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Neurodivergent students and alumni discuss accessibility, community on campus

<p>Pictured from left to right: Sam Brandsen, Jadyn Cleary, Alex Winn and Navya Adhikarla.</p>

Pictured from left to right: Sam Brandsen, Jadyn Cleary, Alex Winn and Navya Adhikarla.

In an effort to increase awareness and accessibility in the classroom, a panel of neurodiverse Duke students and alumni spoke to a full room of faculty members about their experiences accessing resources and accommodations on campus.

Senior Jadyn Cleary, who spoke on the Tuesday panel, discussed how organizations such as the Duke Disability Alliance and The Clubhouse served as integral communities throughout her four years at Duke, helping her cope with academic stress.

“That was a great resource for getting to meet other neurodiverse students on campus and getting to form a community with low pressure,” she said.

Alex Winn, Trinity ‘23, also described the neurodivergent community as a positive part of his experience at Duke. 

“I'm not alone at a lateral level,” he said. “I'm vertically supported by administration and so on, but also there's a community beginning to coalesce among the students.”

Requesting accommodations

Students can request accommodations through the Student Disability Access Office, which serves as the primary point of contact for students with disabilities seeking academic adjustments and services on campus. 

The accommodation request process involves submitting medical documentation online, which is then reviewed by SDAO staff. If approved, the student will be registered with an accessibility coordinator to discuss the necessary accommodation.

While Cleary was able to request accommodations and get involved with organizations on campus aimed to support neurodivergent students, she expressed concerns about the accessibility and knowledge of those resources, especially for first-year students. 

“I wished that during orientation we had learned a little more about the various resources and accommodations,” she said. “I didn't even have the vocabulary to know what I could look for.”

Navya Adhikarla, a second-year student in the Master of Engineering Management program, echoed Cleary’s thoughts, describing how finding information about accommodations was difficult as an international student. 

Adhikarla noted that she "knew nothing" about neurodivergence or resources available for neurodivergent students until a professor told her about available accommodations.

Adhikarla added that once she learned about the organizations supporting neurodivergent students, she found their resources extremely helpful and that the neurodivergent community on campus helped her come to a better understanding of her own identity. 

“I was just blown away because I wish I had this back in my old institution,” she said. “I didn't even know that this was possible and that I needed it.”

Cleary emphasized the need for more on-campus conversations to remove the "shame and the stigma" surrounding neurodivergence and help neurodivergent students "get the full experience and to learn and participate and engage in our classes."

Classroom experiences

All three students spoke about about the impact professors can have in making the classroom a comfortable space for neurodivergent students.

Sam Brandsen, a postdoctoral associate who moderated the panel, added that it was a mentor who initially helped him learn about and get access to accommodations as a doctoral student, even before he received a formal autism diagnosis.

“I really doubt I would have been able to complete my Ph.D. if the research group I worked for hadn't been so incredibly accommodating," he said.

Brandsen added that he didn't know that he was autistic when he entered Duke, and credited an instructor for noticing and providing him accommodations "automatically."

Adhikarla, who sometimes struggled with speaking up in class, said that one observant professor made all the difference for her.

“When I would walk into the classroom, she would say, ‘Hey, we want you to speak, we want you to participate because we like listening to you. I will give you the mic, and you can just read whatever information is there on the slide. That's all you need to do,’” she said. 

Brandsen also emphasized that allyship with neurodivergent students doesn’t always necessitate formal training. 

“I don't think this person had any specific focus on autism, but just a lot of kindness,” he said. “I guess curiosity about how we can adapt things for students can go a long way.”


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