This article intends pay attention to the ways in which Oxford University can make a more concerted effort to support neurodivergent students pedagogically and make cognitive diversity the norm and not the exception.

anavrin-ai, CC BY 3.0 DEED, via DeviantArt

Just as nature’s intrinsic dance ensures that no two individuals except identical twins share the same set of fingerprints, or that no two snowflakes are able to form the same complicated designs, the human mind is a labyrinthine of extraordinary uniqueness. If science, history, sociology, anthropology, and any other subject can teach us anything, it is that our world is full of difference. Yet that difference is not always celebrated. Much like sexism, racism and classism, our aversion to catering for the needs of neurodivergent individuals is a silent and invisible form of injustice that has permeated all aspects of our society. The basis of our institutions are underpinned by binary narratives that create a conception of society that is black and white. This reinforces neuronormative frameworks which alienate and disempower neurodivergent individuals in the home, workplace, and education. In higher education, these injustices are replicated systematically and enshrined in the pedagogical structures of our universities. This, compounded with the constant pathologising of neurodivergent conditions, creates discourse that posits neurodiversity as a weakness. This article intends to challenge the neuronormative subjectivities that have been made the objective reality for those with divergent minds, suggesting ways in which higher education has failed to address the pervasive problem. Subsequently, attention will be paid to the ways in which Oxford University specifically can make a more concerted effort to support its neurodivergent students within its tutorial systems.

What is neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term which refers to the different ways the brain can work to interpret information, and highlights how that can create a difference in interests and motivations. These differences make individuals naturally better at some things and poorer at others. Sociologist Judy Singer, describes neurodiversity as a form of biodiversity that can be seen in the natural world. Neurodiversity can take form in many conditions. These include categories such as: ASD (Autism and Asperger), ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder), Dyslexia, and Dyspraxia among others. In the UK alone 1 in 7 people are reported to be neurodivergent (15% of  the population), and the figure is likely to be even higher as recent insights suggest that diagnoses are on the rise. For example, Autism diagnoses increased by 787% in 2023 and ADHD diagnoses increased by 800% in the same year. Some of these diagnoses come at a young age, some at adulthood and others are never discovered. Although a growing demographic seem to identify with neurodivergence, university initiatives are coming short at being able to handle the sweltering numbers coming up.

Oxford and Flaws of the Tutorial System

Have you ever had a pre-tutorial fright? You’ve just managed to recover and save yourself from an impending essay crisis, you are dreading the deadlines and doom scrolling becomes more and more appealing. You sit in your tutorial, you may be in a group or a pair, and you must face the critique of your tutor on your essay and engage in class discussion. This week you’ve got a nicer tutor, with a more relaxed tutorial style, but in a couple of days you’ve got another tutor whose sessions are a lot more intense. Eye contact is imperative, and you cannot be late. On top of this, the lack of clear direction from this tutor for writing essays clearly overwhelms your brain. You either read too much, read too little or become a victim to your monkey brain, which tells you that going out to the ATIK (rip) the night before will be a good idea.

This, unfortunately, is an average experience for an Oxford student. However, for neurodivergent students what seems commonplace can elicit immense feelings of stress and anxiety. Take for instance Autism, which can affect the ways a person communicates and relates with the people around them. Sitting in an intense tutorial, where direct eye contact is required, is very likely to serve as a source of immense discomfort. If you are aware of your condition, modifications can be made, but latent diagnosis will mean that individuals suffer in silence. The condition Dyspraxia, involving issues with processing reading and speech, can hinder the comprehension of what a tutor or your peers have articulated. For ADHD, restlessness and hyperactivity can certainly make sitting in 2-hour long classes tests your focus. This article does not claim that the university does not have frameworks available within colleges and university wide to support individuals with learning difficulties. Nor does it suggest that this is a criticism levied exclusively to the University of Oxford. The issue of neurophobia is pervasive, but what is being illustrated here is how the tutorial system and the lack of standardised neurodivergent friendly frameworks can pose a challenge.

The Problem of Language and Diagnosis

It is important for students who believe that they are neurodivergent to be aware of their own needs and provide universities with a formal diagnosis so that approaches can be personalised. However, this approach does not recognise the difficulty involved in disclosing neurodivergence. The very language used to describe neurodivergence can make some wary of the stigma associated with it, and reluctant to identify with conditions that other people may perceive as weaknesses. Furthermore, adults are increasingly unlikely to be able to identify or diagnose their neurodivergence, as some of these traits have been masked or suppressed since childhood, and some conditions overlap, making it even more difficult to diagnose due to excessive pigeonholing of neurodivergence attributes into discrete categories. In addition to this, some NHS waiting lists can last up to eight years, private referrals can last up to two years, and of course there is the well documented disproportionate difficulty for women to be able to get accurate diagnosis. Although the 2010 Equalities Act stipulates that universities are under obligation to respond and accommodate when a learning difficulty is disclosed, the conflation between neurodiversity and disability within higher education institutions is problematic as the issue is not addressed on its own. In addition to this, current approaches taken by the university, such as the neurodivergence unit only focus on university employees, while student needs are assigned to welfare or disability. All these factors combined mean that relying on self-disclosure can be problematic for individuals entering university either due to fear of judgement, lack of proper diagnosis or a late diagnosis.

Pedagogical Change: Standardised Tutorial Requirements

In a paper written by Lorna Hamilton and Stephanie Penny, compassion is considered a variable which can be used by tutors to help overcome the barrier of defence. While challenges may arise with having to ensure that students are not given “passages”, or gain undue advantages, simple things can be done to ensure inclusivity. These could be things like:  allowing breaks in longer tutorial sessions; adapting the colour filters, fonts, and background colours of exam papers; clearly outlining the purpose for each class; modifying websites and handbooks in bullet point notation; bullet pointing reading lists; having white boards in all classes; using mind mapping tools and providing templates. All these methods combined would help achieve a good baseline for inclusive pedagogy, a can go a long way to make inclusivity the norm and not the exception. Furthermore, this compounded with tutor training on ways to accommodate neurodivergence means that our approaches are not localised to one department, but all departments and areas of the university. Clarity in terms of assignment details, deadlines, and expectations are all ways that support can be improved. And all the aforementioned ideas can be enforced to ensure cognitive diversity does not suffer under higher education.

Neurodivergence and poor mental health

The failure of universities to create an educational environment that accommodates cognitive diversity means that individuals may feel the need to suppress natural behaviours to conform to societal expectations. This is called masking, which occurs when neurodivergent people try to act in neurotypical fashion. This is highly problematic as it causes a whole host of mental problems such as anxiety, depression, burnout, or shame. These periods of mental duress can become cyclic, making work performance sporadic and strained. As a result of this, more often than not neurodivergence is seen as a mental health condition in and of itself, and this cannot be much further from the truth. The mental health issues emerge as a result of forced conformity, to standards that create barriers to expression of the self. Far from being a weakness or a disability, neurodivergent people possess brains made for exceptional creativity. These individuals possess high skill sets including: attention to details, expertise, accuracy, and much more. Not only do universities need to work to reframe our conception of neurodivergence as disability, but also value it, this requires pedagogical change.


Neurodivergence encompasses what it means to be a part of the natural world. It reflects the diversity of the human condition and is something to be celebrated. While there is no one size fits all approach to reforming our institutions, it is important for universities to adopt an ecosystem to help students with academic work, and support students in their transition to the workplace also. This approach transcends the neurodivergence of the disability services and reaches all areas of school life. Student societies and unions could also play a vital role in creating a movement for greater inclusivity. Oxford is a university that gathers some of the greatest minds of the world, and it’s a privilege to be a part of such a remarkable institution. Working to properly cater for neurodivergence will make it even more remarkable than it already is.


The British Psychological society: Celebrating neurodiversity in Higher Education-

The University of Edinburgh: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion –,learns%20and%20processes%20information%20differently.

Somerset and West Taunton Local Government Presentation on Neurodiversity –

ICAEW: Neurodiversity: the power of thinking differently-

National Autistic Society: What is autism?-

The University of Birmingham: Understanding neurodiversity across the UK population study-

Complete University Guide: Choosing the right university: A checklist for neurodiverse students-

Anna Freud Mentally Healthy Schools: Neurodiversity –

Is the education system supporting Neurodiverse children: A personal account –

Compassionate pedagogy for neurodiversity in higher education: A conceptual analysis-

Victor Stationery: Embracing Neurodiversity: Tinted Paper as a Support Tool –

LSE: It’s time universities took neurodiversity seriously