Meeting the Need: How a New Room is Helping Neurodiverse Students Succeed
Harrison Sloan sits on a small leather sofa, a weighted blanket draped across his lap and his feet gently tapping the liquid tiles on the floor below.
Ben Johann slowly slides his hand back and forth against the spikes of a green plastic disc, while Will Neusidl’s eyes focus on catching the expandable breathing ball he tosses into the air.
All three students utilize the newly designated Sensory Room, a special space in the Dorothy Day Student Union where they can go when experiencing sensory overload.
“The biggest thing for me is just [having access to] a quiet space,” says Sloan ’23, a nursing major diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and dyslexia. “Sometimes it’s nice to have a quiet place to recenter yourself where you know no one’s going to disturb you.”
The room provides a safe space for Johann ’23, who struggles with anxiety and concentration issues. The supply chain management and accounting dual major is autistic and has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Coming to college, he was unsure how well he would do given his diagnosis.
“I tend to be very sensitive to my environment and the stimuli in it,” Johann says. “There are some days where there’s an overwhelming feeling; in the moment, it feels like the sky is falling. Having something like this room can help me go back to equilibrium.”
Simply watching drops of lava make their way through a liquid timer, or slowly moving a plastic tickit pad with spikes through his hands can help to calm and reassure Johann. That repetitive motion, or stimming behavior, allows him to clear his head and get back on track, preventing any sort of outburst.
Carolyn Tiger, head of the Office of Student Accessibility, says the Sensory Room offers students a respite when they feel overstimulated or triggered.
“What this room does is just calm their system down,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to reset.”
Neusidl ’21, a sport management major with ADHD and Asperger’s, paces to cope with anxiety. He says he gets panicky when there’s too much on his mind. Certain things can set him off—like too many assignments building up in the same week.
“I get the urge to run,” he says. “Sometimes it’s so bad that I even go running in buildings. I know I’m not supposed to, it’s just that urge of being overwhelmed. It feels like I can’t do this even though I know I can.”
Neusidl calls it a relief to be able to pace in private. He transferred from Northampton Community College, and the Office of Student Accessibility was a major factor in his decision to attend DeSales. He had visited two other colleges but says he wasn’t nearly as impressed with their disability services.
“With any type of disability, it’s hard to get through college,” Neusidl says. “I feel like it’s a challenge for a lot of students, myself included, to ask for help. I’m glad to see that DeSales is taking steps to help kids with disabilities succeed.”
Sloan echoes those sentiments and calls the campus a caring and inclusive community.
“There’s always a place for someone here at DeSales.The fact that they’re willing to dedicate a room to people with disabilities shows that someone cares and is there for us.”
A Culture of Openness and Equity
The University carved out space for the Sensory Room last fall to accommodate students who identify as neurodiverse. Tiger then went to Women for DeSales—a philanthropic giving circle that funds various groups across campus—to ask for $2,000 in funding to buy equipment. The group fully funded her request.
“It means the world to me,” Tiger says, “that our students have a place that is safe, that is welcoming, and that allows them to be the best version of themselves.”
Tiger heads the Office of Student Accessibility, formerly the Disability Services Office, which is located in Dooling Hall. The office recently updated its name to create a culture of openness and equity for all students and to foster a welcoming environment.
Tiger and her staff—Amy Gramling and Suzanne Keany— provide accommodation across a wide spectrum, covering everything from dietary and housing restrictions to learning and psychological disabilities, like depression and anxiety. They also help students with hearing impairments or physical challenges, and they assist athletes suffering from sports injuries like concussions.
“Our students touch every aspect of DeSales life. If students have a need for an accommodation, we are the office that they need to come to and we do our best to remove any barriers that they face.”
The office helps Sloan, Johann, and Neusidl in their own individual and unique ways. Johann calls visiting with Tiger and her staff a highlight of his week. He goes at least once each week for counseling and to develop a game plan to manage his school work.
Being a nursing major, Sloan knew how rigorous the curriculum could be. He worried that his dyslexia would hold him back. But meeting with Tiger twice a week has helped him develop better study habits and organizational skills. He’s also given extra time while taking exams in the office’s testing room and uses a screen reader to stay focused.
Neusidl, who graduated in May, met with Tiger and her staff every day to ensure he didn’t fall behind. They helped him set schedules and prepare for each assignment. They also prepped him for the professional world, advising him on how to act and dress, and helping to improve his communication skills.
The office assists nearly 400 students throughout the academic year—an extraordinary task for a staff of three. Neusidl, Johann, and Sloan are quick to acknowledge that they would not succeed without the staff’s incredible work. For Tiger, it all comes down to meeting the needs of students—whatever those needs might be.
“We do it because we love it,” she says. “I tell people I’ve got the best job on campus. The students we have the opportunity to work with are just fabulous. It’s a family, and we do it until the job gets done.”