Creating a Neurodiversity-Affirming Environment for Autistic Students at Duke

How can Duke faculty teach in ways that help students on the autism spectrum thrive in the classroom setting?

A new project to help Duke faculty create a neurodiversity-affirming teaching environment is underway within the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. Funded by the faculty advancement office, the one-year grant promises to enhance faculty understanding of neurodivergence across Duke’s schools and colleges.

Abbas Benmamoun, PhD, vice provost for faculty advancement, welcomes the project as part of his office’s commitment to supporting neurodiversity-affirming practices among, by, and for faculty.

“Awareness is critical,” he says. “This grant is another step toward helping normalize and enrich the neurodivergence conversation. We want to foster greater understanding, appreciation, and acceptance for our neurodiverse students across Duke.”

Led by Tara Chandrasekhar, MD and Marika Coffman, PhD, assistant professors of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Minna Ng, PhD, assistant professor of the practice of psychology, and neuroscience team members Sam Brandsen, PhD and Carla Wall, PhD, the project initially emerged from conversations within Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and Duke School of Medicine about how to strengthen the teaching and training environment for neurodivergent students.

“Some faculty know this area,” says Chandrasekhar, “while others are new to it or run into challenges in the classroom. This grant is a chance to create programming for faculty that really focuses on how they work with students.”

Launched in February 2023, the grant has three components: (1) a needs assessment to obtain faculty input on the nature and type of neurodiversity trainings needed; (2) the development and rollout of workshops and materials informed by the needs assessment, and (3) post-program evaluations to gauge project effectiveness and guide next steps beyond the grant period.

The needs assessment has already yielded insights. A survey showed that while Duke faculty want to support neurodivergent students, they don’t always feel equipped to do so. “The practicalities can be a challenge,” Coffman says. “Faculty know their neurodivergent students might be more sensitive to light and noise and sound, for example. But unless someone has given them a sensory checklist, it’s going to be hard for them to turn their classroom into an optimal environment.”

A collaborative team of faculty and staff from arts and sciences and the School of Medicine is participating in the grant, which recently held its first panel and which also draws on the perspectives of neurodivergent students. The goal is to make the training materials relevant, inclusive, and authentic. Topics include how to communicate clear expectations and feedback, how to promote more effective student-to-student and student-to-faculty interactions, and how to create a more welcoming classroom environment.

“Different classrooms can be challenging to neurodivergent students,” says Coffman. “Take group work, for example. How can group work be done in a more inclusive way? Can we have a team-based approach, with faculty setting the tone in a way that helps a given person or group succeed?”

The grant supports other neurodiversity-affirming initiatives, such as Neurodiversity Connections, already underway across Duke. At the same time, it does a deeper dive specifically into helping faculty with their teaching mission.  

Kimberly Hewitt, JD, vice president for institutional equity and chief diversity officer at Duke, sees the new grant as an important piece of a larger community vision.

“This is a long-term conversation,” she says. “It’s important to be intentional about how we think about neurodiversity, equity, and inclusivity. Historically, people have thought about DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) as involving very specific communities. We’re now beginning to broaden that outlook so that neurodiversity is included.” She hopes the grant will provide resources for faculty across undergraduate and graduate teaching areas.

Brandsen, an autistic adult who is part of the project team, is hopeful that it will. “Everything we're developing will be used as part of ongoing online trainings,” he says. “It’s all iterative; it will be built out over time. These materials will be applicable for different audiences. And we want students involved—this is a participatory process.”

At the end of the day, it’s about creating a university-wide pathway that empowers neurodivergent students to become leaders—at Duke and well beyond. Benmamoun encourages faculty to make use of the new resources.

“You don’t have to be an expert on neurodiversity to have a conversation about neurodiversity and increase your awareness and understanding,” Benmamoun says. “You can tap into resources. If you’re a chair or a dean, you can lean on the expertise available at Duke and ask for training. We’re all in a position to learn more. We all want to affirm the fact that excellence shows up in different ways across our community.”