“In our conversations around [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion], the same topics, understandably, often bubble up to the top,” Laura Murray, assistant director for learning programs at the McGraw Center, said to a group of 20 undergraduates, graduate students, and staff. “But there are many other identities that we need to include in those conversations, one of which is neurodiversity.”
The Princeton University Neurodiversity Collective (PUNC) presented the aims of the neurodiversity movement — an “emerging civil rights movement” — and prompted attendees to imagine a more inclusive campus in the Wintersession workshop “Neurodiversity in Academia” on Jan. 19.
The term “neurodivergent,” coined in the 1990s, refers to individuals whose neurocognitive functioning is not considered typical by dominant societal standards. The PUNC defines neurodivergence as “having a mind that functions in ways that diverge significantly from dominant societal standards of ‘normal’ (examples: autism, ADHD, dyslexia, mood and anxiety disorders).”
Through the workshop, PUNC sought to open conversations and increase visibility of the barriers facing neurodivergent individuals.
Reflecting the “infinite variation in human minds,” neurodivergence can be considered a natural form of human diversity subject to similar social dynamics as race or gender, workshop organizer Sashank Pisupati told attendees.
“There is no single ‘normal’ or ‘right’ style of neurocognitive functioning,” Pisupati, a researcher at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, said. “This is meant to contrast the ‘pathology paradigm,’ the notion that if your particular way diverges from the dominant social norm, there's something wrong with you.”
The pathology paradigm, long reinforced by academic work in psychiatry, has resulted in “grave harms” — such as the eugenics movement, shock therapy, and wrongful incarcerations — against neurodivergent people throughout history, Pisupati explained. Anti-psychiatry activism emerged in the 1960s and evolved alongside the broader disability rights movement in the 70s and 80s.
“The neurodiversity movement is only the latest version of a long-standing struggle toward civil rights and societal inclusion,” Pisupati said.
Despite gains for accessibility with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 which led to the creation of the Office of Disability Services (ODS) at the University in 2006, neurodivergent students still face barriers to inclusion, Murray told attendees. Several speakers emphasized that enduring stigma, requirements for medical documentation, and the limited scope of institutional accommodations prevent some students from receiving support.
“If, as a student, you want to access academic accommodations, you need to self-identify and go over to the Office of Disability Services and disclose,” Murray said. “That can be anxiety-inducing and tricky and complicated for people.”
ODS allows students to make appointments and accommodation requests on its website.
She also noted that official accommodations tend to address classroom instruction and test-taking, doing less to help graduate students immersed in full-time research.
Attendees participated in a “divergent groupthink” activity to brainstorm ideas to increase inclusion, using a shared document to free-write about stigma, disclosure, allyship, and accommodations.
Several comments shared during the activity focused on the need to correct misconceptions about neurodivergence.
“What I hear often is, ‘Oh, we don’t need to provide our 4.00 GPA students with accommodations,’” one participant wrote, alluding to the idea that since many neurodivergent individuals are high achievers, they don’t need accomodations.
“How much more could they accomplish with the tools or accommodations needed?” another responded.
Others urged instructors to implement Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in their course curricula, which would increase accessibility without requiring students to seek out official accommodations.
UDL is an educational framework that prioritizes flexibility for all students to learn and demonstrate mastery of content, Murray explained in the workshop. Under this framework, professors might allow students to participate by submitting written reflections after class. Professors could also offer asynchronous modules in addition to live instruction.
“Despite tools like UDL, which have been validated and tested over time, a lot of instructors don't know about them,” Murray said, “and are not necessarily using evidence-based, inclusive teaching practices.”
Beyond proposing changes at the institutional level, the workshop also spotlighted personal experiences with a panel of researchers. The panel included Prakriti Paul Chacha, a graduate student in computational biology at Princeton, Carla Rodríguez Deliz, a graduate student in neuroscience at New York University, and Kirsten Smith, a fellow at the National Institutes of Health.
When asked about the intersection of research and advocacy, Rodríguez Deliz discussed their approach to challenging the pathologizing frameworks in neuroscience that aim to “solve” or “cure” certain conditions.
They acknowledged it can be difficult to shift the way academic research approaches neurodiversity.
“You can't come in on your soapbox and try to tell [experts] how to do [their] work,” they said. “All you can do is speak up when you feel like speaking up — when you feel like it's right — and find connections with people who want to take action, because the space is out there.”
Outside of research, Chacha underscored the value of developing relationships and fellow PUNC members.
“We are asking each other, ‘what are the common struggles we face? How might we want those things to be addressed?” Chacha, who identifies as neurodivergent, said. “That gave me the confidence to advocate for what I needed.”
In 2019, Murray connected a small group of neurodivergent students who expressed interest in meeting others, which led to the formation of PUNC.The group has since expanded across the University, holding regular meetings, workshops, and a book club.
“I attended this workshop to gain a sense of solidarity with other neurodivergent folks on campus,” Gabby Chavarria ’26 wrote to The Daily Princetonian. “I found that students, faculty, and so many others all have a yearning to center ways of learning that support neurodiversity.”
Workshop organizer Laura Bustamante GS ’22 is also optimistic about the potential for higher education to better support neurodiversity more broadly. Bustamante also works on the Graduate Mental Health Initiative, which is led by graduate student Mira Nencheva. Nencheva was also a part of the team that planned “Neurodiversity in Academia.”
“There were many times when we said [to administrators], “Oh, can you change this?” Bustamante said. “And yes, they're changing. It can be slow, but the goodwill is there. Princeton is capable of taking up this charge.”
Molly Taylor is an Assistant Features Editor for the ‘Prince.’
Please direct corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.