Advising Neurodiverse Thesis and Dissertation Students: Part 2 of 3

Advising Neurodiverse Thesis and Dissertation Students: Part 2 of 3

If you have been teaching and advising graduate students for any length of time, you have worked with students who were neurodiverse, whether you knew it or not. As a graduate writing consultant, I suspect that I work with a slightly higher proportion of neurodiverse students than exist in the background population. This is not to say that I am an expert, but that I have had the opportunity to work collaboratively with students, and in many cases their faculty, to create a network of support that allows these students to succeed. As part of my work to foster diversity and success at the graduate level, I offer these thoughts with the intention of helping faculty think accurately, compassionately, and helpfully about their students who have learning and other differences.

I want to start by addressing myths that can get in the way of helping neurodiverse students succeed.

Myth 1: Learning differences keep changing, so they must be sham categories.

It’s true that the names we use to describe learning issues keep changing—learning disabilities, learning differences, neurodiversity. But here’s the thing: these categories are changing for good reasons. First, the science is continually changing. Second, as a culture we are moving past the shame and stigma that have traditionally been attached to those who could not “do” school in the prescribed ways. History is rife with examples of people who were “terrible” students who contributed greatly to scholarship and culture. So while George Carlin may have had a field day with the changing language of disability, I would argue that abandoning terms like “slow,” “feeble-minded,” “touched,” “simple,” and even “disabled,” in favor of more accurate and neutral language is a step in the right direction.

It’s also true that the categories of learning differences continue to shift. The condition formerly known as ADD has become ADHD, and the condition known as Asperger’s has recently been subsumed under the category of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As academics, we understand that knowledge is provisional: Pluto gets stripped of planet status (and then reinstated?); the Tyrannosaurus Rex that once towered over us at the Natural History Museum gets rebuilt in a slightly less imposing posture; what the DSM counts as a mental illness continues to change for scientific and cultural reasons. Likewise, our understanding of how the brain works and how people learn continues to evolve.

The concept of neurodiversity has been introduced as an alternative to the disabilities framework through which many leaning differences have been understood. Neurodiverse students include those with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), ASD (autism spectrum disorder), dyslexia, dyspraxia, and more. We now tend to refer to people as either neurotypical or neurodiverse. What is important is not the categories themselves, but the information they give us about the different ways that people learn and function in the world.

Myth 2: This student was admitted to this program so she must have the skills to succeed.

The idea that graduate admission signifies that a student is fully equipped to do graduate-level work may have been true back in the day (although I actually doubt it), but it is no longer a safe assumption. It is safer to say that admission to graduate school signifies the potential to do graduate level work if students are given appropriate instruction and support. Sadly, in some programs, admission simply signifies “can fog up a mirror and take out a loan.” When we assume the presence of core skills rather than teaching and supporting them, we reinforce inequity and disadvantage. On the positive side, I have rarely seen a student who could not succeed given adequate support.

Myth 3: If students cannot conceptualize, plan, manage, and execute their thesis with a minimum of supervision then they don’t belong in graduate school.

Again, this view is common and understandable, but it is not one that speaks to the reality of many graduate admissions policies or to the greater good in helping a broad range of people, including those who are neurodiverse, earn advanced degrees. If you have a student who needs more support than you can reasonably provide, that is a valid issue—and one that I address below—but it does not constitute evidence that the student should not be in grad school.

Myth 4: Students can get all the help they need at the writing center.

In the U.S. at least, some universities have a dedicated writing center for graduate students. Most writing centers , however, are set up to serve undergraduates and are often staffed by undergraduate tutors who have not done graduate-level work. In many writing centers, students work with a different tutor each time, but graduate students benefit greatly from having longitudinal access to a person who develops a cumulative familiarity with their project and learning style. In some cases, students are asked by their professors to get their work proofread at the writing center, only to find that the writing center has a “no proofing” policy. Writing centers are not always a useful resource to graduate students, especially those with special learning needs.

Myth 5: I’m not intimidating. Why wouldn’t a student feel comfortable talking to me about challenges they are having?

Regardless of how approachable you think you are, there’s a good chance that some students are more intimidated than you know. Your “approachability” involves a mysterious algorithm that includes your personality, your institutional power, and the student’s self-confidence and self-concept. Students have a strong drive to appear smart, prepared, and confident in front of their professors, and this can translate into avoidant behavior that ends up sabotaging their work. A student with a learning challenge may feel doubly hesitant to tell you anything that makes them appear less smart, capable, or confident. It may be easy to see an avoidant student as lazy or disorganized, but the reality may be that the student is hesitant to share unpolished ideas and products. Communicating that you are open to provisional thoughts and drafts can help assuage the intimidation factor.

I am not a learning specialist!

Perhaps you are not trained in working with neurodiverse learners, but I would argue that if you are supervising graduate students you are actually a specialist in the kind of learning that takes place in your field. You know enough about learning to recognize when a student is struggling or not making progress. Perhaps you have encountered

  • The student who overstays her welcome and misses the social cues that you are ready to wrap up and move on.
  • The student whose oral discourse is so convoluted that you cannot follow it.
  • The student whose writing is so convoluted that you cannot follow it. (The writing may betray a complete lack of awareness of a reader or, conversely, a hyper awareness of the reader. The problems with sentence structure may not fall into easily recognizable patterns and cannot easily be explained by grammar rules. In addition, these oddities cannot be explained by other factors such as language acquisition or poor academic preparation.)
  • The student who seems unable to regulate his own workflow and whose procrastination or failure to produce threatens his ability to remain in the program.
  • The student who “ghosts” out of the program—disappearing without actually withdrawing.

While none of these are diagnostic, they may be clues that a student is facing additional challenges that are worth investigating. In the end, it is less important to have a diagnosis or label than to meet students where they are and work with them to find the combination of accommodations, skill development, and resources that will allow them to complete.

Invite but don’t push disclosure. At the outset of working with an advisee on a thesis or dissertation, you might want to ask, “Are there any learning issues or life issues that would be useful for me to know about?” You may find that students say no at the time and then months or years later come back and say, “Actually, there is this issue . . . .” Or they may drop important information casually years into the process (“Oh yeah, by the way, I am dyslexic”), causing you to smack your head and wonder why they didn’t think it relevant to mention this earlier.

Strategies for helping neurodiverse students succeed

Question your intelligence. In academia we often have fairly definite ideas about what intelligence is, and we tend to define it through the lens of our own field. It can help to deconstruct our notions of intelligence long enough to remind ourselves and our students that intelligence coexists alongside all kinds of cognitive and mental health profiles. People with strong gifts in one area can have deficits in others and it’s unrealistic to expect every student to be entirely well rounded. It may be useful to see neurodiverse students as dealing with cognitive or other challenges that mediate their ability to express their intelligence. But it is probably just as important to understand that neurodiversity produces its own intellectual and cognitive gifts—some of which may be hard to recognize within the normative framework of academic intelligence. I frankly distrust the idea of intelligence as a blanket concept, and I urge you not to make the mistake, for example, of concluding that a student who has trouble expressing their ideas in writing is not intelligent.

Probably the most important thing to know is that for many neurodiverse students, insecurity about their learning abilities gets conflated with negative beliefs about their intelligence. By the time they reach grad school, many students have a lifetime of receiving negative messages about their educational performance, potential, and smarts. If you can do so sincerely, assure your student that you recognize their essential intelligence. Your expression of confidence may be more powerful than you know.

Watch, listen, and learn. Listen to learn. What are this student’s areas of strength and challenge? Does she express her thoughts fluidly in writing, but feel tongue-tied in your office? Is his lab work itself stellar while his lab reports are indecipherable? Reflect your observations in a neutral way and strategize about how to address challenges (“I notice that you’re great at . . . , but seem to have difficulty with . . . . Do you think it would help to . . . ?).

Use the oral process to give feedback on writing. As a writing coach, one of the things I see frequently is that students are overwhelmed by and don’t know how to process written feedback. Try using Jing to make short videos that give oral feedback. Use meeting time to go over your written feedback and ask students to respond and make edits in real time while you’re there. If you are explaining technical skills on the computer, use ScreenFlow or Camtasia to turn your sessions into videos that the student can revisit.

Allow students to voice record your meetings. You would be amazed at how little students retain from advising meetings. This is true even for neurotypical students, but for neurodiverse students, the cognitive work of trying to carry on an intelligent conversation and take detailed notes can be overwhelming. Advising meetings can get wonderfully abstract and heady. If you’re recording, you don’t have to worry about losing all that value. Ask the student to share the file with you. Or record it and share it with them.

Time is of the essence. I see it all the time: students who do fine during coursework but end up floundering once coursework ends. It is my impression that most people need external deadlines. For some neurodiverse students, the tasks associated with graduate work (especially reading and writing) simply take more time and offering more time is appropriate. But it’s also important to recognize that additional time does not solve procrastination or executive functioning issues. Serious procrastinators and students with executive functioning issues usually need more frequent deadlines and structure.

Be responsive. The most common complaint I hear from students is that they simply don’t get feedback in a reasonable amount of time. This leaves them in the difficult position of not being able to move forward with that section of their project, which often impacts other sections as well. A student recently told me that as he was unable to reach his professor by email or phone to see if she had read his work, he simply sat outside her office until she showed up. I suggest that when a student submits work, you confirm receipt, give them an estimate of when you will respond, and invite a polite query if they haven’t heard from you by X date.

Be honest but not ruthless. Make it your goal to give students a realistic assessment of their work. Sugarcoating your response because you know they have learning challenges ultimately does them a disservice, but so does forgetting to tell students what they are doing right. Sometimes students cannot distinguish the relative magnitude of minor corrections and major questions about their fundamental research question. You can help them distinguish by saying, “There are a lot of corrections here, but these are all small issues—the important thing is that your overall research concept is solid.” Whenever you can give honest validation, do so.

Bring compassion. Academia can be a tough place, especially for diverse students of any stripe. Sometimes students whose work is unremarkable or even subpar may have gone to extraordinary lengths to get it done at all. Keep in mind that there may be more to a situation than meets the eye.

Be aware of resources. Educate yourself about the resources on campus for neurodiverse students. These vary widely. Understand the kinds of accommodations you are legally required to provide. These are usually written for undergraduates and may be difficult to apply in a thesis or dissertation situation. Make intelligent referrals and be willing to give a personal introduction on behalf of the student, or even walk them across campus. Follow up with students to see if they have accessed resources.

Think outside the silos. One of the gaps I see, especially when it comes to writing, is that professors send their students to the writing center, but then have no awareness of what goes on there. The student shows up at the writing center and the writing consultant has no knowledge of what the professor is frustrated about beyond what the student can explain (which is sometimes limited). It may make sense to close this gap by opening up a line of communication between the advisor and the writing consultant. In my own work, I offer clients the opportunity for me to act as a nonvoting member of their thesis team—collaborating with faculty and acting as a resource for both. While this is not always desirable or possible (either because clients do not wish to disclose their issues or our work together—or because the faculty member is not open to it), where it does occur, the results are powerful. Students feel well supported and faculty feel that their feedback is being heard and absorbed.

When a student’s needs exceed your time or expertise

Advising is time and energy consuming and you want to feel like the time you spend giving feedback is actually productive. Yet there are times when a student’s need exceeds a single person’s capacity. Here are some of the things you may notice:

  • The student reintroduces serious errors even after you have edited her work. In other words, there is no integration of corrections and no improvement in her baseline writing skills.
  • The student needs more help talking through and conceptualizing his work than you can give.
  • The student doesn’t seem to hear your verbal feedback accurately—or know how to translate it into meaningful revision.
  • The student is avoidant and hesitant to show you anything.

When this happens, you might want to:

  • Refer the student to appropriate campus resources. If the student is working with the writing center, ask him to show you the work he does there.
  • Work especially closely with the rest of the student’s thesis committee. Be aware that the student may have trouble integrating multiple perspectives on her If possible, deliver a clear, consistent message about concrete changes that need to be made.
  • Suggest that the student work with a learning resource specialist or writing consultant. Occasionally departments will find money to support this kind of specialized work; more often the cost is borne by the student.

 Above all, continue to educate yourself and to expand the set of tools and resources you make available to students.

See Part 1 of this series: Hacking Graduate School for Neurodiverse Learners

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


Selected Literature on Thesis and Dissertation Advising 

 Altman, M. (2014). Mentors and tormentors. NWSA Journal, 19(3), 182–189.

Barnes, B. J., & Austin, A. E. (2009). The role of doctoral advisors: A look at advising from the advisor’s perspective. Innovative Higher Education, 33(5), 297–315.

Barnes, B. J., Williams, E. A., & Archer, S. A. (2010). Characteristics that matter most: Doctoral students’ perceptions of positive and negative advisor attributes. NACADA Journal, 30(1), 34–46.

Barnes, B. J., Williams, E. A., & Stassen, M. L. A. (2012). Dissecting doctoral advising: A comparison of students’ experiences across disciplines. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 36(3), 309–331.

Busch, J. W. (1985). Mentoring in graduate schools of education: Mentors’ perceptions. American Educational Research Journal, 22(2), 257–265.

De Janasz, S. C., & Sullivan, S. E. (2004). Multiple mentoring in academe: Developing the professorial network. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 64(2), 263–283.

Deuchar, R. (2008). Facilitator, director or critical friend?: Contradiction and congruence in doctoral supervision Styles. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(4), 489–500.

Griffin, K. A., Lunsford, L. G., Baker, V., & Johnson, W. B. (2013). Mentoring: A typology of costs for higher education faculty. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 21(2), 126–149.

Hilmer, M. J., & Hilmer, C. E. (2011). Is it where you go or who you know? On the relationship between students, Ph.D. program quality, dissertation advisor prominence, and early career publishing success. Economics of Education Review, 30(5), 991–996.

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2004). Driven to abstraction: doctoral supervision and writing pedagogies. Teaching in Higher Education, 9(2), 195–209.

Knox, S., Schlosser, L. Z., Pruitt, N. T., & Hill, C. E. (2006). A qualitative examination of graduate advising Relationships: The Advisor Perspective. The Counseling Psychologist, 34(4), 489–518.

Neumark, D., & Gardecki, R. (1998). Women helping women? Role model and mentoring effects on female Ph.D. Students in Economics. Journal of Human Resources, 33(1), 220–46.

Reybold, L. E., Brazer, S. D., Schrum, L., & Corda, K. W. (2012). The politics of dissertation advising: How early career women faculty negotiate access and participation. Innovative Higher Education, 37(3), 227–242.

Schlosser, L. Z., Knox, S. M. A. R., & Hill, C. E. (2003). A qualitative examination of graduate advising relationships: The Advisee Perspective. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 50(2), 178–188.

Schlosser, L. Z., Lyons, H. Z., Talleyrand, R. M., Kim, B. S. K., & Johnson, W. B. (2011). A multiculturally infused model of graduate advising relationships. Journal of Career Development, 38(1), 44–61.

Smith, C. A. J. (2006). Essential functions of academic advising: What students want and get. NACADA Journal, 26(1), 56–66.

Spillett, M. A., & Moisiewicz, K. A. (2004). Cheerleader, coach, counselor, critic: Support and challenge roles of the dissertation advisor. College Student Journal, 38(2), 246.

Waldeck, J. H., Orrego, V. O., Plax, T. G., & Kearney, P. (1997). Graduate student/faculty mentoring relationships: Who gets mentored, how it happens, and to what end. Communication Quarterly, 45(3), 93–109.

Zhao, C. M., Golde, C. M., & McCormick, A. C. (2007). More than a signature: How advisor choice and advisor behaviour affect doctoral student satisfaction. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 31(3), 263–281.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: