“When you’re younger, you don’t really notice you’re that different,” Hannan Canavan ’25, student leader of Deisvergent, said. “The adults did, because they could see you from the outside, but your peers, they really didn’t. Then, as you get older, there starts to become this barrier, this invisible wall. Others begin to progress and understand things that you don’t. That’s a very isolating experience.”

When Canavan was ten years old, they were diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. It wasn’t until they were 14 years old that they were diagnosed with both attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism, on top of their original diagnoses. 

“I felt consistently anxious and very lonely because I felt this barrier, like I was on the outside looking in,” they said. “It wasn’t until I met peers who were also neurodivergent that I started to feel less alone.”

Neurodivergence, or neurodiversity, is a term used to refer to how brains can vary in sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. Around 15 to 20% of the population is neurodivergent, characterized by autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or other patterns outside the neurotypical mainstream, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association

This year, Canavan helped launch Deisvergent, a student affinity group created in association with Student Accessibility Support. The club provides a safe space for neurodivergent students where they can receive support. “The priority is community-building,” Canavan said. In addition to recounting personal triumphs and tribulations every week, the students in Deisvergent also practice activities centered around emotional regulation, organizational skills, and more.

“While I definitely want it to be a group where we learn to overcome struggles, I also want it to be a group where we celebrate all the strengths and the beauty of neurodiversity,” Canavan added, “Even though there are some struggles with having different brains, there are also so many things that are beautiful about it that help us benefit society." 

Today, an estimated 11% of undergraduate students are neurodiverse, according to the National Center for Education Statistics

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires public and private colleges and universities to provide equal access to postsecondary education for students with disabilities. However, if an institution can prove that accommodations create undue financial or administrative burden, they are not required to make alternative arrangements. 

Systemic obstacles related to diagnoses, accommodations, and medications for neurodivergent people are omnipresent on and off campus. Lyric Siragusa ’24 is co-president of the Disabled Students’ Network at Brandeis. “There is no ADA-accessible route from the bottom of campus, other than the Branvan, which is notoriously unreliable,” she explained. “Always assume that there is going to be a disabled and/or neurodivergent person who needs those accommodations and build them into the structure,” Siragusa said.

When Siragusa was four years old, her parents took her to a psychiatrist, expecting that she would be diagnosed with autism. Instead, she was only diagnosed with social anxiety. Siragusa attributes this to systemic medical biases. Because of how people are raised and socialized, symptoms present themselves differently in different demographics such as BIPOC and people who are assigned female at birth. “If a boy doesn't make eye contact, then it’s autism, but if a girl doesn't make eye contact, she's just shy or she’s being polite,” she said. 

Throughout her childhood and teenage years, Siragusa’s parents remained convinced that she had autism, despite her not being formally diagnosed. At seventeen years old, Siragusa finally received an official diagnosis of autism — three months before COVID-19 lockdowns began. Transitioning from high school to college at this time was already difficult, but needing accommodations in college made it even more challenging. 

“It is hard for us [neurodivergent people] to try to work into the system as it is now. That is what a lot of us have done most of our lives — try to work into a system that was not built for us,” Canavan said. “In a way, we are always providing what others need to feel comfortable. There needs to be more equal dynamics of give and take."

A recurring sentiment among neurodivergent students is that neurotypical members of the Brandeis community need to be educated about how to support neurodivergent and disabled people in academic spaces and other day-to-day interactions. Canavan said although accommodations help to a certain extent, open conversations and the acceptance of differences should be prioritized by both staff members and students. 

Siragusa, who is majoring in both history and psychology, said her experiences with professors in regard to her autism have varied. While some professors were accepting and understanding, others were “adamantly opposed” to providing accommodations. 

When she tried to justify the accommodations to her professors, Siragusa “had multiple instances where I've had to sit and listen to people describe my diagnosis as brain damage or espouse ABA therapy treatment.” Applied behavior analysis therapy is controversial due to its early usage of punishment and rewards to change behavior. 

Some classes pose unique challenges for neurodivergent students. One example Siragusa mentioned was foreign language courses, explaining that auditory processing issues associated with autism can make these classes especially difficult. 

These factors make accommodations vital, Siragusa said, but she and other neurodivergent students often run into obstacles that make this process difficult. “If we say, ‘Hey, this will be helpful for us,’ please, for the love of god, don’t make us sit down and explain every single detail of how our neurodiversity or disability works and how that accommodation would help us,” she said. 

The burden should not lie on neurodivergent students to adapt to systems that are not set up to accommodate their differences, Canavan said. “There is a need for [neurotypical] people to start recognizing that the change can come from them,” they said. They shared some advice for students who want to support their neurodivergent peers: “Just pay attention to the emotions that are going across. Look for reactions, they may be subtle. Ask if they’re okay.… It’s better to try to [help] than try to ignore it.”  

Reflecting on frustrating experiences in class, Siragusa said, “Many times I’ve gotten to the point of tears when in group work, and none of my group mates would notice. If they did notice, they would ignore it and continue on as normal.”

Canavan has also seen how current systems fail neurodivergent people in myriad ways. “People with physical, psychological, and neurological disabilities experience sexuality, stress, and relationships very differently, but the healthcare system does not accommodate for that,” they said. A 2012 study found that compared to non-autistic adults, autistic adults reported more unsatisfactory interactions with healthcare professionals and were more likely to have unmet physical and mental health needs. Canavan is currently working on designing an Independent Major centered around sexual health with a focus on disabilities. With their degree, they hope to provide research to contribute to policy and procedural changes that create a higher quality of life for people with disabilities. 

“We are everywhere. You can't find us just by looking at us,” Siragusa said. Whether in the workplace or on the street, everyone will interact with neurodivergent people in their day-to-day lives. “Most of the time, you’re not going to know, because disabilities and neurodivergencies aren’t always visible. Don’t go assuming that neurotypical and abled people are going to be the only people that you’re interacting with. Be prepared. Don’t be shocked when somebody reveals they are neurodivergent or disabled.”

“Sometimes being different can suck,” Canavan said. Their advice to neurodivergent students who may be struggling? “It’s okay to admit that it sucks, and things aren’t perfect. It’s okay to want to try to improve yourself, but you can simultaneously say that while still loving yourself just the way you are. Know that you are an important member of society and a loved member of society.”

Autism Association of New England and ASPIRE are helpful resources for children and adults on the autism spectrum looking for support with coping skills and social engagement, Canavan said. They explained that support groups run by neurodivergent and disabled people are vital for creating a community. Canavan hopes that Deisvergent will do the same here at Brandeis.

“Let’s try to create a community that is symbiotic and encourages interaction between neurodivergent and neurotypical people,” said Canavan. “That’s why Deisvergent is so important, because even though we are all so different in our presentations and our support needs, we have this common trait of feeling that dissonance, and we find togetherness in that.” 

Deisvergent meets every Friday at 3:30 PM in Room 315 in the Shapiro Campus Center and on Zoom at this link.