By Serena Menken

What to Know about Neurodivergent Students: An Open Letter from Parent to Professor

Dear Professor,

​​First, thanks for welcoming my daughter. As a freshman, she’s been overwhelmed by all the newness of college, from navigating the academic workload to managing homesickness to negotiating with her roommate. Thanks for the little things you’ve done, like smiling at my daughter, remembering her name, and making her feel comfortable at office hours. Having adults that she can trust in this new environment is more important than you know. Maybe you’ve noticed that my daughter is different from the typical student. I’m not referring to her insightful comments during class or the fact that she wrote a fantastic essay about Jews in Latin America in 1942. It’s true that she keeps more facts in her head than a pocket encyclopedia and that she offered peer tutoring in both her high school Calculus and English classes. She shines as a student.

But my daughter struggles as a human. For years, she has carried the weight of depression, social anxiety, panic attacks, and an eating disorder. She also has ADHD, which is only somewhat ameliorated by medication. Even though she has stabilized since her lowest point in high school, maybe you’ve caught a glimpse of her darkness.

For instance, she missed several classes this fall. It could be easy to assume that she overslept or over-partied. The truth is that her anxiety crippled her. The stress of being away from home and being exposed to college viruses overwhelmed her. Plus, the lack of structure in college is hard for her ADHD brain, which thrives on routine. Once she skipped class because she didn’t realize that the class location had moved until she reached an empty classroom (your emails about this location change got lost in a flooded inbox). She said, “Mom, I had a panic attack just thinking about walking in late when everyone else knew what to do.”

I bet you have other students like my daughter. I imagine it is hard for professors like you to know how to help Generation Z, which has been called “the most depressed generation,” as over 40% have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. Maybe you ask yourself, as I do, how to help students like my daughter thrive. I know that my daughter is both brilliant and neurodiverse; she often scores the highest grades in class, but her mental health limits her ability to focus. How do we keep finding places for kids like her to flourish in academia?

In an ideal world, parents and professors would partner together to serve students. We both know that unless a student signs a FERPA form, I cannot talk with you. But maybe in this space, I can offer some helpful ideas.

Offer Yourself as a Safe Place

My daughter carries shame about her limitations. She senses which professors are frustrated with her and which ones offer compassion. When professors seem approachable, she feels comfortable sharing her struggles. One professor stood out as someone who cared about her as a whole person. This professor listened to my daughter’s challenges and offered compassionate advice related to navigating the college and the surrounding city. My daughter felt safe and seen. It made a significant impact.

I imagine that you care deeply for your students and wonder how to create those safe spaces. Here’s a way to build an onramp: at the beginning of the semester, consider inviting students to come to you during office hours when they are struggling with academics or with life. Remind them again during intense times such as exams or charged political or campus events. At the beginning or end of each class, take a few minutes to check in with them informally and ask questions about themselves. Even in a lecture hall, you can invite students to participate in a “two-word check-in” by texting you their words or chatting in small groups. If you notice that a student has been absent or unusually quiet in class, ask them privately if they are doing okay. The Jed Foundation’s Faculty Guide has helpful tips about what kinds of questions can feel supportive. (Sign up here for more of their resources.) This kind of outreach has meant the world to my daughter. Jesus exhorted his disciples to let little children come to him freely; might there be a way for you to provide a similar hospitality to the bigger children around you?

Many of you are already praying for your students — thank you! I believe that your prayers will create a supportive space, a hopeful atmosphere, and a spirit of blessing. Even though we parents may be praying from afar, there is something powerful about prayers from a faculty member within the community.

Educate Students about School Resources

Most colleges and universities offer resources for students with disabilities for which we are profoundly grateful. When our daughter received college acceptance letters, my husband and I proactively explored the Office of Disabilities at each prospective college. We were thankful that her college’s Office of Disabilities offered a pre-orientation where she could meet students with similar challenges. During freshman orientation, we also visited the Counseling and Psychological Services Center to help our daughter understand how to book an appointment with a therapist and how to fill prescription medications (which is more complicated than you might think).

But many families do not know how to access these resources and not every college offers this level of service for neurodiverse students. Some students have not shared their mental health challenges with their parents, leaving them without an adult advocate. Some students carry undiagnosed mental health issues.

You can serve students by learning about what your university’s Office of Disabilities offers and sharing that information with students broadly and individually. If you can connect students to the right administrator in that office, even better. Sometimes, academic support services are available — this is another resource you can point students toward. 

At some point during the school year, you may find yourself connected with a student who is in need of acute support. To prepare for moments like this, you might benefit by understanding the intake process of your university’s Counseling and Psychological Services Center so that you can advise students who need it. Your university may also have a Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT) or Community Assessment Response and Evaluation (CARE) team or a free 24-hour mental health help number (which my daughter found invaluable). There may be providers at the health center who specialize in treating mental health. Find out what resources are available for students from marginalized groups such as BIPOC and LGBTQ+. Perhaps you know which faith communities, both on and off-campus, who can offer support. It’s important to know these resources to advise students who approach you. You may also want to add a list of these groups to your syllabi for students who will never speak up. And as you learn about these things, consider taking your knowledge and sharing it with your department. Your initiative can be a gift to more than just your own students!

Help Ensure Safety

While we hope and pray for our students’ flourishing, there may be a time when a student confides that they are experiencing suicidal thoughts — and you’ll want to know how to proceed. If a college student confides that they are tempted to hurt themselves, you’ll need to take appropriate steps. One of my biggest mistakes was not getting my daughter to a hospital when she first disclosed suicidal tendencies; I thought setting up a therapist relationship was enough. By God’s grace, she never made a full attempt, but she came close. Later, when our daughter lapsed again into suicidal thinking, we asked right away if she needed to go to the hospital and we set up significant supervision until she stabilized again.

It’s important to know the appropriate protocol when a student is at risk of harming themselves or others. You’ll want to alert the right people at your campus, whether that’s campus security or a BIT or CARE team or 911. Share campus resources and ask if they need support to reach out. Encourage them to talk with their parents and their Resident Advisor, who can look out for them in the dorms. Don’t leave them alone if you feel that they may be in danger. Follow up with them later to ensure that they’ve taken steps for their healing.

Honor Accommodations

You probably have a number of students in your class who need accommodations. As a parent, I want you to know that I appreciate the extra work you do to honor student accommodations. I know it makes your job harder, whether you are helping students find a quiet testing space in addition to the one you are proctoring or offering different ways or different timelines to complete assignments.  I imagine it could be easy to become frustrated, especially when your workload is already heavy and the reasons for the accommodations are not disclosed to you. But how you interact with students around accommodations makes just as much of an impact as the accommodations themselves.

Once, a high school Spanish teacher blew up at my daughter. My daughter needs several accommodations, including an alternative for speaking in front of class.  Following an agreed-upon plan, she tried to upload six recordings to demonstrate her verbal proficiency, but the learning platform kept crashing. My daughter emailed the recordings to the teacher to meet the deadline.

The teacher refused to accept the recordings and then wrote angrily, “I have made so many exceptions for you.” She then proceeded to blame my daughter for the tech challenges. Apparently, the teacher had been resenting my daughter’s accommodations for months and this final straw led to a volcanic eruption.

My daughter felt humiliated and discouraged, especially after she had spent several grueling hours fighting her anxiety to complete the recordings. Ironically, her Spanish was superb, but the teacher’s tone left her wondering if she should continue studying it.

Honoring accommodations can be a real challenge. I’ve heard from one professor that it’s even harder to keep honoring accommodations when their fellow faculty members complain about or refuse to accept them, even though it’s the law.

Thank you for honoring accommodations despite the cost. Because these students’ brains operate differently than the neurotypical student, academic accommodations are akin to giving a student with leg braces more time to finish a race. You are helping to uncover the brilliance of our neurodiverse students by allowing them the space they need to shine. Perhaps the extra time that you invest in these students is the equivalent of a worship offering to God. Proverbs 19:17 says, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and he will reward them for what they have done.”

Make your Classroom a Community  

Finally, don’t underestimate your ability to create a supportive community within your class. Teens like my daughter sometimes struggle to make friends. For my daughter, large-scale Welcome Week activities like a pep rally, a dance for hundreds of students or a campus carnival feel overwhelming. She’s much more likely to connect with peers in smaller, quieter settings. When professors have begun a new semester with icebreaker questions, she shares herself. When professors require group projects, she reports conversations with peers that turn into a lunch date.

Whether you teach in a three-hundred-person lecture hall or a small seminar room, consider how you can foster interaction between students that brings laughter and learning from each other, not just a textbook. Helping students feel known and supported in their campus environment is an important step in their overall flourishing. Last week, one professor brought snacks (while being conscious of the students’ food allergies which she discovered on a student questionnaire!) to her class of twenty students and gave them space to connect. What would make sense in your classroom, with your students, to make your learning space a place where they can be themselves?

Let me close with another word of heartfelt thanks. I want to emphasize  how important you are, beyond your ability to teach an academic subject.  Our children are more likely to trust, confide in, and look for advice from you than any other adults on campus. What a privilege and a responsibility!  Thank you for your acts of kindness that won’t be measured for tenure: asking students about their lives, mentoring them in informal moments, and believing in their potential. As Christian faculty, you are God’s ambassadors to our kids in the tenderness of their emerging adulthood. Thank you for caring for students as whole people, in all their ethnic, cultural, gender, and neuro-diversity.


Photo by Salvatore Ventura on StockSnap

About the Author

Serena Menken writes books and articles that capture the unique moments of gut-wrenching pain and heartfelt joy experienced by parents of teens with mental health concerns. She counts each day of her three decades of recovery from bulimia as a gift.  However, nurturing her oldest daughter through a similar disorder proved to be even more challenging and ultimately rewarding. You can read more of her reflections on parenting at and learn about her upcoming book at When she’s not writing, Serena works full-time as a nonprofit leader, enjoys her three teenage children, and bikes through forest preserves with her husband.

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