Updated: Dec 10, 2022
One student’s neurodivergent and non-binary intersectional experience
Leighah Beausoleil / THE GATEPOST
By Leighah Beausoleil
In April of this year, Erin Gemme stood in front of a mirror examining their hair - shoulder-length and purple with an inch of natural blond shining through and growing longer with each passing day.
“I'm going to cut it off,” Erin told their roommate, Lauren Mazzarella.
“You're going to cut it off?” Mazzarella asked in shock. “You're going to be bald.”
But that did not stop Erin. With no reservations and dragging their roommate along, Erin walked into the Supercuts on Worcester Road with a mission. They were almost immediately seated and once again seeing themselves in front of a mirror, watched as the first stroke of the razor made its way from their hairline all the way to the back of their head.
“No going back now,” they said.
Erin said they thought the older woman who shaved their head would have questioned whether they were sure about the radical haircut, but that was not the case. The woman completed the shave with a setting of number 2 on top and a 1 on the sides - the lower number representing a closer shave.
Seeing themselves following the haircut, Erin admitted they cried at that moment, describing it as “euphoric.
“I feel like hair holds a lot of symbolism and memories to me,” they said. “If I dyed my hair purple again, I would feel how I would when I had purple hair before. I had never had short hair in my life, so it felt like such a reset and I really liked it.
“The end of last year was an absolute mess, and I didn't feel like myself anymore. So I needed to do something to kind of snap me back into reality,” Erin added.
They said they were in between being afraid and not being afraid regarding people’s reactions to their shaved head because they did not want people to be “mean,” but said, “Ultimately, it's my hair.
“It's literally on my head [and not yours] for a reason,” they said.
A month prior to this haircut, Erin pushed themselves to better understand their gender identity.
“I've always known something was up,” they said with a smile.
In the first grade, Erin knew they hated wearing “girl” clothes. Upon getting their first “boy” shirt, they were “ecstatic.”
“Wow, look at me,” they remember their younger self thinking.
“I didn't feel comfortable being a girl, but I didn't want to be a boy,” Erin said. “I didn't want to be anything and I still don't want to be anything because I find it stupid.”
Erin described the process of trying to find the pronouns that best suited their identity and realized what they were feeling all this time had a name: non-binary. Starting with she/her, Erin progressed to she/they, to they/them, and ultimately, to all pronouns. However, they said they feel obligated to tell others their pronouns are they/them because otherwise, people will default to she/her, but they wish people would “switch it up.”
For clarity, Erin has given permission for their story to be told using they/them pronouns.
Terrified at the thought of what people they knew would say or think, Erin was worried about sharing that they had changed their pronouns. They added they thought they were inconveniencing people by making them “go out of their way to do this.” However, they came to realize, “It is not that deep.
“If they don't like it, they can leave - easily,” Erin said, with a laugh.
They explained the difference between them identifying as non-binary rather than gender-fluid is that no matter how they are dressed or what they are feeling, their pronouns do not change. Along with being non-binary, Erin said they also identify as transgender.
Erin emphasized that the most hurtful misconception they face is when people believe they identify as non-binary because they want to be “different.”
They said, “If anything, I desperately want to be like other people because of the things that I experience.”
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, being non-binary is neither new nor some fashionable new trend people are following. Throughout history, non-binary identities have been recognized around the world by different cultures and societies.
According to a 2021 study conducted by the UCLA Williams Institute, 1.2 million people in the United States identify as non-binary.
Erin said since coming out as non-binary, they have had both good and bad experiences.
Some of the worst experiences happened this past summer when they would be asked, “What are you?”
Erin said this happened so often, “I started to lose the feeling of being human.”
In early March, Erin sat on their bed staring at the blinking cursor on their computer screen, hovering over a question on the 2022 Common Leadership Application. The application is for anyone interested in serving as a Foundations Peer Mentor, Admissions Tour Guide, SEALS Peer Health Educator, or a Black & Gold Orientation Leader.
They had decided they were going to apply to be a Black & Gold Orientation Leader because it was something that made them “uncomfortable.
“I like to do things that I know will make me uncomfortable because then afterward, I won't be uncomfortable anymore,” they said.
Erin was stumped by the question, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” They said they were unsure how to answer because they had never worked as a student leader and were unable to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses.
As the cursor blinked at Erin, taunting them, a single thought began to build in intensity: “I shouldn't be doing this.
“I genuinely felt like I wasn't right for it,” Erin said, adding they pushed past these feelings because they knew they wanted to step outside of their comfort zone and to become more involved on campus.
A few weeks later, a group interview for the position took place in the McCarthy Center Alumni Room with approximately 15 other students, Erin said. Working in small groups, each mini-team was given the task of creating a product with the materials they were given.
Using a bowl, a feather boa, tape, and a piece of string, Erin’s group was able to create their ingenious product - a wearable cereal bowl.
Erin said they forgot it was an interview because they had become so comfortable working with their group. The only reminders were Leah Mudd, assistant director for Orientation and Student Experience, and Dara Barros, Student Government Association (SGA) president and orientation leader, walking around to listen in on the conversations among group members and monitor the progress being made.
Mudd described her first impression of Erin during the group interview. “Initially, I just felt a sense of warmth and welcome.
“I think it was just the way they are and their personality and their vibe that they bring,” she added. “I felt that they were very interested in getting to know the other candidates at the group interview, regardless of - you know, at that point they had no idea who might be on the team - if they would make it themselves.”
Mudd said this approach to meeting with new people would eventually help Erin be successful in the position.
Nevertheless, on the day of their individual interview, Erin nervously approached the room in O’Connor Hall where they would meet with Mudd and Barros. Hands shaking, they entered the room concerned they lacked the experience of the other applicants.
They said they were given the choice prior to the interview of who would be interviewing them: Mudd and Barros or Mudd and the graduate assistant. Erin said being able to choose Mudd and Barros helped them feel more at ease.
By the end of the interview, they believed it had gone well.
Mudd said as she got to know Erin during the individual interview, what stood out was “compassion and their drive to make other students feel heard.”
She added knowledge of resources and the campus are all dealt with in training and are subjects that can be taught. However, the “care” and “compassion” Erin had for incoming students was not something that could be, which allowed them to shine and stand out.
Sitting in the Dining Commons a week or so later, Erin received the email informing them they had been chosen as an orientation leader. Excited, Erin called their mom with the good news - they had secured a summer job.
Orientation leader training began in the heat of the summer.
Sitting most days on the lawn between Hemenway Annex and O’Connor Hall, the 2022 orientation leaders worked together to prepare themselves to welcome the incoming first-year and transfer students, occasionally interrupted by the inopportune timing of the sprinklers.
As they ran in all directions from the water, Erin knew summer 2022 would be one to remember.
“I got to get close with these strangers I didn't know last week,” Erin said. “I met so many people and I am much more social than I was before.”
They said being an orientation leader gave them the confidence to approach students who might be sitting alone. “I wanted to be someone who I needed last year.”
The group completed innumerable icebreakers in order to understand each other on a personal level, but one training session stood out among them all. The orientation leaders met in a conference room in O’Connor Hall and stood in a circle. Similar to a “privilege walk,” when something was stated that related to them, they had to step in the circle.
“It got really deep, really fast,” Erin said. “And before I knew it, most of the people in the room were crying.”
Then, the group was asked to step in the circle if they had ever been afraid to introduce themselves with their identity. Stepping into the circle and seeing some of their peers do so as well, Erin began to cry. Realizing they were not alone in this struggle was validating for them.
“During Orientation, too, that feeling kept continuing like that,” they said. “I was not the only one experiencing this.”
They added, “That conversation - it was really moving, and it was really heavy. And after that, I remember going to lunch and I was like, ‘Wow, I did not expect this from orientation leaders.
“Even though it was a tough conversation, the fact that we were able to have that conversation made me feel better,” Erin said, adding everyone worked to make it a safe environment.
Erin took many important lessons and skills away from the summer training, but perhaps the most surprising discovery was learning about the accommodations available through the Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA).
Due to missing their online orientation before their freshman year, Erin said they did not know they could receive the same accommodations in college they had received in high school.
Erin is neurodivergent, which means their brain functions differently. In Erin’s case, they are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as well as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Although the word “spectrum” is used in the name for ASD, this is not the linear spectrum most people assume it to be. According to a 2020 article from PSYCOM, ASD is more of a “three-dimensional pyramid with multiple intersecting points.” These points, or spectra, represent interaction, communication, and imagination, which can all range in the level of support needed.
Erin said they take pride in knowing their brain works differently than other people’s.
“I feel like a superhero sometimes,” they said.
Though they appreciate the creativity and personality their neurodiversity gives them, there are aspects that can impact their life negatively, such as being “sensitive” to social situations and having sensory issues.
Certain sounds and textures can be overstimulating for Erin, such as velcro and spaghetti.
Too afraid to speak out about what bothered them growing up, Erin said they had always assumed everyone felt the same way, shared the same thoughts, and acted the same as they did. “But looking back, I'm like, ‘I don't think everyone walked on their tippy toes for five years.’”
Having a friend on the spectrum who shared similar attributes, Erin went to the doctor to get tested and was clinically diagnosed with ASD at the age of 18. At the same time, they were also diagnosed with ADHD.
They said getting diagnosed at that age was “super late,” but is common for people assigned female at birth as their symptoms or traits will present differently than males with ASD and/or ADHD. This, Erin said, was most likely the case for them as their younger brother was diagnosed with ADHD, so their parents had those specific symptoms in mind as representative of the disorder.
Erin said the test they took gave them a score that would indicate whether they had ASD and how severe theirs was. They recall a score as low as 30 would indicate ASD, with higher scores demonstrating the level. Because of this, people may have some traits or symptoms of ASD, but won’t necessarily be diagnosed.
“I like to say that everyone is on the spectrum - just not far enough to be diagnosed,” they added.
In the United States, an estimated 5.4 million, or over 2%, of adults are diagnosed with ASD, according to Spectrum News.
According to the CDC, there are different variations of the ASD test as well as other assessment tools and often, more than one is used to diagnose the disorder.
Upon telling people they have ASD, Erin said they will often receive comments such as, “You don’t seem autistic,” or, “Oh, I could tell.” Though they said they find the latter amusing, the former is a “backhanded” compliment and bothers them “because then I think, ‘What do you see autistic as, then?’”
ASD is different for everyone, they said, adding they encourage people to refrain from engaging in stereotypes about the disorder.
Erin said those who believe they have ASD do not have to get diagnosed if they do not want to. “It’s completely understandable because a diagnosis comes with closure, but it also comes with a lot of negative things.”
Erin recalls being on an Individualized Education Program (IEP) as early as the third grade.
As the name suggests, an IEP is an individualized program that analyzes a student's academics and behavior in order to design a “blueprint or plan for a child’s special education experience at school,” according to the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities (SCDD).
This education program derives from the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Sitting in their elementary school classroom on their special cushion, Erin struggled with remaining still and would kick their legs at the rubber band underneath their desk that softened the noise of their blows.
Erin had begun to receive the accommodations that were necessary for them to focus and succeed in school, but faced the jealousy and ignorance of their young classmates who did not understand what those items such as the rubber band and cushion were for. Because Erin did not fully understand, either, students would often take their cushion to use for themselves and cut the rubber band for fun.
Their accommodations also involved taking them out of the classroom in order to complete additional work because what they were learning wasn’t “sticking as well.”
However, when they reached middle school, their IEP transitioned into a 504 plan.
This second plan derives from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
While an IEP provides individualized special education and services, a 504 plan “provides services and changes to the learning environment to meet the needs of the child as adequately as other students,” according to the SCDD.
Both an IEP and 504 plan require the student to have a disability - however, the requirements for a 504 plan are more broad. Though Erin did not receive a diagnosis for ASD or ADHD until they were 18, they believe the school’s staff most likely saw their struggles in the academic setting as well as a display of symptoms of the disorders.
Erin’s 504 plan allowed them additional time on tests and the ability to take them in a separate location. Places that may be noisier were best for them as they pay more attention to certain sounds in quieter locations, they said.
When a printer is making noises and people are talking, it is less noticeable for them, but when it’s quiet, those sounds become amplified, making it hard for them to focus, Erin said.
The jealous and ignorant responses to their accommodations from classmates continued into high school, when their 504 plan would give them the ability to take a short walk during class time, they said. Classmates would comment about how “lucky” Erin was to have this option, but this system was in place for them to address their need to move.
“Because if I was in that room all day, I'd probably be doing backflips in the back of the classroom,” Erin said.
Since elementary school, Erin had noticed they were often the only person who required accommodations who was not assigned male at birth.
In high school, Erin said the students who needed accommodations were all given the same course schedule.
“So for four years, I was in every single class with the same 10 people, and that was good and bad,” they said. “But I was the only girl and I would be treated differently than them, too, because they'd always be like, ‘Oh, you're a girl - you behave.’”
They added, “Of course” they behaved, but the problem is the assumptions made based on the gender of the students. However, despite the gendered expectations of the individual students, “We'd always be known as the bad kids.
“Just because we need accommodations, we’re the bad kids?” they asked.
Erin explained accommodations are different for everyone, but are in place because they are necessary for those students. They described accommodations for them as making their learning experience more equitable.
“I might be able to do things that they can't and then the opposite, but accommodations help me do at least as much as they can - [just] differently,” they added.
At the start of the Fall 2021 Semester, Erin attended classes at Framingham State for the first time.
“I didn't know what to expect, and that scared me - especially because I hadn't been in school for the longest time because I did my whole senior year remotely,” Erin said. “So I had not been in a classroom for over a year.”
Prepared with their Ticonderoga pencils and black notebooks, Erin immediately made a beeline for a seat in the back corner of every classroom they entered. “I need to sit in the back,” Erin said. “I cannot sit anywhere in the middle. I can't sit in the front. I need to sit in the back, and honestly, I’m still figuring out why. I think it's the fact that I like to see everyone in the room.”
They added this is the case for any room they sit in - even the Dining Commons.
Once they find a seat to their liking, the next step is to focus on listening to the professor’s voice.
“I get distracted very easily,” they said.
If a pencil is tapping or there is any other ambient noise, Erin said, “I'll hear that over the professor.”
One of their methods for getting themselves to focus on a specific sound is to slightly block their ears - not enough to drown out all the sound, but enough to cut out background noise, they said.
Throughout each of their classes, Erin finds themself persistently trying to refocus in order to get all of the information from the lesson. “I know this doesn't actually happen, but it feels like my ears just go, ‘Boop!’ and turn off and I'm just looking around and then I come back and I'm like, ‘Oh, they just did like eight problems on the board.’”
Erin concluded many of their struggles in the classroom are due to difficulties they face with paying attention, adding they don’t know which disorder to blame - ASD or ADHD. They said the duality of having both can be challenging because sometimes, the disorders share similar symptoms.
And on top of this, they said they often find themselves struggling to take notes. “I either write nothing down because I feel like nothing's important enough, or the opposite and I write every single thing that the professor says,” they said.
“Then, I look at my notes and it's just like eight pages of, ‘Professor looks to the left,’ or something like that, and I'm like, ‘Oh my God,’” they added, laughing.
Erin said they have been trying to look at notetaking differently and focus on what their future self may need to know.
Though lecture courses require a lot of focus, Erin said they appreciate not having to worry about what they will say in class - unlike more discussion-based courses. However, they recognize the benefits of discussions as well because they tend to have an easier time remembering the material if they talk about it.
Taking the classes that are broken into 50-minute time blocks also helps Erin as it takes less energy to focus for a shorter time period, they said.
“It's a little difficult,” Erin added about being in the classroom. “If I'm having a bad day, how am I supposed to go to class and do all that? That's what I struggle with a lot.”
Prior to receiving accommodations in the classroom, Erin said they would let their professors know they may struggle in the class or simply that they learn differently.
For example, when they are paying attention, they may express that differently than other students. “I just don't really like looking at people that much,” they said. So instead, they will focus their eyes on something outside the window so they can listen. They said they like to tell the professor this so they do not appear to be ignoring the lesson.
Erin also asks their professors to “keep an eye out for me because I might sneakily fall behind,” adding they believe letting their professors know this ahead of time helps them out in the long run.
Erin’s dorm room door is festooned with three name tags from various occasions and a piece of crime scene tape. On the other side of this door is a space Erin and their friends have come to call “The Crypt.”
A mixture of white Christmas lights and the purple glow of a desk lamp illuminate the space, forming a lighting “that is just so good,” they said.
Sitting down at their desk to do homework in the circle of the purple light, Erin puts on their favorite study music - the “On Repeat” Spotify playlist. This playlist is compiled of 30 songs the user has recently played the most. Erin’s current top song is “Funeral Grey” by Waterparks - one of their favorite artists. Other recurring artists on the list include Yung Gravy, Machine Gun Kelly, and Blackbear.
Erin said they often struggle with getting started with assignments. “I'm very good at procrastinating.”
When they do get started, though, they sometimes struggle with focusing their mind enough to take in the information they are reading. “I read words and I don't know where they go, but they don't go in my head,” Erin said, adding they find listening to the audiobook while reading is often the best way to combat this.
They said sometimes, they will have “random bursts” of motivation that will allow them to get all their work done - though they don’t recommend it as a method of productivity.
Their productivity also depends a lot on their environment, Erin said.
Often, they will hear it is not good to study in their room - however, they find this is where they can get most of their work done. “I know that that's my space and nobody can disrupt me there,” they said.
Erin added this space is the best for them as they can create their own perfect ambiance.
“If my room is bland, it just makes me sad,” they said, adding they are in no way a minimalist.
Accompanying Erin in their studying is an ever growing army of Squishmellows - some of which are housed on a shelf on the right side of the desk.
From a small Jack Skellington to a large bat Squishmellow, this shelf is where Erin keeps their “prized possessions,” including signed drumsticks from their favorite band, Palaye Royale. Also on Erin’s desk is a small bucket of fidgets for easy access while studying or when they’re on the go.
Erin’s walls are decorated with posters of their favorite bands and movies, including “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Beetlejuice,” and 21 Pilots. However, also featured are small cut-out bats that climb their way up the wall above Erin’s bed.
The bedding, matching their theme, features a quilt made up of old T-shirts such as a black Fall Out Boy shirt with white writing featuring a flower with a skull inside of it. And, of course, their bed would not be complete without two additional Squishmellows and a Build-a-Bear Jack Skellington.
Nervous about the transition from living at home to school, Erin said they bought a comforter a month before moving in for the first time and used it at home in order to adjust more easily.
Though their environment plays a major role in their productivity, having a routine schedule is also important to Erin.
They said they do not like when they have unexpected free time, and will plan out their day-to-day schedule.
Initially using a physical calendar, Erin switched to using Google Calendar. Having a calendar they can easily carry with them wherever they go has benefited them, they said. Erin added they also love the calendar feature that displays a red line across the schedule indicating the time of day. “That visual is really helpful to me.”
In managing their workload this year, they have found themselves having an easier time dealing with outside stressors right away, ensuring they do not interfere with their coursework.
A helpful tool they have begun using this semester is an iPad they purchased with the money they made from being an orientation leader. Taking digital notes on the application GoodNotes has been helpful, they said.
“I don't know why that was the key to my success, but it literally was,” Erin said, adding how fun it is to write notes now.
“That was the best investment I've ever made,” they said.
Reflecting on their year without accommodations, Erin said it was a “disaster.”
Erin started their freshman year with four classes: Composition I and a psychology, education, and math course.
As the semester picked up, they began to struggle a lot with their math course.
Erin’s eyes would often well with tears when working on math homework. When they reached a point when they could no longer make out the numbers through their tears, they knew they had reached “peak frustration.”
Erin said when doing math work, “I just close my eyes and just go right in, and it works sometimes, but other times, I don't get it. And if I don't get it, I usually just stop doing it because if I keep trying, it's going to make me upset.”
Following this frustration, Erin would meet with their professor the next day to try to work out what they were struggling with, they said.
Eventually, instead of failing the math course, they decided to withdraw, with the other courses being completed “as best as they could be.
“I could have been better if I had my accommodations, but I survived,” Erin said.
Following their first-semester experience, they decided they would only take three courses a semester. They said though some students may consider this puts them at a disadvantage, it “levels the playing field” for them. “I'm still trying just as hard.”
The problem they said they face is being behind in course credits. This was only made worse when Erin had to take a week out of classes for health reasons during the Spring 2022 Semester.
Unable to make up the work they missed, Erin withdrew from two of their courses that semester, leaving them with only one course completed.
“So this year, I'm really trying to get back on that,” Erin added. “I've planned to take summer classes and I will graduate on time - at least for me, and I know that's not a necessity, but that's one of my goals.”
Erin said they are “surprised” neither their professors nor their advisor said anything about seeking help from CASA when they were struggling with and withdrawing from their courses.
After the many challenges they faced their freshman year, Erin felt defeated.
“I didn't use what I had on campus,” Erin said. “I didn't go to events. I didn't use CASA. I didn't talk to my professors.
“I felt so worthless on this campus,” they added.
Framingham State had not been what they expected.
“Then, I realized that can't be it because people can't like the school if it's like that,” they said. And becoming an orientation leader made them realize they were right. FSU is a welcoming place and one that offers accommodations through CASA to those who need them - this they discovered during one of their training sessions.
Initially, Erin thought CASA was designated for tutoring only.
Entering their second year at FSU, Erin was afraid it was too late to request accommodations and therefore overwhelmed at the thought of emailing CASA.
“I had just spent a whole year without it, and I didn't want them to think I was just springing it on them,” they said.
With the help and support of a friend, Erin was able to send the email and gather all the necessary documentation to be approved.
Erin had their first CASA meeting with Tanya Milette, associate director of Disability Access Services.
“We kind of went through what accommodations were available and what would benefit me best,” they said, adding they created a plan that can be implemented in their classes when needed.
Erin said though CASA will inform their professors that a student in the class needs accommodations, they also still like to inform the professors themselves. “I want them to know who it is, and [why] I just disappear to go take a test.”
Some of the accommodations Erin can use through CASA are taking a test or quiz in a separate location, obtaining a notetaker for class, and acquiring audiobooks to help with focused reading.
At the start of the semester, Erin said they were “so excited to go to class knowing that I could be more OK than I was last year.
“I feel a lot better,” they said. “I don't feel as trapped as I did before, and knowing my resources, I feel a lot more comfortable with facing problems in the classroom.”
Erin added a part of this is just having the courage to reach out for help from professors when they may have been hesitant before.
Though they were not aware of the accommodations due to missing their orientation, there are still students who know of them and may have used them in high school, but are reluctant to do so in college.
Erin suggested a way to make CASA more visible as a resource could be “getting people to talk about it more because I feel like right now, it might be kind of a taboo thing.”
They added since learning about the accommodations themselves, they have tried their best to tell every person on campus about these services.
LaDonna Bridges, dean of Student Success and director of CASA, said the transition to college for neurodivergent students can be “seamless” for some and “really difficult” for others.
She said the “beauty” of neurodivergent students is how they are all different, and therefore have different experiences.
However, she said the transition can be “a tremendous struggle. There can be isolation that's unexpected. There can be social situations that are unaccounted for,” adding there are experiences in the classroom and “around campus that are really hard to control.”
Bridges said some students who received accommodations in high school may want to try college without them. She said though this is “perfectly fine,” she advises students to register with her office, submit the necessary documents, and then they can choose when or if they want to use those accommodations.
She added the decision to use accommodations can also depend on the individual student’s needs. If a student has dysgraphia, a neurological disorder that affects a person’s ability to spell and write out thoughts on paper, they would have an accommodation that might allow them to use a computer for exams and notetaking.
“That would be something that we would hope someone would choose to use rather than struggle through trying to figure out how a professor can read an exam that they've written,” she said. “It also just helps them get their thoughts down on paper easier.”
Bridges said no matter what the student chooses in the end, she encourages them to talk to CASA and have their documents on file “so that if the moment arises, we're ready. They may never, ever, ever use an accommodation, and they may never want to use something, but at least they're in a position to be able to easily.”
During the admissions process, a neurodivergent student may have a high school exemption when it comes to the University’s requirements, such as not having a foreign language or four years of math, according to Bridges. In those cases, the student will submit documentation when applying.
Otherwise, when a student pays their deposit, they will have the opportunity to inform the University they have a disability and CASA will follow up with them, she said.
She added her office emphasizes to parents and families during orientation that documentation needs to be turned in to the University.
And if they do, Bridges said, “We'll meet with them over the summer, and make sure they're ready to go hit the ground running.
“High schools are fabulous at that because they do transition programming with all students and they make it known to the student” they need to disclose to the school they are applying to if they have a disability in order to receive accommodations, she said.
At the start of the fall semester, Bridges said approximately 120 incoming students were identified as having a disability.
Bridges added if a student does not initially inform her office of their disability, they can reach out at any point in their time at FSU in order to set up accommodations.
She said a student’s academic performance will sometimes indicate they need accommodations, and the University may find out during the academic standing process. Faculty may also refer a student they see struggling in the classroom to CASA.
Bridges said, “You can't say to someone, ‘Do you have a disability that we need to know?’ But, it's pretty easy to say, ‘Did you receive supplemental support in high school? Can you talk to me about that?’ Then, that usually can open up the door for them to share.
“I like to tell them that leveling the playing field through accommodations is the sign of a good student,” Bridges added. “It's not that they're getting cut slack for that. It's because there's a discrepancy in their learning profile that we can help compensate for - not a deficiency, but a difference in their learning profile.”
At the end of August, CASA, the Counseling Center, the Dean of Students Office, and the Student Assistance Team partnered with the Asperger/Autism Network to host two workshops focusing on neurodiversity.
The workshops, “Neurodiversity on Campus: Supporting Autistic College Students” and “In Our Own Words: A Panel Presentation,” were recorded and are available for viewing on the Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching, Scholarship and Service (CELTSS) webpage for a limited time.
“The first workshop was really more for faculty and people who work with neurodiverse students, and the second workshop was neurodiverse students who [spoke] about their own college experience,” Bridges said.
Sometimes, the misunderstanding of differences between neurotypical and neurodivergent students can lead to “a conduct issue in a classroom,” Bridges said. These workshops aimed to address that for faculty and provide ways to “de-escalate when things are seeming to be building up.”
She added, “The goal is to prevent the differences from being perceived as behavioral problems.”
Bridges said at times, faculty have asked her why she did not inform them a neurodivergent student was in their classroom, and in response, she explained disclosing that information is up to the student and unless they request her to do so, she won’t.
“I don't want to set faculty up for a predisposed impression of a student,” she said.
When it comes to faculty teaching neurodivergent students, Bridges said, “I think they're seeking to understand - obviously, some are better than others,” adding each professor’s background differs in their training in this area.
“I think that by and large, what I find is the faculty do want students to succeed, and so they do want to know how best to support a student,” she said.
Bridges said accommodation requests always have to be reasonable, and the standards are set by ADA. Therefore, it would be unreasonable for her to grant an accommodation that would “fundamentally alter the nature of the course,” adding faculty have academic freedom.
ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which guarantees civil rights for individuals with disabilities in order to prevent and guard against discrimination.
“They want to learn - they want to help, but they also want to protect the integrity of the course in the learning outcomes,” she said.
Therese Ajtum-Roberts is the director of Framingham State’s Chris Walsh Center for Educators and Families of MetroWest. This center aims to provide resources to educators and families whose children have unmet needs.
Ajtum-Roberts said those unmet needs include “students with disabilities who are gifted or twice exceptional and are underserved in the population, so students with neurodiversity would fit into those categories.”
She said the center provides consultations for parents, caregivers, and educators, which includes those interested in learning more about the transition process from high school to college.
The center also provides professional and educational development for families and educators, hosts events on topics that include neurodiversity, and shares resources on its website and social media, she added.
“We have a whole section on our website that has resources, and it has a lot for ADHD, learning disabilities, and autism,” Ajtum-Roberts said.
There are also resources available specifically for those interested in learning more about the transition from high school to college, she said.
As someone who is also neurodivergent with ADHD and dyslexia, a neurological disorder that makes reading difficult, Ajtum-Roberts said she understands what that transition to college is like.
Arriving at University of Massachusetts Amherst as an undergraduate in 1996, Ajtum-Roberts said she was “very lucky” as the university had recently opened its office for Learning Disability Services.
That office “was just geared toward the students who had learning disabilities, and, at that time, they were seeing a big influx of kids with learning disabilities coming to college because before, that was considered something not possible.”
She mentioned to her orientation leader that she had a learning disability, and they introduced her to the director of that new office. The director was able to look over her schedule and recommend changes to her courses “because sometimes, there's professors that know how to work well with kids with learning disabilities, and professors that don't.”
Advocating for herself and forming a network with other students with learning disabilities was important to her college transition, she said. Having those resources and connections allowed her to be successful and feel less alone on campus.
Ajtum-Roberts graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s in history and went on to get her master’s and Ph.D. at UMass Amherst.
Her advice to neurodivergent students is to “visit several colleges,” talk to students about the support services, and learn about the disability services available.
“A lot of kids don't want to disclose during the process that they have an LD [learning disability] because they think it's going to be used against them,” she said. However, “I think it's important to disclose so that you can discuss these services.”
Disclosing in the beginning can be “easier” and allow neurodiverse students to build “a personal support network,” she added.
Ajtum-Roberts said looking back as a neurodiverse student, she wishes she understood when she entered college that she did not need to be perfect, and that there was still time for her skill set to improve.
She said jobs are now actively looking for neurodiverse people. Though people were “afraid” to talk about disabilities in the past, “more people are able to talk about it, but I think we still need to keep bringing it to the mainstream.
“So normalizing the experiences of people with neurodiversity as being normal, and not necessarily different - we need to continue to do that,” Ajtum-Roberts emphasized.
Erin’s intersectional identity has given them strengths and insights that the average student may not possess.
This has enhanced the role they play within the Framingham State community, including as an orientation leader and inevitably, when they became the diversity and inclusion officer for SGA this semester.
“I think a lot of it is connecting with certain types of people that others may not be able to connect to,” they said.
Erin said during orientation, they would notice students who were uninterested in the icebreakers or starting conversations with other students. Understanding that feeling, Erin would reach out to those students, acknowledge their discomfort, and spark a conversation with them.
They said they often found themself connecting with students the other orientation leaders could not, explaining they feel people who are neurodivergent have a shared “bond” given their similar experiences.
“So I think that's a strength and a weakness,” Erin said, adding sometimes, they will struggle to make connections with people due to social anxiety. “An introverted orientation leader with social anxiety sounds like something that's impossible, but it's not.”
Though they can be afraid at times to talk to new people, they try to force themself to take that leap, and it sometimes works.
Erin said doing what makes them uncomfortable is “always worth it because if I find out I don’t like something, I don’t have to do it ever again.”
Another struggle Erin has in work and academic settings is the fear that their identity will limit opportunities.
“I live with that fear every single day,” Erin said, adding it is not so much their ADHD, but mostly their ASD that brings on this fear.
“Because I feel like I say things sometimes that aren't perceived as normal and I know, also, the way I talk is a little strange,” they said. On occasion, their friends will point out how formal Erin’s speech is in casual conversation.
During the summer as an orientation leader, Erin’s colleague, SGA President Dara Barros, was recruiting members for SGA.
Erin said they spoke to Barros about how important ADA regulations, accessibility, and Universal Design is to them.
Universal Design, short for Universal Design for Learning (UDL), is a “framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn,” according to the UDL Guidelines website.
According to the University of Washington’s Center for Universal Design in Education, Universal Design can also be incorporated into physical spaces by implementing a layout that would be accessible to everyone. This is made successful by following the seven basic principles of Universal Design: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use.
After Erin shared their passion about these subjects and gave examples of ways FSU could improve, Barros asked them if they would be interested in being the next diversity and inclusion officer - Barros’ former position.
Barros said during the interview process for orientation leaders, they appreciated that Erin was non-binary because “we have a lot of non-binary students coming into FSU.
“For me, I love it when I see someone of color on a show or something or someone that looks like me or someone who represents the same values and the same things as me,” she said. “That's what really stood out about Erin - that they are going to represent some of the students that we have on campus already as well as some of the students who are going to be coming to our campus.”
Barros added having someone who can relate to those students and connect with them on that level is important in making them feel welcome on campus.
When Erin was asked about the diversity and inclusion work they do during the individual interview, Barros said she believed Erin’s answer was the “best.”
She said, “Not that everyone else didn't have the best answer or didn't have a good answer, but they told us what they believe, what they do, and demonstrated the actions.
“I always talk about affirmative action, and they, from the get-go, really showed affirmative action - that they believe in diversity, inclusion, and equity for all, accessibility, as well as being a support system for BIPOC students as an ally and knowing their role as an ally,” Barros said.
She added when she was in the diversity and inclusion officer position last year, she focused on supporting BIPOC students. She said Erin shares a similar commitment to BIPOC students, but additionally, “They're also about accessibility on campus because of what they have gone through in life.”
These accessibility issues on campus were problems “I would never even have noticed as diversity and inclusion officer last year,” Barros admitted, adding Erin has “embodied” what the position is supposed to be - advising SGA on diversity and inclusion.
Although Barros said she initially asked Erin to be a senator on SGA, the discussions she had with Erin made it clear what the right position was for them.
“I'm extremely happy with the decision of asking them to be the diversity and inclusion officer because I truly have seen them grow,” she said. They are “truly excelling in this role and to the best capability that they possibly can, so I just think that they're doing a fantastic job.”
Erin entered this role already knowing their goals.
One of the first accessibility issues they addressed was that when individuals with hearing devices entered the Henry Whittemore Library through the main entrance, the book sensors would cause a painful, high-pitched sound, Erin said.
One of Erin’s friends walked through these sensors and “it hurt them so badly that they literally fell to the ground because that's all that you can hear,” they said.
Those wearing airpods can also hear the high-pitched noise, but on a quieter level, they added.
Since hearing of this issue, Erin has worked with Library Dean Millie González to add signs providing a warning to hearing device users. Signs are now posted for patrons entering and exiting the library.
Another accessibility issue Erin worked to address was a concern their friend who has low depth perception shared with them. According to Healthline, depth perception affects the way a person’s eyes perceive the distance between objects.
Therefore, having yellow lines on the edge of stairs is important for them to see each step, Erin said, adding these lines are an example of Universal Design as they could be helpful for everyone when it is rainy and dark.
On the staircase leading up from State Street toward Crocker, Peirce, and Horace Mann halls, the lines were almost completely faded away. However, when Erin highlighted this during SGA’s fall Campus Safety Walk, they were painted by Facilities Department staff the following day.
“It was super fast,” Erin said. “I was very excited.
“I felt accomplished because I felt like they actually were listening to us,” they said, regarding the administrators who attended the walk.