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R U OK? We Need to Talk is a podcast highlighting that asking the simple question “R U OK” can save a life. Direct, clear communication is important in many spaces.

I have something on my mind that keeps coming up in my conversations around ableism in academia, neurodiversity in higher education, accommodations, universal design for learning (UDL), and topics in this realm. As I work to draft a couple blog posts on implementation of UDL practices, the assumptions and misunderstandings that have come up in these conversations have become huge buts getting in the way of readers being able to apply UDL practices. I am finding many well-intentioned professionals are missing a big piece of not why this work matters, but how to do it.

I continually hear stories and anecdotes about a time when [insert description about a neurodivergent student was in their class or working in a group and it didn’t go well no matter how many “strategies they used”]. I want to pause here for a moment and really think about this interaction.

Professionals come to me and describe a situation where an interaction with a student or engagement with a student was “challenging” because of the student’s identity that is different than their own. The “challenge” from their perspective is because of this individual’s neurodivergent identity.

This is disheartening in a higher education context in which diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are central to our work. Where we are being challenged to look at systems and structures—and not identity—as barriers to learning and thriving. If we are doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work and not including disability, are we doing it well?

These professionals go on to list all the things they tried, how they talked to everyone involved in the situation to give strategies and nothing worked, or the challenge escalated. For example, they describe supervising a TA and trying to teach the TA how to better interact with this neurodivergent person, often inserting that these TAs or tutors or group members were scared for how the individual might respond to their feedback or boundary setting.

Please read through this template of a scenario again—maybe twice. Please reflect if it sounds familiar. Please do not get defensive that it hasn’t happened to you, but embrace when it has happened to put a scenario in your mind. Now let’s chat.

Neurodiversity, and I will say specifically autism spectrum disorders, have been stigmatized often around social interactions that are different than many are familiar with. My experience is people do not tiptoe around the stereotypical descriptions and thus are unaware how hurtful and harmful their comments and actions are. Often people project the autistic stereotypes into social interactions or engagement and thus fulfill the expectation that it will be challenging. The interaction may feel awkward, challenging, hard, scary, weird, and, well, different than they are familiar with, and so they muddle through and then say, “What is the formula for how to engage in positive ways with neurodivergent individuals?” Here we are back at my conversation—this is what they are asking me.

Here is the secret . . . ready? . . . . ASK THE INDIVIDUAL! Stop tiptoeing around the situation, stop talking behind their back about how to fix a scenario so it works better, stop using code such as “scared” or “they might get mad” or “they xyz,” stop projecting that you expect interactions to be awkward. Have a conversation with the individual and identify what they are looking for; what would help them have clarity around the rules, process, interaction; what type of feedback is useful for them; how do they best work in groups. They have a wealth of information about how they work best, and the goal is to find common ground. You also have a wealth of information about how you work best and what is feasible and manageable in the context. You are a professional. This isn’t emotional so don’t emotionally charge it. This isn’t a be bendy for this “needy” student situation. This is a how can we work together for a positive outcome to our goals. There are lots of resources to help with direct conversations out there used in industry (Brenner 2018) and the workplace (St-Aubin 2022). I also encourage you to look at resources written by neurodivergent professionals including Jillian Enright and Louise Taylor who both have written about their perspective.

I want to emphasize that through my many experiences with lots of humans and an antenna for neurodiversity, I have learned some strategies of engagement that help me in my classroom and engagement with students, in my interactions with colleagues and community members, and in my parenting—all people. Being clear about what I am asking or expecting is an effective strategy. Saying directly what I expect, what I am comfortable with, what the timeline is, how I can engage has simplified my interactions with so many. Here are a couple of examples.

  • I don’t expect people to know what I want by telling them what I don’t want. (Clearer alternative: I want you to clearly answer the question in bullets, paragraphs, or drawings.)
  • I don’t expect people to read my rolling eyes or body language to say this social interaction is not open for you to join us. (Clearer alternative: I am meeting with this person right now. I can stop by when I am done or email me and let’s find a good time to connect.)
  • I don’t expect people to know the implicit rules and processes and will often default to clarifying these if miscommunications seem to be happening. (When I read a draft of your work I do not edit or read the whole thing. I look for the big ideas and organization and then like to sit down and talk through it with you. Let’s make an appointment to do this.)
  • I don’t expect people to know appropriate times to ask questions, share thoughts, experiences, or ideas as I present material. (I welcome your questions to clarify material at any time. If you have ideas, experiences, or thoughts related to the topic, we will hold those until I get through the main information on the next 5 slides. Write down your questions if that would be helpful to remember.)

It might be helpful to think through a couple of scenarios from colleagues where we discussed situations they felt they could have handled better early on if they had started with talking to the individual.

Scenario 1

Full professor in the humanities: I had a student stop by my office all the time to just talk. I suspected they were neurodivergent, but I don’t know. It usually wasn’t about anything specific, and it was often very disruptive. I tried many things to signify I was not available (short answers, packed up stuff to leave, continued working on the computer while they talked), but the student just continued stopping by and was clearly not picking up signals. As this continued to ramp up as we moved to the next semester, I pulled him aside and had a direct conversation. We discussed some boundaries and his interests, and we found a plan to meet regularly that would work for both of us. I realized how important it is to have these conversations early if it comes up again because intentions and expectations were barriers to us having meaningful and productive meetings.

Some specific advice for similar scenarios: Sit down with students and ask them to specify why they are there or why they stop by often. I would then identify times and spaces that you are available for those conversations and the appropriate way to engage in them (e.g., drop-in office hours, email for a coffee appointment). It might also be appropriate to set boundaries there or in those specific spaces. For example, if they keep emailing to meet for coffee, at the end of one time be specific about when the next time could be and what it should be for (“It was great to hear about your future aspirations. If you compile a list of graduate programs you are interested in, maybe in a month we could connect and I could share contacts I might know.” Or “I am really impressed you have such a deep interest in astrophysics. Have you looked into organizations on campus?”) It is important to set appropriate boundaries and to help create connections.

Scenario 2

Associate professor in the sciences: I had a student who came off as cocky and needing to be the center of attention in my classroom. I had him in several classes as a student in our major. Students were annoyed by his constant blurting out of obvious information or inappropriate information. They didn’t want to be in his group because personal space boundaries were always very uncomfortable. He also had said or demonstrated a lack of perspective by inserting racist and harmful content into one of our class sessions. Because of this situation, I had to address the student and set boundaries of appropriate behavior and hurtful comments. He didn’t fully understand the hurtful comments but was willing to try to understand. After this conversation he was very receptive to me reminding him that things he said weren’t appropriate or reminding him to hold questions until later. I could be more matter-of-fact with him and I wish I would have done it earlier. I never considered he was neurodivergent in any way, I really thought he was just cocky and self-centered.

Some specific advice for similar scenarios:  I don’t know if this student is neurodivergent, cocky, or if it matters. I would not assume any identity, but I would address the situation early so that boundaries can be set to support all students in the classroom, including this student. I would ask the student to a meeting to discuss strategies to support learning in your classroom. Telling a student why they are meeting with you can be very important. I have learned from several students that when faculty say, just come meet with me, but without the why, their anxiety gets very high. So I encourage using the strategy of telling students why you want to meet. In this meeting I would directly identify examples of conversations or actions that are inappropriate in your classroom. Listen to his perspective and share others’ perspectives in an effort to build an inclusive classroom climate. I would also offer up a way to mark his actions that are agreed upon (hold that thought sir, personal space check, ouch) so he has the opportunity to stop in real time and you have a way to model an inclusive classroom climate.

I want to reemphasize here that this is not an interaction, conversation, or engagement strategy specifically for neurodiverse individuals—this is a strategy for any identity. We need to ask directly who people are, what they need, how they learn, and then reciprocate, so we can find ways to do the work, grow, change perspectives together in positive and meaningful ways. This does not mean these interactions are our only education on topics of identity that are important for equity and inclusion. We must as individuals still do the work to learn and grow, but our best resource for equity and inclusion in our spaces is honoring and modeling asking people directly what they need to thrive in this context. Then make changes in the moment and changes in the context that support these needs and create more climates where all our students have the possibility to thrive.

The first point is that as we are having conversations about inclusion and equity in the classroom, neurodiversity is often “outside the boundaries of” our definition of “diversity” and thus not included in the inclusive practices we are applying to race, gender, and sexuality, or at least it is perceived to be different. We really need to think about this because inclusive practices should improve the context for all, and the inclusive practices we are implementing are also about neurodiversity and disability.


Brenner, Dean. 2018. “Simple Concepts for Successful Communication: Be Clear and Direct.” Forbes, October 17, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/10/17/simple-concepts-for-successful-communication-be-clear-and-direct/?sh=65d0fe9b6de8.

Enright, Jillian. 2022. “Communication Differences Are Not Deficits.” Medium, January 7, 2022. https://medium.com/neurodiversified/cultural-and-communication-differences-f87158533c04.

St-Aubin, Nora. 2022. “A 5-Step Framework for Having Difficult Conversations at Work.” Officevibe (blog), April 7, 2022. https://officevibe.com/blog/difficult-conversations-at-work.

Taylor, Louise. 2022. “Communication Styles, Counseling, and Neurodiversity.” Psychology Today, January 11, 2022. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-neurodivergent-therapist/202201/communication-styles-counseling-and-neurodiversity.

Rainbow on canvas photo by Steve Johnson

Conversation bubble icon by Przemyslawk from NounProject.com

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor of exercise science at Elon University, and she is the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Ketcham’s CEL scholar project focuses on equity in high-impact practices (HIPs) for neurodiverse and physically disabled student populations.

How to Cite This Post

Ketcham, Caroline J. 2022. “A Quick but Necessary Chat.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. August 2, 2022. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/a-quick-but-necessary-chat.