Neurodiversity in higher education

Ferris’ approach to supporting students with autism

To celebrate the diverse minds on campus, Ferris welcomed special education expert Amy Rutherford to speak about the psychology of autistic students.

Rutherford works with autistic students at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. She is the director of the campus mosaic program that supports “autistic degree-seeking students as they transition into college.” The speech was designed to help Ferris professors and faculty understand the neurodivergent mind and accommodate students who may have special needs.

“Neurodiversity is not an opinion or political position,” Rutherford said. “It is a scientific fact just like biodiversity. More and more students are coming to our campuses that have different learning preferences. If we don’t change our addressing of these students, I think we’re missing a future full of really great minds.”

The workshop included a presentation that showed what it is like to be an autistic college student. The presentation demonstrated how tone and meaning can be lost on neurodivergent students.

Director of accessibility and disability services Julie Alexander mentions Ferris’ founder, Woodbridge Ferris, wanting an “education for all people” and how that includes “people who think and learn differently.”

“Thinking about these people is essential to being the type of campus that we want to be,” Alexander said. A prevalent point of Rutherford’s speech was that accommodating students with cognitive and social disabilities is just as important as accommodating students with physical disabilities, such as having ramps for wheelchair users.

What this looks like is unique to the individual student. Associate Dean of the College of Arts, Science and Education Trinity Williams “appreciated learning” from sitting in on Rutherford’s speech. The workshop helped her learn how to support all of her students.

“I reflected on times I was teaching,” Williams said. “It’s unfortunate that I’m learning it just now. I wish I had known it before… We’re trying to figure out a way of spreading knowledge and appreciation, trying to inspire curiosity and respect and a willingness to learn. This is our first step, and we hope to continue.”

As it was for Williams, Rutherford hopes the presentation is beneficial in teaching others how to take stress away from an autistic student, the professor and the rest of the students in the room.