Amber Nicole Wolfe had settled into a daily routine that worked well for her. She would go to her classes in American Sign Language at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado, then go to the American Sign Language lab to do her work. Then she would go home and relax.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed her routine, and most everyone's, for several months. And it doesn't look like things will go back to normal any time soon.
But for some students, routines are important. Wolfe has autism, and she relies on her routines to help manage some of the issues that come along with that. She has executive function issues, which means it's hard for her to get started on a task, and difficulties absorbing texts, which means relying on only one method of learning with just written instructions has been a struggle.
"I don't want to lose my momentum for school, because I moved here for this program," Wolfe said. "But it is going to be very hard [in the fall] and I'm going to have to create new routines for myself. Right now I created a makeshift routine, but I don’t like it."
Many students are working through issues and disabilities that are not very apparent. Some are neurodivergent, like Wolfe, and have to work harder to adjust to new situations and stressors.
"Neurodiversity is a paradigm that acknowledges and accepts different ways of thinking and acting. It’s a diversity and inclusion perspective applied to autism, ADHD, learning disabilities and other invisible disabilities," said Solvegi Shmulsky, a professor and director of the Center for Neurodiversity at Landmark College, a Vermont institution that specializes in serving students with learning disabilities. "For my students, autism, ADHD or dyslexia is often part of who they are, and they say they want to be accepted, not fixed."
When her students went online, they worried they would lose the support they needed, Shmulsky said. Since the switch, many of her students have reported activation -- or executive function -- issues.
"If you’re in your house, you don’t have the structure from your peers," she said. "And not everyone’s home is the kind of place that is going to be conducive for them to work on their studies."
Another issue she's heard about is how difficult it can be to understand complex concepts on a video call. It's harder for faculty to tell when students are having trouble in a virtual setting, as well.
This can all be upsetting emotionally, she said. Students who are neurodivergent learned how to deal with difficulties, like how they best study and how to advocate for themselves. Now all of their strategies have been shaken up.
Pros and Cons of Online Learning
Steven Vitt, a senior at Landmark College, has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and nonverbal learning disorder, or NVLD. He wasn't prepared for how much remote learning was going to impact him, he said.
"It’s a lot more difficult to stay in a routine. I had my routine and my days scheduled pretty well when I was on campus," Vitt said. "There was a lot of going to different parts of campus to do work, and now it’s a lot of sitting in the same place, looking at a computer."
It's more difficult to stay accountable in that setting, he said.
To deal with the stress, he's been turning to connections he made at college.
"One thing I think is important for neurodivergent students, of all ages, is to just remember in times like this when you feel really isolated, there’s a lot of people out there who recognize the challenges that you’re facing and how valid that is," he said. "That's one thing I've seen for friends I have at Landmark. It’s really important for us to connect with each other and have that support in knowing that we’re not alone in trying to finish up the semester and getting work done."
That's one way colleges can support neurodivergent students through this pandemic, Shmulsky said. She's heard from several students who say it's important to be with similar people. Online support groups for students who have autism or ADHD can be critical to lifting up students' spirits.
For some neurodivergent students, online learning is superior to its face-to-face counterpart.
"I definitely prefer online classes. You get to control the environment," said Emma Irvine, a junior at the online Western Governors University who previously earned an associate degree at a brick-and-mortar institution. "In a class you’re surrounded by a bunch of people, and there could be distractions going on. When you’re online, you get to choose where you learn and where you study, and you don’t have to worry about getting to class on time."
Irvine has ADHD as well as fibromyalgia, a condition that causes pain all over the body. She's glad to be at an online institution because she has more time to get things done and more flexibility for her disabilities, she said.
She has experienced a fair amount of issues due to the pandemic, though. Her fibromyalgia symptoms have flared up in recent weeks due to stress.
If someone touches her on the back, for example, she'll feel a lot of pain. And her disorder also causes memory issues.
"With fibromyalgia, I will forget certain words," she said. "I forgot the word 'medication' today."
Concerns for Support and Retention
To help these students succeed online, faculty can use universal design when setting up courses, Shmulsky said. Institutions can make sure students have access to text readers and keep up online support for tutoring and reading assistance.
At Landmark, Vitt and other students said access to advisers and faculty had helped ease the stress from the transition. He meets with Shmulsky, his adviser, nearly every day to plan out his tasks and talk through problems.
There is some concern that the quick move to remote learning will let supportive infrastructure at institutions slide, said Meg Grigal, co-director of Think College at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
"Right now colleges are still in that place where they don’t know what to expect," she said. "I think they’re doing their best, but it’s also going to be incumbent upon students to ensure that, if their needs aren’t being met, it’s documented and shared. It’s harder to hold people accountable when no one’s in the same space."
Retention and enrollment for students with hidden disabilities will be another problem, Grigal said.
"Thinking about going to college is hard enough for a young person," she said. If students also need certain supports but can't visit colleges to see what they have, it could make them change their mind about enrolling.
Because many students, not just those who need extra support, are reconsidering enrollment, colleges are facing unprecedented financial challenges, she said. So there will be fewer funds for the resources and support neurodivergent and other students need.
"There are so many challenges to college access … It’s already a very heavy lift" for neurodivergent students and those with disabilities, Grigal said. "Adding this additional piece of, you’re going to do all that work but not be on a campus -- it could be hard to see that as a good use of their time."