Smart studying for neurodivergent students

By Kate Salinsky, Specialist Learning Adviser at the Skills Centre

brain with arms dancing

What do Richard Branson (the entrepreneur), Simone Biles (the Olympic gymnast) and Satoshi Tajiri (the creator of Pokémon) all have in common?

Yes, they are hugely successful individuals in their respective fields AND they are all neuro-divergent (e.g. dyslexic, ADHD or autistic). By the way – they are only the tip of the iceberg – there are many, many successful individuals across a wide range of professions who are neurodivergent.

What do I mean by ‘Neurodiversity? 

Neuro = Brain and Diversity = range of different kinds. So, what this means is there are many kinds of brains and this is part of the normal variation in the human population – in the same way that eye colour or hair colour varies naturally.  A ‘Neuro-typical’ (NT) person is someone who thinks, perceives, and behaves in ways that fall within the dominant societal standards of ‘normal’. However, this is problematic as who says what ‘normal’ even is?

a woman exclaiming "what is this normal you speak of?"

Additionally, neuro-typical (NT) individuals often assume that their experience of the world is either the only one or the only correct one. This leads to an unhelpful and sometimes harmful focus on what neuro-divergent individuals find challenging and difficult such as acquiring literacy skills, organisation or social communication and almost completely ignores the brain differences that give people strengths and advantages in other areas. However, Eide and Eide in their (2011) book, ‘The Dyslexic Advantage’ suggest this is a bit like examining what a caterpillar is like but ignoring the fact that caterpillars develop into butterflies – an important part of the picture is completely missed! The purpose of this blog is to highlight some of the inherent strengths that neurodivergent brains possess and suggest how students can nurture and harness these to achieve success.

a butterly perched on a flower

Tips for neurodivergent students:

  1. Know your strengths

I don’t deny that the wiring in neurodivergent brains can produce challenges for studying in certain areas but here at the Skills Centre my work with neurodiverse students takes an individualised, strengths centred approach – in other words starting with what each person is good at, and what they do that works for them. So, this is my first tip: Know your strengths and how you learn best. This is known as ‘metacognition’ (knowing about your thinking) and having this insight is an important first step towards being able to play to your strengths.

“I always had the motivation and always put in a huge amount of effort but having an insight into how my head works and which strategies work for me personally has made a massive difference” – Final year Undergraduate ADHD student

  1. Embrace your neurodivergent perspective

For example, you may find that you have abilities to see problems from a different angle and this can lead to creative and innovative solutions that others may not see. As a human race, we all rely on this kind of thinking to help us progress. New inventions, products, engineering solutions, medical breakthroughs etc. have all come about due to somebody seeing a different way of doing things or seeing a solution to a problem that others could not see. Seeing your differences as a strength, not a limitation can give you confidence in what you have to say in your academic work, and this has a positive effect on motivation. Anyone who has watched the series ‘Educating Greater Manchester’ might remember how the young boy Jacob was encouraged to see his dyslexia as a ‘super-power’ and what a positive effect this had on him.

  1. Work smarter not harder

Reading: Before you start to read something – think about why you are reading it. What are you looking for by reading this? Jot down a couple of questions you hope the article/chapter may answer. Look for the answers to your questions. If you are not sure whether a piece will answer the questions you have – skim through the contents or the sub-headings to identify which parts of the piece may be most useful. YOU DON’T HAVE TO READ IT ALL!

Writing: Use mind-mapping or speak your ideas out loud and record them to start the writing process. This helps to get your ideas out so you can work with them. They do not need to be fully formed beautiful paragraphs yet! Jot down what you know, what questions you have – use this as a way of directing your research and reading. Come to our writing café to practice writing for pleasure and to connect with other students.

Planning: Create frameworks: For example, if you have to write a research proposal find out what a research proposal looks like. What sections does it have? Create a framework of headings and sub-headings that you will then go on to flesh out bit by bit. Approach the work in bite-size chunks. See here for an example framework for a 2000 word essay.


Manage competing demands: Thinking about the difference between what is urgent and what is important may help. Focusing on what is important rather than things which people are asking you to do urgently can help you to prioritise. See this resource to understand more about this.

It may help to plan to work in short bursts of 25 minutes then have a short break. Use a timer on your phone or an app like this tomato timer one to keep yourself on track.

tomato timer app logo

If you find that you are easily distracted e.g. by social media then try to schedule your distractions. Plan a time to allow yourself to look at these things. Use this cold turkey app to block your social media alerts. 

cold turkey app logo


    1. Use assistive technologyvarious logos of assistive technology tools


Using assistive technologies can support parts of your brain which may be overloaded allowing you to focus your resources on other aspects. For example, software that can read text aloud to you can help free up brain processing power as you don’t have to visually decode the words. For dyslexic brains, this allows a focus on understanding and critical thinking about what you are reading. Similarly, using mind-mapping software can help with planning and organising material in a visual way which can allow you to generate a more holistic picture of all your thoughts and ideas as they come up – and can then export these to a more linear text-based format for you later on (as that is what is usually demanded of you for your assignments) Have a look at these pages for workshops offered by SHU (to all students but particularly useful for neurodiverse students):


  1. Get the additional support you are entitled to

Neurodiverse students are entitled to additional support and funding which acknowledges that the way the academic system is set up may cause barriers to learning for them. This reflects the fact that the way society is set up can disadvantage some individuals. These structures ‘disable’ people and therefore it is the structures which need to change to accommodate differences so that everyone can flourish. Accommodations can be made to ‘level the playing field’ for example a learning contract with the University will set out if there are things which should be done differently in the way you are assessed or how much time you will get to complete exams or assignments. Funding is available to pay for individualised study skills support or specialised software or equipment that enables you to find out what approaches work best for you or support you to express your ideas. To get the ball rolling contact SHU Disabled Student Support. Remember these adjustments are made to the system which disables you. The problem is with the system, not with your wonderful, neurodiverse brain!


What do our neurodivergent students say about the Skills Centre?

“As a postgrad dyslexic student commencing my studies during Covid, I have found the Study Skills Centre at Sheffield Hallam to be invaluable. From being offered weekly support by a study skills disability specialist to fill in because my DSA application had been delayed. Attending online engaging and clear webinars to brush up on my referencing skills and demystifying the art of academic writing. As well as having comprehensive careers coaching to build my confidence in how I can make the best use of my degree after I have graduated.
These are to only list a few of the fantastic services that the Study Skills Centre offers. I wish that I had this type of service when I studied my undergrad at my previous university six years ago. I encourage anyone to make use of the service. I am sure they will find help and answers regarding anything that they are struggling with academically, as well as with professional and personal development.”

What next?

I hope this blog has given you some ideas to think about and some practical strategies which may be of use to you. You are welcome to book a 1-1 with one of our learning advisers to talk further about what approaches will help you maximise your strengths and achieve great things during your time at University.


The world needs neurodiversity!