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On October 9, 2020, the University of Connecticut kicked off its Neurodiversity Fall Discussion Series with an introduction from Shawn Smith, a neurodiversity initiative consultant. The series continued into the fall with three more discussions. The INCLUDE program at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering organized the series to spread awareness of the strengths that neurodiversity can bring. 

Neurodiversity, as defined by Merriam-Webster, describes a large range of people with differently functioning brains like those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and dyslexia. 

As of 2016, 9.4% of children or 6.1 million kids were diagnosed with ADHD and 1 in 54 kids were diagnosed with autism in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Robert Chapman, a philosophy research fellow at the University of Bristol, writes that the neurodiverse community rejects the idea that diagnoses like autism and ADHD are inherently disordered or a disruption. Instead, he said, society should look at these disorders as natural differences.

Caressa Wakeman, a second year Ph.D. student in UConn’s Civil and Environmental Engineering program who was present at the introduction with Smith, offered her thoughts on what neurodiversity means. 

“Being neurodiverse for me is a statement of empowerment because typically people who fall under different neurotypes, they’re typically seen as disabled, and I think using the word neurodiverse and neurodiversity makes it a little more normalized,” she said. 

Angela Lanning, another Ph.D. student in the same department who also attended the introduction, expressed how the term has affected her. 

“Having these conversations really helped me recognize myself as a whole individual and not just these things that frustrate me,” she said. 

UConn Civil and Environmental Engineering posted about the discussion series back September on their account, @uconncee.

The desire to adopt neurodiverse language primarily stems from the need to destigmatize dyslexia, autism and other neurotypes. Lanning described how her peers joked about other neurodiverse people in high school and in her undergraduate years. 

“I felt a lot more judged by my peers,” she said. “They would say mean things, not realizing that I have accommodations.”

Another facet of the stigma is media representation. An article in the journal “ETC: A Review of General Semantics” writes about how movies like “Rain Man” and “Mozart and the Whale” sugarcoat the struggles of people with autism and enforce unrealistically positive depictions of their lives. 

Representations of neurodiverse individuals like these not only spread unrealistic stereotypes, but also become the dominant models of what people think autism is like. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to autism. Wakeman talked about how the lack of representation of those with ADHD affected her childhood. 

“It never even crossed my mind that I had ADHD because what I had in my mind was a picture of a little boy misbehaving,” she said.  

These reasons spurred the creation of the INCLUDE program, a project that aims to accommodate different learning styles and ultimately cultivate innovation among neurodiverse engineers, as written on their website.

The changes that the INCLUDE program implements range from discussions that spread awareness about neurodiversity to changes in the curriculum. Connie Syharat, the project manager, elaborated more on these ideas. 

“It’s just making an overt statement to students that we’re aware of learning differences, that we’re aware that students have strengths that are not being used,” she said.

Going further, the project aims to change how courses are structured with something called I-Courses. Students enrolled in these courses can participate in early research and in a curriculum specifically geared toward different learning styles. The I-Courses will also feature an inclusion statement on every syllabus that specifies the class as being open-minded and accepting toward neurodiverse students. 

Syharat said she has a few more things in mind for the program like allowing students to have the option to choose between an oral exam, a written exam or a design-focused project. She also said that extending and normalizing accommodations like this can benefit everyone in the classroom setting. 

“One of our I-Course faculty did build in extended time on her exams, so she gave everybody 1.5 time,” she said. “If you build things in automatically, then people don’t have to ask for it and then they don’t have to feel stigmatized for it.”

Maria Chrysochoou, the department head of Civil and Environmental Engineering, agreed with the sentiment. 

“The idea behind the I-Courses is that eventually we want to get to a point…where every student has the ability to make choices on how to learn,” she said. “Every student has choices to learn and be assed within the course that plays to a student’s strengths…You can make the most out of the course and you do not need to go to [the Center for Students with Disabilities].”

Chrysochoou also said that she hopes to add more active and experiential learning opportunities to engage students more with engineering courses. Her goal is to take the INCLUDE program beyond the classroom. She discussed wanting to provide assistance to neurodiverse people in the workforce by providing career preparation, interview workshops and tips about how a person can best play to their strengths in the workplace. 

But neurodiverse individuals won’t be the only targets of the program. Chrysochoou said that employers have to be part of the process, too. She said it’s crucial to talk directly with employers about how to play to people’s strengths in a work environment. 

To learn more about the INCLUDE program and efforts to embrace neurodiversity at UConn, visit the program’s website.

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