The Learning and Teaching Staff Development Team are creating an online professional development module – Teaching Neurodiveres Students – for Macquarie teachers. The module has been co-designed with neurodivergent students and informed by research and best practice from Macquarie researchers. Below, learning designer Lara Hardy shares some insights from students interviewed for the project.

As a learning designer and research assistant I have had the privilege of working on two projects relating to supporting neurodivergent students in higher education. The first in Session 2, 2023, was to interview Macquarie University students to create a research base for a staff professional development module; the second project is conducting qualitative research during Session 1 this year to contribute to a paper on supporting autistic students in higher education (with findings from multiple Australian universities).

If you would like to learn more about neurodiversity, the module for academic staff will be made available via Workday later this year and advertised on Teche and the Staff Intranet.

Students speak up for the benefit of other students

The neurodivergent students interviewed for the project were motivated to share their experiences as learners in order to improve the situation for other students.

After interviewing current Macquarie students and coding transcripts for students from other Australian universities it struck me how many students have had similar experiences and highlighted the same challenges in different ways – of discrimination, barriers to accessing support services, feeling excluded and having to put in so much extra work (the ‘hidden curriculum’ or ‘extra unit’) just to stay at university.

In sharing these experiences in detail, the motivation of most students to participate in these projects was to help other students even though many mentioned it would be ‘too late’ to have the help they needed themselves.

There was a strong need in all participants to have their stories heard as every student had experienced situations where they had not been heard when they had asked for help.

Importance of having support

Most students mentioned how important it was to connect with like-minded peers and to have lecturers who supported their individual differences and were flexible.

Some mentioned lecturers taking an interest in their future career paths, helping them to network and make connections in the workforce; being flexible with deadlines and generally just being available to listen; and following up/checking in when student communication might have dropped off (often due to related issues such as mental health challenges). Connection with like-minded peers was important for not feeling alone at university. Students at Macquarie have access to the MQ Neurodivergent Students Collective where they can seek support. Students also have access to a series of Wellbeing Skillshops run by the Accessibility Service to assist their approach to study.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to support needs

Students are often unsure what type of support to ask for as they may not know what is available or possible.

Although supports are in place for students to access (for example, having a plan that assists students with accommodations, approved by diversity and inclusion teams), students mentioned different accommodations being helpful for the same issue. For example, a crowded lecture theatre may be triggering for many students, but others were more comfortable in a larger space than in a small tutorial room.

Many participants mentioned the importance of having a list of accommodations available to view, because it is hard to know what type of help to ask for or what may be offered.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) helps all students

Universal Design for Learning principles help to increase accessibility and improve learning outcomes for all (including neurodivergent) students.

Rather than neurodivergent identities being seen as a problem or medicalised (see TEDTalk from Macquarie researcher Dr Jac den Houting), UDL recognises that students learn in different ways and applies a strengths-based approach.

Some ways to support neurodivergent learners include:

  • being explicit with instructions, providing structure including consistent classroom routines, and teaching active reading strategies (such as pre-reading, highlighting, paraphrasing, summarising and chunking information)
  • having visualisation tools such as mindmaps to reduce processing load
  • considering peer mentors for support
  • implementing breaks and having multiple entry points for students to engage with the material (including for assessments)

Dr Diana Tan, a Macquarie Research Fellow in the School of Education who is running the project on support for autistic students, cites the importance of these inclusive practices in unit design as ‘neurodiversity-affirming’. Staff can access the UDL module via Workday.

I have also experienced a learning journey through being part of this project, as I have received feedback about my own carefully constructed resources and have had adapt some of the materials. For example, changing to using a survey template with a plain background rather than using a university branded template, to ensure information is easier to read. This simple change makes a significant difference to neurodivergent students’ ability to access materials.

To reflect on your teaching practice and make small changes that will benefit neurodivergent learners, try using this reflection task template from the UDL module.

Invisible barriers to employment

Barriers for neurodivergent students include higher university attrition rates and interview processes that favour neurotypical students.

Autistic students have higher attrition rates for completing university study according to Anderson, Carter and Stephenson (2018). In addition to the transitional challenges experienced as students move from high school to university there are also many challenges as they move from university to the workforce. As a careers counsellor, I recently attended a webinar from my professional organisation, run by Untapped Group, a social enterprise based in Melbourne that assists neurodiverse people to access employment. Citing employment statistics that are not favourable to neurodivergent individuals – the unemployment rate for autistic people is 31.6 per cent and 54 per cent of unemployed autistic Australians have never held a paid job, while 20 percent of autistic people have lost their job due to their autism – they mentioned key barriers to being able to access jobs, such as interview processes favouring neurotypical individuals.** (See footnote below for extra info).

Learn more about neurodiversity

In response to one of our interview questions: “What would be one thing Macquarie University teachers could do that would help you?” a student answered: “Learn about neurodiversity”.

If you would like to learn more about some key findings from this project and some simple tips that will help to improve access to your unit/s for neurodivergent students, please keep a look out for the Teaching Neurodivergent Students module coming soon on Workday.

In the meantime, here are four things you can do now:

  1. Complete the Foundations for Inclusive Teaching Module 
  2. Complete the Universal Design for Learning Module and reflect on your teaching practice to make small changes to your unit design that will benefit neurodivergent learners.
  3. Direct students to support: Students at Macquarie have access to the MQ Neurodivergent Students Collective where they can seek support. There is also a series of Wellbeing Skillshops run by the Accessibility Service to assist their approach to study.
  4. Download the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines (below).

Some suggestions to support neurodiverse learners include:

* be explicit with instructions
* provide structure including consistent classroom routines
* teach active reading strategies (such as pre-reading, highlighting, paraphrasing, summarising and chunking information)
* have visualisation tools such as mindmaps to reduce processing load
* consider peer mentors for support
* implement breaks
* have multiple entry points for students to engage with the material (including for assessments)

** Further information on barriers to employment

The way interview questions are worded can be confusing to autistic people, and being put on the spot rather than having the questions beforehand (which is not common practice) can put neurodivergent individuals at a disadvantage. The organisation Untapped Group works with universities and other organisations to create training and resources through the Neurodiversity Hub. Untapped emphasises that a helpful way to think about neurodivergence is to think about it as another culture. In the same way that hiring managers would want to and are legally obliged to ensure people from a diversity of backgrounds and cultures feel included in the interview process, neurodivergent individuals shouldn’t have to mask or hide their neurodivergent identity.

See further resources for universities to become more ‘neurodivergent-friendly’. Similarly the Career Development Learning Hub (CDL Hub) has suggestions for best practice career development learning for neurodivergent students, for example running a careers fair that includes an hour-long, welcoming, low sensory experience for students who have difficulties in busy, crowded environments. The Quiet 60 initiative offers other tips for employers wanting to engage with neurodivergent students. 


AMAZE – Autism and Employment Research Report released 28 March 2019 

Anderson, A. H., Carter, M., & Stephenson, J. (2018). Perspectives of university students with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48(3), 651–665. 

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018). Autism in Australia, ABS 

Autism Spectrum (ASPECT) (2018) 

CDL Hub:  

Coffey, J. and Lovegrove, E. (2023). Career Development Learning for Neurodivergent Tertiary Education Students: A case study of best career development practice for students with disability. Retrieved from 

Dr Jac den Houting TED Talk:

Neurodiversity Hub:  

Tan, D. W., Rabuka, M., Haar, T., & Pellicano, E. (2023). ‘It’s a symbolic violence’: Autistic people’s experiences of discrimination at universities in Australia. Autism. 

WCAG Standards:  

Lara Hardy is a Learning Designer and Research Assistant at Macquarie University with a background of 7 years in student administration, advising, marketing, educational research and web design in higher education. She is a qualified Careers Counsellor with 7 years experience teaching in secondary schools and is currently working on a research project for the School of Education in the Faculty of Arts. In 2023 Lara worked with the Learning & Teaching Staff Development Team on the development of a module on Teaching Neurodiverse students.

Banner image: Photo by BrAt82 on Shutterstock
Post written by Lara Hardy, Learning Designer

Posted by L&T Development

The Learning and Teaching Staff Development team works with staff across the University to ensure they are supported to facilitate quality learning for students. This includes offering professional development, contributing to curriculum and assessment design, recognising and rewarding good practice, supporting peer review of teaching, and leading scholarly reflection. Email with questions or requests.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *