Law school can be a melting pot when it comes to the student body, and one way students differ is in neurodiversity.
What’s neurodiversity? And what does it mean to be neurodivergent? In a nutshell, it means that just as every person is special in their own unique way, so are their brains.
So how might the law school journey change for someone who’s neurodivergent? Are there additional obstacles and challenges for these students that neurotypical students wouldn’t usually encounter? Are there enough resources and is there enough support for neurodivergent students? What’s it like to experience law school as a neurodivergent student?
Practicing with autism
Haley Moss has a great deal of insight into the last question. Diagnosed with autism at age three, Moss hasn’t let being neurodivergent hold her back; she’s now an attorney, author, and advocate for disability inclusion and neurodiversity.
As the first openly autistic attorney admitted to the bar in Florida in 2019, she knows a bit about what it’s like to not only experience law school as a neurodivergent student but also to succeed in law school.
“When I started college and chose my psychology major, I quickly realized I wasn’t going to medical school,” Moss recalled. “When I was back at the drawing board, I had to return to the things I actually enjoyed. I realized I love writing and I love talking, and anything I did had to make a difference in the lives of other people. That’s how I landed on law.”
But the road through law school wasn’t easy for Moss.
“I found law school challenging in every way imaginable,” she said. “It wasn’t always accessible or designed with neurodiversity in mind. It shaped my thinking for the better; I learned a lot about myself and the world there.”
One of Moss’s biggest tips is to not compare yourself to others and beginning, or reinforcing, the negative stereotypes surrounding your disability. That includes what many call ableism, or discrimination or prejudice against those with disabilities. “Don’t compare yourself to everyone else or assume you must adapt to the neurotypical law student model,” she advised. “It’s a recipe for your own internalized failure since your brain works differently.”
Play to your skills
Moss’s message is simple: Instead of fighting the things and conditions that make you different, embrace them to make them work for you.
“Don’t get too caught up on how everybody else is studying and doing the work,” suggested Moss. “It’ll make you feel extra inadequate when your brain just works differently. You know your brain best, so trust yourself with the study methods, preparation, and stress-relievers that work for you. I’d have been less successful had I followed the conventional neurotypical wisdom of how one should study for the bar exam or how to ‘do’ law school.”
Working with other neurodivergent students can be a great tactic since no two neurodivergent students have walked the same path to law school. Some students, like Moss, were diagnosed in early childhood. Others may have recently learned of a diagnosis or had a neurodivergent condition identified while in law school.
“A lot of neurodivergent students get diagnosed or identified while in law school, especially those marginalized by gender or race; women and people of color are often diagnosed later than white and male counterparts,” Moss said.
“This is tough,” she added. “Having access to a formal diagnosis requires a degree of privilege, and not having enough documentation makes getting accommodations difficult either in law school or on the MPRE and bar exam. Sometimes these institutions want a longer history of accommodation to ‘prove’ you’re really disabled and neurodivergent.”
Support may be in reach
If you’re struggling in law school, it doesn’t have to be the end of the road or the end of a dream. Organizations and school resources are available to help neurodivergent students overcome the obstacles they face. Ask whether your school has a disability coordinator or a faculty member in charge of issues of accessibility, inclusion, or the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Moss also recommended learning about accommodations and discovering how to get them. “Kickstart the process early, especially for the MPRE and bar exam,” Moss said. “You’ll probably have to advocate for yourself. But moving through this process might be time-consuming and frustrating, and you may also need support. So budget as much time as possible.”
Other types of support can come from organizations in and outside your school. Some universities have a chapter of the National Disabled Law Students Association, which strives to eliminate the stigma associated with disabilities in the legal profession and provides support for current and prospective disabled students.
You can touch base through your local NDLSA chapter, if one exists, as well as online through Facebook groups, such as the Law Student Disability Advocacy Coalition. Besides connecting you to other law students across the nation, NDLSA can provide guidance on accommodations and classes and even jobs and internships.
The community fostered by these groups and organizations can help neurodivergent and disabled students know that their struggles can be overcome and that they’re not alone in their journey.
“The difference with neurodivergent and disabled law students is that we knew there were so many barriers to access to even get to law school,” Moss said. “We want to help each other succeed and uplift one another rather than keep in with that competitive nature law school breeds at times.”
The Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation at Loyola Marymount University Loyola Law School is another resource. It offers support and is building a pipeline for prospective and current disabled and neurodivergent students.
It also provides opportunities for law students to apply for internships, programs, and fellowships that connect students and professionals with disabilities to resources aimed at tackling barriers that exist for people with disabilities.
“The best resource of all is the camaraderie of other neurodivergent students,” added Moss. “Neurodivergent people are some of the most focused, caring change makers out there. Find your people. Find the law students, lawyers, colleagues, and loved ones who accept you for who you are. It’ll make all the difference.”
Most importantly, remember that every person is different and has unique strengths and struggles, but that shouldn’t bar them from pursuing their dreams of a law degree or career.
“Neurological disability is very real, with many personal and societal consequences,” said Susan Putnam, professor emeritus at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. “We should do our best to relieve the suffering disability causes and help those individuals reach their full potential.”
Moss agreed. “Every single student is different,” she stated. “Disability and neurodiversity aren’t monoliths. Prioritizing access and inclusion in the classroom is super important. Also, law professors often ignore how, in critical rulings, disability is part of the equation.
“I think we need to really reexamine how law school as an institution functions at times,” said Moss. “There are all types of advocates; some are great speakers, others are great writers, and some have other strengths.”
Law school for neurodivergent students can be a challenge, but for Moss, it was a welcome one. “I’m both critical of law school as a whole and grateful to have had the experience and privilege to attend,” she said. “I’m proud and don’t regret going for a second.”
The Science of Neurodiversity
Not clear on what it means to be neurodiverse? It’s is a term coined by sociologist Judy Singer to describe the infinite variety and combination of cognition, needs, and abilities human brains can have.
“The concept of neurodiversity argues that the wide range of differences in sociability, mood, and other mental functions observed in humans is not really pathological but rather reflects normal neurological differences that have existed throughout history,” said Susan Putnam, professor emeritus at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. “Many who ascribe to this model contend that neurodiversity is an essential form of human diversity. This concept stands in stark contrast to the medical model that has long proposed that neurodevelopmental disorders are inherently pathological and need to be prevented, treated or, if possible, cured.”
Scans have revealed much about how brains differ in neurotypical individuals. “Imaging studies have revealed differences in the wiring of the various brain regions that are thought to be the result of genetic and environmental influences,” Putnam said.
According to the Neurodiversity Association, neurodiversity also serves as an umbrella term that covers several neurodevelopmental conditions. “Some of the most notable examples of conditions considered to be neurodiverse are autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and dyslexia,” Putnam said. “Despite some controversy, mental disorders such as bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia are also included among neurodivergent conditions.”