (NNL) began recruiting students for what was initially expected to be an in-person program on the UW campus. However, CNT and DO-IT staff were almost immediately faced with a challenge — how to bring engaging content to participants in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“We weren’t able to realize our original vision of bringing these students to campus to visit different CNT labs in-person and putting them in the same room with college students and graduate students who could provide mentorship. We had to think creatively about how we were going to conduct our activities online,” said Scott Bellman, CNT associate director of diversity, DO-IT program manager and project director, and NNL project director. “Fortunately, the DO-IT staff, having just completed a multi-week online camp prior to the start of the NNL summer program, gave us an experience base to carry forward.”

In a manner uncannily parallel to how the unique traits and characteristics of neurodiverse learners often brings forward unexpected talents and strengths, staff members were pleasantly surprised to discover that the online learning environment — which they initially thought of as a challenge or obstacle to be overcome — turned out to be a major strength of the program.

“We heard from a lot of the parents and students that the online format actually works quite well for many of the neurodiverse learners,” Bellman explained. “There are fewer distractions for those who have anxiety in social situations or have sensitivities to light, noises or space.”

In this entirely virtual learning environment, NNL program participants receive an introduction to neuroscience, neural engineering, neuroethics and scientific communication. They learn about research in CNT laboratories and are taught self-advocacy and college preparation skills. The program is comprehensive, encompassing a summer camp, year-round activities, a community of practice and other resources. Along the way, students are encouraged to recognize and develop the strengths that come from their unique perspectives and perceptual abilities.

“Many students who identify as neurodiverse possess unique combinations of strengths and abilities,” said Sheryl Burgstahler, CNT diversity co-director, founder and director of DO-IT and principal investigator (PI) of the NNL project. “For example, sometimes neurodiverse students exhibit very high levels of abilities regarding spatial memory and three-dimensional thinking, as well as a persistent and sustained focus for subject areas they are interested in.”

The NNL project leadership team, which in addition to Burgstahler and Bellman includes CNT Co-Director Rajesh Rao as co-PI and CNT Executive and Education Director Eric Chudler as NNL education director and guide for neuroscience and study activities, worked hard to build a virtual learning environment where students would feel comfortable expressing themselves, interacting with others and building social skills. According to student and parent feedback, they were quite successful, and the students were fully engaged.

“The students were incredibly interested in how the brain works, and they had intriguing questions,” Chudler said. “They took discussions in directions that demonstrated their unique capabilities and interests.”

Building communication skills through social interaction and near-peer mentorship

The NNL program aims to create a safe space for students, where they can feel comfortable expressing themselves and focus on learning. It does this in part by encouraging students to interact with each other and by implementing a “near-peer” mentorship model, where a team of college-age individuals who identify as neurodiverse engages the students multiple times over the course of the program. This helps to provide role models for the students and encourages even more social interaction.

“A lot of these students have invisible disabilities, which is something that can be isolating, because it’s not always something that can be seen,” said Rochelle Bowyer, a UW undergraduate student and DO-IT staff member with dyslexia who mentored the NNL participants. “Because of the social stigma of having a disability, it’s really common to mask it. It’s viewed as shameful, something you shouldn’t be proud of, and it’s tiring constantly hiding that part of your identity. In this environment, students could finally open up and express parts of themselves that they might hide in daily life.”

“They really liked the social hours. We had prepared to prompt them with conversation starters, but we didn’t have to do anything,” said Lindsey Muszkiewicz, a UW undergraduate student and DO-IT staff member who also mentored the NNL participants. “They launched right in and were so excited to talk. There was so much excitement during those social hours; we were really jumping from topic to topic. Everyone had something to say, and it was just really engaging.”

“Some of the things we highlighted during NNL were workshops on presenting yourself online, hearing from college-age mentors about how they communicate effectively and establishing elevator pitches that could be used in networking opportunities,” said Tami Tidwell, a program coordinator and counselor at DO-IT. “One of my favorite quotes that I heard from one of the students is, ‘Socially, the past week has felt like an oasis in the middle of a desert.’”

Other students echoed that comment, making statements such as, “I got to exist in a space that is supportive and safe, which is needed during the pandemic,” and “I liked getting to meet other people from all over who are like me.”

Increasing outreach, blending in-person and online learning

The NNL program is just getting started, so staff members are continuing to recruit students throughout the school year for year-round programming and the upcoming summer camp in 2021. All NNL programs are free, offered at no-cost to students and their families. NNL project leaders are focusing primarily in the Seattle metropolitan area, but making the program available to high school students regionally, statewide and nationally as well. Because of the success of this year's online learning environment, a program that blends in-person and online learning is being considered for 2021.

“A lot of students expressed that being online helped them with accessibility,” Bowyer said. “One thing we see with those on the autism spectrum is that sometimes oversensitivity happens, but when they’re online, in the comfort of their own home, they don’t have to factor in the outside environment. They’re in a place where they can control it better, giving them the best learning environment possible. That’s why I think we saw so much positive social communication. Everyone was so engaged, and the amount they learned, it was amazing.”

“A hybrid structure, no matter what is going on with the pandemic, might have some really strong possibilities, particularly with this group of neurodiverse learners,” Bellman added. “We could potentially use an online format to build a safe community in a safe space, to orient people to one another and to the camp staff and leaders, establishing a level of comfort before bringing everyone together in the campus environment.”

All CNT and DO-IT staff members expressed enthusiasm for what the NNL program has accomplished so far, for what it has to offer students regardless of whether the program is online or in-person, and especially for the strengths, talents, and potential of its participants.

“The great thing about neurodiverse thinkers is that they don’t think in typical ways,” Muszkiewicz said. “They’re not going to have typical answers, which just widens the possibilities of what they could find themselves achieving in the future.”

Neuroscience for Neurodiverse Learners is currently recruiting students for year-round programming and the upcoming summer camp in 2021. High school students (and their parents) who are interested in participating can contact Scott Bellman for more information.