How do neurodivergent conditions affect students?

Students’ brains develop and work differently and sometimes they need accommodations for their unique learning needs.

What does it mean to be neurodivergent?

Neurodivergent is a non-medical term used to describe how people behave, think and learn differently compared to those who are neurotypical. It seems straightforward, but the term aims to replace the idea that there’s a “right” or “normal” way of thinking and doing things, and that differences between people should not be seen as shortcomings.  

Neurodiversity acknowledges that everyone’s brain develops in a unique way and that we should find ways to support different kinds of learners. 

How is neurodivergence identified?

Many children get diagnosed with “neurodevelopmental disorders” if a parent, teacher, or caregiver notices that they’re struggling to keep up with schoolwork or meet expected developmental and educational milestones. 

A healthcare professional, like a doctor or psychologist, will use various screening and assessments to determine why a student is struggling, where their strengths are and the kind of support they need. 

It’s also common for youth, especially newcomers, to go undiagnosed and unsupported  for a long time. This can be because they’ve immigrated as older youth when signs of neurodivergence can be overlooked, because they may be from an educational system that doesn’t support neurodivergence, or some other reason.

Many students learn about neurodiversity as young adults in high school, college, and university and realize that it’s possible that they have one. If this is you, be your own advocate and seek the assessments and accommodations you need. 

What kinds of neurodivergence affect students? 

The most frequently diagnosed conditions among college and university students include

Learning Disabilities (LD)

Some signs and symptoms are: difficulty with communicating or understanding others, trouble reading or doing math, struggling to finish homework.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Some signs and symptoms are: difficulty controlling emotions, risky behaviour, negative moods, struggle focusing.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Some signs and symptoms are: repetitive or limited behaviour and interests, unique social and communication styles.

Additionally, learning can be affected by mental health, like anxiety and depression. Some signs and symptoms of anxiety are: worrying thoughts, difficulties doing things in public for fear of judgment, sensitivity to world issues. Some signs and symptoms of depression are: withdrawing from others, low energy, and low self-esteem.

How do I seek support for my neurodivergence as a student?

There are laws that protect every student from discrimination, for their disability. Students with disabilities are entitled to accommodations so that their neurodivergence does not negatively impact their access to education and full  participation in school.

If you’re in high school and you’re struggling in school, talk to your teacher or guidance counselor. Explain to them in detail about what issues you're having and ask about the possibility of you having one or more of these conditions, as they can frequently occur together.

You should also make an appointment with your family doctor because some assessments are covered under OHIP but need a referral to a developmental pediatrician. 

Full and part-time post-secondary students with disabilities can apply for bursaries and grants through OSAP to get financial support, service or equipment, or a Learning Disability Assessment. 

While in college or university, go to your school’s Accessibility Services (AS) centre. Every public post-secondary institution must have AS to provide the support students need.

To get formal accommodations, you also have responsibilities:

  • You must self-identify to AS staff
  • You must provide appropriate documentation of your disability (if you have it) to AS staff; and
  • You must follow your AS’s rules and guidelines

If you want to learn more about different types of neurodivergence that affect students, check out Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario.