Conversation Shaper: Supporting Neurodiversity in the Writing Center

Stephanie Gemmell, The George Washington University


Neurodivergent students continue to face barriers to academic and personal fulfillment in postsecondary educational institutions that were not designed to support neurodiversity. However, the individualized tutoring model prioritized in writing center pedagogy holds the power to provide valuable, concrete support to neurodivergent clients and an accessible work environment for neurodivergent employees. In this Conversation Shaper, I draw on my own experiences as an autistic student and tutor to offer a bibliography of sources that provide insights about neurodiversity, disability justice, accessibility, and writing center pedagogy. This bibliography aims to offer sources that support awareness of neurodiversity and greater understanding of its role in writing center spaces. I contend that these sources collectively demonstrate why and how neurodiversity must be supported by writing center pedagogy—both in theory and in practice.

Keywords: neurodiversity, writing centers, accessibility, disability justice

Framing Statement

Stated simply, neurodiversity reflects how individuals “experience the world differently due to their neurological attributes” (Roth-Johnson & Tuman, 2014). Echoing the social model of disability ( Fleming, 2020), neurodiversity aims to embrace, rather than pathologize, differences in neurological functioning and behavior by viewing them as aspects of “normal variation in the population” (Clouder et al., 2020, p. 758). However, neurodivergent students continue to face distinctive challenges in navigating postsecondary educational systems that were not designed with neurodiversity in mind.

Neurodivergent students frequently experience higher education settings as inhospitable and inaccessible, as they face systemic barriers to academic and personal success (Robertson & Ne’eman, 2008). For example, neurodivergent college students describe experiencing a “lack of support, inflexibility from lecturers and perceptions of discrimination and judgmental attitudes when they disclose their learning difficulties” (Clouder et al., 2020, p. 771). Neurodivergent students may also lack formal support within higher education institutions due to an inability to access formal diagnostic documentation or being unwilling to disclose their disabilities due to a fear of stigmatization (Clouder et al., 2020).

Within this broader environment of postsecondary education, the personalized peer tutoring model prioritized in writing center pedagogy can offer uniquely valuable support to neurodivergent clients. As Batt (2018) emphasized, “the very pedagogy of writing centers allows us to individualize each writer’s experience.” Neurodiversity represents a potential aspect of the individuality that tutors encounter when working with clients. With the exception of clients who make the decision to self-identify as neurodivergent, tutors have no knowledge of their clients’ neurodivergence or neurotypicality beyond the interactions that occur during the appointment. Therefore, supporting neurodiversity closely aligns with writing centers’ focus on meeting writers where they are on an individual basis.

As an autistic student and tutor, I appreciate the significance of writing centers and the peer tutoring model for providing concrete support to neurodivergent students—and offering an accessible work environment to neurodivergent employees. However, other neurodivergent individuals may not experience the writing center as accessible to the same extent I did. Therefore, I understand the value and potential of writing centers as supportive and accessible spaces, while also recognizing the necessity of further scholarship and pragmatic awareness related to neurodiversity. In the aim of contributing to further discussion and promoting greater understanding of the role of neurodiversity within writing center spaces, the following bibliography includes writing center scholarship involving neurodiversity, disability justice, accessibility, and pedagogy. Additionally, it includes sources offering broader findings regarding neurodiversity and disability in higher education, as well as relevant insights about the psychology of creativity.

Coincidentally, my time as an undergraduate writing center consultant overlapped with the challenging process of obtaining my autism diagnosis as a young adult. To me, the meaningful intersections between these experiences exemplify the transformative power of language that exists at the core of writing center pedagogy. The language provided by my diagnosis reshaped and reaffirmed my self-identity, while my writing center work focused on supporting clients’ authentic self-expression. With these ideas in mind, the following sources collectively demonstrate why and how neurodiversity must be supported by writing center pedagogy—both in theory and in practice.


Amabile, T. M., & Pillemer, J. (2012). Perspectives on the social psychology of creativity. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 46(1), 3-15. 

Anglesey, L., & McBride, M. (2019). Caring for students with disabilities: (Re)defining welcome as a culture of listening. The Peer Review, 3(1). 

Armstrong, T. (2015). The myth of the normal brain: Embracing neurodiversity. AMA Journal of Ethics, 17(4), 348–352. 

Batt, A. (2018). Welcoming and managing neurodivergence in the writing center. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 15(2), 12–14. 

Clouder, L., Karakus, M., Cinotti, A., Ferreyra, M. V., Fierros, G. A., & Rojo, P. (2020). Neurodiversity in higher education: A narrative synthesis. Higher Education, 80, 757–778. 

Dunn, D. S., & Andrews, E. E. (2015). Person-first and identity-first language: Developing psychologists’ cultural competence using disability language. American Psychologist, 70(3), 255.

Elston, M. M. (2015). Psychological disability and the director’s chair: Interrogating the relationship between positionality and pedagogy. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 13(1), 15–20. 

Fleming, A. M. (2020). Where disability justice resides: Building ethical asynchronous tutor feedback practices within the center. The Peer Review, 4(2). 

Gernsbacher, M. A. (2017). Editorial perspective: The use of person‐first language in scholarly writing may accentuate stigma. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(7), 859–861. 

Griffin, E., & Pollak, D. (2009). Student experiences of neurodiversity in higher education: insights from the BRAINHE project. Dyslexia, 15(1), 23–41. 

Jaeger, G. (2016). (Re)examining the Socratic method: A lesson in tutoring. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 13(2), 14–20. 

Kleinfeld, E. (2018). Taking an expansive view of accessibility: The Writing Center at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Composition Forum, 39

Livingston, L. A., Shah, P., Milner, V., & Happé, F. (2020). Quantifying compensatory strategies in adults with and without diagnosed autism. Molecular Autism, 11(15), 1-10.

Mackiewicz , J., & Thompson, I. (2013). Motivational scaffolding, politeness, and writing center tutoring. The Writing Center Journal , 33(1), 38–73. 

McBride, M., Edwards, B., Kutner, S., & Thoms, A. (2018). Responding to the whole person: Using empathic listening and responding in the writing center. The Peer Review, 2(2). 

McHarg, M. (2012). The dual citizenship of disability. The Writing Lab Newsletter, 36(7-8), 14–15. 

Miles, A. L., Nishida, A., & Forber-Pratt, A. J. (2017). An open letter to White disability studies and ableist institutions of higher education. Disability Studies Quarterly, 37(3). 

Murphy, S. (2020). Dyslexia in the writing center: Multimodal strategies. The Peer Review, 4

Pearson, A., & Rose, K. (2021). A conceptual analysis of autistic masking: Understanding the narrative of stigma and the illusion of choice. Autism in Adulthood, 3(1), 52-60.

Pine, A. A., & Moroski-Rigney, K. (2020). “What about access?” Writing an accessibility statement for your writing center. The Peer Review, 4(2). 

Rinaldi, K. (2015). Disability in the writing center: A new approach (that’s not so new). Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 13(1).

Robertson, S. M., & Ne’eman, A. D. (2008). Autistic acceptance, the college campus, and technology: Growth of neurodiversity in society and academia. Disability Studies Quarterly, 28(4). 

Rogers, C. R. (1954). Toward a theory of creativity. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 11(4), 249–260. 

Roth-Johnson, D., & Tuman, C. T. G. (2014). Neurodiversity. In L. H. Cousins (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Human Services and Diversity. essay, SAGE Publications.

Tomlinson, E., & Newman, S. (2017). Valuing writers from a neurodiversity perspective: Integrating new research on Autism Spectrum Disorder into composition pedagogy. Composition Studies, 45(2), 91–112.

Future Directions

Building on existing scholarship, opportunities exist for more research surrounding neurodiversity and disability justice in writing centers. For example, as Melissa Elston (2015) rightly noted, writing center scholarship tends to concentrate on ways in which tutors can serve disabled students, often without considering the potential for tutors to be disabled themselves. Moreover, further scholarship exploring the roles of neurodivergent and disabled tutors may also be beneficial for understanding hesitancy among tutors and other writing center staff members to disclose their disabilities. As Molly McHarg (2012) described, some tutors “may be concerned that they will no longer be perceived as competent professionals” if they self-identify as disabled (p. 14), demonstrating the palpable impacts of internalized ableism.

Additionally, further research should prioritize the insights provided by neurodivergent and disabled students’ lived experiences, focusing on what these students need and desire from writing center interactions and the role of writing centers for helping to remedy systemic issues in higher education. Specifically, the individualized nature of writing center pedagogy can offer a supplement to often deindividualized teaching formats within higher education. However, writing center scholarship must also address the potentially damaging implications of related notions of individualism for students with marginalized identities.

Writing center scholarship should also continue to prioritize developing and implementing practices that support open, authentic communication among clients and tutors. Not only does this aim promote meaningful and constructive interactions within writing centers, but it represents a crucial component of facilitating writing as an act of creativity. In describing the conditions that foster creativity, Carl Rogers (1954) emphasized psychological freedom and psychological safety, including the acceptance of an individual’s unconditional worth, a non-judgmental climate, and empathic understanding (pp. 257-258). Writing centers possess the power to tangibly contribute to greater accessibility and inclusion within higher education institutions by actively working to make the conditions Rogers described a reality for neurodivergent individuals.