Guest columnist Maureen Dunne: Community colleges, neurodiversity and the workplace of tomorrow

I am proud to say that I am a product of the Illinois Community College System and just as proud to declare that my experience as a community college student was the most transformative of my life. As the President of the Illinois Community College Trustees Association (ICCTA), I find that most people understand the importance of the work we do to provide affordable and accessible higher education. But community college educators, leaders and administrators are rarely given due credit for the role they play in transforming lives.

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of outstanding neurodivergent students enrolled in Dr. Michael Duggan's class at the College of DuPage. Neurodivergence - an umbrella term that encompasses learning differences such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia, to name a few - accounts for 15% to 20% of the broad population.

While I was ostensibly there to inspire Dr. Duggan's students - to discover their passions and help them translate those ideas into tangible career goals - the reality is they ended up inspiring me. For neurodivergent students, resilience is at the heart of the matter. When asked how to become more resilient, my advice was: never let anyone take away your sense of human dignity; aim to become the most "you" you can uncover; and when faced with obstacles, always get back to doing something you love.

The Illinois Community College System is the third largest in the nation. ICCTA represents 48 member colleges serving more than 700,000 students. In Fall 2022, with the support of our diversity chair, I led the successful ratification of the United States' first statewide Neurodiversity Inclusion Statement. The statement aligns with the notion that all students - neurotypical and neurodivergent alike - deserve to feel valued, welcomed, empowered and understood through a strength-based lens and that Illinois community college trustees should strive to manifest this value in the governance of their colleges.

ICCTA's adoption of this statement has inspired new statewide legislation in the form of HR 219, which was formally adopted on May 19 by the Illinois General Assembly.

A growing body of research links neurodivergence with enhanced creativity and innovative thinking. In fact, many of our top innovators, scientists, entrepreneurs and public leaders throughout history have either been confirmed as neurodivergent or are now widely seen as fitting a neurodivergent profile.

Sir Richard Branson is very open about his dyslexia and how it has been essential to the kind of innovative thinking that has made him a successful entrepreneur. Benjamin Franklin is strongly believed to fit an ADHD profile. Both Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill are believed to have had strong autistic traits. Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci had extraordinary cognitive powers skewed toward visual-spatial creativity in a manner strongly consistent with autism, ADHD, dyslexia or even a combination of all three.

In my work, I collaborate with neurodivergent leaders and innovators around the world, many of whom defy stereotypes about autism, ADHD or dyslexia. They are CEOs, world-renowned musicians, authors, Nobel Prize winners, leaders, entrepreneurs, actors, Rhodes scholars, cybersecurity rock stars and Olympic athletes. Putting accomplishments aside, each person is unique and valuable and each has learned to embrace neurodivergence as a core contributor to success.

Now consider those who never reach their full potential - not for lack of skill or talent, but simply because the world wasn't built for them. Most people are linear thinkers. Hence, most of our institutions are designed by linear thinkers for linear thinkers. For the 15% to 20% with different kinds of minds, that represents a built-in disadvantage. That is an important factor in why the unemployment rate among neurodivergent individuals is 7 to 21 times higher than it is for neurotypical individuals.

Economists at the Federal Reserve tell us we now face a structural labor shortage that will likely represent an obstacle for employers for years to come. At the same time, the employment landscape is rapidly transforming beneath our feet as next generation technologies go from science fiction to economic fact of life. To meet these challenges, we need unique problem-solvers and should look to tap the talents of neurodivergent thinkers - something we can't do if we don't ensure their access to higher education.

As I told Dr. Duggan's students, employers now have more incentive than ever before to find new ways to embrace and include the kind of nonlinear, visual-spatial and creative thinking that often goes hand in hand with neurodivergent cognition. Community colleges, working in partnership with industry, can be game-changers in opening neurodiversity-friendly opportunity pathways as the lines blur between higher education, upskilling and the workplace.

One of my favorite analogies is to point out that steel, an alloy, is superior to iron, a pure metal, in just about every respect precisely because not all atoms are the same. Different atoms working together make steel much stronger than iron just as different types of minds, working together, make diverse groups much stronger than homogenous ones. But that can only be achieved if educational institutions and employers embrace a strength-based framework for neurodiversity.

Community colleges are uniquely positioned to help connect the dots between a sense of belonging, future of work and the power of "neurodiversification." HR 219 by the Illinois General Assembly inspired by ICCTA's Neurodiversity Inclusion statement is a good start. But we still have work to do daily in welcoming and empowering neurodivergent thinkers as meaningful and valuable contributors to our schools, economy and communities.

• Dr. Maureen Dunne, of Naperville, is president of the Illinois Community College Trustees Association. She also serves as board director of the Association of Community College Trustees and as a trustee at the College of DuPage.

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