Our Mission at ND-U

Neurodivergent and disabled students face significant hurdles in academia. Autistic students are among the least represented demographic groups at college, with only 44% enrollment (compared to 67% for the general population), and a 39% graduation rate from post-secondary institutions. Disabled students face a double jeopardy of sorts, because not only do their disabilities increase the likelihood that they will struggle academically and socially – mainly due to lack of institutional supports and ableism, NOT because of any inherent characteristics – but failures in these areas can also flag students by administration and law enforcement. For example, in Pasco County, Florida, an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that the Sheriff’s Office was flagging students who were struggling with grades and attendance as future criminals, with the intent to “make their lives miserable,” and was even planning to surveil students who had multiple psychiatric hospitalizations. University administrations and faculty as well have implemented policies that create an unsafe learning environment for disabled students, often with explicit goals of weeding out students and setting disabled students up for failure.

One of the principal motivating factors for the creation of Neurodivergent-U (NDU) was our observation that, during the past decade, as the media has perpetuated harmful stereotypes associating neurodivergence and disability with criminality, organizations like Autism Speaks, NAMI (and its offshoot, the Treatment Advocacy Center), and the American Psychiatric Association have been inexcusably silent and often complicit with lawmakers as they enacted policies based on these harmful tropes. NDU seeks to amplify the critical voices that challenge the dominant cultural and media narratives about us, and to promote policies that actually heal and support rather than harm.

The College Rankings

Since its inception, NDU’s focus has been the development of a college ranking system designed specifically for the needs of disabled and neurodivergent students. Our rating system comprises 16 precisely defined metrics based on four pillars: Support and Accessibility; Inclusion; Safety; and Critical Pedagogy. Our goal was not to create a scientifically valid instrument, but rather a medium to validate the truths of students’ lived experiences, one that is often erased by those who either presume to speak for us or actively silence us. This project is part experiment, part activism, and part work of art.

We believe that schools should take a transparent, collaborative, and nonpunitive approach to helping students. Therefore, although our college ranking system aims specifically to help the disabled student in higher education, we also aim to work with university administrations to change policies that implicitly or explicitly target or harm neurodivergent and disabled students.

'Students of Concern'

As part of our broader mission to advocate for neurodivergent and disabled students in higher education, we are committed to shedding light on the McCarthyistic policy of identifying and reporting “Students of Concern” (SoC) at US college campuses, which codifies discrimination against neurodivergence and disability. SoC policies enable faculty to view disabled students with fear and suspicion, and may discourage students from seeking help and support. As Dr. Melanie Tucker, a Vice President and Dean of Students at Maryville College, wrote in one of the first critical scholarly works on SoC, “[I]f these students are increasingly construed as concerning, with a need for case management or some other type of intervention, there is a risk for assigning yet another label to students with disabilities or reinforcing the assumption made by some who regard having a disability as negative.”

Although SoC policies are publicly touted on university websites as tools of care and support, in the past decade we have too often seen that in practice such policies are used to coerce students into taking medical leaves and often force disabled students out of higher education altogether. These policies are discriminatory, and have caused real harm to students, especially multiply marginalized students and particularly racially minoritized students. Outside our campuses as well, we see policies that are touted as “CARE” being used to incarcerate and disappear the most vulnerable and marginalized people from society.

Social Justice

This policing of neurodivergence and disability on college campuses should be considered in context with other indicators of growing fascism around the country, including the rolling back of women’s rights by the US Supreme Court, the backlash against the MeToo movement, and reactionary political campaigns built upon platforms that would stifle LGBTQ expression and equality. The policing of neurodivergence and disability stems from the same white supremacist, patriarchal, and colonial ethos that polices Trans and gender non-conforming bodies, women’s bodies, and Black bodies.

As we too often see with these injustices, the harms that disabled people experience frequently fall outside the scope of legal justice, and a culture of silence reinforces the shame and powerlessness often felt with victimization. The probability of bringing a discrimination case successfully to court, let alone winning, is discouragingly low, and the burden of proof on claimants is prohibitively high. That is why we believe that advocacy beyond the legal arena, including grassroots organizing, is so important for students who have been harmed but otherwise have no platform on which to speak their truths. It is often said that university administrations have a reliable strategy of waiting for student dissidents and activists to graduate and move on, if they aren't pushed out first. On this website we have created a permanent space to share stories of students who have been harmed, to expose the systemic ableism and discrimination in higher education, and to track how universities are responding to students' demands for change.

Neurodivergent-U is a fiscally sponsored project of Community Partners, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) public benefit corporation.

Advisory Board

Image description: Kendra is a White, femme-presenting person with brown hair and bangs, wearing a yellow tuque, a Navy blue jacket, and clear-framed glasses. She is standing on a pier in Burlington, looking over her shoulder, and smiling. Behind her is Lake Champlain and mountains in the distance.

Kendra McLaughlin

Kendra McLaughlin (she/her/elle) is a socio-legal psychologist and public health researcher, with a Ph.D. in Psychology from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She currently lives in Tiohtià:ke also known as Montréal, Québec. Her undergraduate studies were a tumultuous and challenging time; she began in pre-pharmacy sciences, transferred into nursing, and then into psychology at the University of New Brunswick. Her transdisciplinary academic journey has certainly been impacted and shaped by mental illness and the mental health services she did (not) receive at university. In her spare time, Kendra enjoys reading and writing about the intersections of criminalization and mental health. You can find her writings at CriminalizedMentallyIll on Instagram.

Image description: Shira is a White, femme-presenting person with curly, brown, shoulder-length hair. She is wearing a gray cardigan. She is smiling. Behind her is a tree-lined street.

Shira Collings

Shira (pronouns: she/they) is a neurodivergent, queer therapist in the Philadelphia area. Through personal experience and her work with college and graduate students, Shira has learned about the many barriers and forms of oppression that affect neurodivergent and disabled individuals in academic settings. Shira primarily specializes in eating disorders, disordered eating, and body image distress, and is particularly passionate about supporting neurodivergent, LGBTQ+, and disabled/chronically ill folks in finding freedom with food and body acceptance. Shira's therapeutic approach is informed by feminism, fat liberation, disability justice, and queer and trans liberation. She is a strong believer in the importance of participating in activism outside of the therapeutic space and using her voice to advocate for the systemic changes needed to build a safe, inclusive world for marginalized communities.

Image description: Dr. Nick Walker, a transgender woman of Eastern European and Middle Eastern descent, with a shaved head and hazel eyes. She is wearing a loose black v-neck sweater; behind her is a brown brick wall.

Nick Walker

Nick Walker is a queer, transgender, flamingly autistic writer and educator, best known for her foundational work on the neurodiversity paradigm and Neuroqueer Theory. Dr. Walker is a professor of psychology at California Institute of Integral Studies, and author of the book Neuroqueer Heresies: Notes on the Neurodiversity Paradigm, Autistic Empowerment, and Postnormal Possibilities. She also teaches aikido and co-writes the urban fantasy webcomic Weird Luck.

Image description: Stefanie is a white, femme-presenting person with brown hair, pulled back. They are wearing a t-shirt with "NO COPS IN CRISIS" written across the front. Stefanie has piercings on their nose and left eyebrow. They are wearing a necklace and earrings.

Stefanie Lyn Kaufman Mthimkhulu

Stefanie Lyn Kaufman Mthimkhulu (they/she) is a white, queer and non-binary, Disabled, sick, neurodivergent care worker and educator of Ashkenazi Jewish and Puerto Rican ascent. They are rooted in a historical and political lineage of Disability Justice and Mad Liberation; and show up for their communities as an organizer, parent, doula, peer supporter, writer, and conflict intervention facilitator. Their work specializes in building non-carceral, peer-led mental health care systems that exist outside of the state, reimagining everything we've come to learn about mental distress, and supporting care workers to build access-centered, trauma responsive practices that support whole bodymind healing. Stefanie is the Founding Director of Project LETS, and serves on the Board of IDHA, the Disability Justice Youth Center, and the Lived Experience Advisory Council for the Psychiatric Services Journal.

Project Leader

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Bowen Cho

Bowen is a neurodivergent, queer, and disabled scholar-activist with a background in quantitative research methods. Their current research investigates the reporting mechanisms used by universities to surveil a broad range of student behaviors under the lens of threat assessment and crisis intervention, purportedly to help students, but often used to remove and disappear those exhibiting signs of distress.

Bowen is the co-founder and project leader of Neurodivergent-U, which is developing a novel college ranking system, inspired by the Campus Pride Index, built specifically for disabled and neurodivergent students. They started this project to bring attention to university policies that pathologize, exclude, and harm marginalized students who are fighting to exist in academic spaces. Bowen is a 2023 Emerge Fellow with the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University.