Creating a Place where Neurodiverse Students Can ‘Recharge and Relax’

Neurodivergent House offers a quiet residence and sense of community

Sam Lacet-Brown, A24, was a young child when he was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and, soon after, with autism.

He recalls struggling to understand the world around him, including how to gauge interactions with other people. “I could not figure out how hard a high five should be,” he said. “I could not figure out how to communicate with others.”

Then in middle school, he read John Elder Robison’s memoir, Look Me in the Eye, detailing his life with undiagnosed autism. Robison’s story made a strong impression.

“He was able to say: ‘This is who I am. I can find a way to make that work, and still make a living,’” said Lacet-Brown.

Now at Tufts, Lacet-Brown has focused his efforts into creating the Neurodivergent House, one of several special interest houses offered by Tufts Residential Life.

The Neurodivergent House opened its doors in fall 2022 to fill a need for a quiet environment for students who are autistic or neurodivergent in other ways and who have difficulty navigating the typical large residential halls.

Lacet-Brown said he applied to Residential Life to create the house as an extension of his work as president of the student organization Diverse Minds.

A house setting, he said, creates a “less sensory-overwhelming place” where neurodivergent students can live together—a place where they can be at ease, make friends, and enjoy meals without the hustle and bustle of a large dining hall. The Neurodivergent House gives neurodiverse students the vital opportunity to unmask—to stop hiding themselves to fit into a neurotypical world —“which can alleviate some of the effects of burnout that neurodivergent students often experience,” he said.

The house’s faculty advisor is Eileen Crehan, an assistant professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development who studies autism and neurodiversity across the lifespan.

The Neurodivergent House “represents awesome work by dedicated students who brainstormed a creative solution” for accommodations for students with unique experiences including (but not limited to) autism, ADHD, OCD, and Tourette syndrome, she said.

Neurodivergent students often have sensory sensitivities, so a conventional residence hall is frequently “not an ideal spot to recharge and relax” for them, she said, but students can find that ideal spot in a dedicated space.

“They benefit from being in community with others with similar lived experiences,” Crehan said. “Many studies demonstrate the protective effect that being in community can have on mental health, academic engagement, and quality of life, particularly for those with historically marginalized identities.”

The house currently occupies one side of a Curtis Street wood-frame building. The other portion is home to the Chinese Language House (although the two are only accessible from separate entrances). It can accommodate up to eight students, and offers both doubles and singles, though most residents are in singles. The house includes three kitchens, a common room, and three bathrooms.

Lacet-Brown, as house manager, provides the social connections to make the house a home; he organizes activities and morale boosters. The house he said, is founded on the idea that students should feel comfortable with who they are: “Being able to relax, to be yourself,” he said, “that’s what’s most important.”

Tufts students leaving Neurodivergent House

Wren Kritzer and Sam Lacet-Brown at Neurodivergent House, "where we can just be ourselves,” says Kritzer. Photo: Jenna Schad

Residents are also encouraged to participate in at least one activity with another member of the house per week, such as cooking or baking together, watching a movie or TV, playing a board game, or traveling together to Davis or Porter Square.

Beyond that, residents are expected to respect each other; for instance, avoiding noises that cause sound sensitivity issues, giving content warnings for sensitive topics, and not being rude about others’ tics or stims (self-stimulating repetitive behaviors).

Incoming house manager Wren Kritzer, A26, said that living in this community of neurodiverse students greatly supports their productivity and mental health.

“Last year I lived in a single room in Carmichael, which doesn’t really have common rooms, and is distant from typical social spaces like Dewick and the Commons. Socializing was tough for me because I had to go to a crowded space to do it, but then my sensory issues would kick in and I wouldn’t be able to stay. I’d be exhausted from the overstimulation, then have to trudge back uphill and spend a couple hours just recovering. 

"I stopped making those attempts pretty quickly. I was really lonely,” they said. "Living in the house this year, there’s always a quiet social space within easy reach. It’s been a huge help for me.”

The residential hall experience was also difficult for Chamomile Kovacik, A25, who is autistic, has PTSD and memory loss, and experiences hypervigilance. “I tend to be stressed out by loud noises, crowded rooms, people behind me,” said Kovacik, “so dorms are not so much fun.”

When they got a text from Lacet-Brown, asking if they’d be interested in helping get the new house going, I thought it would work for me,” they said. “I cook all my own meals, so it was nice to be sure that there was going to be a private kitchen. I also liked having people around that I actually knew; four of us played a lot of board games together freshman year.”

Overall, maintaining a supportive atmosphere in the house is a balancing act that begins by acknowledging diverse needs, Lacet-Brown said.

“If someone says, ‘I’ll be at board game night, but I need a fidget toy to play with,’ that means double-checking: ‘Hey, this fidget toy, it's pretty noisy. Is everyone okay with that?’” he said. “And if everyone's like, ‘Yeah, okay,’ you move on. No one feels like an outsider or judged.”

Kritzer observed that these positive social interactions are a large part of the house’s sense of belonging and help create a space where neurodivergent students “can just hang out without having to constantly keep track of the many social pressures we constantly face to ‘fit in’ or ‘be normal.’ It’s one of the very few spaces on campus where we can just be ourselves.”

Having an undemanding space that’s always available is also essential to counterbalance academics, which often place heavy demands on time and talents. Lacet-Brown, who’s double-majoring in cognitive and brain science and philosophy, has worked doing AV with Tufts Technology Services since freshman year and researched in the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Neuroimaging Lab.

Kritzer, a psychology major with a minor in child study and human development, has likewise incorporated research into their studies as a team member of the Crehan Lab. Kovacik, who came to Tufts to study chemistry, is a research assistant in the Davis Lab in the Department of Chemistry and plans to pursue a Ph.D.

With those varied and time-intensive academic responsibilities front and center, the Neurodivergent House has been important as a place to decompress, Kovacik said. 

“I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and there's a tendency for a lot of folks to gather there after classes at the end of the day, which tends to be a good time to check in,” they said. “It’s a chance to get to know each other better.”

As word has spread about the Neurodivergent House, applications have grown: 15 students applied for the 2024-25 year. The house is an encouraging “first step” toward advancing the needs of neurodivergent and other disabled students, said Kovacik. However, “the disabled population at Tufts is much bigger than 15 people,” they said.

Kritzer, who will step into two leadership roles next year—house manager for the Neurodivergent House and president of Diverse Minds—is hopeful that as perceptions shift and expand, neurodivergent students at Tufts will progressively get more of the accommodations that they need.

“People tend to view neurodivergent conditions like autism as a loss of certain capabilities, but it's really just a difference,” they said. “Most of the time, the resources and solutions that we need, like low-sensory-load spaces and precise instructions, actually benefit everyone. If you are willing to work within that framework of individual difference, and accept that people have always and will always be varied in every possible way, then everyone wins.”

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