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Sunday, November 28, 2021
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Neurodiverse students hope new grant expands to more majors

National Science Foundation grant currently only extends to computer science department

UB’s Office of Accessibility Resources provides neurodiverse students, among others, with the resources they need to be successful.
UB’s Office of Accessibility Resources provides neurodiverse students, among others, with the resources they need to be successful.

Last month, UB received a $293,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to build micro-training courses for computer science faculty. But while neurodiverse students in other majors say they support the initiative, some wish the program would extend to them as well.

“[The micro-credentialing] is such an awesome program,” Ali LeCroy, a junior political science major who identifies as neurodivergent, said. “While I am glad it’s available to the [computer science] department, I find STEM departments tend to get more resources as a whole. I wish these things could be available to all professors and benefit all students.”

The NSF grant aims to support students studying computer science by teaching faculty in this field how to tailor their lessons toward neurodiverse students. But the two-year grant is limited to computer science, which has raised questions about why students in other fields don’t have access to the same program. UB’s Office of Accessibility Resources does not keep track of how many neurodivergent students attend the university because it doesn’t “want to group them into a category they may feel uncomfortable identifying with,” Interim Director for Accessibility Resources Kristy Harte told The Spectrum in an email. It’s also unclear how many neurodiverse students there are nationally.

Neurodiverse students include those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD and other behavioral and learning disabilities.

LeCroy and Neyda Colón-DiMaria, a fourth-year communications major, say they would both like to see this grant expanded to other majors and programs.

“Yes!” LeCroy emphatically said when asked if she supports expanding the program.

“I think all professors should have to go through this training — it could help make classrooms [more] inclusive,” Colón-DiMaria said.

Sam Abramovich, associate professor of learning and instruction and information science in the Graduate School of Education, is the NSF grant’s principal investigator. He says there are plans in place to expand the neurodiversity training to the rest of the university.

“We view this grant as the first step in research and education design that can support neurodiverse students across the entire university. Some of the long-term goals are to create professional development for all UB faculty and then expand this to other faculty at two-year and four-year institutions. The current grant timeline is two years, and at the end, we hope to have a collection of resources and learning materials that will be open source and available to all for any purpose. We also expect to be applying for future grants to explain and scale this effort to include all types of neurodiversity, as well [as] place even more effort on issues of equity and justice (where the needs of neurodiverse people are often ignored).” 

UB’s Office of Accessibility Resources helps these students with their specific needs. It provides neurodiverse students, among others, with the resources they need to be successful. The office also offers resources like extra time on tests, peer note-taking, snow removal and facilitating housing for physical handicaps.

Harte says her office respects students’ identities, but that “neurodiverse” is a “broad category.”

“Neurodivergent is a broad category that represents multiple diagnoses,” Harte said in a statement to The Spectrum. “We respect the student identity of being neurodivergent but for the purpose of accommodations, we look at the exact diagnosis. The diagnosis and the student experience with being neurodivergent in an academic setting is the foundation of how we approach a student’s request.”

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The $293,000 grant from the National Science Foundation is currently for computer science faculty only.

Harte also explained that two students seeking accommodations for the same diagnosis may end up needing different resources.

“All accommodations are done on an individual basis,” Harte said. “Even students with the same disability may not have the same accommodations. We take into account their doctor’s (and other professionals working with the student) reports but we place much of our attention listening to the student’s past and present academic experience and barriers that they identify. By doing so we are responding to that particular student’s experiences and needs.”

Colón-DiMaria says she was recently diagnosed with ADHD and identifies as neurodivergent. She began using Accessibility Resources to make appropriate accommodations for herself at the beginning of the semester and has been happy with their help so far.  

“The people were all very kind and making the appointment was easy,” Colón-DiMaria said. “I had an hour-long Zoom call with [the person] who leads the office. She made it clear the office was there to help me succeed and that the resources I can access can change all depending on my needs. But that’s up to me. I just need to let the office know what I need. 

“I was, however, a bit unclear about how to send my professors the accommodation memo and did not realize I had to schedule exams to take in Accessibility Resources until the day I had an exam and walked into the office. They were very kind and got my stuff together quickly so I was still able to take the exam.”

In order to graduate with a degree in communication, Colón-DiMaria must complete a computer science course — either CSE 111 or CSE 115. But she says she felt that her computer science professor wasn’t equipped for her learning style.

“I’m a communication major and we had to take a computer science class; I dropped it

with plans for retaking it at community college because despite reaching out for help, the professors were not helpful and, honestly, cold,” Colón-DiMaria said. “They gave me tips that may be good for a neurotypical student [but] it just made me feel dumb.”

LeCroy expressed similar frustrations with being a neurodivergent student. She says she feels that her diagnosis can negatively impact her performance in school despite the university’s resources.

“I use Accessibility Resources for my ADHD,” LeCroy said. “I would say the most difficult part about doing school with ADHD for me would be the executive dysfunction. My inability to focus does hinder my test-taking skills, so I receive extra time for that through [Accessibility Resources], and I get to take my exam in their facility which helps a lot. I have really appreciated getting to use that space. However, in terms of my executive dysfunction, which arguably causes more problems for me, I don’t really have a way to work through that with the support of the school. I don’t know how to express it without it just seeming like I’m lazy (which is SO not the case, I am an aggressive try hard) but I find that having the papers from Accessibility Resources makes me feel like my professors will be more inclined to be understanding of me. I weirdly have a lot of guilt about using my resources, which is something I am working on. Even though I know that I need them, I still feel guilty about it.”

Executive function is the ability to accomplish goal-oriented behaviors, according to a paper on the National Institute of Health’s website. Executive dysfunction occurs when there is a lapse in those behaviors.

LeCroy has access to these resources, but she still wishes they could be as comprehensive as similar programs across campus.

“Something wild I found out about is the resources given to some student-athletes, particularly on our Division 1 teams,” LeCroy said. “They receive a special coordinator to help them with all their classes and keep them on track. I think about how helpful that would’ve been to me, and the fact that it is only for student-athletes is frustrating.”

An individual familiar with UB Athletics confirmed this information. The individual cited Athletics’ academic performance specialists, whose sole job it is to make sure that athletes are budgeting their time well and completing their assignments.

Julie Frey is an assistant news/features editor and can be reached at julie.frey@ubspectrum.com 


JULIE FREY
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Julie Frey is an assistant news/features editor for The Spectrum.

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