Elon University’s Student Undergraduate Research Forum was held all day Tuesday. With no classes, students and faculty could visit oral presentations and poster sessions from students who completed or were almost complete with their respective research projects. 

This year, there were six research presentations that dealt with topics of disability and neurodiversity, a term that says brain differences are normal rather than deficits, according to Understood. Examples of neurodiversity include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. While most projects stemmed from the psychology and education department, two research projects specifically tackled neurodiversity hailed from the exercise science department.

One such research project was conducted by senior Jordan Chizmadia, who teamed up with professor and chair of exercise science Caroline Ketcham, to look into the experience of disabled and neurodiverse students, and how their identity plays a role in if they feel supported or accommodated at Elon.

While Chizmadia is not neurodivergent herself, she said she found the topic interesting as she wants to go into occupational therapy where she will work with neurodiverse individuals. She said it’s important for neurodivergent and disabled students to receive accommodations.

“There's such a stigma behind mental health and neurodiverse and disabled students,” Chizmadia said. “I don't think there should be because they're not different from anyone else. I’m just like, ‘Stop labeling.’”

Her research project is titled “Disability Identity and the Disabled Student Experience in Neurodiverse and Disabled College Students,” and the results that stemmed from her research reveal that 84.4% of participants identified only a little with their disability and students often disclose their identity in setting where they feel it’s necessary or where their disability is impacted. 

The results also show self-advocacy for a student’s disability was common, and students who self-advocated received needed accommodations, although students did mention high school accommodations were more personalized.

Chizmadia hopes this research will help inform Elon on how best to accommodate neurodiverse and disabled students in ways unique to them, as well as help them gain support through meeting people like them. 

“I think it’d be really cool in the future if there was a way to do orientation groups of students who identified as neurodiverse,” Chizmadia said. “That way, they have a group similar to the fellows and get oriented with people that identify similarly to them and get those accommodations.”

Chizmadia said after she graduates, Ketcham will continue the research and expand on it. Ketcham said this research will continue to be conducted with focus groups and interviews with students when she goes on sabbatical next spring.

The other neurodiversity-related research project, also mentored by Ketcham, was conducted by junior Mark Dobson. Dobson looked into the difference in post-concussion symptoms between neurodivergent and neurotypical athletes outside of Elon. He found neurodivergent athletes tended to suffer more severe consequences of concussions, including higher rates of depression and anxiety, than their neurotypical peers.

Dobson conducted the study with around 220 to 230 athletes who are either or recently were at Elon. He said the percentage of neurodivergent athletes at Elon were on par with the national average — 15 to 30%. Dobson focused on athletes with ADHD, autism and dyslexia.

Dobson said he plans to continue doing research into the topic, broadening the sample size and comparing ADHD data to autism data to dyslexia data. 

As an ex-hockey player with ADHD who has suffered from concussions, Dobson said conducting this research was a healing experience for him, as he thought his own post-concussion symptoms were particularly unique for being more severe than his neurotypical counterparts. Through this research, he realized many others at Elon had similar experiences.

“It’s nice to be able to think about it without being sad,” Dobson said.

Ketcham said as co-director of Elon Brain Care Research Institute, she has been conducting research alongside Eric Hall, professor of exercise science and director of undergraduate research, regarding concussions for a while, focusing on about 400 student athletes a year. 

When Ketcham and Dobson teamed up to continue this research, Ketcham said learning how to work with Dobson and his ADHD requires constant dialogue back and forth and reinforcing her support for Dobson.

“I gave him some leeway of like, ‘Hey, do you know how to do stats?’ And he was like, ‘Yes,’” Ketcham said. “What I learned after him trying was that he took that as I was expecting him to know how to do the stats. And so, I’m being really clear that I don’t expect him to know, but I’m here to support him if he wants to try it.”

Dobson said due to his ADHD, he struggles to stay organized and on top of tasks, so conducting this research with Ketcham helped him “feel more normal.” He also attributes this feeling to having a genuine interest in contributing to this field of study, which he said tends to be oversaturated with ADHD-centered research.

Ketcham echoes this desire for her mentees to feel interested in their subject of research. Even though Chizmadia is not neurodiverse like Dobson is, Ketcham still partnered with her because of her interest in neurodiversity. Ketcham tries to “meet students where they are.”

“Students have to be interested in the research and not just come to it because of that identity,” Ketcham said. “So finding that match is really important.”

Ketcham’s son has autism with motor control challenges, which is a perspective that helped Ketcham, a neurotypical individual, highlight neurodiversity in her academic work. Seeing the significant increase in SURF day presentations about neurodiversity is something Ketcham described as a “slow growth” and attributes to growing student interest and frequency of the term “neurodiversity” being used in various spaces.

“I hope it continues to grow and we start to be a more neuro inclusive and neuro affirming campus because right now, our diversity definition on campus tends to focus on race and gender identity,” Ketcham said. “I think disability and neurodiversity should be part of that conversation.”

This article is part of a larger project by Betsy Schlehuber about autism at Elon University.