The "quiet power" of an introvert or unique lens of a neurodivergent can be difficult to tap into when video and audio participation and small talk are graded portions of your overall score. Here's what we think might help and what could be changed in the educational system for a more inclusive experience.
Ask someone who's up on inclusivity and they might say that the emphasis on graded participation in a Zoom classroom (and physical classrooms) was made for the neurotypical archetype of the "star student" (or even the "general student"). How does that student learn? Your informed friend might ask. Presumably that student processes verbally, externally, and enjoys sharing their opinion. They might be eager to share and build on ideas out loud and receive feedback from their classmates and professor in real-time. They might take the risk of being vulnerable enough to share a personal story or provide an anecdote to a prompt, inform the class about the weather in their area, give an update on their dog, or explain the state of their studying affairs.
What about the other students? What about the neurodivergent pupil who learns with her fingers, eyes, and ears, who processes internally, who prefers to absorb and sit on information and input before formulating the words for the sentences that will best represent the thoughts and opinions flashing through her internal sky - appearing in textures, images, feelings, concepts. She might need the time to siphon the pulp of what she wants to express into a deliverable format that the rest of the class can digest in a socially acceptable amount of time..and what is socially acceptable anyway? Most of the other students seem to know naturally, says the neurodivergent pupil. This internal process might be difficult for said pupil to do on camera while she's watching her facial expression and observing the details of the rest of her classmates, being watched back in return. She might write sentences down before class that she can call upon when she's selected to speak outside of the ways she prefers to share, but might feel the contribution lacked depth and find it ultimately unsatisfactory. The solution for the neurodivergent student is often to play the game, make the small talk, provide the anecdote, allow yourself to be you but in a digestible way. I find it difficult to endure that standard without wondering..but why?
A More Inclusive Environment
I want to participate, just not in the traditional ways.
I want to be allowed the opportunity for my contributions to be thoughtful, meaningful, and to accurately express how I feel. I want to be given the option to speak verbally or through a chat box and for it to count toward my grade either way. If I feel too overwhelmed to participate through video (which could require intense focus on how I am holding my face - masking takes a lot of energy), then I should be able to leave my camera off and participate either verbally or through the chat box without question or judgment from the instructor. I will appear on camera when I am ready and capable.
Chances are, there will be days when I don't want to participate at all. There will be days when I am feeling too cerebral to speak or find the words to accurately convey my thoughts. There will be days when I have migraines from the screens or need to remove the anxiety of performing in an inauthentic way to show that I am learning because someone somewhere decided that all-in participation all the time was the only way to showcase our ability to learn. On those days, I would like to opt out of participation without points being taken away from my grade. Instead, I could offer to write something meaningful and reflective of my comprehension of the materials or submit a creative project. On the days when I am not feeling able to verbally participate, I am usually eager to create through other mediums of communication.
What can help
I've often learned that asking for what you need is the best way to exist happily within the learning environment. The effectiveness of this approach can vary depending on the situation and setting, but I have learned that when needs aren't met in class or are overlooked in class, it is important to go to the source and explain your humanness. If the teacher does not understand or agree, go to the dean or the head of the department, or ask disability services for accommodations. Fun fact: anxiety can be enough to get accommodations! You deserve to learn in an environment that feels safe and inclusive to you.
While reaching out to supervisors and deans and heads of departments might seem daunting (or not, depending on your levels of comfortability with self-advocating), it will be worth the return of learning in a way that makes the most sense to you.
Request that students share learning styles, needs, and preferences during the first week of class.
Ask for what you need (decide what you need and convey those needs to the right people).
Set up an environment that is cohesive with your needs (the right snacks and beverages, a picture of a pet, friend, or loved one that makes you feel grounded and serene. Diffuse a calming scent or something that reminds you of a pleasant memory).
If your discomfort comes from a place of trauma or anxiety, consider exploring and practicing any inner-work that could help you feel more comfortable in class and everywhere else (for this, you could utilize counseling services that are available, preferably with a counselor you click with and who you feel understands your unique "you"ness).
Acknowledge that you have a right to learn in the ways that make the most sense to you.
If you need to speak to your professor, dean, or head of the department but feel anxiety around it, ask a friend, family member, or counselor for support (to help you prepare, to be there before and after your meeting, or to help draft speaking notes beforehand).
Ask for accommodations (this could allow you to get what you need without having to explain anything directly to the instructor).
I spent several months trying to fit into the shape of a student that a specific instructor (who taught most of my classes) expected and graded everyone by. I finally decided to be respectfully direct with her about my needs and feelings around her teaching style right before taking a one-year leave of absence from the program. Once I did that, she became everything I needed her to be from the start. Now I know that the discomfort of asking for what you need can be worth the ability to learn in an environment that makes sense to you in the long run.