Providing Safe and Inclusive Learning Environments for Neurodivergent Students Aligned with Equity and IDEAA in the California Community Colleges

East Los Angeles College
East Los Angeles College

As librarians, we have experienced countless interactions in which another student reports another student’s behavior as being distracting, disruptive, erratic, or even violent; however, this is rarely the case. More often than not, these perceived strange behaviors instead stem from symptoms that fall under the spectrum of neurodiversity. The student might be stimming–short for self-stimulating–in which a person uses repetitive or seemingly unusual movements or noises to manage emotions or overwhelming situations, commonly associated with autism.[1] The student could be standing up around their workspace, pacing or otherwise restless; this kind of fidgeting is a common way that enables students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to better concentrate on their work.[2] While these behaviors are often interpreted as disruptive or strange–associated in overwhelmingly negative terms–students engage in these behaviors to help regulate their emotions and environment to aid in and enhance their learning environments.

Neurodiversity is a term used to convey the rich diversity in how people experience and interact with the world.[3] Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that often includes, but is not limited to,

  • Autism (ASD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Dyscalculia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Tourette’s Syndrome
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

While these conditions have often been associated as deficits, neurodiversity celebrates the diversity in how people think, learn, and behave. As the ASCCC builds on its definition and understanding of IDEAA–Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Antiracism, and Accessibility–faculty ought to consider the nuances of neurodiversity in our respective community colleges. While there is limited data around the demographics associated with neurodiversity, there is some indication that the number of enrolled neurodivergent community college students is quite significant. With respect to ASD, a 2011 United States Department of Education report found that 32.6% of students who identified as having autism had attended community college within the six years post-secondary education, while other studies have purported these numbers to be as high as 81.33%.[4] Regardless, the faculty of the California Community Colleges must consider neurodiversity as we continue our IDEAA work.

What does this mean in the classroom? Faculty can model IDEAA and understanding of neurodiversity in several ways:

  • Accommodate sensory needs, which may include adjusting the settings of the lights; having a fragrance-free policy in your classroom or campus; communicating anticipated loud noises (e.g., fire drills); allowing the use of headphones during independent work time; for online synchronous classes, as best as possible, ensuring audio input quality is clear and free of feedback, background noise, etc.
  • Allow the use of fidget toys, flexible seating, and the ability to stand and move during class.
  • Clearly communicate verbal and written instructions for tasks and break down tasks and assignments into smaller steps,
  • Have structured course schedules and course design; give students advanced notice for a change in the regular schedule.
  • Use direct language and avoid sarcasm or implied messages.
  • Do not assume a student is intentionally being disruptive or rude; check in with the student to seek clarification and understanding.
  • Ask students what their individual preferences and needs are to be successful in your classroom or learning space.

While students may have an official disability accommodation related to a neurodivergent condition, faculty ought to still be aware of how to identify and create inclusive learning environments outside of formal accommodations for their students. Moreover, not all neurodivergent students will have an official diagnosis or be enrolled with campus disability student services. In a 2013 study of over 17,000 children in the United States, Black children were 69% less likely and Latinx children 50% less likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis than their white counterparts. [5] Similarly, girls are underdiagnosed with autism and often must exhibit more behavioral problems or significant intellectual disability to receive an official diagnosis as compared to how boys are diagnosed. [6] Therefore, we must recognize that having an official diagnosis to merit a college disability accommodation is a privilege that not all of our students have. Modeling inclusive teaching and providing accommodating learning spaces can also help other students develop their own sensitivity and awareness of inclusive everyday practices.

While neurodiversity has real implications for teaching and student services, there are far more dangerous outcomes for misunderstanding neurodiversity than missed learning opportunities and accommodating learning spaces. Last year, on March 31, 2021, in Cudahy, California, an unarmed, Deaf, and autistic[7] man, Isaias Cervantes, had a mental health episode, which prompted his sister to call 911 and ended with Cervantes shot inside of his family’s home with a permanent spinal cord injury that has left him paralyzed.[8] While Cervantes had initially been calm when officers arrived and his therapist had informed deputies that he did not pose a threat, the deputies ultimately ended up using physical force with one deputy kneeling on Cervantes’s body and shooting him in the back.[9] As a Los Angeles Times editorial stated,

Cervantes’ story is horrifying but unfortunately not unique. Families doing their best to care for loved ones with special needs or who process information differently than the majority of people must on occasion seek emergency help… Sometimes, instead of the help and expertise they expected, they get officers who escalate rather than calm the situation. They get excessive and unnecessary force, injury and death.[10]

The Los Angeles Community College District contracts the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) to provide campus safety, the same LASD that had been called to help Isaias Cervantes in a time of crisis that merited understanding and empathy. As library faculty, we are very cognizant of the potential implications of calling campus sheriffs to the library for perceived behavioral issues and threats. While there are many conversations and trainings in the community colleges around diversity in relation to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, and physical disability, there are far fewer dedicated to understanding neurodiversity. Again, modeling inclusive teaching and providing accommodating learning spaces are not only considerations for neurodivergent students but helps other students understand the spectrum of neurodiversity and how to be inclusive in their everyday lives, whether on our college campuses or out in our respective communities. As community colleges educating and training students to enter the workforce it is essential to provide an understanding of neurodiversity for those entering any professional environment, whether it is education, administration of justice and public safety, social services, or any other field.

So, where do we go from here? At East Los Angeles College, the authors have recently facilitated a campus workshop to introduce neurodiversity to reach a shared understanding of what it is and how this applies to our teaching and student services. It is clear that faculty still need guidance and support for understanding and accommodating neurodiversity and that faculty genuinely want to be able to provide such support to their students. When using the IDEAA framework in our faculty work, we hope that neurodiversity is included in this work.

1. Raising Children Network. (2020, November 11). Stimming: Autistic children and teenagers.
2. Terada, Y. (2018, June 28). 17 ways to help students with ADHD concentrate. Edutopia.
3. Baumer, N., & Frueh, J. (2021, November 23). What is neurodiversity? Harvard Health.
4. Highlen, D. (2017, July 3). Helping students with autism spectrum disorder at the community college: What does the research say? what can you do? Community College Journal of Research and Practice 41(7),447–54.
5. Frye, D. (2017, January 18). The children left behind. ADDitude [blog].
6. Szalavitz, M. (2016, March 1). Autism–it’s different in girls. Scientific American.
7. There is debate about appropriate terminology with some advocating for person-first language (e.g., “person with autism”), while others advocate for identity-first language (e.g., “autistic person”). In the spirit of inclusivity and appreciating neurodiversity, the authors use the latter, as many self-advocates and allies view autism as a part of one’s identity, not to be condemned or viewed as a deficit condition.
8. Los Angeles Times. (2022, January 9). Editorial: Deputies shot an autistic man, then the justice system terrorized him. There’s a better way.
9. Disability Rights California. (2022, January 4). Disability rights groups submit letter to LA county district attorney urging dismissal of all charges with prejudice against Isaias Cervantes. [Online letter].
10. Los Angeles Times. (2022, January 9). Editorial: Deputies shot an autistic man, then the justice system terrorized him.
There’s a better way.