Andrew Johnson

Multimodality Accommodation & Neurodivergence

Andrew Johnson

December 20, 2021

This year involved a lot of exposure to new ideas for me (and for everyone). I have been working on research involving multimodal communication, and I recently received a diagnosis for ADHD. Both of these have opened my eyes to new ways I can interact with students (and people in general).

First, I have a way to begin discussing neurodivergence with students who have some kind of difficulty with a “normal” academic situation such as timed examinations, extended reading, strict due dates, or inflexible professors. I can express that I, too, have ADHD and have learned several techniques to deal with these areas of conflict, and that the student is not “in the wrong” for learning in a different way than “everyone else.” I have also seen how common these divergences are—dyslexia and ADHD are both so common in higher education that I almost feel that a substantial portion of the academic population must have been “faking it” (not faking neurodivergence but faking normalcy) for years. Why are the rigid deadlines and outdated reading techniques still around when everyone hates them, including professors? How come professors also have ADHD but don’t talk about it or make allowances for students?

Second, I’ve experienced the power of multimodality. This first started years ago when I began listening to audiobooks, but recently I’ve started discussing tasks with people instead of just writing them down. I tried out Kanban techniques that use web applications. I’ve run into students who know exactly what they need to do, but they just need someone to talk to out loud while they make their outlines—with almost zero input from me, the tutor.

Both of these new experiences point to a major consideration whose term I don’t like but will use anyway: accommodation. Academia is getting better at this, certainly, but there’s still a long way to go. Yes, it’s good to “accommodate” for neurodivergence, but why can’t some of these accommodations (such as low-sensory time or flexible deadlines) be available as the norm? Why do we need to get special permission? There’s a lot of rethinking that needs to be done, and now, in a time when everything is changing and shifting modalities anyway, is a wonderful time to start restructuring and reprioritizing.

I don’t know what the right answer is, but options are important, as is destigmatizing. I think we’re doing a better job of this—many of my friends (myself included) have investigated medication and discussed changes with friends, family, and fellow students. Many professors have expressed understanding with uncertainty. Right now, I think the biggest thing we can do is continue making ourselves available and be visibly flexible. Embrace the change, find techniques that work with all sorts of multimodalities and neuro-organizations, and encourage people to try them out. We’re doing pretty well with destigmatizing therapy; let’s maybe also get to destigmatizing executive dysfunction as well.