Three simple ways to help your neurodivergent students succeed.

Dr. William Lane
4 min readMar 10, 2020
Thought Catalog / Unsplash

I share these statistics often: less than 20 percent of autistic college students graduate or are on track to graduate five years after high school. Seven years out of high school, that number increases to 39 percent.

Overall, students in the general population have a 52.4 percent chance of completing their degree, whereas autistic students have a much lower likelihood (38.8 percent). Despite this, college enrollment for autistic students is on the rise, expected to increase by at least 114 percent in the next few years.

These numbers beg the question: what are we doing to help our neurodivergent students?

Often, institutions of higher education (colleges, universities, trade schools) fail because of a lack of awareness, funding, or education, but there are simple ways you can support and create pathways for success for your neurodivergent students. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but it is a start!

1. Ask your neurodivergent students.

Sometimes, even when we have the best intentions, we inadvertently ignore the individual in our efforts to “solve the problem,” but it is important to remember: there is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

You must talk with your neurodivergent students first. Provide an opportunity for them to share their experiences in a comfortable and considerate environment. Listen to their perspective, understand their struggles, and ask, “How can I help?”

Not only does this approach better amplify autistic voices and experiences, it leads to more effective accommodations and programs.

According to a 2017 report funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, “end-user input will increase the likelihood that the final program is structured in such a way that college-based disability services offices can implement the program as intended (with fidelity) and with minimal additional cost of staff, so that it is sustainable.”

2. Create a space for your students to take a break and recharge.

For students with sensory challenges, discussion-filled lecture halls, busy libraries, and noisy hallways can be a nightmare. Unwanted noises and bright, harsh lights only add to the challenge, and it is important to provide a space for these students to find reprieve from the chaos and decompress.

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, New York’s Adelphi University was an early adopter of the concept: “Since January 2018, the university has had a sensory room set aside for students who need downtime with or without stimulation. For some, the bubble lights and gentle white noise help bring calm; for others, peace comes with a heavy blanket and noise-canceling headphones. Such sensory rooms aim to appeal to people with a range of needs, allowing them to choose for themselves what will help.”

And, it does help.

Wendi Mathews, who directs Stony Brook University’s Student Accessibility Support Center reports that, “More than 75 percent who visited the support center reported using the sensory room while waiting; other students come specifically to sit in the room, taking advantage of the special pillows, seating and activities to regain their composure, feel better about themselves or simply catch a few minutes of peace.”

Though it does not take a lot of resources to create these spaces, sensory rooms cannot be thrown together — a bean bag tossed in a corner is not going to be effective — but must be designed with student needs in mind.

3️. Write a daily objectives list and display it clearly for all students to see.

Many autistic individuals have poor executive functioning skills and find it difficult to pay attention; organize, plan, or prioritize; and/or start tasks and stay focused on them to completion.

This can make lecture hall-based learning difficult for neurodivergent students, who might find it difficult to understand the key points or takeaways from the day’s lesson. Take the time to develop a daily objectives list and make it available for students to reference.

Whether written on the whiteboard or provided electronically, this list will help them focus, stay on task, and remind them what to expect of you and the lesson that day. When possible, consider distributing these essential learning outcomes prior to class in order to give your neurodivergent students time to absorb the information.

Kaleb Johnson recently shared his experiences as an employee on the autism spectrum and describes how his boss, Linda, supports him at the workplace in a similar way:

“She takes the time to explain, slows down and repeats things for me. She gives me time to absorb the information. Every day she would write a task list to help me stay on track. It was almost identical each time, but autism thrives on repetition. Now she doesn’t leave me one unless there’s something important that I usually don’t do but need to do. I’ve learned to write my own list now. I thrive on lists and writing things down.”

As always, I would love to hear from you: what programs or accommodations has your college, university, or trade school implemented to better support your neurodivergent students on campus or in the lecture hall?

The more we share our experiences — what worked, what did not, what to try next — the closer we get to achieving #InclusionForAll for our neurodivergent students!

Dr. William Lane is a special education consultant, international speaker, and best-selling author who helps post-secondary institutions and businesses develop programs that create clear pathways to graduation and meaningful employment opportunities for neurodivergent individuals. For more information about Dr. Lane and his services, please visit his website.



Dr. William Lane

Special education consultant, international speaker, and best-selling author advocating for neurodiversity on campus and in the workplace.