Empowering Neurodivergent Students: The Vital Role of Activity Buy-In in Fostering Social Connections, Confidence, and Growth

Reema Dixon

Associate Director


In the realm of education, acknowledging and celebrating neurodiversity is crucial for creating an inclusive and supportive environment. One powerful approach to achieve this is by providing neurodivergent students with activity buy-in — the opportunity to engage actively in activities of their choosing. This article explores the profound importance of granting neurodivergent students agency in their activities, examining how this practice fosters social connections, instills confidence, and catalyzes both interpersonal and intrapersonal growth.

At Camp Sequoia, it is important for us to allow our kids and their parents the opportunity to self-select preferred activities before they come to camp. No, sitting in one’s room or being surgically attached to a screen are not activity options. Essentially, for the reasons outlined below, our program team works exceptionally hard to craft individual schedules for our kids. This means that kids who like art will go to art together and not be dragged to tennis by age based cohort. For details on our methods and questions about the research supporting them, please feel free to email


I. The Power of Autonomy in Activity Selection


A. Tailored Engagement

  • Self-determination theory, as highlighted by Ryan and Deci, emphasizes the importance of autonomy in fostering intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
  • Shogren et al.’s examination of self-determination constructs emphasizes the relevance of self-determination in various domains, including education and personal activities (Shogren et al., 2015).



  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.
  • Shogren, K. A., Wehmeyer, M. L., Palmer, S. B., Soukup, J. H., Little, T. D., Garner, N., & Lawrence, M. (2015). Understanding the construct of self-determination: Examining the relationship between the Arc’s Self-Determination Scale and the American Institutes for Research Self-Determination Scale. Assessment for Effective Intervention, 40(2), 115–127.

B. Individualized Learning

  • Dabrowski’s concept of overexcitability suggests that certain individuals, including neurodivergent students, may possess heightened sensitivities and responses to stimuli (Dabrowski, 1972).
  • Field et al.’s research on the impact of music on EEG in adolescents underscores the individualized nature of responses to sensory stimuli, supporting the idea of tailoring activities to individual preferences (Field et al., 1998).



  • Dabrowski, K. (1972). Psychoneurosis is not an illness. London: Gryf Publications.
  • Field, T., Martinez, A., Nawrocki, T., Pickens, J., Fox, N., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (1998). Music shifts frontal EEG in depressed adolescents. Adolescence, 33(129), 109–116.


II. Social Connections Through Shared Interests


A. Building Communities

  • Whalon et al.’s meta-analysis emphasizes the effectiveness of school-based interventions in improving peer-related social competence for children with autism spectrum disorder (Whalon et al., 2015).
  • Baron-Cohen et al.’s exploration of the “theory of mind” concept in autistic children highlights the importance of fostering social connections through shared interests and understanding (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985).



  • Whalon, K. J., Conroy, M. A., Martinez, J. R., & Werchon, D. (2015). School-based peer-related social competence interventions for children with autism spectrum disorder: A meta-analysis and descriptive review of single case research design studies. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(6), 1513–1531.
  • Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition, 21(1), 37–46.

B. Inclusive Socialization

  • Kamps et al.’s randomized trial demonstrates the effectiveness of a comprehensive peer network intervention in improving social communication for children with autism spectrum disorders (Kamps et al., 2015).
  • Grandin’s autobiographical work provides insights into the unique way individuals with autism, like herself, think and emphasizes the importance of inclusive socialization (Grandin, 1995).



  • Kamps, D. M., Thiemann-Bourque, K. S., Heitzman-Powell, L., Schwartz, I., Rosenberg, N., & Mason, R. A. (2015). A comprehensive peer network intervention to improve social communication of children with autism spectrum disorders: A randomized trial in kindergarten and first grade. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(6), 1809–1824.
  • Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in pictures: My life with autism. Vintage.


III. Confidence and Intrapersonal Growth


A. Mastery and Competence

  • Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy emphasizes the role of personal beliefs in one’s ability to succeed in a specific domain, influencing motivation and performance (Bandura, 1997).
  • Gentry and Wallace’s study explores achievement goal orientation and performance in physical education, highlighting the connection between goal-setting and success in diverse programs (Gentry & Wallace, 2014).



  • Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W.H. Freeman and Company.
  • Gentry, T., & Wallace, J. (2014). Achievement goal orientation and performance in physical education: Predicting success in a diverse program. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 33(2), 295–314.

B. Personalized Growth Journeys

  • Csikszentmihalyi and Rathunde’s exploration of flow theory suggests that engagement in activities that match skill level and challenge can lead to optimal experiences and personal growth (Csikszentmihalyi & Rathunde, 1993).
  • Happe’s research on weak central coherence in children with autism underscores the importance of personalized approaches to learning and growth (Happe, 1996).



  • Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Rathunde, K. (1993). The measurement of flow in everyday life: Toward a theory of emergent motivation. In J. E. Jacobs (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Developmental perspectives on motivation (pp. 57–97). The University of Nebraska Press.
  • Happe, F. G. E. (1996). Studying weak central coherence at low levels: Children with autism do not succumb to visual illusions. A research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 37(7), 873–877.


IV. Implementing Activity Buy-In in Educational Settings


A. Creating Inclusive Spaces

  • Kurth and Mastergeorge’s study focuses on enhancing play skills of children with autism in inclusive preschool environments, providing insights into creating inclusive spaces (Kurth & Mastergeorge, 2010).
  • Grandin and Panek’s exploration of the autistic brain sheds light on thinking across the spectrum, emphasizing the importance of understanding and accommodating neurodivergent perspectives (Grandin & Panek, 2013).



  • Kurth, J. A., & Mastergeorge, A. M. (2010). Enhancing play skills of children with autism in inclusive preschool environments. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 30(2), 74–86.
  • Grandin, T., & Panek, R. (2013). The autistic brain: Thinking across the spectrum. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

B. Collaborative Decision-Making

  • Brown et al.’s meta-analysis of ERP paradigms offers insights into collaborative decision-making processes, demonstrating the potential for multiple perspectives to enhance outcomes (Brown et al., 2013).
  • Sharpe and Baker’s work on creating and implementing effective goals and objectives underscores the collaborative efforts needed to address the unique needs of neurodivergent students (Sharpe & Baker, 2007).



  • Brown, C., Oram-Cardy, J., & Johnson, A. (2013). A meta-analysis of the N300 and N400 ERPs across multiple paradigms. Psychophysiology, 50(10), 1083–1091.
  • Sharpe, D. L., & Baker, D. L. (2007). Creating and implementing effective goals and objectives for students with significant disabilities. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 52(2), 47–52.


V. Conclusion

In conclusion, activity buy-in emerges as a powerful tool in the educational toolkit for empowering neurodivergent students. Granting them autonomy in selecting activities not only recognizes their individual strengths and preferences but also cultivates a sense of agency, confidence, and connection. Through social engagement, inclusive environments, and personalized growth journeys, neurodivergent students can thrive, contributing their unique perspectives to the rich tapestry of educational communities. As educators, parents, and advocates, it is our collective responsibility to champion the importance of activity buy-in, fostering environments that truly embrace and celebrate the diverse strengths and potential of neurodivergent learners.

Interested in learning more about our programs? Check out the links below!