This summer we launch a multi-year, multi-institutional research seminar through the Center for Engaged Learning focused on “Affirming and Inclusive Engaged Learning for Neurodivergent Students.” As with all the seminars, the lead-up to this has been a multi-year process with colleagues, scholars, and students framing the need for this work now. It is worth sharing a bit about what we are learning as we center student experiences and needs to thrive in engaged learning. What are the research questions that will utilize the expertise and perspectives of our scholars to inform meaningful change to systems and processes in higher education?  

In 2021 I was named CEL Scholar to explore access and supports in engaged learning for physically disabled and neurodiverse students. In this two-year position, I delved into several topics related to support and inclusion of these populations in and out of the classroom (Ketcham CEL Scholar). I noticed in this work that calls and awareness to support neurodivergent learners increased (e.g., Dwyer et al. 2023). I created a resource page for this work. As a component of this work, CEL identified the gap in this area and convened a think tank. International scholars framed conversations around what we know, what we want to know, and what are feasible questions for multi-institutional teams.

What We Know

Neurodivergent learners are an ever-growing population, and institutions of higher education are seeing more students who identify and disclose with neurodivergent identities. An estimated 11% of college graduates and 30% of current students identify as neurodivergent (Sachs 2021). We also have many students who may not disclose their neurodivergent identities while navigating the higher education context. Without the right supports, this is a population that may fall through the cracks, leave institutions, and fail to complete their college degrees. Institutions have an obligation to understand this pattern, and addressing it will help many students persist in their educational journeys within our institutions. Neurodivergence intersects with all identities, and thus building structures and processes that lead with inclusion will help the student experience across the board. The solution is more than implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and inclusive pedagogy strategies. While UDL is outstanding and we fully advocate the implementation, thinking through inclusive and affirming structures and processes includes thinking about identities specifically under the neurodivergent umbrella, namely autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia. These are populations where the “dys” and “diagnosis” often are identified because the person is different than what we have classified as “normal” or “neurotypical”—the identities our systems and processes are set up to prioritize. However, we know that in many cases, with the right context or environment, these differences in abilities become obsolete and these individuals thrive.

One aspect of this conversation, which is outside the mission of CEL but very important to amplify and encourage our communities to address, is the supports for neurodivergent faculty and staff. While our students are struggling in our systems, they look to faculty and staff with similar identities and experiences. Our faculty and staff are also struggling in the current systems and structures, and that impacts student experiences as well. For those of you working on supporting faculty and staff at your institutions, hear the call for the need to include neurodivergent voices and experiences in your work.

What We Need to Know

Using the take-aways from the think tank discussion, the seminar leaders met to distill some of those gaps into a research seminar call.

While we know the value of engaged learning experiences in higher education and that barriers to access of some experiences, especially those not built into curricular structures, impact marginalized populations in uneven ways (e.g., Finley and McNair 2013), we don’t know how neurodivergent learners fit into this landscape. Neurodivergent students, some of whom have differences in organization, communication, and learning skills, run up against biases in our systems and practices (Dwyer et al. 2023). Furthermore, the academic “rules” that make up the pathways to these experiences are complicated or unrecognizable and often do not explicitly identify how to engage or what information is needed to participate. Neurodivergent students may opt to not engage in the process or be misunderstood or met with resistance if they have differences in communication style or approach. We need to know how to promote pathways to these experiences and integrate these learners into them. Additionally, we need to know and use their perspectives to shape meaningful change in our institutions.

There are exciting research opportunities that will drive and lead to changes in systems and processes that make more inclusive and affirming spaces for all neurodivergent identities in higher education. We need to understand the student perspective first and foremost. What do these learners want in/from engaged learning? How do they develop self-advocacy, especially through transitional moments and spaces? These students are experts in themselves and their experiences—so we are listening, we are engaging, we are amplifying. This part is important, but not sufficient to drive change. We need to incorporate these experiences and perspectives into understanding of systems and processes to lead meaningful change. Reimaging institutional structures and processes is key to inclusive and affirming engaged learning spaces and experiences. What programs are attracting and supporting neurodivergent learners and what can we learn from their successes? How are institutions creating intentional flexibility to systems and processes that will more holistically center supporting neurodivergent learners? What are best practices? Systemic and systematic changes that will include and affirm neurodivergent students on the paths and pipelines to, within, and beyond higher education settings and experiences will lead the way for other industries. How can innovation and consideration of physical space and design, as well as professional development, support stakeholders in engaged learning experiences?

Forthcoming Multi-Institutional Research

We received over fifty applications from scholars around the world. We identified twenty-four scholars from twenty-four institutions and four countries to come together and address shared questions and topics. They will work with three seminar leaders and three student-scholars to develop research agendas that will span multiple contexts and experiences. Many of these scholars have worked in areas of inclusion, disability, and neurodiversity, coming from a breadth of disciplines and institutional types. Some of these scholars identify as neurodivergent and disabled, and many are voices of disability justice already engaged in changing systems and processes across spaces. These voices and perspectives are a valued part of this process and team. We are excited to see the research questions that blossom from the research seminar space the Center for Engaged Learning is supporting.

Stay tuned and we welcome you to also engage.

What are you doing in your context to create inclusive and affirming spaces and experiences? What do you want to know more about? What type of research would help inform systemic or systematic changes? Is there a spirit of fear or a spirit of opportunity in your context to explore these changes? How do we support our institutions to dream the possible while centering diverse, including neurodiverse, populations?


Dwyer, Patrick, Erica Mineo, Kristin Mifsud, Chris Lindholm, Ava Gurba, and T. C Waisman. 2023. “Building Neurodiversity-Inclusive Postsecondary Campuses: Recommendations for Leaders in Higher Education.” Autism in Adulthood 5 (1): 1-14.

Finley, Ashley, and Tia B. McNair. 2013. Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices. AAC&U.

Sachs, Julia. 2021. “How Universities Can Better Welcome Neurodiverse Students.” Keystone Education News (blog), November 15, 2021.

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor of exercise science at Elon University, the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar, and a seminar leader for the 2024-2026 CEL Research Seminar on Affirming and Inclusive Engaged Learning for Neurodivergent Students.

How to Cite This Post

Ketcham, Caroline J. 2024. “A CEL Research Seminar on Neuroinclusive Engaged Learning.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. May 21, 2024.