In honor of Neurodiversity Celebration Week, celebrated today through March 17, University of Nevada, Reno President Brian Sandoval hosts University Neurodiversity Alliance member Dr. Jeffrey Hustler on the first episode of “Sagebrushers” season 2. The University Neurodiversity Alliance works to raise awareness, promote access and ensure equity for the neurodiverse population at the University.
During the episode, Sandoval and Hutsler, an associate professor in the Psychology and Neuroscience departments, explore the meaning of the term neurodiversity, the role the alliance plays on campus and ways faculty can support neurodivergent students in their classes. Hutsler also discusses ableism, common barriers that neurodivergent people face and his research working with individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Sagebrushers is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other major podcast platforms, with a new episode twice a month.
Sagebrushers – S2 Ep. 1 – Neurodiversity Celebration Week
Join host President Brian Sandoval as he and Dr. Jeffrey Hutsler, a member of the University Neurodiversity Alliance, discuss the importance of learning more about neurodiversity and ways to support neurodivergent students, faculty and staff.
Dr. Jeffrey Hutsler: You know, probably the biggest misconception is that people equate neurodiversity with autism and that's it. That’s not true at all. Neurodiversity encompasses learning disorders. It encompasses ADHD, for example, anything that alters the way a person interacts with material that they're learning or other people around them.
President Brian Sandoval: In this episode of Sagebrushers, we welcome Dr. Jeffrey Hutsler, an associate professor in the Psychology and Neuroscience departments and a member of the University's Neurodiversity Alliance. I'm Brian Sandoval. I'm a proud graduate and president of the University of Nevada, Reno, and I'm your host of Sagebrushers.
Dr. Hutsler’s expertise is in the organization of the human cortex. His current research focuses on the organization of the human brain and individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in neuropsychology, the study of the relationship between the brain and behavior.
Today's podcast is being recorded at the Matthewson IGT Knowledge Center on our University's campus. Dr. Hutsler, welcome to Sagebrushers. I'm so happy and pleased to have you on the podcast today in honor of Neurodiversity Week.
Dr. Hutsler: Well, thank you so much.
President Brian Sandoval: So, let's begin. Can you please share with our listeners, who may not know, what is neurodiversity?
Dr. Hutsler: Neurodiversity is the idea that people vary in the way they experience the world and interact with the world – intellectually, socially. Neurodiversity recognizes that variation is part of a unique tapestry; It's a strength, these differences. We view these differences not as any kind of problem, but they're not viewed as deficits, they're viewed as strengths.
President Brian Sandoval: Now, can you talk about our University's Neurodiversity Alliance and what makes it unique?
Dr. Hutsler: Yeah. So, the Neurodiversity Alliance started a little over a year ago. Other universities have neurodiversity initiatives. Ours is a little bit unique in that we don't just focus on students. When we were constructing the alliance, we set aside representatives for both faculty and staff. So, having the three components: students, faculty and staff is somewhat unique.
President Brian Sandoval: And will you talk a little bit more about the individuals that are within the alliance?
Dr. Hutsler: We elected a chair not long ago and that's James Churney in Communication Studies. He is an expert in ableism and we also have – do you know Mack from the Disability Resource Center?
President Brian Sandoval: Of course.
Dr. Hutsler: She recently retired, but she still shows up for the meetings and she's helping with fundraising for the alliance.
President Brian Sandoval: Now, I'm sure some of our listeners are curious, as am I, can you provide a little bit more detail with regard to what ableism is?
Dr. Hutsler: Ableism is the idea that people sort of interpret the world according to what they themselves are able to do. And of course, most people don't consider that they have any kind of deficits. So, they basically are interpreting the world in a way that a lot of people can't match up to and so, it permeates a lot of things. It creates bias. It creates exclusion. It creates barriers between people when you don't consider, “okay, I'm me, I can do this and that and the other thing”’ but you might have problems with certain aspects and you might have certain strengths. So, definitely taking the other person's viewpoint is sort of the opposite of ableism.
President Brian Sandoval: Now I'm going to go back into your introduction and I wanted to ask you a little bit about your research if that's okay?
Dr. Hutsler: Sure.
President Brian Sandoval: And it says it, you know, you focus on the organization of the human brain and individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Can you talk a little bit more about that, please?
Dr. Hutsler: Yeah. So, there's a bit of a gap in our knowledge about how the brain is organized in autism. Autism is diagnosed almost exclusively based upon behavior. Less than 1% of the cases have some kind of biological or genetic marker for the condition that we're aware of. So, I study the organization of the brain. Kids with autism usually start to show symptoms around two to three years of age, sometimes even earlier if you go back and look at old movies, old family movies. But, my research is really focused on the internal organization of the cerebral cortex, that part of our brain that's so important for higher cognitive functions like language, memory, the way we regulate our social interactions, those kinds of things.
President Brian Sandoval: Wow. So, let's move back to, you know, talking about individuals that are neurodivergent. What are some of the barriers that they face?
Dr. Hutsler: There tends to be a little bit of a stigma associated with the label of ‘neurodiversity,’ where there really shouldn't be. It's a very positive thing. There's a lack of awareness out there. That's part of the Neurodiversity Alliance's goal: to increase awareness and to educate people about neurodiversity. All of these things, though, these biases, can create exclusions for people and, you know, at the University, that's not what we want to do. We want to include as many as people as possible and reach as many students as possible when we're teaching. So, paying attention to their unique abilities and maybe some of the struggles they have is an important aspect.
But, there definitely is this association of bias. For faculty and staff, it's not necessarily all about the classroom. I think some staff and faculty are concerned that they'll be treated differently if they self-identify as being neurodiverse.
President Brian Sandoval: So, could you give our listeners a little bit of an example or some examples of some of those situations here on campus?
Dr. Hutsler: Well, staff has a really hard time because we've wanted to include them in the alliance, but they, of course, have to take time off to come to the meetings and this kind of thing. But there are staff who are concerned that if they say, “I need X, Y or Z,” that people will probably step up to help them, but that it will create these other subtle discriminations socially. It just puts barriers between people that really don't need to be there.
President Brian Sandoval: You mentioned some misconceptions about neurodivergence. Could you be a little more specific and talk a little more about that, please?
Dr. Hutsler: Yeah, probably the biggest misconception is that people equate neurodiversity with autism and that's it. That's not true at all. Neurodiversity encompasses learning disorders. It encompasses ADHD, for example, anything that alters the way a person interacts with material that they're learning or other people around them. And really, neurodiversity as a concept is a very, very basic term because in order to have a neurodiverse group of people, you have to have everybody in there. So, you and I are part of this neurodiverse population as well. We just, we represent maybe the middle.
President Brian Sandoval: So, there are a lot of different folks that present different things.
Dr. Hutsler: A lot of different things and people can be helped by a variety of methods, especially in the classroom, to play to their strengths in learning and to avoid the frustration of making them depend on maybe something that isn't a strength.
President Brian Sandoval: So, can you talk a little more about what could be improved in a classroom to assist those individuals?
Dr. Hutsler: Well, it's about making the material as accessible as possible and as engaging as possible. That's a really important part of it as well. So, that has to do with, for example, if you have a picture on a PowerPoint slide, including text along with it, explaining what the picture is because some people respond better to that. Some people are hearing impaired. All of these things can interfere with a person's learning style and the way they acquire information.
President Brian Sandoval: So, is part of the, you know, what the alliance does is sometimes an instructor may not know that there's a neurodivergent student in his or her classroom.
Dr. Hutsler: That's correct, so, you know, the DRC is really important for providing students with accommodations, but in order to do that as a student, you have to go there. You have to identify yourself as having some kind of disability and then they will help you get the accommodations, certainly. But it's a whole process. Recognizing that people are neurodiverse is about serving the entire group of people and it's kind of a base. It really should be kind of a baseline for teaching because you, as a teacher, you want to reach as many students as possible. You want to bring in as many people as you can and teach them something about the world, hopefully.
Having your materials and your presentations and being mindful of the fact that not everybody learns in the same way is kind of the floor for establishing good teaching practices I think in the current day.
President Brian Sandoval: And when we talk about the DRC, obviously, but our listeners may not know that stands for the Disability Resource Center.
Dr. Hutsler: Yeah, sorry.
President Brian Sandoval: No, that's okay.
Dr. Hutsler: I hate when people use acronyms and don't define them and I just did it.
President Brian Sandoval: No, no worries at all. So, what can we do and what can we change with regard to University policy and practices to help facilitate access for neurodivergent people?
Dr. Hutsler: Well, I think education and awareness is very, very important. The University already does a couple of things to assist people. For example, the Disability Resource Center helps students that have a specific disability to get accommodations in classes, in terms of testing time, the way they take notes and, you know, all of these things. But the University also wants material documents/websites to be accessible to everybody so that people aren't excluded when they're getting the material from reading or getting information from the University's website.
President Brian Sandoval: Have you seen some improvement over the years or we have a long way to go?
Dr. Hutsler: There's definitely some improvement. A lot of students use WebCampus in their classes for teaching and WebCampus itself will tell the instructor how accessible a document is. And now, there's pretty easy-to-use software procedures for determining whether your material is accessible to a wide group.
President Brian Sandoval: So, one phrase that I know some of our faculty may be familiar with is Universal Design for Learning or otherwise, I know you don't like acronyms, but UDL. What does this phrase mean and how can it be implemented?
Dr. Hutsler: Well, Universal Design for Learning is basically about improving your classes so that the material is delivered in a variety of ways so that it's engaging to the students so that it takes into account any kind of deficit or difficulty that a student may be having.
It's really trying to maximize your teaching to reach the broadest audience possible and it's something that is very much encouraged here on the campus and if people want to learn about it, there's all kinds of information online. If you put in Universal Design for Learning here on campus, there are courses that you can take through the Digital Learning Office, but they also have classes on how to make your documents accessible, how to make your website accessible and how to make your communication more accessible.
President Brian Sandoval: We have a few more minutes and I've got a couple things I'd like to get into, but you kind of got into this area. So, what can members of the Wolf Pack family interested in neurodiversity do to get involved?
Dr. Hutsler: Well, they can join the Neurodiversity Alliance. We have a webpage, probably the easiest way to get there is just to search for UNR Neurodiversity Alliance. That's the first hit that you'll get and on there, is a link to sign up for our newsletter.
We are trying to ramp up and create more events, but these events include things we're thinking about having a movie night that has to do with neurodivergence, bringing in outside speakers, these kinds of things. So, if you want to keep up with that and know what's going on, you should definitely sign up for that listserv.
And in addition to that, people can contact us directly, especially students who maybe are having difficulty in a class who don't feel comfortable approaching the professor directly, but they want some kind of intermediary. We're willing to do that as well and people can contact us directly on our email, which is firstname.lastname@example.org. So, it's really easy to remember, hopefully.
President Brian Sandoval: So real quickly, can you talk a little bit about your journey to UNR and how long you've been here?
Dr. Hutsler: I've been here a while now. This is the longest I've ever stayed in one place – a little over 15 years. I got my Ph.D. at UC Davis. At that time, I wasn't studying human populations at all. It was all animal models. Then, I went to Dartmouth to do a postdoc and that was when I switched into human research. And then, I got a job at University of Michigan and that's when I started studying autism because the opportunity to access usually unavailable tissues came up. So, it was really a great opportunity.
I was there for five or six years and then I came here – back to the West Coast – closer to my mom and dad, which was really important to me. If anybody’s ever lived in different parts of the country, they know that they’re really not all the same. You know, you feel most comfortable, I think, in the place where you grew up.
President Brian Sandoval: Well, I, you know, we're going to close now, but I am thankful for you and your service to the faculty and students and the Wolf Pack family and our community – really grateful and this has really been an impactful talk. I don't know if you have any closing words that you'd like to say.
Dr. Hutsler: Well, I'm just really glad you invited me for Neurodiversity Week and the more we can get the word out there and make people aware of things that they can do to support the neurodiverse community at UNR I think that's really, really important.
President Brian Sandoval: Dr. Hutsler, thank you again.
Dr. Hutsler: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.
President Brian Sandoval: And unfortunately, that is all the time we have for this episode of Sagebrushers. We're so pleased that you're here, and I really enjoyed this conversation and I'm sure our listeners will as well.
But next time, we will bring you another episode of Sagebrushers and continue to tell the stories that make our University special and unique. Until then, I'm University President Brian Sandoval and go Pack.