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Christena Gunther joins research seminar that aims to improve higher ed experiences for neurodivergent students

Stories | 05.29.24

The Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University named Christena Gunther, assistant director of Disability Services and Student Affairs at Adler University, to its 2024-26 Research Seminar on Affirming and Inclusive Engaged Learning for Neurodivergent Students.

The three-year research seminar at Elon University investigates ways universities can better consider and engage neurodivergent students.

Photo of Christena Gunther

Christena Gunther

Gunther will be among two dozen multi-institutional participants to facilitate research on systems, supports, pathways, and pipelines for neurodivergent students to facilitate access to and participation in high-quality engaged learning experiences. Research teams will use a mixed-methods approach to conduct qualitative and quantitative research.

“Higher education has a long history of excluding people who are different and valuing a neurotypical student above other students,” said Gunther. “I’m grateful to have the opportunity to research this important topic at Adler and share the findings with the larger higher ed community.”

Originally attributed to the 1990s sociologist Judy Singer, “neurodivergence” is a non-medical umbrella term that describes people with variation in their mental functions. Neurodivergent conditions include autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and ADHD, mental health diagnoses, among others. Neurodiversity encompasses neurodivergent thinkers as well as neurotypical individuals as well. It describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and these differences are not viewed as deficits.

“At Adler, ADHD and mental health conditions are two of the top diagnoses that result in students seeking accommodations,” said Gunther. “Many of these neurodivergent students we support with academic accommodations, but these accommodations do not address the root causes of students’ struggles in their coursework.”

Since 2021, Gunther has served in her current role, working with over 300 graduate students from Adler’s Chicago and Online campuses to provide accommodations and support.

In 2013, Gunther founded the Cultural Access Collaborative, a volunteer-run nonprofit that empowers Illinois’ cultural spaces to become more accessible to visitors with disabilities; she currently serves as its president. She is also a board member of the Illinois/Iowa regional chapter of the Association on Higher Education and Disability, or AHEAD.

The selected participants will first meet on June 23-28 at Elon’s campus to collaborative develop and plan multi-institutional research projects to be conducted throughout the following year at the participant’s own institutions. The cohort will again meet in June 2025 to share their findings and plan a more sharply focused research agenda. By June 2026, the participants will share their year-two results, plan continuations of their work, and participate in a conference.

“I’m hopeful we can help move the needle to improve higher education for our neurodiverse learners in our classes, both at Adler and in post-secondary education,” Gunther said. “Our goal is to help everyone be successful and ensure they feel that they belong in academia.”

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