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An illustration of brains of different colors with different patterns inside them, such as puzzle pieces, numbers or flowers, to represent neurodiversity.

New legislation in Illinois calls on colleges and universities to appreciate the contributions of their neurodiverse students.

Iryna Spodarenko/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The Illinois General Assembly recently passed a resolution encouraging colleges and universities to recognize the strengths of neurodiverse students and employees and better accommodate their needs. It also calls on these institutions to adopt an inclusion statement that “embraces the fact that every student is different and should be encouraged to reach their full potential.”

Governor J. B. Pritzker signed the bill into law last month, making it the first statewide legislation of its kind, according to state lawmakers.

The move came after lobbying efforts from the Illinois Community College Trustees Association, an advocacy organization representing the state’s community colleges. The association adopted a neurodiversity inclusion statement of its own last year that says neurodiversity among students, faculty and staff members, trustees, and administrators is not only welcome but “critical to enhancing the educational experience for our students and providing for a more inclusive learning and operating environment, providing public benefits for our communities.”

The terms “neurodiverse” and “neurodivergent” encompass those with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, among other kinds of atypical neurological functioning.

“There are so many really talented people that get sidelined because there’s this misunderstanding of different types of cognitive strengths,” said Maureen Dunne, president of the Illinois Community College Trustees Association, who has written articles and has forthcoming books on the topic of neurodiversity. “There are a lot of people, and I’d put myself in this box, who are really strong nonlinear thinkers, but a lot of our institutions have been built by linear thinkers for linear thinkers.”

Dunne has multiple personal and professional connections to the issue. She and her husband, who has ADHD, have a neurodivergent son and have cared for foster children on the autism spectrum. Her doctoral dissertation was also focused on neurodiversity.

“This has been my whole life, pretty much,” she said. “I was working on these issues way before it really was in the papers and a bigger part of the public conversation.”

She noted that the majority of students with autism, approximately 80 percent, start at community colleges, so it’s natural that community college leaders would be the ones spearheading efforts toward greater inclusion. She said some neurodiverse students are attracted to community colleges because of their “open-door” mission or prefer them because they’re local institutions and closer to home, given the new sensory and social demands of college life.

Meanwhile, neurodiverse adults are unemployed at “unacceptably high” rates at a time when there are labor shortages across the country, Dunne said. They are estimated to be at least seven times more likely to be unemployed compared to the national average unemployment rate. A 2011 study from the National Center for Special Education Research also showed that 38.8 percent of students with autism graduated from college within eight years of graduating from high school. The national six-year college completion rate is about 62 percent, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data.

“Community colleges in particular are well positioned to connect the dots between this sense of belonging, between helping students find their passions and lifelong learning and upskilling and reskilling,” Dunne added. “I’m hoping … by getting this thinking about neurodiversity through a strength-based lens on people’s minds that it actually also opens up real economic opportunities for these talented individuals who are really an untapped resource.”

She believes the legislation, and the neurodiversity inclusion statements colleges adopt as a result, will be a “starting point” for higher ed leaders to start thinking about instituting policies and practices that help neurodiverse students thrive, whether that’s creating a “quiet room” for students with sensory sensitivities to take breaks or offering multiple assessment options, beyond traditional essays and exams, so learners can demonstrate their knowledge and strengths in different ways. She also hopes other states adopt similar legislation.

The legislation comes at a time when lawmakers in other states, such as Texas and Florida, are looking to limit or ban diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in public higher education.

Dunne noted that the idea that neurodiversity inclusion is a part of DEI work is relatively new. She highlighted that roughly 20 percent of the global population is neurodiverse, so many people, including state policy makers, have a personal stake in it.

“The political climate right now, there’s so much division," Dunne said. “I’m hoping actually that talking about neurodiversity, that it brings down the temperature a little bit because it is an issue too that affects everyone, across all political lines. We’re talking 20 percent of the world population, and all those people have their family, their parents and their siblings. It’s a large number of people in the United States that have a connection in one way or another to neurodiversity.”

Bradley Cox, founder and senior advisor of the College Autism Network, praised the legislation for focusing on the positive contributions neurodiverse students make to campuses, challenging “old-school assumptions” about them within K-12 schools and universities.

He also emphasized that the legislation throws the weight of state lawmakers behind campus efforts to better serve these students, and that it can have a real effect on whether these targeted initiatives get off the ground.

“Legislative statements codify a lot of the things that we as a society value or embrace,” said Cox, who is also an associate professor in the educational administration department at Michigan State University. The legislation signals that “this is an issue of public importance that extends well beyond the specific institutions that are involved with it.

“A lot of times when institutions are trying support initiatives like this, there are going to be people who are questioning whether and why resources are dedicated to certain activities,” he added. “Efforts to support neurodiversity on campus are no longer dependent on the goodwill and the agreement of the stakeholders within the institution. It is a matter of compliance with and alignment with a state-level legislative directive.”

It’s unclear how many neurodivergent college students there are, given a lack of comprehensive data, but their numbers seem to be growing. Cox estimates there are between 50,000 and 167,000 students with autism enrolled nationwide, and that’s only a slice of the neurodivergent population.

The number of children diagnosed with conditions that qualify as neurodivergent has increased over the last two decades, so “those kids are now growing up to be traditional college age,” he said. “These students are making up a larger and larger percentage of college students. That’s going to continue for the near future.”

He believes the legislation reflects a growing awareness that “these students are recognized as a population worth our specific attention.”

Cox highlighted a number of ways campuses can support these students, including making sure facilities don’t have flickering lights, loud air-conditioning systems or other overt distractions for students hypersensitive to their environments. He also recommended campuses diversify and, ideally, individually tailor accommodations offered through their disability services offices to students’ needs beyond the “relatively small handful” of options usually provided, such as extended times on tests. For example, some students could benefit from voice-to-text software to write essays, while others might value extra guidance on dividing up large assignments into smaller chunks with set timelines, he said.

Representative Terra Costa Howard, the chief sponsor of the bill, said when she spoke to other state lawmakers about the legislation, they were surprised it didn’t already exist.

“My hope is to see this move into a more powerful piece of legislation requiring our state universities and colleges to not only adopt this, but I want to know, what are they doing to promote this within their institutions? That would be the next step.”

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