5 mins read

Designing for Neurodiversity in Learning

Solve for one, extend to many

Personal and Professional Exploration

As I continue my own journey, exploring neurodivergence and what it means to me. I thought I’d take a look at what it may mean for me as a Learning and Development Practitioner.

It seems there is loads of information out there about ‘the neurodiverse classroom’, I’ve even bought Victoria Honeybourne’s book of the same title (although knowing me I will struggle to get beyond page 15 – that seems to be the point at which my brain wonders). There is even some good texts out there about the ‘neurodivergent workplace’, but I’m yet to come across some consistent, agreed and well established ‘principles for learning design’ that have the neurodivergent learner at the heart.

Yes, you guessed it…. So I thought I would do some reading on this and see what I could create. After countless hours on the web, reading around various categories of neurodiversity and researching what I believe to be ‘expert opinion’, I’ve come up with 6 guiding principles…. But before I show you these, there’s a little something I think worth sharing.

Helping people avoid micro moments of shame

It seems in every learning experience we create and deliver someone of a neurodivergent nature is most probably experiencing a moment of ‘learning shame’. What I mean by this is they have an inner voice saying…

“why don’t I get it, everyone else seems to”

“Am I thick”

“I’m always the last to finish”

“I’m not good at this”

I can’t tell you why specific individuals feel this way, but it may well be because of an undiagnosed (or a diagnosed) neurodivergent condition (again I’m not sure I like the word condition, but its all I have right now). This shame is miss placed as often their inability to move at the pace of others (or ‘get it’) may actually be down to our poor design.

We as learning and development practitioners must try to design learning, so it doesn’t provoke unnecessary anxiety. We know that some experiences need to be provocative, evoke some level of arousal, but it must be purposeful and for the benefit of learning (not for entertainment or needless drama – I’ve been part of these sessions before).

Simple things like Icebreakers (I can see you cringe already), are particularly anxiety-inducing. The very idea of talking to a stranger and making eye contact can be enough to stop people in their tracks or worse leave the room never to come back (flight, flight or freeze response).

So if group or paired work is going to be part of your session, let people know in advance (or early in the session) but build towards this. Build safety first, then connection (then content). In the initial stages keep people working in the same pairs/tables so familiarly can be built

Empathic Principles to design for neurodivergence (or is it Neurodiversity)

If I’m honest I’m still working the language out. But here is my take on how we may look to create better experiences of learning for our audiences.

I’ve termed these as ‘empathic principles’, because with each key stroke I had one question in mind:

“how is the (neurodivergent) learner experiencing this?”

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

  • Environment open (with space to move freely during workshops), uncluttered (to reduce distraction), predictable (aligned to expectations/previous experience), clear signage (to reduce anxiety of not knowing where to be/go when moving between spaces).
  • Products – recognisable (similar to before, or as expected), consistent (to allow for easy navigation), appropriate font (size, spacing and form to improve readability), logical sequence (easy to follow), high contrast (enabling people to differentiate between items).

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

  • Anxiety – share a preview in advance (to enable people to prepare themselves), be sensitive with cold calling questions (no surprises are good surprises), build retreat opportunities (time to disengage and spaces to go), show you are listening
  • Security – welcome at a distance (be open to approach but don’t encroach), find connection without contact (low disclosure reasons to talk), freedom to leave (disengage to re-engage), promote appreciation for difference (valued as you are)

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

  • Sensory – colour (whilst contrast is good, over egging the colour dynamics is bad), light (controllable and adaptable to context), surface or equipment texture (understand its possible impacts), sound (minimise background noise particularly in quiet spaces or for thinking tasks)
  • Attention – low arousal but not no arousal (to aid concentration), less is more (attention is finite, use it wisely), low distraction (phones and outside disruption), low but purposeful stimulation (reduce and control), brain breaks (to rest, recover, restore)

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

  • Collaboration – build slowly (paired to 4’s and beyond), icebreakers second safety first (paired sharing as a starter can be anxiety inducing), plan for proximity without direct engagement (allow people to feel part of something even when on the outside)
  • Community – don’t rush to create it (let the room set the pace), balance the desire for people to connect with their anxiety for working with new people. Create space for contact sharing as an option not a mandate (remove the pressure to be connected in favour of a natural connection)

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

  • Executive Function – small chunks (time to comprehend A before moving on to B), staggered instructions (stop, pause, think), stage gate approaches (throw out, put on hold, move forward with)
  • Clarity – Plain English (use words the audience knows), jargon buster (where new language is needed create glossaries and give illustrated examples in practice), limit abstract language (metaphors are nice but can be lost in interpretation)

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

  • Confidence – work with people’s strengths (build on what they know), celebrate where they are now (what they have arrived with), acknowledge incremental improvements (personally to learner not always globally to all), build on self-esteem (value the journey and the outcome)
  • Interest – create a line of sight between personal interest and learning outcome (learners to have flexibility regarding engagement with and expression of learning), value the power of special interests as a motivator (to drive connection to personal relevance/meaning)

As I’m sure you will appreciate, these principles need some work. Some greater depth, further clarity, simple ‘pragmatic’ examples of good practice in action.  There is so much more to write (and back up with trusted sources) and I will endeavour to keep this going week by week. My hope is we acknowledge people may be:

“limited by (our) design not (their) divergence”

I’m not going to pretend that we will ever be in a place to eliminate all challenge, however we may be able to remove some needless barriers and mitigate for those items we have less control over.

In future blogs I will focus on practical tips for designing learning interventions that work both for neurotypical and neurodivergent learners.

In closing

Designing experiences considerate of a neurodivergent audience is highly unlikely to limit or worsen the experience of the neurotypical learner, but by contrast to design simply for the neurotypical will most definitely limit the neurodivergent.

When it comes to what any of us desire from a learning experience, we all want to avoid a poorly curated environment, the same buzzing lights or terrible acoustics are challenging and distracting for all, even those with coping strategies.

We need to design with empathy

Lets keep learning, day by day….

Kurt Ewald Lindley – on a personal and professional journey to betterment (not quite there yet, I may never be, but that’s ok as long as I’m learning)