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Sport, Health & Wellbeing

Making a difference: How a pilot program for neurodivergent university students is touching lives

“While they have supports in place in school, neurodivergent individuals often lack the necessary support when they go on to university,” says Sarah Fenn, the Lead Clinical Educator of Occupational Therapy at the University of Canberra.

Sarah has impacted the lives of many since starting her career in India as an occupational therapist (OT) over a decade ago.  It wasn’t something she envisioned – she did her bachelor’s degree in Occupational Therapy out of curiosity, not knowing much about it. She was interested enough in it to pursue her master’s degree and eventually, it has become something she is very passionate about.

When she took over her current role in early 2022, she realised that there was a gap in terms of programs targeted towards students who are neurodivergent.

“When I moved to Australia, I mostly worked with children in the neurodivergent space. This gave me an opportunity to understand the lack of support and challenges adolescents and young adults face,” Sarah says.

Incidentally, a neurodivergent student was working with her on placement and together, they started to conceptualise what an occupational therapy program for neurodivergent individuals would look like in a university setting.

“We wanted to come up with something that looked at aspects of their lives they were struggling in – be it studies, uni life, or just life in general – to understand why they were struggling and figure out how we can put a support system in place that would help them achieve what they needed and wanted to do,” Sarah says.

“Once we had a concept in mind, the next – and biggest – hurdle was funding.”

Eventually, Sarah and a few other students on placement worked on an application and received funding through a Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) grant.

Peer-to-peer learning

The pilot program, done in partnership with InclusionUC, has had over 20 UC students involved through their placements. The OT Students work with and assist their peers who come in as clients, helping them overcome obstacles and creating a unique environment where students are helping fellow students – a method that has proven to be effective.

“One of the highlights of this program is seeing students – both practitioners and clients – being able to help each other. They’re going to the same university, they have the same anxieties and pressures about assignments and exams, and in a lot of ways, they’re figuring things out together through a shared journey,” she says.

“For them, it doesn’t feel like it’s some ‘expert’ telling them what to do – it’s actually someone who understands them, someone who is going through the same challenges.”

A typical program cycle for a student who comes in as a client involves an overview of what the program is all about and what it aims to do, followed by an initial assessment to determine a possible course of action and to set goals and expectations.

Sarah and her team assist clients to ensure that the goals are realistic and achievable – something that gains extra importance when dealing with neurodivergent individuals.

“We try not to make the goals seem so big that it all becomes daunting – having a goal like graduating from uni with all High Distinctions is fine, but it might seem like a lot for the students we work with,” she says.

“We try and guide them to set smaller goals, like being able to submit assignments on time – so then we can help them figure out their challenges. It could be something around lacking structure in their day, or they’re overwhelmed with a lot of sensory aspects, or they lack support in their social circles.

“We’ll then work with them through those challenges – now the goal becomes more tangible and achievable. When you string together enough of those smaller, achievable goals, it adds up to the big picture.”

A program cycle runs for up to eight weeks and the practitioner and client have regular check-ins to gauge progress and assess what needs to be adjusted in the program.

While not all clients go through the whole eight-week process, Sarah and her team aim to equip everyone that comes through the program with enough skills to be able to handle the challenges in their day-to-day lives.

Touching lives

Looking back at the positive impact the course has had over the past year, Sarah recalls a client who returned to university as a mature-age student after being recently diagnosed with ADHD. She completed her eight sessions and sent a note back saying that the program not only taught her strategies and tools to get through university, but also helped her better understand her self and her diagnosis.

There was also an instance where a client with social anxiety was accompanied by a practitioner to the UC Esports Lounge – it was something they had wanted to do, but struggled with their confidence. They went together for a few sessions and also played table tennis in the Refectory. Eventually, they were able to go by themselves, and make friends with others in the process.

“The ability to help our clients build resilience and make a difference in their lives is the biggest part of why we do what we do,” Sarah says.

“When clients come back and give us feedback like that, you realise that you’ve touched lives and it makes everything worth it.”

Future growth

Sarah wants to build on the success of the program and hopes to secure more funding to achieve her vision.

“Sometimes it takes someone else to notice that you're struggling and often, the first steps of reaching out and figuring out where to get help is the hardest,” she says.

“When there are programs at university that people can consider or share with others, it makes that first step a lot less daunting.”

Sarah also believes there is so much more that can be done to spread awareness about neurodiversity and highlight disabilities beyond the ones that are visible to society.

“UC has been working hard to improve accessibility and inclusivity for all students and staff, but neurodivergence is often not a visible disability,” she says.

“There needs to be programs like ours – not just for students, but also for academics and the broader community, so we can all learn from each other on how to better accommodate the needs of neurodivergent individuals and enhance their experience in the University community.”

Words by Mike Verzosa. Photos by Tyler Cherry.

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