Lyndel Kennedy, a PhD candidate in the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC), is combining her personal experience with her passion for research to help empower neurodivergent people to thrive.
Around one in seven people are neurodivergent. “Like biodiversity in the environment, and cultural diversity, humans are neurodiverse in that our brains are wired in different ways,” explains Kennedy.
A neurodivergent person might have one or more conditions ranging from difficulties with co-ordination, communication, reading, writing or maths, to autism, including Asperger syndrome.
“In some situations, an autistic person might, for example, struggle with social interactions,” says Kennedy. “They might focus on passionate interests, rules or routines, and often have an incredible capacity to pay attention to details.”
“People may see the condition rather than the person. In doing so, they may lower their expectations about what the person can achieve and unintentionally limit opportunities for that individual.”
Kennedy understands these challenges. Her own journey with neurodiversity began when her eldest child was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome in 2007. “I knew nothing about it, and the information I found was very medical,” she says.
In her search for support, Kennedy discovered Aspergers Victoria, a peer-led organisation which helps empower people with Asperger’s and autism, and their families. She has served as president and now supports and develops a team of young adults’ peer group leaders.
While Kennedy had a professional background in editing and IT, she was always interested in psychology. In 2018, she completed a Graduate Diploma in Psychology at Monash University, then Honours in Psychology at La Trobe and OTARC. “A PhD just made sense,” she adds.
Kennedy began her doctorate in 2020, exploring factors contributing to higher education success for neurodivergent students. “One in five adults with autism have a post-secondary qualification, compared to three in five adults without a disability. I thought, ‘How can I help get these tertiary students through?’”
Kennedy believes the tertiary sector can help neurodivergent students by offering inclusive and accessible learning environments – “such things as a quiet exam room, extensions for assessments, or instructions given in writing instead of verbally.”
Peer support can also help, and last year, Kennedy co-founded the collective of Chronically Ill, Neurodivergent, Impaired and DisableD students at La Trobe (CANDID). “It’s a peer support group facilitated by the AccessAbility Hub for students who self-identify as belonging to the neurodivergent and/or disabled community. Sometimes just knowing that you’re not alone in your struggles at university can make a big difference.”
Kennedy hopes her research will help improve the support available for neurodivergent students to succeed in tertiary education.
“I get such a buzz out of helping people to thrive,” she says. “I love to watch as kids grow from teenagers into beautiful young adults who give back to society in whatever way they’re inspired to. Life is so much richer and more meaningful when you help other people.”