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How can Higher Education meet the needs of neurodivergent students?

28 March 2023

Accommodation Matters brings together sector experts to discuss the Higher Education sector’s key issues through the lens of student accommodation – and, following on from the publication of Unite Students’ new report into the university and accommodation experiences of neurodivergent students, this month we’re talking through some of the findings and recommendations.

Guests talk through practical ways for universities and accommodation providers to make student accommodation a better environment for these students, including arrival and orientation at university, making adjustments to student rooms, and staff support.

Our expert panel, hosted by Jenny Shaw, includes:

  • Freya Selman, Co-founder of Bristol University Neurodiversity Society (BUNS)
  • Tim Owen, Associate Director of Student Accommodation at University of Birmingham
  • Kerry Watson, Regional Student Support Manager for Scotland and the North at Unite Students

You can listen to the episode, or read the transcript, below.


‘Meeting the needs of neurodivergent students’ episode transcript

Jenny: Today we’re focusing on a group of students whose needs are becoming more widely recognised across the whole of the education sector, and we’re talking about what this means for student accommodation.

Neurodiversity is a term first used by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist. She suggested it in the late 1990s as a positive approach to autism based on a social model of disability, and since then the definition of neurodiversity has broadened to include ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia, and sometimes conditions such as OCD and schizophrenia as well.

There has been a focus on the academic needs of neurodivergent students, but very little on the student living experience. We set out to fill that gap in partnership with Bristol University Neurodiversity Society, or BUNS, with a new report on the experiences of autistic students and students with ADHD.

I’m here to discuss the report and the wider issues it raises. We have, as usual, an expert panel with us. Tim Owen is Associate Director for student accommodation at the University of Birmingham.

Tim Owen: Hi, Jenny.

Jenny: Kerry Watson is a Student Support Manager for Scotland and the North and Disability Lead at Unite Students.

Kerry Watson: Hi, Jenny.

Jenny: Freya Selman is a Masters student at the University of Bristol, a chief resident in student halls, co-president of BUNS, and the co-author of the new report. So, Freya, if I can start with you, before we get into the report, could you tell us a little bit about BUNS?

Freya Selman: Yes, so Bristol University Neurodiversity Society is a student society that myself and the other co-president set up about two years ago now. We set the society up because we recognised that there was a lack in provision for neurodivergent students. A lot of societies are very much focused around clubbing and drinking, and that’s not necessarily appropriate for the most enjoyable thing for most neurodivergent students.

Myself and the other co-president set this society up as a space where neurodivergent students could come, take off the mask, be themselves, and socialise in whichever ways they feel most comfortable to do. Since we set up this society, we’ve also done a lot of work with the university and external organisations such as Unite Students, working to improve experiences of universities for neurodivergent students.

Jenny: That’s great. BUNS played a really big role in this report, which focuses on the transition to university and living in student accommodation. Actually, the title of the report – ‘An Asset, Not A Problem’ – came from a member of BUNS, and I thought it was just such a powerful statement about the benefits of diversity within a community. So that’s why we picked it for the title of the report.

I think as we know with diversity has to come inclusion, and the report also highlighted opportunities where adjustments could be provided for neurodivergent students. Freya, could you summarise some of the key issues that the students raised?

Freya: Absolutely. One of the biggest issues that our neurodivergent students raised was the difficulties with noise in halls. Some of our members say that they requested being in the quiet flat and while the flat that they are in is quieter, they’re sandwiched in between noisy flats above and below. While the people in their flat may be quieter, their flat itself isn’t actually a quiet environment to live in. Things such as noisy radiators or loud light fixtures are things that our members have said are really difficult for them. Things that they don’t really feel able to report to maintenance because it’s a very neurodivergent thing to be frustrated by lights being noisy.

There’s the concern that people aren’t going to necessarily understand that and they are going to think that our members are just being difficult being a problem as the title suggests, another issue that came up was the importance of communication. Before moving into halls and while living in halls as well, so there were a lot of maintenance checks and various different reasons that people will need to enter a student’s room while living in halls.

Often the communication surrounding that is not the best. It will be that students receive an e-mail saying at some point within the next week we will be arriving at your flat. And that’s very vague and gives our students a lot of anxiety.

They don’t know when someone’s going to be knocking on their door or just letting themselves into their room. There’s a lot of uncertainty there, which is really difficult. Similarly, before moving into halls, there’s not a massive amount of time to process where you’ve been allocated before moving in. Students aren’t necessarily always able to see where they’re living and know who they’re living with, all of that kind of thing. That would be really, really helpful for students to know before moving in but because the communication isn’t there for whatever reason, it proves a barrier. It makes things a lot more difficult for neurodivergent students.

Jenny: Is that need for clear communication and predictability a really important thing for your members?

Freya: Definitely. It’s well known as a really important thing for autistic and neurodivergent people in general. I think at university, where so much changes – especially in the transition period where you’re going from living at home to being essentially completely independent in a new place – you don’t know the people, you don’t know the area. Having something that you can rely on, some clarity and certainty is so important.

Jenny: Thank you. Tim, I was going to ask you if this is something that’s come across your radar. Are you seeing requests coming through from students about a need for more detailed information?

Tim: I think it’s something we’ve seen for a very long time, but I think what we are seeing that seems to be different now is the number of students coming through who are neurodivergent. That is placing a bigger pressure on the teams in terms of response and the resources available to support those students – I wouldn’t say it’s a new thing, but I just think the volume is higher now.

Jenny: Certainly, it’s made me think and some of my colleagues about an inclusive way to communicate. Is this something that we should be thinking about differently rather than doing what we do and then making additional accommodations for neurodivergent students? I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that.

Tim: I think as an accommodation provider, we know on an annual basis. My responsibility is to house 7,000 students. The easy thing is to do a one-size-fits-all approach and mass allocation, et cetera; that makes my life easier. It gets things done quickly. There isn’t a lot of time between A level results and the arrivals period at the start of the academic year. This report makes it absolutely clear where we can make quite big differences to individual groups of students in terms of their experience and that key first few weeks of the year.

The more information we can have online for all students would be a better way of doing it in the short term; obviously, a more tailored approach is required. I think generally we just need to improve the way we share information and make it more understandable and much more simple. I think that’s the way to go.

Jenny: Was there anything that particularly struck you from the report, any of the findings, or the recommendations?

Tim: I think that the overall finding that struck me is that neurodivergent students aren’t asking for a lot and all the things that they’re asking for, almost all of them are quite simple to deliver, but they can make a big difference. That’s the message that I take away from this.

The opening quote of the report talks about how it’s like navigating when a bit drunk, something that makes sense to you that doesn’t make sense to others. That’s a really clear language that a lot of people can understand and I can share that with my team and help to broaden their understanding of the needs of neurodivergent students more easily. I think that’s a big takeaway that we can achieve a lot with some quite small changes.

In terms of the recommendations, I don’t think any of them surprised me and I’d say they’re all achievable. I think there’s a lot of things within this that we can pick up and run with straight away. I would also say that we’re now thinking about things which perhaps even just five years ago we weren’t thinking about enough, or even at all. This report is just one of many contributions to the way that we can help different sections of our students. The Living Black at University report last year was another great example – it’s really complex.

There are so many things to think about and consider, and the report just gives you your action plan there and then because you can go through it like a scorecard. Go, “Well, we do that; we do that; we can do that better, or we don’t do that, but we could do that by doing this.” That’s where the report really is hugely helpful to us because it just cuts through a lot of the problems. It does a lot of the work for us. It gives us the action plan we can crack on with straight away.

Jenny: Actually, all those recommendations came directly from the students and, Freya, you had a massive input to those. I think it’s certainly taught me something about students advocating for themselves and how powerful that is. I think, like you Tim, some of my colleagues just said to me – particularly after they saw the video – they said, “It’s just so reasonable and these are things that we could do and it would make such difference.” I would definitely recommend people to watch the video.

If I think back to probably about 10 years ago, I think we’d often only be aware that a student was neurodivergent when there was an issue or a problem, a conflict, or something like that. Kerry, is that still the case or are we seeing a wider range of presenting issues? I suppose, are we better understanding what’s being asked of us from neurodivergent students?

Kerry: Absolutely, Jenny. I think it can be especially difficult to acclimatise new surroundings for those with neurodiversity: we see things like isolation, homesickness, but we also see mental health issues, then also the complexity of a dual diagnosis with a mental health condition. Part of that and the things that we are looking at and evolving is how we really seek that pre-arrival information from students to really help with making that acclimatisation easier, so we can put in support when it’s needed.

Recently, we’ve been looking at reviewing our disclosure opportunities for students. We’ve really built that into our booking flow. Even prior to booking a room with Unite Students, we can have that opportunity for students to tell us if they need any adjustments, or if they want to talk to us about any concerns that they have for that pre-arrival.

This really helps us to inform as a student support function, how we support those students. That could be through our regional adjustments committee – held on a monthly basis, formed of different roles within Unite Students – student support team, health and safety, fire safety, legal, DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging). We can also bring in professionals from university, or local authority, or other stakeholders who may be able to support us with making any adjustments that we might need. This really helps us to build this overview of how we can support someone in their whole experience, as well as just around those practical fire escape and things like that.

When we’re considering adjustments, these might be more complex. It could be things like accommodation of an emotional support animal, which we updated our policy in 2020 to include. How can we accommodate that animal, which may be fundamental to that student’s embedding in university the support that they need? It could also be planning for that pre-arrival, so arriving a couple of days early, which can really help to build that sense of acclimatisation. Those are just some of the key things that we’re thinking about in that early arrival process that can really help inform that acclimatisation.

Jenny: Thanks, Kerry. Tim, I’m just going to bring you in on this around your responses. Are you seeing requests for accommodations from neurodivergent students?

Tim: Yes. For us, it’s very similar to what Kerry has described in terms of that booking process of accommodation, but we’ve also got the institutional element as well because the student is coming to study with us, so there’s a reasonable adjustments plan done at that early stage. The accommodation elements flow from that to some extent. Typically, the requests we are getting – and this has been consistent for quite a long time – is around quieter accommodation and also for en-suite accommodation.

They’re usually things that are very straightforward for us to deliver on. We have an increasing number of quiet blocks now or quiet areas where we can allocate students. The other thing we do, which I think I mentioned earlier, was around separating from the mass allocation process, so we can pick up the items from that reasonable adjustments plan to make sure that they’re taken into account at the earliest opportunity – while availability of accommodation is still good, so we can get the best possible allocations.

We’ve also done test-to-stays. At some point during the summer, we invite students with a range of conditions who wish to come and stay in their exact room. Usually, sometime in August, they can come with a family member, spend a couple of nights and just get a bit of a feeling of what it’s like to live there, get used to the environment. That has been really beneficial.

Our student services colleagues at the university have also launched, three years ago, the Be Birmingham Event. This is particularly for autistic students who were able to arrive a couple of days early: there’s various bits of additional induction available for those students, how to get to the library, how to use it, those kind of things. I think we forget that, as exciting as that arrivals weekend is, it’s hugely overwhelming – thousands of people arriving plus parents, cars, all that kind of stuff. All the simple induction stuff can become quite intimidating and overwhelming. To be able to pull that forward for certain groups of students, I think has been really beneficial.

Then following on from that, once Welcome Week kicks in, our student mentors who do Residence Life within our accommodation will visit any students who have been on that Be Birmingham program or who have been flagged through a reasonable adjustments plan. Then they’ll potentially visit them further on during the year as well, depending on the needs. Then within our system, neurodivergent students are flagged discreetly.

If there are issues emerging within the flat, if there are particular maintenance things which we think may be quite disruptive, we will ensure that they’re handled slightly differently. Those combinations of things are helpful and, I think, are well-received. As I say, we’ve now just got an action plan of more things to add to that in terms of ways we can help neurodivergent students.

Jenny: It’s great to hear that, Tim, because one of the things that struck me very much from the focus group was students feeling afraid to make their needs known. I suspect that that’s born of quite a long experience of that being a difficult thing to do. It’s good to know that all those are in place. I wonder if there’s something more that the sector can do as a whole to say, “It is okay to raise these things and we will make sure people are trained to understand.”

Tim: I would definitely support that because I think, at the moment, we’re quite good at responding to requests that come through regional adjustments, but one thing that struck me in the report was that students didn’t want to be a problem. They didn’t want to be fussy. Instead of waiting for them to say, “I could do with dimmer lights, softer lighting,” perhaps we could list options of things that we’ve done before we can do, and then students can almost pick from that list. That would strike me as an easier way of doing that.

For students with physical disabilities, in the past, we’ve put in smart light bulbs, for example, just because it’s easier for them to be able to switch off their lights from their mobile phone. Why not offer that to all students coming through the regional adjustments plan? We can get smart light bulbs that have dimmers that change colour, et cetera. That’s really simple, not expensive.

As a student, actually, is that on their first interactions with the university, want to say, “Here’s my list of demands to make my life easier”? They’re not going to want to do that because they don’t want to be a problem. That comes through loud and clear. Why don’t we say it at the start, say, “These are things we can do and are willing to do, would they be helpful?”

Freya: I really love the idea of smart light bulbs – might be asking you for the link for that afterwards, please! I think that’d be really good because, as Tim put it, it feels really difficult turning up and saying, “This is my list of demands.” Actually, to the neurodivergent student, it feels like a list of demands, but realistically it’s things that are needed to make their living situation liveable. Because neurodivergent students are so used to almost having to put their needs aside – there’s a lot of theory around masking and camouflaging, and the need to essentially ignore their own needs in order to fit in with the neurotypical world.

It can be incredibly difficult to list things that would be helpful in the first place, and so having that list of options and maybe saying, “This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some things that we’re able to do. If you think there’s anything else, you can let us know.” That would immediately identify the halls or the student accommodation. It would immediately identify that place of living as somewhere that is accessible, as somewhere that is comfortable, somewhere where you are able to express your needs. It just immediately breaks down that barrier of, “I’m going to be seen as a problem if I say I need something.”

It shows that there’s a willing, and an acceptance, and a desire to make things more accessible for neurodivergent students.

Jenny: That’s really helpful. Thank you, Freya. Now, something that came up briefly in the focus group and it didn’t make it into the report, but it’d be good to talk about it now, was that accommodation teams sometimes are in a position to recognise behaviours that suggest a student might be neurodivergent, but the student themselves might not know that. We particularly talked about that in the context of international students coming from a culture where there is much less recognition, but it could equally apply to UK students. I’d like to get your thoughts on that.

Kerry: From our perspective at Unite Students, it comes down to the teams that we have within our properties and the training that they have, so how to identify and how to approach conversations about support. I think that signposting element, as an accommodation provider – we don’t want to duplicate or take away from what is being offered through universities and other services. What we want to do is compliment it. We’ve recently just launched e-learning which covers neurodiversity and training for teams so they an understanding of what that might look like and what that experience might be like for students.

I think there’s also an element around the peer-to-peer interaction as well. Our resident ambassador scheme has been running since 2016, but this year we’ve made the decision to change it slightly. It’s now going to sit under management of student support, which means that we can have that lens into the training and the recruitment of our resident ambassadors and how that then translates into the communities which we’re building this kind of instinctively inclusive, understanding the needs of that wide student population and also tailoring the events that we offer.

Freya, you were talking about society’s kind of offering this one-fits-all package, actually, we need to recreate that kind of diversity within societies, within our offer of events, within our accommodation as well.

Jenny: Tim, what are your thoughts on this?

Tim: I would echo everything that Kerry has just said there. I think one of the key things within this is about different departments and areas of accommodation providers and universities communicating really well, but also very sensitively. We do have a privileged position in that we are going into people’s homes on a regular basis and we will pick up on things which others may not. As a result, we’ve got to deal with that information that we are accumulating in a sensitive way. If there is a cause for concern, then then it needs to be shared in an appropriate way, but it must be done appropriately.

It can’t be sort of, “We’ve noticed this about this student, something unusual is going on in that flat…” It needs to be all for a reason. Fundamentally, I think this comes down to training as Kerry said, making sure that our staff know what they’re looking for but they know what to do with it when they’ve seen something of concern. It may not need any intervention or action, but we need to be able to understand what’s going on to make that decision.

Freya: I think something that is quite important to consider there is that if something is going to make someone’s life easier when they’re having a difficult time, they shouldn’t need a diagnosis for that to be made possible. If there’s someone autistic or not who has light sensitivity, they shouldn’t need to disclose, “I’m autistic, I have X, Y, Z diagnosis. Please can you make the lighting dimmer?”

If student accommodation identifies that there’s someone who may have neurodivergent traits, it shouldn’t necessarily be that they have to go through a process of getting support for being neurodivergent in order that reasonable adjustments can be made. I know that under the Equality Act, that is what needs to happen, but if something’s going to make someone’s life easier and it’s not too difficult to do, you shouldn’t have to have a diagnosis. You shouldn’t have to jump through loads of hoops for something small that could actually massively improve your life.

Jenny: I think that’s a really good point. It’s: address the issue first, make the student feel more comfortable, and then if the student feels well enough and it feels appropriate, you might want to say, “Have you ever thought about talking to someone?”

Brilliant, thanks. Freya. There was something you said there, Tim, which really chimed in with something that I heard you say, Freya, and I think it’s on the video – although it’s our job, it’s your home. Do you want to say anything about that?

Tim: I think from my perspective, as I said, it’s a huge privilege that we are going into people’s homes and we’ve got to respect that. I think I try and engender the culture within my team, remind them constantly that it is someone’s home that they’re going into. With an accommodation team, I think broadly speaking, they get that and they respect that. There are so many different groups of people that have to go into accommodation for various reasons.

External contractors who may not be familiar with the accommodation or the needs of the students living there. It’s a constant process of reiterating the need for respect for that. The problem we’ve got is it only takes one mistake from someone somewhere along the line to ruin all the good work of the team. It’s hugely important that we focus on that and keep reminding people all the time because it was a comment that resonated really powerfully with me from the report.

Jenny: Brilliant. Thanks, Tim. Finally, we would never have produced this report if it hadn’t been for the really stark findings from our applicant index last year. I was especially struck by the high level of anxiety about going to university among neurodivergent applicants. I would like, as a final question to ask each of our panellists. What message would you like to give to those applicants?

Tim, can I start with you?

Tim: I would agree that those findings, that graph was really stark and it’s concerning. I think from my perspective, the message I would give to those applicants is it’s not unusual to be anxious and feel anxiety about coming to university, but the universities understand why in your situation you will feel greater levels of anxiety. We have a lot of people who are well trained, who understand and are ready to try and do as many things as they can to make your experience at university, particularly the arrival and settling in period, as smooth as possible.

My message would be: don’t hesitate to reach out, ask for support, be really honest with what things you would need to make your life better because we will do all in our power to make that happen. It’s our main drive to ensure that as many of our students can come to university and be academically successful and to thrive. We wouldn’t want anyone to suffer in silence, so please just reach out and tell us how we can help.

Jenny: That’s great. Thanks, Tim. Kerry?

Kerry: Absolutely echo everything that Tim said in terms of the findings, it was a shock. As much as I work in this field every day and I have those conversations, actually, to see it in that graph for it was a moment of reflection and I think my message is that we need to create spaces where people feel that they belong and that this is their space. If that looks different, then that’s okay and that’s up to us to make changes to accommodate everyone.

You do belong and there is a place for you and we want you to tell us everything that we can to make sure that we are learning and we’re changing how we do things to make things better.

Jenny: Freya, I know of at least one neurodivergent applicant who has been given so much confidence just by the mere existence of BUNS. Is there anything that you would like to say to applicants?

Freya: I would say, as awful as it might feel and as terrifying as it is, be honest about your needs. Tell people what it is that will help and make things easier because there are genuinely lots of really lovely people out there that want to help, but they can’t if they don’t know they need to. There are going to be people who don’t make it so easy, but that’s a reflection on them, not you.

There are lots of lovely people who want to make your time at university easier and you expressing yourself and telling them how they can do that is not only going to help you, but it’s going to help them learn as well.

Jenny: That’s a perfect way to end the show, Freya; thank you.

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