As technology and research improve, so does our understanding of the human brain. This means we’re all becoming increasingly familiar with the idea that many people are neurodiverse — about 1 in 5, statistically. And simply put, for this significant proportion of the population, their brains work differently. Science writer Jenara Nerenberg describes it like this: “Neurodiversity is recognizing the array of human brain makeups as beautiful and natural.”
For students who are neurodiverse, the college learning experience might be different from that of a neurotypical student. But this can be a good thing for everyone; because your brain processes information differently, you’ll offer a unique perspective from many of your peers. In fact, more healthcare researchers are calling for adding neurodiverse representation to the field, with analyses like this one explaining: “…neurodiverse individuals possess unique strengths that can improve productivity, quality, innovation, and engagement.”
With this context in mind, keep reading to explore some of the different types of neurodiversity and how neurodivergent students can make the most of their education. This guide will offer perspectives and tips that neurodiverse students in healthcare can use to improve their education experience.
Neurodivergence and College: What to Expect and How to Succeed
If you are neurodivergent, you might be anxious about how your differences will affect your learning; while there may be impacts to your college learning experience, there are resources and accommodations that can make your online learning process far more agreeable. Let’s look at some of the more common forms of neurodiversity, explain what they are, and identify ways they might affect online learning. We’ll also offer a list of resources to help you as you pursue your healthcare degree.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder refers to an individual’s difficulty to keep focus, propensity to act impulsively, and/or tendency to move their body excessively in a way that’s not appropriate for a particular setting. ADHD is one of the most common forms of neurodivergence, especially among younger children.
ADHD can be an especially frustrating form of neurodiversity because it doesn’t necessarily relate to the student’s ability to understand a concept; rather, it inhibits the ability to demonstrate understanding of that concept or makes it more difficult to complete the course requirements to properly learn the concept in the first place. This difficulty in keeping focus can manifest itself in many ways, such as having to re-watch a pre-recorded lecture, requiring the student to take more time to complete course requirements and learn a topic. In a busy medical context, with various smells, sounds and commotion going on in the background, a student with ADHD may need to take extra steps to avoid losing their focus during a medical procedure or process they are participating in.
The following resources may help healthcare students who have ADHD:
- ADDitude – Inside the ADHD Mind: This online magazine has information about ADHD testing, treatments, and how to spot symptoms in those who are not diagnosed. There are free downloads and webinars with tips and tricks on living with ADHD, including making the most of your education.
- The ADA, Section 504 & Postsecondary Education: This is an easy-to-read and informative Q&A-style guide that provides an overview of your rights as a college student with a legally recognized disability. This guide offers a solid explanation of what your rights are as a college student and what your school is and isn’t required to do for you.
- Clockify – The 26 Most Effective Time Management Techniques: Clockify creates a free time tracker to help complete projects. This article is a comprehensive list of time management strategies and techniques. Each technique is described, offering advantages, disadvantages, and challenges it’s designed to address.
- Auto Silent: This is a free app for Android that allows users to program when their mobile phone goes into distraction-free mode. The app works by setting a start time when the device goes into silent/vibrate mode and an end time when the device goes back into its default notification mode.
- Freedom: This app works by limiting the use of certain apps or access to specific websites to help users avoid distractions while they’re trying to concentrate. There’s a fee to use this app, but new users enjoy a free trial.
- Forest: One of the difficulties with focusing on a particular task is that there’s not always a reward or manifestation of the effort put into concentrating on the task at hand. This app addresses this issue by letting a user plant a virtual tree when they start a task. But if they get distracted, the tree will die. The goal is to build a healthy and vibrant forest to represent the effort poured into completing targeted tasks.
Autism, Asperger’s, and Sensory Processing Disorder
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes a broad spectrum of developmental, communication, and sensory disorders. Asperger syndrome is a previously used diagnosis but is now part of the broader ASD category. Sensory processing disorder isn’t an official diagnosis, but it’s sometimes used to categorize individuals who are overly sensitive or reactive to cues from their environment — what they, see, feel, smell, or hear.
Where on the autism spectrum a student is can have a dramatic effect on the learning experience. On one end, the learning challenges could be easily overcome. On the other end of the spectrum, it could pose significant difficulties, such as overwhelming trouble in communicating with peers and professors. Then there are middle-of-the road situations, where an ASD student might not understand when and how certain medical protocols and rules should be dismissed because of extenuating circumstances.
Here are some tools for students who fall on the autism spectrum:
- College Autism Spectrum (CAS) – CAS is an independent organization that specializes in helping students with ASD find the right college and develop work/career readiness. They support students with ASD for their entire college journeys, from navigating their options to graduation.
- Community Autism Peer Specialist (CAPS) Program – The CAPS program aims to improve personal wellness and community integration by pairing an ASD student with a trained Community Autism Peer Specialist, who are also on the ASD spectrum and want to support others in their community.
Chronic Mental Health Illnesses
If someone suffers from a chronic mental health illness, it means they have a mental illness with symptoms that they must manage over much of their life. Chronic mental illnesses often result in debilitating psychiatric symptoms that interfere with daily living, although the severity can fluctuate over time.
The impact of a mental illness on a student’s education (and any potential class accommodations) will depend on the type of mental health illness and its severity. Any illness can affect a student’s energy level, making it difficult to get up and attend class and complete assignments. This could be a particular issue for nursing students who are in the clinicals phase of their program and have to be at a designated clinical location early in the morning. Mental health issues like depression can make it difficult for students to be motivated to learn and/or concentrate when they are trying to learn.
Below are a few resources for students with chronic mental health illness:
- MindNode: This is a mind-mapping and idea-organizing app for iOS users. Through notetaking and outlining, students can organize their ideas in a manner that makes the most sense to them. In the end, MindNode helps create a mind map that can provide a visual representation of an idea and/or thought process.
- Remember the Milk: A to-do and task-management app that does more than keep users from forgetting things they need at the store; it makes it easy to adjust a task’s properties (such as making it a repeating task). Users also can customize how they’re notified of a task and whether they’re organized in a list or with tags.
- Stoic: This app lets users plan daily tasks, journal, and track their mood throughout the day. Additional features include inspiring quotes and affirmations, as well as exercises to deal with fear, practice gratitude, and perform meditation.
Also known as developmental coordination disorder, dyspraxia is a neurodevelopmental disorder where a person’s fine and/or gross motor skills don’t develop properly. Someone with dyspraxia may also have coordination issues. The symptoms often first appear in childhood, but may continue into adulthood and make it difficult for a person to live independently.
For vocational healthcare majors, dyspraxia can make school challenging. This is especially true for allied-health programs, where delivering hands-on care to patients is so important. Whether a student is working to become a registered nurse, sonographer, or phlebotomist, fine motor coordination will be essential. While dyspraxia has no cure, occupational therapy can help healthcare students obtain the necessary hands-on skills to complete their program and find success in their chosen profession. Additional time for test taking or completing assignments could be required. Implementation of special computer software, such as text-to-speech, might also be needed to help save time completing course requirements.
Here’s a notable resource for online healthcare students with dyspraxia:
- Speechnotes: A dictation app, this allows users to capture the spoken word from a variety of sources and transcribe it to written text. It can be used as an Android app or with the Chrome web browser for free; it has additional features that can be purchased within the app.
If someone has epilepsy, they suffer from recurring and unprovoked seizures. Generally speaking, these seizures have no known cause. Seizure symptoms can run the gamut from staring blankly for a few seconds to having involuntary body movements (spasms or convulsions).
Attending an online college makes it a bit easier to manage academic expectations while taking care of medical needs. The typical concerns like finding on-campus or nearby healthcare providers and epilepsy specialists won’t be present, for instance. However, those with epilepsy might need to inform their professors of their condition if there’s a chance it might come up during the program. An example is with synchronous online classes where a student’s absence will be noticed by a professor or where there are in-person practicum or healthcare labs that students must attend on campus.
Below, find a few resources that may be helpful for students with epilepsy:
- “Life as a medical student with epilepsy: A clinical and personal perspective”— This episode of the “Sharp Waves” podcast (produced by the International League Against Epilepsy) features an interview with a medical student who was diagnosed with epilepsy during his study.
- Bee Line Reader: Available as a web browser extension, Bee Line Reader improves the speed and efficiency of reading on-screen text. The primary feature is a special eye-guiding color gradient that makes it easier for the eye to follow text.
- Nile: Nile is a seizure diary app that serves as a record-keeping and reminder tool. It allows users to record seizures, side effects, auras, and medications with just a few clicks or taps of the app. The app can help track seizure-related events over time to identify trends and patterns.
- Epilepsy Device Wiki: Created by the Epilepsy Foundation, this is a searchable database of most apps, devices, and other forms of technology that are available or being developed for those with epilepsy. Users can search based on keyword, apply filters, and even download results in Excel.
- EpSMon: This self-monitoring app offers an assessment to help users identify and manage risks that come with epilepsy. The app will track which risks have improved or worsened over time, which will be useful for the healthcare provider during the next visit with a primary care provider or epilepsy specialist.
“Learning disability” is a blanket term that includes a host of conditions that inhibit a person’s ability to learn in neurotypical ways. A learning disability can make it difficult to learn a particular skill or subject, such as writing or mathematics. It can also include conditions that make it hard for someone to concentrate or coordinate their bodily movements.
For most students with disabilities, whether they’re in a vocational program or one with no in-person learning requirements, having a learning disability will often mean working harder and implementing techniques and strategies to learn in a particular way. But in many cases, a learning disability may warrant an academic accommodation. Because remote learning means students have little to no on-campus learning requirements, many of these accommodations will focus less on the school providing technology-based accommodations and more on adjusting the pacing of the programs or coursework.
Are you a student with a learning disability looking for resources? Here are just a few:
- Dyslexia Toolbox: This is an extension for the Chrome web browser that adjusts what a user reads on their computer screen. It changes on-screen words to a different font specifically designed for those with dyslexia. It also blocks out certain parts of the screen to help the reader focus on a particular piece of text.
- Hemingway Editor: This writing tool can be used as an app or through the website. It helps identify areas for improvement in writing. It’s especially good at identifying poorly worded sentences and passive voice.
- Speechify: This popular text-to-speech software is available for free, although users can pay for additional features — such as adjusting listening speeds, more voices, and different languages.
- Quizlet: Quizlet started out as a study tool where users can create virtual flashcards to help study. These flashcards were fully customizable, just like a traditional flashcard. Now, Quizlet offers other study tools, including practice tests and study guides to better understand a wide range of academic topics, like calculus or a foreign language.
Tourette syndrome (TS) is a disorder of the nervous system that causes a person to move their body in a particular way or make certain sounds (like a grunt). Sometimes called “tics,” these actions are involuntary and repetitive. The individual’s attempts to stop the tics usually don’t work.
For learning that occurs online, TS won’t have the same impact on learning as for the student attending a traditional on-campus program. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be accommodations necessary. When videoconferencing, depending on the severity and frequency of the tics, just giving a professor a heads up about their potential and letting the student mute his or her microphone or turn off their camera might be all the accommodations they need. As for students in medical-related programs with in-person learning requirements in a clinical setting, tics are either managed (such as with medication), or they could be so minor that no one will ever notice or raise any concerns about them.
Below are three resources for students with Tourette’s:
- Scanning Pens: These are electronic handheld devices that use optical character recognition technology to convert written text (typed or handwritten) and convert it to digital form. Once in digital form, it can be translated to another language, transferred to word processing software, or converted to speech. This is a valuable tool for those with tics that make it hard to read, write, and/or type.
- Tourette Association of American – College & TS: Tourette Association of American offers a wide range of information relating to TS, including a list of various resources to help college students. Articles include getting through the admissions process, getting financial aid, and how to talk about TS with professors.
- Calm: Reducing stress can be one of the best ways to manage tics. This app has features to help improve quality of sleep, reduce stress, increase concentration, and make positive changes. The app contains video lessons, music, sounds, nature scenes, and audio programs to improve mindfulness and help the mind and body relax.
The Benefits of Getting an Online Degree with Neurodivergence
Online college degrees are more popular than ever. Remote learning provides students with unparalleled learning flexibility, allowing them to attend class when they might not otherwise be able to. This flexibility is often marketed to students who want to work while in school, but the benefits of remote learning can also offer a distinct advantage for neurodiverse students.
Autonomy to Self-Direct Learning
The format of distance learning will vary by school and program, but much of the online college classroom process allows for self-paced and self-directed learning. Students can adjust their course load to accommodate their learning abilities, style, and strengths. If there are more difficult subjects, for example, students can take fewer classes per term. They can more readily apply tailored learning techniques — like reading lecture transcripts or engaging in online tutorials — when completing course requirements. If a student has a particular routine for taking notes during a lecture, they might feel more comfortable following that routine at home than in the physical classroom.
Access to Accommodations and Resources
Whether a student is on campus or online, they will have the same rights to accommodations and resources to assist in their learning challenges. Depending on the accommodations needed, being online might make it easier to receive certain accommodations. Some of the most popular forms of accommodations are reduced course loads and a modified class attendance policy. If a student with a learning disability needs a particular piece of technology software or hardware, it will be easier for them to implement it from the comfort and privacy of their own home. Some accommodations have the added bonus of maintaining the privacy of the students who need them. For example, a student can get extra time to take a test or complete an assignment without other classmates knowing.
Greater Control Over Learning Environment
Thanks to online learning, students can learn at a time and place that’s ideal for them. For a neurodivergent individual, having these learning options could be critical for more effective information acquisition and retention. For instance, completing course requirements in a controlled environment could be necessary for someone with sensory issues or challenges with concentration. It’s easier to eliminate distractions and uncomfortable stimuli if you can attend class in your home.
The added flexibility of online learning includes more than just finding an ideal time and place to go to class. For example, completing course requirements in the evening might make it easier for a student to keep their doctor visits or counseling and therapy sessions, which may only be available at one time on one day of the week. Then there’s the ability to handle the unexpected. Maybe someone on the autism spectrum experiences great anxiety right before a class. If they’re enrolled in a traditional college program, this may cause them to miss class; but an online course makes it much more likely the student can find another time to listen to and/or watch the lecture.
Potential for Personalized Learning
Personalized learning can mean more than flexible class schedules and course loads. There could be an uncommon major that’s offered only in a select handful of schools, all of which are far away. But if a school offered that program remotely, it’s possible for anyone to enroll in that program without worrying about having to move closer to the school. This advantage could be quite helpful for certain neurodiverse students, including those who have an intense interest in a very particular subject or area of study.
Hear From a Neurodivergent College Graduate
With a better understanding of neurodivergence as well as some of the reasons online education can benefit neurodiverse populations, let’s hear from a student about her experiences. Alexandrea Holder is a South Florida-based content marketing strategist and copywriter with a passion for creative problem-solving. As a life-long creative, Alexandrea is also an artist, musician, and amateur photographer. When she isn’t working, Alexandrea enjoys volunteering at the local animal shelter, deep diving into true crime podcasts and documentaries, or exploring local parks and nature centers.
What was your experience like navigating college as a neurodivergent student?
I definitely struggled in ways I would not have if I were diagnosed earlier. Looking back through my overall schooling experience, there were definitely signs I had ADHD and anxiety, but I managed to perform just well enough not to set off any alarm bells among my teachers and counselors. I have no doubt that my being a black woman also contributed to my late diagnosis, as ADHD symptoms are frequently missed or misdiagnosed in girls and ethnic minorities.
Once I entered college, my struggles became more pronounced, but I still managed well enough. When I first began seeking my associate degree, I could only afford to take one course in one semester out of the entire year. Once I finally qualified for financial aid and I was able to take more classes, things got more difficult to manage, but I ascribed it to being a typical college experience — it’s supposed to be harder.
Then I hit the real roadblock in getting my degree: I could not pass college-level math to save my life. I tried taking it online but frequently forgot to do assignments because of time management and object permanence issues. I took in-person classes, but I simply could not focus in the class I chose because the professor moved and spoke very slowly and had a monotone voice.
Life got in the way, and I put school on hold to work and support myself.
Then at the end of 2022, I realized I was coming up on 10 years since I’d begun my journey with higher education. I decided to go back and finish what I started, even though I had massive anxiety around math at that point due to all the previous failures. By this point I’d been diagnosed with ADHD, and through research and proper medication, I felt I was more equipped to actually succeed this time. And I was — it wasn’t easy by any stretch, but I successfully completed my last course with a B and I’ll be walking across the stage in less than a week!
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during your college years, and how did you overcome them?
Because higher education is largely self-guided, especially at the AA stage, I struggled a lot with accountability and procrastination. I am someone who needs to externalize my memory and accountability systems. It can be something as simple as a physical to-do list and planner, or an app that gives a satisfying animation when you mark a task as complete. I’ve only really discovered these tools within the last few years, before I had a formal diagnosis.
I also realized I do far better with self-paced, online courses that have a regular cadence of due dates than in-person courses. I need to be able to take brain breaks while still working toward a short-term goal. Courses where everything is just due at the end of the semester will lead me to scrambling to do it all in the last week of classes. In-person courses are almost never stimulating enough for me (except for science labs), so I leave the classroom with no idea what I was supposed to have just learned.
What strategies did you find most effective for managing your workload and staying organized?
I absolutely LOVE undated planners and bullet journals — any kind of external planning system that has the flexibility I need from day to day. It helps if I can see what tasks I keep having to move to the next day so I know I need to prioritize those so they don’t continue to hang around. I personally need a physical notebook rather than an app. It’s too easy to ignore calendar alerts and notifications for me, whereas if I can look down at my planner, I can see exactly what I’m meant to be doing.
Body doubling [having an accountability partner who works simultaneously, either in the same room or virtually through video chat platforms] is also a game changer. I have two monitors and would often use “Study with Me” videos on YouTube on one monitor while my coursework was on the other to stay on task. There are also Pomodoro study technique videos you can use which have built-in timers for studying and break sessions, which are useful for avoiding burnout. I used to think I was someone who needed to keep my brain half-distracted with things like podcasts or commentary videos in order to do any work, but I realize now that was actually hindering me.
What advice would you give to other neurodivergent students who are preparing to start college?
First – congratulations, I’m super excited for you!
Second: It’s okay to do things differently. Different is not wrong. Don’t try to force yourself to have the “typical college experience” if it’s not working for you.
Third: Please don’t give up. It took me a decade to get a two-year degree because I was so discouraged, and I wish I hadn’t been. Take advantage of the resources you need; your advisors and counselors and other personnel earnestly want to see you succeed.
Fourth and final bit of advice: Find an accountability buddy. It could be your advisor, a friend, a relative, literally anyone. Tell them what your goals are, and ask them to help you stay on track.
Are there any changes you would like to see in higher education to better support neurodivergent students?
I’d like to see more transparency and availability of services for those who suspect they may have an undiagnosed or undertreated behavioral, developmental, or learning disability. There’s this unspoken assumption that those with these limits are probably weeded out by the time you get to higher levels of learning, and therefore, there’s less need for these support programs. That’s not true. The reality is many simply don’t have access to diagnostic tools or services as a child, and thus have learned to cope or mask their symptoms but not truly manage them. This creates a learning barrier that I suspect contributes to a significant portion of college dropout rates or discourages people from attempting to get a college degree in the first place.
How has your experience in college helped you to better understand and advocate for your neurodivergent identity?
Even before my diagnosis, I have always been someone who is deeply interested in others’ lived experiences and advocacy for minority groups. Disability and mental health have been particularly important to me, as my grandmother has schizoaffective disorder, my mother has major depressive disorder, and my best friend has borderline personality disorder. As a child, two of my best friends were deaf and hearing impaired respectively, I have cousins with severe developmental disorders, and I’ve grown up alongside people with physical limitations. These experiences honestly helped me navigate life after developing my own chronic illness and being diagnosed with ADHD, so rather than just being a vocal ally, I now count myself an advocate.