Arden University Podcast: Neurodiversity in Higher Education

In keeping with our Spotlight on EDI at Arden, one of the aspects we're shining a light on is neurodiversity, With a recent increase in awareness, neurodiversity is being talked about more regularly than it ever has been, which is fantastic.

For our neurodiversity podcast episode, we were joined by Psychology lecturer, Emma Owen, who was willing to open up about her personal experience of being late diagnosed with autism, neurodiversity in the workplace, and how much of education is geared to neurotypical learning.

With a conversation covering a broad range of topics, you can listen to our neurodiversity podcast in full or read some of the highlights from our thought-provoking conversation with Emma below.

Hi Emma, thanks for joining us. Could you introduce yourself?

Hi everyone, so yes, I’m Emma and I’m a lecturer in Psychology here, at Arden University, and I’m here to talk about neurodiversity in higher education.

Can you tell us about your background, research, and personal experience with neurodiversity in higher education and beyond?

I was diagnosed late. So, when I was a student doing my MSc in psychology, I was diagnosed with specific learning difficulties – so, dyslexia and dyspraxia. I was also diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), then last year I was diagnosed as autistic.

When you’ve been diagnosed, you’re able to identify why things were difficult throughout your life. Everyone experiences it differently, but the things I’ve experienced growing up, studying, and at work have been profound difficulties around processing and the social aspect.

For example, when I was at school, I always felt very different to my peers. I was always very introverted. I struggled to keep up with what was being said. And I think when I was in high school, I really struggled with anxiety. It wasn’t until I had that diagnosis that I realised that this has always been the problem.

I experienced something that many face - which is misdiagnosis. The way these conditions can present is as depression and anxiety. And I think although there is a significant overlap with mental health difficulties, it’s just diagnosed as that. There’s an idea you can ‘take this medication’, but it just doesn’t work because that’s not actually the problem.

I always struggled to be in big groups or when it was too noisy. I went back to study later because I struggled in my final year of school. So, I went back as a mature student when I was a mother – I’ve got two boys, aged 19 and 15. With the autism diagnosis, it was actually my son who was diagnosed first – which is quite common for people who are late diagnosed.

Having the diagnosis for me as a student was really useful because it actually provides a point to work from, so you can just think ‘okay, this is what it is, and other people experience it too’. That’s the thing about neurodiversity – it can be quite isolating. The way I experienced autism was a feeling of being on the inside looking out – you can’t form that link.

Other people see me as quite quiet and reflective, and I don’t display facial expressions as I realise other people do. Life, generally, to me, feels really bright and loud, and my attention will be pulled into really small details as I’m talking to somebody. So, I explain to people that if it feels like I’m not responding, it’s because my brain is constantly processing everything around me. It's like there’s too much noise. You have to hone in on kind of what you need to, which means it takes a bit longer.

How about your experience of neurodiversity in the workplace?

Well, I’ve worked in higher education for about 10 years now. As I’ve said, I was diagnosed late, but I noticed I had certain difficulties, such as if I was in a meeting, for example, I’d struggle with the pace of the conversation. It’d move too quickly, and I’d still be processing what the previous person said. I struggled to interject what I needed to or formulate my response.

I’d struggle to be in busy office environments – I find that really difficult. People always say, ‘but you can teach’ and yes, I can deliver a lecture to 200 or 300 hundred students, but that’s because I know what I’m doing. If it’s in a natural ‘give and take’ in a group environment, that’s when it’s more of a challenge.

I think people who are neurodivergent might be more inclined to take non-traditional routes – so, come back to education later. That’s what I’ve found from speaking to other people who are neurodiverse and work in higher education.

When it comes to ways of dealing with it, I still feel like I’m learning. Having a good network of people around you who understand the difficulties you can face or having the confidence to talk about it really helps. Within society there can be some real difficulties with people being able to understand – people say things like ‘ well, you don’t look autistic’. It’s like what does that even mean?

Self-acceptance is massive.

You very much live what you’ve said in action. Whenever our paths cross, you’re always very honest about the needs that you have. It’s something people need to consider more – making adjustments and being kind and understanding about the challenges some people face. And not making silly comments like ‘you don’t look autistic.’

Absolutely. Neurodivergence is hidden. People often feel like they have to fall into this very neurotypical way of living and doing things. Society’s expectations are that we all learn and take in information in the same way.

For adults who are autistic, I think the statistic is, and I’d need to check this, that only 18% are in employment. I think there are a number of reasons for that. 

Although there are some very good schools, in general, there just isn’t that kind of understanding of how neurodiversity presents itself. And I don’t think people fully understand just how the school environment can impact young neurodiverse individuals – it’s intense, it’s busy, and there’s nowhere for people to take a step back when they’re thinking ‘I can’t do this at the moment’.

For example, around exam time. It’s the expectation that people take in information in a certain way or can learn in the same way. It makes you feel somehow, you’re lesser in some way. That’s not the case, it’s just that you do absorb information differently.

Society can be quite unkind sometimes.

We’ve been talking about schools, but what kind of career opportunities post-school are there for neurodivergent people? And how can they maximise their employability?

We need to close the gap for young people coming from school into employment or the next stage if they want to carry on studying. Personally, even though I had these difficulties, I’d always perform well at school, but it was my anxiety, which meant that I then couldn’t attend school in the last year.

School can present this barrier, where people can believe that further education or higher education isn’t for them. Most people perform better at university because there isn’t that forced environment – people can do things in their own time, study online, etc. There’s more freedom for neurodiverse learning. It’s about finding a pace that works for them if they want to go into education after school.

With employment, there are so many barriers. People might think they’ve not got the qualifications, for different reasons. That’s definitely something that needs to be looked at.

Everybody’s different. I see a lot of organisations looking to recruit people, for example, who are autistic. And this is great.

However, I do have concerns about society thinking that people who are neurodiverse or autistic are likely to have heightened skills in certain areas, because that’s not everybody. That’s a common misconception. It’s not a good representation – to think we have these heightened abilities in mathematics, for example. 

On the topic of work roles, I find remote working really good. I really enjoy the flexibility. I know some people like the social interaction of face-to-face. So, I think it really does depend on the individual.

However, the actual interview process can be quite a barrier though for neurodiverse people getting into those roles. I think we’re still quite geared to neurotypical selection processes – i.e., someone asks you questions, and you’ll be judged on your ability to answer them in a very concise and direct way. I, for example, would go around all the houses to maybe then not answer the original question!

I have difficulty in maintaining eye contact, and to a panel, this can give off the impression you’re disinterested, or not able to make that point on the spot. Rather than drawing on hypothetical scenarios, I think it’s much better when they draw on lived experiences when interviewing neurodiverse candidates.

So, yes, there are routes of employment that may suit neurodivergent people, but it does depend on the individual.

Bringing it back round to your current role here with us, at Arden, have you found that being neurodiverse means you maybe teach differently or deal with students differently compared to colleagues?

I feel very fortunate at Arden to be part of the school – it’s reflective that everyone is great and really nice. With the psychology school, all of my colleagues are very much student-centred. They’re aware of the difficulties may encounter and are very approachable. So, I don’t feel it’s very different. They’re always putting in extra support or thinking of different ways of how to make teaching and resources more accessible.

Thank you so much for coming to talk to us, Emma. We feel so full of good vibes and positivity. Do you have a final message for our listeners or any exciting projects in the pipeline?

Just keep talking to each other – you’re not alone. We have a neurodiversity network group that I co-run. We meet once a month, so if anybody would like to join a really lovely group, they’re welcome to.

We’ve also just had our neurodiversity PGCert validated – that’s in development and will be available from next year for all Arden employees. We’re also going to be offering it to organisations in education, within the justice system, etc. We’ll be keeping everyone updated on it.

The Arden University Podcast is available here, and wherever you get your podcasts