Online College and Graduate Students with Neurodiversity

Finding the right graduate program, accommodations, and routine is often crucial for students with neurodiversity. With so many online master’s degree programs available, choosing the right program is easier than ever before. Keep reading to learn more about college resources for neurodivergent student success.

Students with neurodiversity often face more difficulties in college than their neurotypical peers. In fact, among students with neurodiversity, only 41% make it to graduation for their bachelor’s degree compared to 59% for neurotypical students. Juggling academic and work obligations, maintaining or building social connections, and staying organized and motivated all pose especially unique challenges when you are neurodivergent. Establishing a routine to provide consistency and choosing a program with the right support is crucial to their success.

With the right plan and support, neurodivergent students can achieve anything their neurotypical peers can. The growth of virtual learning and greater understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity gives prospective college and graduate students a plethora of online options to choose from. This guide overviews common types of neurodivergence and how these brain differences can lead to challenges in school. It also offers solutions and resources available to help overcome these challenges.

Neurodiversity Types & Challenges

When the way someone processes information significantly deviates from that of the “average” or “typical” individual, they are neurodiverse. Their brains simply work differently, and this modified cognitive functioning can create struggles in communication, learning, and perception that a neurotypical person might not experience. For example, a typical graduate student might quickly read a chapter in a textbook and understand what they read. A neurotypical person, however, may have trouble concentrating enough to finish the chapter, or they can concentrate but processes letters and words differently and take much longer to finish reading that chapter.

There are many types of neurodiversity. Some of the most common include:

ADHD

Attention–Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder manifests in various ways, but it often affects concentration and attention. This can make communicating and managing time and tasks harder for someone with ADHD. Despite its name and common symptoms, many people with ADHD often show high levels of concentration and efficiency, especially when working on tasks of particular interest to them. ADHD is also commonly associated with creative and innovative ideas resulting from busy and bold ways of thinking.

Autism (ASD)

Also known as autism spectrum disorder, autism is a well-known form of neurodiversity. Common challenges faced by those with autism include multi-tasking, social communication, and reading other people’s emotions. Individuals with autism may also exhibit repetitive behaviors. Autism is difficult to characterize not just because of the wide range of symptoms but because these traits can present themselves in varying degrees. Students with autism often show substantial levels of logical thinking, attention to detail, and recall of extensive amounts of information, especially about a particular topic of interest.

Learning Disabilities

The most common type of learning disability, the most common neurodivergence, is dyslexia. Generally, dyslexia is difficulty reading and spelling accurately. Other types of learning disorders include dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and auditory and language processing disorders. Dysgraphia is trouble with handwriting, spelling, or expressing ideas with written words, while dyscalculia relates to processing numbers and completing mathematical calculations. Auditory processing disorder is a learning disability where a person might have normal hearing but struggle hearing the different sounds in spoken words, and individuals with language processing disorder struggle understanding written or spoken language and/or using written or spoken language to express themselves.

Dyspraxia

Sometimes known as developmental coordination disorder, dyspraxia relates to a person’s movements and spatial awareness. Someone with dyspraxia may have trouble learning to write or have poor hand/eye coordination. Even though dyspraxia relates to body movement and balance, it sometimes exhibits characteristics of other types of neurodivergence like trouble concentrating, communicating, and remembering information. People with dyspraxia tend to have an easier time empathizing with others and thinking outside the box to solve problems.

Tourette Syndrome

Tourette syndrome is a condition of the body’s nervous system that causes involuntary tics. Tics may include repeated body twitches, sounds, or other movements. Someone with Tourette syndrome may be able to stop their tics but only temporarily. Unlike how Tourette syndrome is portrayed in the media, most people with this condition are not significantly affected in their daily lives. Because a tic can draw unwanted attention, however, a person with this disorder may worry or experience social anxiety. Many who have Tourette syndrome also have other mental, behavioral, developmental, or anxiety disorders.

Epilepsy

Epilepsy, one of the most common types of neurological disorders, manifests through unprovoked and recurring seizures. A seizure occurs when the brain experiences an abnormally high level of electrical activity. Seizure signs range from someone staring blankly for a few moments to convulsions affecting the whole body. Most people effectively treat their epilepsy using medications. Treatment may be required for the rest of a person’s life. For many, though, especially children as they grow and develop, the seizures eventually go away.

Chronic Mental Health Illnesses

The public has become more aware and accepting of chronic mental illnesses. In severe cases, mental illness can be debilitating. Mental illness is often described as an invisible disability. While having the benefit of not being readily obvious to others, it can make obtaining accommodations and treatment more difficult. The most common types of mental illness include bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and depression. With the right counselor, doctor, and therapist, most people can effectively treat their mental illness with medication and/or therapy.

Benefits of an Online Master’s for Neurodiverse Students

One of the best ways educators can support their neurodiverse students is through flexibility. Because their brains work differently, offering as many instructional and support options as possible to neurodiverse students can help ease the graduate school transition process and improve learning outcomes. Below are some of the ways online learning can benefit neurodivergent graduate students.

Flexibility and Pacing Options

Some neurodivergent students need additional time to learn. This includes needing more time to learn the materials, but it also may mean spending time to find the best routine and learning strategies for a given subject or class. In some situations, neurodiverse students are able to learn a topic faster than their peers. Since many online classes are asynchronous, students can learn at their own pace, finish a class and move on, or take additional time to complete the course requirements.

Location Independence

Distance learning tools give access to a much larger selection of schools and programs. This applies not just to academic offerings but to student support services as well. Remote learning offers a far more convenient way to attend class without worrying about logistical considerations or whether a classroom has the necessary accommodations. This is especially helpful for students with mobility issues.

Control Over the Environment

Instead of attending class on campus, students can learn from a location conducive to their learning style with characteristics the student can control. Examples include at home, in a quiet spot in the school’s library, or in any location with an internet connection. Instead of having to ask a professor or school administrator to modify a classroom to meet their needs, a student can do what is necessary to find a flexible learning location.

Relaxation and Focus

One of the characteristics that many neurodivergent students have to cope with is increased anxiety levels or feelings of anxiety that are slow to subside. Online education gives students more leeway in dealing with their anxiety. This includes creating a classroom and study environment that’s less likely to trigger anxiety as well as learning flexibility that alleviates certain fears and concerns.

Ownership of the Experience

Whether it’s the presentation of class materials or taking proactive steps to receive needed accommodations, having a say in how you learn does a lot to improve the graduate school experience. Online students have greater control over when and how they learn, making the academic process more effective and leading to increased student satisfaction.

Naturally Accommodating

When attending in-person graduate school, a student must provide necessary documentation and evidence to support a request for learning accommodations. After submitting an accommodation request, you must then wait for the school to respond. With online learning, however, a neurodiverse student may not have to formally request an accommodation because it’s naturally built into how the course is presented.

College Spotlight: Support for Neurodiversity on Campus

Schools recognizing the special needs of their neurodiverse students respond in a variety of ways, including through implementing special initiatives and creating dedicated departments or programs. At some schools, the programs help professors better teach and accommodate their neurodiverse students. Other schools have programs specifically intended for direct student assistance. Below are several notable neurodiversity support programs and what they do to help students, especially those attending class online. While most of these are specific school programs, many schools offer comparable or similar services.

  • University of Massachusetts – DEI Neurodiversity Initiative

    Offered through the College of Engineering’s Engineering Career and Experiential Learning Center, this program assists students with disabilities. Resources include career development assistance with webinars to help students prepare for interviews and other professional development opportunities and multiple virtual and in-person job fairs specifically tailored for neurodiverse students. To discuss other ways to help students, a monthly campus meeting is broadcast live via Zoom.

  • Landmark College – Center for Neurodiversity

    This center’s broad goal is to advance society’s understanding of neurodiversity. They promote research and discussion about how to treat, learn about, and take advantage of the differences that neurodiverse individuals and students offer. In addition to promoting and sharing ideas and research, the Center for Neurodiversity also provides direct benefits like hosting community events about neurodiversity, offering internships to neurodivergent students, and promoting hiring practices and policies that are friendly to neurodivergent employees and job applicants.

  • Carnegie Mellon University – The Olitsky Family Foundation Career Readiness Program

    The mission of this program is to help neurodivergent students get through the post-graduate career search process. This program works directly with employers, students, and local community organizations to educate and assist the acceptance and understanding of neurodiversity. For example, Carnegie Mellon University works to help employers better understand, approach, and recruit neurodiverse students. Student resources include one-on-one coaching, resume–building workshops, and the Student-Employer Connect Event. Students can take advantage of many of these resources virtually.

  • Project LETS – Peer Mental Health Advocates

    Project LETS is a national organization with the mission to help those with mental illness, trauma, disabilities, and neurodivergence. They created Peer Mental Health Advocate (PMHA) chapters at specific colleges and universities that connect fellow students who can provide confidential and one-on-one peer counseling. In addition to listening, PMHAs can assist students with getting accommodations at school or from a professor. Much of the interactions between PMHAs and their clients occur virtually.

  • Project LETS – Peer Mental Health Advocates

    Project LETS is a national organization with the mission to help those with mental illness, trauma, disabilities, and neurodivergence. They created Peer Mental Health Advocate (PMHA) chapters at specific colleges and universities that connect fellow students who can provide confidential and one-on-one peer counseling. In addition to listening, PMHAs can assist students with getting accommodations at school or from a professor. Much of the interactions between PMHAs and their clients occur virtually.

  • Duke University – Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

    This program is open to all students and consists of various types of counseling services, including groups, individual, and couples’ counseling. Students can also access Blue Devils Care, mental telehealth support that’s available 24/7 at no cost and gives students access to a licensed mental health professional from a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. CAPS is also available to students on campus at the Student Wellness Center.

  • College Resources for Students with Neurodiversity

    With the right attitude, planning, and hard work, neurodiversity should not keep you from earning your degree. Still, everyone, neurotypical or not, can benefit from resources and assistance. The resources below include assistive technology and apps tailored to neurodiverse students to make earning an online master’s degree a bit easier.

    Technology

  • Dragon Home

    Created by Nuance, Dragon is a world-renowned speech recognition solution. Dragon Home is specifically designed for students and nonprofessionals who could benefit from using their spoken word to write and use their computers.

  • KanbanFlow

    Kanban is a workflow organization and project management system that allows individuals to better organize their busy lives. In addition to creating special columns for tasks, users can set deadlines, timers, and reminders for important events.

  • MoodPanda

    MoodPanda consists of an online community and mood tracking diary app. Together, they help you monitor your feelings and identify trends and triggers for your moods. In addition to helping you become more cognizant of your feelings, there’s also a community where users can read and comment to provide support.

  • Voice Dream

    Some neurodivergent students have difficulty reading and understanding text. Voice Dream offers several features to help with these challenges. The Reader converts text to speech and highlights words as they’re being read, the Writer takes what a user types and reads it aloud, and the Scanner scans texts and converts it to speech the user can hear.

  • Blogs and Websites

  • NeurodiversityHub

    This centralized resource for students, universities, and employers makes it easier for businesses to hire neurodivergent students. It also has a special resources page for university students and their family members to access online materials for improving educational outcomes.

  • OpenDoorsTherapy Blog

    OpenDoorsTherapy offers online counseling and therapy services for neurodivergent individuals and their families. It also has a consistently updated blog that covers all topics, many of which help students deal with life and academic stress related to neurodiversity.

  • Planet Neurodivergent

    This site supports the neurodivergent community through publicly-sourced articles, stories, videos, and other forms of media expressing thoughts about neurodivergence. It also offers support service sessions to identify the needs of neurodivergent individuals and guide them toward getting assistance.

  • Organizations

  • Asperger/Autism Network

    This unique community offers support and resources to those of any age but has a section focused specifically on adults who’ve graduated high school. You’ll find scholarships, interview prep and coaching programs, support groups, and webinars and workshops to help you get through college.

  • Center on Technology and Disability

    This robust center was funded by the U.S. Department of Education through 2019 but still holds a wealth of information and resources focused on assisting individuals with autism and other disabilities find the proper services, assistive technologies, college help, and career-ready paths they need.

  • National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)

    Besides educating the general public about learning disabilities, the NCLD also supports initiatives and research focused on understanding learning disabilities. One of NCLD’s best resources is explaining the legal rights of students with learning disabilities, including identifying key laws and how they work for students.

  • Think College

    Think College has a nationwide network of students, faculty, administrators, and policymakers in higher education for students with disabilities. It also has a host of resources available based on a student’s location.

  • Interview with a Neurodivergence Expert

    CameronCraddockHowe

    Cameron Craddock Howe has a passion for helping others through advocacy and awareness. She has spent most of her professional life working in the community mental health sector with children in crisis and youth aging out of foster care and currently works as the project manager for the president’s office of HumanKind, a nonprofit located in Virginia. Howe is a volunteer board member of her local bus system, the Greater Lynchburg Transit Company), and provides contract work for DEI initiatives and cannabis education on weekends. She graduated in 2021 from the University of Maryland with a Master of Science.

    Q. Tell us about your college experience as a neurodivergent student.

    A. When I was in undergrad at the University of Lynchburg, I took classes in person and advocated to get accommodations that would meet my needs. I was allowed extra time on tests/assignments, able to take tests in private/quiet areas, given permission to type my notes in real-time during class, and not penalized for grammar or spelling errors. The small classroom sizes, personal relationships with my professors, and accommodations allowed me to see for the first time what my educational potential could be, and I started to truly believe in myself. 

    I went on to attend the University of Maryland’s graduate program and was provided the same accommodations as I had in undergrad. However, my graduate program was predominately online, and I found that during the first semester I didn’t really utilize the accommodations that I had needed during in-person learning. All of my notes were typed and professors would even provide their notes to students to use for reference. Tests did not have a time limit, and I could take all my tests quietly/privately since it was done remotely. During my second semester, Covid happened, and lockdowns were nationwide. As such, the teachers and school provided grace in terms of submitting papers on time and when it came to spelling/grammar mistakes. The graduate program was never in-person again due to covid, so everything – including graduation – was remote. 

    Q. What was the most difficult part of the graduate journey for you?

    A. Online classes were by far the most difficult part. It is really hard to be remote and have recorded lectures where you are not able to ask questions in real-time and often have to wait days to get a response to your question as the primary way you are learning material. In some of the classes, it felt like I was having to teach myself. While there are advantages to online classes – quiet setting, flexible schedule, etc. – when someone has a learning disability or difference it can be very isolating and more challenging than it otherwise should be. Plus, it is hard to develop those personal relationships with classmates and professors that can really enrich an educational experience.

    Q. What accommodation did you find most helpful and why?

    A. I found that having extra time to complete assignments was the most helpful. With my dyslexia and ADHD, my brain would frequently fill in words that I mistyped or didn’t type at all when I would read through my paper. Often it would take days of putting the paper down and coming back to it to re-read it to find mistakes I had missed before. Plus, the additional stress of Covid increased my anxiety. The additional time really helped ease some of the unnecessary but uncontrollable anxiety I experienced when writing my papers and completing the assignments.

    Q. How difficult was it to get the accommodations you needed?

    A. It was not an easy process to get accommodations for graduate school at the University of Maryland. I had to prove that I had a disability by showing them a psychological assessment I had in middle school and providing a current copy of my ADHD prescription.  I also had to prove I had been on that medication for an extended amount of time and that this wasn’t a new diagnosis. I had to fill out essay-style questions on why accommodations would be helpful, and I was required to interview before they could approve or deny my accommodations. Then I had to reach out to each teacher individually before the semester started to tell them about my accommodations.

    Neither the school nor the teachers provided guidance on which accommodations would be beneficial to meet my needs based on classroom design. This was my first time receiving online instruction, so suggestions on additional accommodations that could meet my needs would have been appreciated. The most frustrating part was I had to repeat the approval process every semester if I wanted ongoing accommodations. It felt overwhelming and like they were purposely trying to discourage accommodations with such a policy.