Hacking Graduate School For Neurodiverse Learners: Part 1 of 3

Seven Strategies for Supporting Neurodiverse Writers in Higher Education download

When I see a student who is able to conceptualize and articulate her dissertation idea clearly, but who is failing to progress on her thesis or dissertation, I begin to sense a puzzle.

Sometimes stalling out in graduate school can be caused by an existential or identity crisis, such as when the student isn’t entirely sure he wants to do academic work or feels insecure about his ability to fit into the academic community. Sometimes a stall-out is caused by life circumstances. But if there is a significant gap between the student’s core intelligence and her output—and if that gap has followed her throughout her education—there is often an explanation that involves issues of neurodiversity, or differences in learning style and cognitive function.

Here are some of the questions I ask when helping students solve the mystery of why they are struggling:

  • Is there a huge gap between your verbal and writing ability?
  • Are you frequently told that your writing is incomprehensible?
  • Are you frequently told that your writing betrays a lack of audience awareness? Could this be explained by language learning or low academic preparation?
  • Do you have an entrenched pattern of procrastination or serious organizational issues?
  • Have you been largely successful or unsuccessful in producing written work previously?
  • Do you struggle to initiate work or to maintain focus once you do initiate it?
  • Are you an unusually slow reader and/or do you struggle to retain what you read?

None of these are diagnostic in themselves, but they can suggest that it is worth looking into the possibility of issues with attention, executive function, audiovisual processing, etc.

Labels by Any Other Name

Sometimes clients come to me knowing that they have ADHD or OCD or ASD. But often when I ask, “Have you ever been tested for learning differences?” they will say, “No, but people have been telling me that I should get tested all my life,” or “My mom says I have ADD, but I have never been tested.” Whether you decide to investigate further is entirely up to you. In my experience, getting more information about oneself as an adult is usually an enabling and beneficial experience. More often than not, I see diagnosis produce a flood of self-recognition, relief, and self-acceptance.

Ultimately, what is important is not the label, but the information it gives you. Even so, learning that there’s a name associated with your characteristics will not answer all of your questions, provide all the answers about how to address your challenges, or give your professors a one-size-fits-all template for working with you. You are still a unique learner. Knowing about your learning needs can help you advocate for yourself, find resources, and maintain perspective.

As academics we can understand that diagnoses are provisional and shifting categories (recently ADD has morphed into ADHD, and Asperger’s has been absorbed into Autism Spectrum Disorder) while still acknowledging that they provide useful shorthand for a set of characteristics. More importantly, they provide an alternative to the “lazy” or “not graduate material” narrative that you may find yourself battling both internally and externally.

To Whom It May Concern

If you are seeking to get the letters MA or Ph.D. after your name, you may find yourself feeling ambivalent about the other letters you find yourself sporting (ADHD, ASD, OCD, PTSD). In advanced educational settings, difficulty in learning often causes students to doubt their intelligence, capability, and belonging. This is one of the reasons it can be incredibly difficult to feel comfortable disclosing learning differences or neurodiversity to faculty. I hear this a lot: “I am dyslexic and was on an Individual Educational Plan all through K–12 and had accommodations in college, but I don’t want my thesis advisor to think I am asking her to lower the bar for me.”

On the one hand, informing faculty about your learning challenges, particularly if your work output is delayed or incomplete, can help the faculty member understand and contextualize the situation. Ideally, you and the faculty member can work together to find a work process that meets both of your needs.

On the other hand, I encourage students to be pragmatic. Disclosure is no guarantee that a faculty member will know how to respond productively to this information. Additionally, skepticism about the existence and validity of learning differences and neurodiversity is still a thing, perhaps especially in academic culture. As a graduate student you are navigating very real situations of power and politics and should make strategic decisions about the information you disclose. To reiterate: in an ideal world, you would feel comfortable being open about your learning needs, but there are valid reasons why you might not.

I believe the most important thing you can do is make sure there is someone on your thesis committee who understands your needs and with whom you work effectively. This person may or may not be your thesis director. I also urge you to realize that if your needs for assistance exceed the scope of usual thesis advising work (for example, if your writing requires intensive conceptual and editorial work on every draft or if you need detailed help in structuring your work process), you will need to tap into your personal network and/or hire a writing coach. Graduate students need to understand that thesis advising is difficult, labor-intensive work for which faculty receive little training and for which there are few institutional incentives. My clients are often surprised to learn that faculty members who put their own work on the front burner and their students’ work on the back burner are acting rationally. Communicating respect for a professor’s time and feedback is important, but it’s also OK to ask respectfully for an update if a professor has not responded in a while.

Support Can Take Many Forms

There is no one right way to get support and accommodation. Reach out to the learning specialists in your university or form a writing accountability group or support group for neurodiverse students. Find out if the writing center at your university offers support for graduate student writers. Here are a few examples of how I have worked with neurodiverse graduate students that may inspire ideas about kinds of assistance that could be useful to you.

  • I have attended thesis committee meetings with students who have auditory and processing-speed issues in order to take notes and triangulate their perceptions of faculty requests.
  • I worked with a dyslexic student for several years who made great progress in the overall clarity of his writing, but who has come to understand that he will likely always need a second pair of eyes to check for non sequiturs, repetition, and organizational issues. He now builds editing time into his workflow.
  • I helped a student challenge her internal narrative that she was lazy and unmotivated by pointing out that since she continued to work on her thesis despite enormous challenges, it would be more accurate to see herself as heroically motivated. I suggested that she “motivate to regulate,” meaning motivate herself to regulate her sleep, eating, and exercise, which would allow her to write more productively. “Motivate to regulate” became a useful mantra for her. The student went on to learn that OCD was a big part of what was keeping her from writing.
  • I have helped students find appropriate assistive technology and helped them educate their faculty about which media are most effective for communicating feedback.
  • I worked with a dyslexic student whose thesis had been accepted, but whose committee had asked for substantial rewrites. Working from her existing product, which was conceptually sound but very difficult to follow, we developed a process where she talked through the dissertation and I typed it. We edited the resulting draft together and it was accepted.
  • I have served as a sounding board and resource for students who did not feel comfortable disclosing information about their neurodiversity to their advisors, but who valued the opportunity to bring their whole selves to the table in addressing their academic work.
  • I frequently work with students (not all of whom are neurodiverse) who need a more regular audience, feedback, or deadlines than their advisor can provide.
  • I serve as a resource for faculty who want to help students who are facing significant challenges (See Part 2 of this series).

A Final Metaphor

Writing a thesis or dissertation is like … let’s say, running a marathon. It’s not an easy task, but it’s one that thousands of people all over the world do every year. Now imagine that someone released a bunch of barking dogs and a few bears into your marathon route. Just dealing with the dogs and the bears would take a lot of your energy and attention. What I see is that most neurodiverse students are capable of finishing this marathon, but that they must expend more energy learning how to anticipate, avoid, assuage, manage, and tame the dogs and the bears. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible!

See Part 2 in this series: Advising Neurodiverse Thesis and Dissertation Students

See Part 3 in this series: Resources for Neurodiverse Grad Students and the Faculty who Advise Them



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