By Steven Flores
Broadly defined, neurodiversity refers to the range of differences in individual brain function and behavior regarded as part of the normal variation in human population. It is an umbrella term meant to encourage viewing a broad array of clinical diagnoses—from ADHD to Autism Spectrum Disorder to Dysgraphia—as part of the normal spectrum of neural anatomy and function. Recently, the term has become a buzzword in the education world as teachers seek to revise policies and procedures that have been more or less exclusionary to those students who were not seen as “neurotypical.”
In my eight years as an educator, I’ve had the enlightening experience of working with many neurodiverse learners, both in my current role at Galin Education and in my former roles as Writing Specialist and Academic Director at Mansfield Hall. Over that time, I’ve come to understand that certain adaptations go a long way in helping neurodiverse writers put their ideas down on paper. Just as an athletics coach would come up with modifications to optimize physical function, so should a writing coach invent modifications that optimize executive functions—time management, organization, attention, initiation, flexibility, emotions, and working memory.
In a prior post, I focused on attention, and in this post, I hope to focus on “getting started” (initiation) and “getting unstuck” (flexibility).
- Visual Structure: Many neurodiverse writers struggle with both perfectionism and interpreting ambiguity. When answering big, abstract questions like, Why do you want to attend our university? or Why do you want to study Engineering? or Share an essay on a topic of your choice. they tend to view the sea of possibilities as one whirlpool after another. A visual structure can help them chart a path.
With regard to “Why?” essays, we have developed a helpful Why? University Goal Sheets that scaffold the writing process from a series of bullet points into a first written attempt. This way students can work out the content without worrying about the phrasing. This is a godsend for rigid black-and-white thinkers for whom the perfect is often the enemy of the good.
With regard to the Personal Statement (Common App) essays, many students benefit from visual structures such as Freitag’s Triangle, commonly known as the plot triangle. I would recommend having students write different story points on physical or digital note cards that they can rearrange because often essays become more effective when events are ordered to produce the best dramatic effect.
- Get Ridiculous: This technique encourages students to think of what not to include in a college essay as a way to get to what should be included in a college essay. When tasked with describing what makes a good college essay, it is sometimes easier to put something ridiculous on the page, and then replace it with an edit. For instance, I once worked with a student who sat for a week—maybe two—on the question of why he wanted to go to St. Olaf. This was a 150-word essay in which the student had to say something very succinctly about the location campus, which was secluded in a wooded area about 40 miles from Minneapolis. By suggesting that the student was going to St. Olaf because he wanted to “commune with the animals of the forest during the day and go urban exploring in the gritty parts Minneapolis at night,” I was able to get the student to loosen up a little and move towards a legitimate articulation: As an environmental studies major, the student enjoyed being surrounded by nature. Yet, as a musician, foodie, and political junkie, he was excited by all the culture that the Twin Cities had to offer.
- Encourage Screen Time: Contrary to popular opinion, some students are very productive in virtual meetings. Writing is difficult for the most adept of us, but for a neurodiverse student who struggles with sensory integration and processing speed, the demands of writing face-to-face can lead to the student becoming frustrated and ultimately shutting down. A good pair of headphones can help block out distraction, and the mediation of a screen can mitigate uncomfortable social factors which discourage focus.
While virtual meetings can help, others do better still with asynchronous communication. Techniques such as commenting on a Google Doc or asking questions via text can be surprisingly productive. Because the student can answer in their own time, they are able to digest the question fully without having to do the extra work of interpreting non-verbals and tone of voice.
- Give Speech a Chance: Finally, it is worth noting that while some neurodiverse learners may struggle in getting a single word on the page, they can talk endlessly and eloquently about their topic. These students may benefit from specialized speech-to-text software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking or even the “Voice Typing” feature in Google Docs. Furthermore, I’ve found it immensely helpful to have students record brainstorms on Sonocent Audio Notetaker, and then reverse-engineer these conversations for a draft of an essay. Though specialized software ranges in price, free trials are often available. Furthermore, many universities supply such software for free to students with documented learning differences.
Finally, remember that humor, creativity and compassion go a long way in coaching neurodiverse writers. Breaks can also help bring fresh insight. Taken together, these techniques should help neurodiverse learners get their ideas down on the page. Moreover, they often prove helpful for any writer who needs a kickstart or a hand up.