6 mins read

As much as I try, I’m unlikely to meet your needs

The neurodivergent learner(s)

In my last blog I talked of Empathic Principles to design for neurodivergence. In writing this piece I wanted to highlight what it is that I and other Learning and Development practitioners could do, to better design and deliver for the neurodivergent person(s) in our audience. And whilst this is still my endeavour, I have realised and want to be open/honest with you:

“As much as I try I’m unlikely to meet your needs”

The truth, as learning and development practitioners we often create our best guess at what a good learning experience will be. We may then go back and check it against principles much like those I listed in my previous blog. However, we cannot possibly be all things to all people, we have our own limited capacity for what we do (which may have been reached or breached).

I’m not giving up on this journey, to meet the needs of more people, more often, in more of my delivery. But I want to flip the coin on this. I want to explore what it is that the neurodivergent learner may do for themselves, to better experience the learning they engage with.

As a case example I’m going to use my own experiences as a learner with dyslexia (and more), to discover and express what it is that I do. Quick caveat, I’m not saying what I do is right or that it will work for others. To be honest until writing this blog I didn’t even know I did half of this…

Being a crap learner or am I just a typical neurodivergent

A couple of years ago I came to the conclusion that I was a ‘crap learner’. My phraseology could be better I know, but this is the label I gave myself as I seemed to really struggle to maintain interest or be attentive. I’d noticed that over the last 5 years I had gradually distanced myself from more and more formal learning experiences because of this.

I can’t say if it was down to having overly high expectations of a session or my neurodivergence becoming more pronounced. All I know is it required more and more effort for me to remain connected to the experience, and whilst I love chatting to people the social dynamics of group work became harder to navigate.

So, I’m going to look at this through my own lens as a learner. You may notice the points below can all be linked back to the empathic principles from my last blog.

One: Design for Familiarity – new places and products can be overwhelming

  • Environment yes I do google the venue I’m heading to, I even look at images of the rooms and use street view to see how I may situate this in the context of the wider environment. I’ve been known to download floor plans in case I get disoriented at events where we are moving room to room.
  • Products – I like uniformity and obvious structure, so if you haven’t provided it in your resources, don’t worry I have my highlighters with me. I use these to distinguish between what’s a standout quote, what is a must do task and what’s just for info.

Two: Design for Psychological Safety – the unknown of new experiences is threatening

  • Anxiety – to avoid surprises I’m likely to google you the deliverer, to figure out if I can get a sense of your style/approach. If you have YouTube videos online, I’m likely to watch these and read short summaries of your work. This means I’m better prepared for questions. Also, I do love a toilet break (it’s a place to hide to regain your energy) 
  • Security – to help me feel more secure I think carefully about my ‘secure bases’. This is centred around 4 items, place, people, purpose, and object. I can’t control the place, but I can learn about it (see environment above), I don’t always know who will be there, so I try to enter a room strategically (when I’m ready and when I have the energy). In terms of purpose, if I can see the value of being there, I seem to have more resilience to endure and enjoy. And finally, object – for others this may be a valued item, for me it’s my clothes. They act as a suit of armour.

Three: Design for Stimulation – over stimulation can lead to dysregulation

  • Sensory – I can’t do much about the experience you create, but I can ask you to turn music down if it’s disturbing our thinking in quiet moments. I also take walking breaks to separate myself from the experience (disengage to re-engage)
  • Attention – again I can’t control what or how the information is being shared, the order or sequence but what I can do is annotate. Oh, and you might think I’m being rude but I do actually use my phone as a deliberate distraction. If the session has become overwhelming, I’ll disengage and dive into something that shifts my plain of thought. I do this so that I can return ready to re-engage

Four: Design for Interaction – meeting and working with others can lead to shutdown

  • Collaboration – what helps me most here is actually arriving early, so I can become familiar with as many things as I can before other learners arrive. This way I have some level of insight I can share in a conversation, be it where the coffee is or the toilets. It gives me low level ways to chat before we are put into pairs and groups.
  • Community – I do my best to get to know the other learners before we have to work together. So I can begin to understand any social rules. I might even ask others overtly what the social rules for the community might be in their eyes. Letting others set the tone and I then follow. Otherwise, I can become overpowering and take things in a different direction, which may be down a rabbit hole.

Five: Design for Cognition – numerous and abstract instructions can lead to burnout

  • Executive Function – I will ask you to repeat instructions stage by stage or seek clarification. Please don’t just restate things if I don’t get it, rephrase, paraphrase, and make it ok for me to ask for help
  • Clarity – again my phone comes in handy here. I often google the stuff you are talking about so I may find alternatives, draw diagrams or mind maps to illustrate what you are say. In my Uni days (before smart phones) I would list all the words in a lecture I didn’t get, then head straight to the library and create a glossary. My favoured book back then was a sport science dictionary.

Six: Design for Personalisation – generalised delivery reduces sense of personal purpose

  • Confidence – I guess here I have to remind myself if I don’t know something It’s not that I’m thick, it’s just I have something new to learn and I will acquire this in time. I’m not an imposter and I am just new to this. Oh and I might celebrate my own successes with chocolate as I go.
  • Interest – I recognise that some stuff is just not that interesting to me. It may be the subject or the manner in which it is shared. To combat this, I ask “what can this teach me” and endeavour to create a tool I can use in future from it.

I guess you can see why I don’t do a great deal of formal learning anymore. This stuff costs energy and I only have a finite supply. As a learning and development practitioner, take a moment to consider – how many and which of your learners may be doing some of the above to maintain their engagement in your session.

When the event is done, I generally just take it easy, a nice walk to the station, a pint in the station pub and a lovely meal on the way home listening to chill out tunes and daydreaming (that’s the bit I like the most).

In Closing

I’m not asking others to do these things, I’m just sharing what I have tended to do (and didn’t even know it). Offering ways in which you may better prepare yourself for a learning experience, so you can learn, retreat, recover and learn again.

I want to believe learning and development practitioners are doing their best with what they have in terms of their current skill and knowledge. They are doing their best to craft great experiences. I want to be more empathic towards them and I ask you to do the same for me.

My final point is to openly ask for forgiveness. If you are one in a room of 100 and I am trying to be all things to all these people, please appreciate I may be working at my bandwidth of skill, expertise, and confidence. If the experience isn’t great for you, please don’t think I intended it this way. Support me on my learning journey. Help me to do more to support others.

Kurt Ewald Lindley – realising my own preparation for and experience of learning