Colleges Enlist Peer Mentors to Make Campuses More Welcoming to Neurodivergent Students
With parties, pep rallies and the departure of their parents, many freshmen find college orientation exhilarating.
Others primarily perceive it as … noisy.
“William & Mary orientation is very extensive, very loud and pretty difficult for most neurodivergent students,” says Alanna Van Valkenburgh, a rising senior at the college.
For the past two summers, she’s helped to lead a pre-orientation program designed to better suit the temperaments of a dozen or so freshmen who identify as autisic, dyslexic or having ADHD or other related traits. The intimate weekend involves plenty of fun, like touring campus at midnight, building mattress forts and playing group games. But every event is optional, and students are encouraged to take breaks when they’d prefer to be alone.
“It’s a really good time, and I think it’s really important for that first interaction with William & Mary these students have to be with people who accept them and care about them and are part of their community,” Van Valkenburg says.
Reexamining orientation is one way institutions are adapting to support students whose social and cognitive needs differ from those of the majority.
Some efforts to foster neurodiversity on campus build on programs college administrations have long bolstered, like offices for disability services. Others, though, are trickier to tackle from the dean’s office.
“Students need more than a program for providing accommodations or tutorials in reading and writing,” says Manju Banerjee, vice president of educational research and innovation at Landmark College, which exclusively serves students who have learning disabilities, attention disorders or who are autistic. “It’s more about social development, communication skills, interaction with peers—all of that.”
Which is why colleges are recruiting neurodivergent students to serve as peer mentors to help their classmates make friends, navigate social nuances and broaden the idea of who can thrive not just in a classroom, but also in a dorm or dining hall.
The word “neurodiversity,” attributed to the sociologist Judy Singer, tidily communicates the fact that everyone’s brain is unique.
The term also offers a lens—sometimes called the neurodiversity paradigm—for viewing the strengths, not just the challenges, that accompany cognitive differences. This perspective is influencing research, course offerings and student services at some colleges.
“I think educational institutions have not always been so kind and so generous with autistc people who don’t fit mainstream models,” says Andrew Solomon, professor of clinical medical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center and author of “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.” “I think increasingly there’s an awareness of having an inclusive academic environment on a liberal arts campus is a better way going forward.”
Changing language reflects this shift. The adjective offshoot “neurodivergent” has gained popularity as a way to describe students without relying on diagnostic and medical phrases that connote disease, Banerjee explains.
“We’re very interested in changing the conversation, language and mindset around populations and individuals who in the past have been labeled, categorized and stigmatized,” she says.
Who exactly qualifies as neurodivergent? Autism, ADHD, tics, OCD and dyslexia are relevant, students and professors say, but they aren’t very concerned about parameters. Generally, people decide for themselves whether the term fits.
“A lot of people are self-diagnosed,” explains Van Valkenburgh. “A lot of people know they are neurodivergent and are not really sure what it would be under the DSM.”
After all, plenty of people who meet the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorders enter college without diagnoses and are therefore disconnected from official university disabilities services, according to research published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry in 2014.
That lack of formal diagnoses might pose problems if grassroots campus neurodiversity programs primarily provided academic support or comprehensive care. But neurodivergent students who need classwork accommodations typically handle those through administrative offices, while those seeking intensive structure may enroll in a specialized higher education program (which may cost thousands of dollars).
Instead, student- and professor-led support systems are more focused on the fundamentals of “college life and trying to be an independent adult,” says Isabelle Morris, a recent graduate of Stanford University who is Autistic. (The capitalized spelling, she notes, signifies that she sees it as her identity.)
“People get into Stanford because they’re really good at the academic side of things,” Morris explains. “But life with a roommate, communicating with professors, making sure you’re on top of your laundry and getting groceries? That’s the piece that’s lacking as far as support.”
Peer mentoring is a hallmark of these programs. At several campuses affiliated with City University of New York, neurodivergent students who participate in Project REACH attend weekly skills workshops and also work one-on-one with fellow students. At Stanford, the Neurodiverse Student Support Program pairs paid mentors (who are sophomores, juniors and seniors) with incoming neurodivergent freshmen, who also take a class about self-advocacy, career development and other practical topics.
Even the mundane tips that students pass along to their peers can improve the campus experience.
“Stanford has a free shuttle that I didn’t use until a friend showed me how it works,” Morris says. “Pro tip: That thing has air conditioning and you should use it!”
When professors affiliated with William & Mary’s Neurodiversity Initiative asked neurodivergent students what aspect of college life was most challenging, “every response was ‘orientation,’” says Joshua Burk, professor of psychological sciences. “It’s an overwhelming experience to start off your university time in that way.”
So with the help of leaders from the campus’s Neurodiversity Student Group, the college now offers a summer pre-orientation Bridge Program for rising freshmen. Additionally, in Van Valkenburgh’s role as a student government leader, she is advocating that the schedule for general orientation incorporate a “spirit scale” to make more clear “which events will be loud and raucous and which will be less so.”
At Stanford, Morris says helping to launch a Transition Orientation program for incoming neurodivergent students is a key priority in her new role working on behalf of the Stanford Neurodiversity Project.
Student feedback for summer pre-orientation programs has been positive, and there’s some evidence these opportunities strengthen important life skills for both mentors and mentees. Research published in 2018 in Frontiers in Psychology found that “participation in a brief but intensive summer transition program may help prepare autistic college students to self-advocate and engage with diverse peers in college contexts” and “empower autistic students to take on leadership roles.”
Beyond preparing neurodivergent students for the increased independence that college requires, peer support systems provide an ineffable quality many students find essential to the on-campus experience: camaraderie.
Van Valkenburgh, who has tics she calls “very visible,” was unfamiliar with the concept of neurodiversity when she arrived at William & Mary as a freshman. But it resonated immediately when a classmate explained it to her.
“When I came into college, I was meeting all of these new people, so I had to either make the decision to explain this disorder to every single person I met or deal with the staring and let them think what they wanted,” Van Valkenburgh says. “I spent a lot of my time really trying to hide my differences. It gets really exhausting.”
The classmate invited Van Valkenburgh to check out the school’s neurodivergent student club, which meets weekly to plan outreach events, discuss neurodiversity issues, watch movies and generally enjoy each other’s company.
When she joined, she was “ecstatic.”
“It was a really different atmosphere than I’d ever been in before, having this place that is judgement-free where you can be with your own community,” she says. “I think that social aspect is one of the most important, if not the most important, part of what we do.”