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Students form new caucus to give voice, support to neurodivergent experiences

Students at the School of Social Work who identify as neurodivergent now have a space to share their experiences and advocate for each other. Over the spring, a group of students organized the Neurodiversity Student Caucus to build visibility, safety, support and awareness for the community of individuals with a range of neurological differences, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and Tourette Syndrome.

Such visibility is especially needed within the field of social work, said Caroline Garrett, caucus co-chair and a student in the School’s Advanced Standing Program.

“I think there’s a lack of awareness in the field about neurodivergent people as colleagues, rather than as clients,” Garrett said. “There’s a lot of focus on neurodivergent people going into STEM fields and not a lot of other fields.”

This lack of understanding is largely based on stereotypes and myths about how individuals with neurodiversities interact and learn, especially people with autism, added Molly Marus, caucus co-chair and a student in the Triangle Distance Education Program.

“I think there are a lot of ideas that people who are autistic or who have ADHD are not in the helping sciences because they’re not interested in helping people or able to help in the way that social work would require,” she said. “So, one of our goals is to build awareness that these differences exist and benefit the field. Just because we may not look like what you would expect someone with a neurodivergency to look like doesn’t mean we’re not present.”

The Neurodiversity Student Caucus, which is open to anyone, has drawn quite a bit of interest from a wide range of students within the School, including those who plan to work with neurodivergent youth and adults, said clinical assistant professor Sherry Mergner, caucus faculty advisor. Mergner, who also serves on the clinical faculty at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disorders, developed and led a course last year on ASD and has been helping caucus members think through ideas for making the School more inclusive and faculty more aware of student needs.

Mergner, who has a teenage son with autism, has spent the last decade helping to educate students and practitioners in the field on the prevalence of people who are neurodivergent.

“My hope is that through this group, students will teach our School community that neurodiversity is just as legitimate as any other difference,” she said. “Individuals who are neurodivergent, while they may appear neurotypical on the outside, they may be struggling with challenges on the inside because their brains are designed differently. These differences might include sensory challenges and social communication challenges or emotional regulation and executive functioning issues.”

For Garrett, who identifies as autistic, part of this education involves helping the School community recognize, for example, how florescent lighting in a building or classroom might be troublesome for neurodivergent students. Other students like Marus, who has ADHD, often use activities, such as crocheting, to help maintain better attention, especially in class.

Getting faculty to recognize students with these differences can be as simple as including a statement in their syllabi that acknowledges flexibility around the classroom environment, Marus explained.

“Then, at the beginning of the semester, students don’t have to ask, ‘Can you turn these lights off,” she said. “Or they don’t have to explain why they use a fidget or crochet in class, because a professor has already acknowledged that they’re willing to accommodate students with these needs.”

Infusing disability education into the curriculum is also key, Mergner added. “Neurodiversity is often not discussed in our classes,” she said. “So, we need to keep thinking about how we can improve our School and make it inclusive and accessible for all.”

Over the last few months, caucus members have been busy organizing and trying to better understand what members want from the group. The caucus is also working on other activities for the remainder of the academic year, including potentially establishing a space in the School building that is sensory friendly.

Caucus members are also excited about two opportunities for the School community to learn more about neurodiversities. On Oct. 29, the School’s Focus on Family and Disability Seminar Series will host the presentation “Neurodiversity and post-secondary students with autism spectrum disorders.” Next month, the series will also host a panel discussion on “Non-stereotypical presentations of neurodiversity.” The discussion will focus on understanding the diagnosis and experiences of neurodiversity in people of color, females, and individuals who are LGBTQ+. Garrett, Marus and Natalie Hollister, a second year MSW student in the School’s full-time program, are among those participating on the panel.

Hollister, who identifies as autistic, also helped organize the caucus and understands the challenges of being neurodivergent and a student enrolled in a graduate program. Having peers who can share their experiences and allies who can support them is important, Hollister added.

“This caucus gives neurodivergent students a chance to connect with people who may share similar struggles, and together we can share the burden of advocating for ourselves,” Hollister said. “Quite frankly, we would not have the energy or the momentum to do much of this alone. We truly accomplish more when we are united.”

More information on the Focus on Family and Disability Seminar Series.