May 2021
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TD Magazine

Design for Neurodiverse Learners

Friday, April 30, 2021

Workers with autism, dyslexia, or other neurological differences will benefit from training designed with them in mind.

While initially coined to describe individuals with autism, neurodiversity now describes anyone with a different brain process. That is compared to a neurotypical individual, or a person with normative brain function. As the research and understanding of brain science advances, the number of people defined as neurodiverse continues to increase, with some studies identifying nearly 30 percent of the population as neurodiverse, such as individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, as well as people on the autism spectrum, among others.

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There is no direct association between a person’s intelligence and neurodivergence. Being neurodivergent is not considered a deficit—merely a difference from the norm. That is not to be confused with individuals with disabilities. Section 508 of the Americans With Disabilities Act protects "an individual with a disability … who has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities." A person who is neurodivergent may or may not be protected under the ADA depending on the specific neurodi-vergence and the depth of it.

Generally, when designers develop content to meet Section 508 guidelines, the focus is on closed-captioning for someone with an auditory impairment or alternative text that can describe an image for an individual using a screen reader. The guidelines cover numerous additional considerations for other physical movement disabilities as well.

Other countries have more stringent guidance to ensure the equitability of access to content. Canada has the most encompassing regulations, which are outlined in An Act to Ensure a Barrier-Free Canada, or more succinctly, the Accessible Canada Act. The UK Home Office has created guidance for developing accessible materials that not only includes considerations for visual and auditory impairments but also factors in a variety of neurodivergent learners, such as those who have anxiety or dyslexia or are on the autism spectrum.

To be inclusive of the neurodivergent learners who will consume training content, it is incumbent on instructional designers and e-learning developers to build to best practice.

Environment, not capabilities

The concept of neurodiversity is linked to the social model of disability, where an individual’s limitations are based on the environment and social constructions and not on the person’s physical abilities. For example, in industrial design, architects who focus on the environment’s accessibility build ramps into staircases and create office spaces that offer flexible usage of space, including rooms with dimmable lights, customizable heating, and desks that can adjust in height to the user’s comfort.

When it comes to instructional design, beyond ensuring that you’ve selected optimal activities to reinforce behavior change and that facilitators adequately cover the content, also consider the numerous elements that will influence learners—both neurotypical and neurodiverse—in the educational situation.

Begin by developing a base training to cover the majority of learners’ needs. For individuals needing extra support—again, whether or not they’re neurodiverse (you may not even know, after all)—you can implement reteaching. As another tier, you can add on-the-job training with support from a peer mentor, training manager, or supervisor. Finally, for learners who continue to have difficulty, consider job shadowing and paired work until they are comfortable completing the work on their own.

Because those are all training best practices, the effort you put into designing a course that’s especially beneficial to neurodiverse learners can provide benefits to neurotypical learners as well. The point is the organizational value placed on identifying and meeting these learners’ special or individualized needs.

Assessing learner needs

How do you account for all learners’ needs? Moving to a learner-centric design approach is a good first step. In learner-centric design, the content is adaptive to the learner’s depth of understanding and experience and enables that individual to personalize it to their needs and knowledge gaps.

A pre-assessment can assist in determining a learner’s understanding of the training content, enabling the trainer to extend instruction on the content in the areas where learners aren’t able to answer the questions correctly and move more quickly through the information that they understand.

Reframe the way you think about how to impart the content. For instance, let’s say a trainer is teaching a group of learners about weather conditions. By facilitating small-group activities with content specializations—such as fog, rain, and snow—each group learns the same basic topics of thermometers, rain gauges, air pressure, and atmosphere as they pertain to the group’s content area. Via reading, games, videos, and discussion, each group learns about its content area and the key terms. When all the learners come together for presentations, they will have the same vocabulary and will be able to share deeper expertise specifically on their area of specialization and apply the base knowledge to the other groups’ content.

For e-learning, you can scaffold practice opportunities to an individual learner’s needs. The initial assessment can determine the learner’s depth of understanding and give them access to more activities. Adapt to the unique learner’s need and interest by adding subsequent activities to reinforce the base level of behavior, explaining background concepts considered prerequisite information, or extending the information beyond the required scope of this particular content. Building to this level will require an extensive needs assessment with the subject matter expert and the potential learner pool to ascertain the variety of backgrounds and needs for the module.

Practical solutions

Logistically, there are numerous factors you can control and optimize for all learners.

Visuals. When considering the visuals in a presentation, the audience is wider than you may initially consider. Yes, it will comprise people with limited vision and color-blindness but also individuals with dyslexia or autism.

Learners with autism may need visual guidance to assess the importance of topics. Dyslexia makes it harder for a learner to read text. When working on visual components of training:

  • Build a consistent interface.
  • Develop a color palette that does not have bright, contrasting colors.
  • Use a ratio of 4.5-to-1 or higher for background-to-text color.
  • Minimize access to other non-learners (people walking by or interrupting).
  • Reduce presentation animations and flickering.

For e-learning environments specifically, allow a lot of space around any navigation buttons, and use large buttons to make them easy for learners to select. Speaking of space, build visuals with a mobile-first approach, maximizing white space to help learners focus on the key concepts and minimizing decorative visuals that don’t directly support the instructional concept.

In addition, design the content to tab in the expected order using accessibility tools so that a learner using a keyboard instead of a mouse progresses through the content in the intended sequence rather than the order in which you’ve added the media to the authoring tool. Doing so can help establish the content’s hierarchy and importance based on the order presented and highlighted. Minimize animations or ensure that learners can control when items animate on or off the slide. Also, publish the training content in HTML to enable learners to customize their viewing experience with browser controls.

For face-to-face training, reduce fluorescent lighting in the classroom, and advise the presenter to avoid wearing bright, contrasting colors.

Auditory. When it comes to e-learning, individuals with dyslexia often benefit from voice-over. Because they won’t have to read onscreen text, they will more clearly process the content. Likewise, allowing learners to wear headphones to focus on the course audio will minimize distractions for people with ADHD. To further support neurodivergent learners:

  • Minimize background noise that does not add to the learning environment. For example, don’t play music while someone is speaking, and close doors and windows to reduce audio distraction.
  • Ensure that the speaker’s tone matches with the content’s tone. For example, a speaker should not have a peppy, jocular tone when discussing emergency evacuation procedures.
  • Avoid major variations in volume.
  • Allow learners to wear noise-reducing earplugs to mute distracting sounds.

In the classroom, use a program that generates closed-captioning while speakers talk, hire a text interpreter, or provide learners with a script. In e-learning, include closed-captioning on all videos and voice-overs, and use a consistent voice throughout the modules.

Kinesthetic. While keeping people with anxiety or autism in mind, think through the physical spacing between learners and how any activities could create discomfort. Regardless of the environment, do what you can to ensure learners’ comfort. In the classroom, consider these physical accommodations:

  • Do not touch learners without their specific consent—a seemingly innocuous pat on the back or tap on the shoulder may make some learners uncomfortable. Several different forms of neu-rodivergence are associated with hypersensitivity to touch, and being touched may create an intense reaction that will preclude the learner from being able to focus on the content.
  • Allow participants to sit in configurations that reinforce the activity and learning—typically in pods or small groups.
  • Minimize transitions to other areas or movement into different groups.
  • Allow learners the freedom to move around or walk during the course so long as it does not become distracting to the other learners.

Instructional content considerations

Neurodivergent brain functions affect the way learners process and retain information. A variety of instructional considerations can improve learners’ content processing. For example, chunking the content to minimize cognitive overload, reinforcing ideas to mitigate the forgetting curve, and managing learner anxiety by setting clear expectations and giving feedback all are learning best practices—and also increase your training content’s accessibility.

Additionally, build in opportunities for learners to revisit topics where they are confused or need further clarification. Some learners may have cognitive-processing delays, causing them to be slightly behind in conversations or activities because they need to spend more time than neurotypical learners to understand the context of the information. Practice setting the content expectation by explaining and reviewing the content, focusing on the key takeaways and goals for behavior change as a result of the training.

Here are two key facilitation considerations:

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At the beginning of a course, do not force learners to introduce themselves to the class. Because the participants have not yet built rapport with others in the room, introductions can cause undue stress on not only the shy learners but also learners with anxiety or social-emotional neurodiversity. Let participants introduce themselves based on their comfort level.

Avoid randomly calling on people to answer questions. After posing questions to the class, be comfortable with silence. Before moving on, give learners the opportunity to think through how they want to answer the questions or whether they have something they want to ask. Consider allowing small-group interactions where learners can ask questions of those with whom they have built trust. Also, think about including ways for learners to participate anonymously. For example, allow them to use technology to have back-channel discussions and polls, or place sticky notes on the tables so they can post responses or questions on the wall during breaks.

Content design guidelines that help with content processing include:

  • Using numerous bullet points and short sentences to facilitate content processing and provide written guidance on key topics
  • Minimizing colloquialisms and jargon—instead, use stories to clarify content ideas and practical applications
  • Using visual cues to prioritize information, with the most important being largest and brightest—doing so will build the hierarchy of content for learners and help them connect the supporting objectives with the terminal objectives

The activities you use to teach topics are also important for neurodivergent learners. Learners with ADHD, anxiety, and dyslexia will all have increased difficulty with activities that involve sorting and reorganizing words, for example.

To better support learners’ neurodiversity in terms of activities, consider adapting the length of time for exercises and assessments for learners who appear to need it. Set clear expectations so those with anxiety or autism know what to anticipate and when to expect it. Adapt the schedule as needed to learners’ pace of understanding.

During practice opportunities, provide feedback as to how learners are progressing. By offering such opportunities immediately following the content explanation, you build a safe space for learners to explore the topic and experiment with failure and wrong decisions without the practice feeling like an assessment. Spacing practice at the end of the lesson may build tension for learners—particularly those with anxiety—that they must be perfect, and it will not enable them to encode the information as effectively.

Build in as much self-directed learning as possible. Because each learner is unique, an individual’s background will be different from other members of the learner pool. By allowing learners to spend more time in areas where they have gaps and move more quickly through content with which they are comfortable, the overall learning experience will be more positive and pleasant.

Use assessments to support reteaching and additional content. Unless there is an educational reason for offering an assessment, advise subject matter experts to not include one. A facilitator or e-learning developer can gauge learner understanding beyond giving a multiple-choice quiz at the end of each lesson.

Finally, the nature of the content topic itself also varies a learner’s ability to process it. For instance, it may be more challenging for some learners with autism or Asperger’s syndrome to process content that requires sophisticated emotional intelligence. They also may have more difficulty in courses that require learners to speak, such as communications and public speaking. Therefore, courses on providing performance reviews or motivational interviewing will be especially difficult for people with those forms of neurodiversity and may not ultimately be a good content fit for their continuing education.

Likewise, students with dyslexia may have difficulty with rote memorization of facts—especially dates and systemic processes, such as in project management. So, that’s another content fit matter to take into account.

Designing positive experiences

Employers are seeking to increase the diversity of their teams to improve problem solving, decision making, and creativity. As organizations continue to grow in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, employees should feel comfortable embracing their differences and understand and learn how those differences benefit the companies they work for.

Whether an employee must take compliance training or a virtual onboarding course, you have the opportunity to create a positive learning experience to assist all learners with new information and behavior. Many of these considerations in the development phase also will improve neurotypical learners’ knowledge acquisition.


Online Resources

These sites offer additional guidance and tools to help make your training more accessible.

  • A list of more than 200 hand-curated accessibility plugins, tools, articles, case studies, design patterns, assistive technologies, design resources, and accessibility standards: a11yresources.webflow.io
  • A sensory environment checklist to help you consider the different sensory responses to an environment that some people may experience: bbc.github.io/uxd-cognitive
About the Author

Emily Wood has more than 14 years of experience in training and instructional design, and she is the author of E-Learning Department of One (ATD Press).

9 Comments
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What a nice article and great reminder of effective ways to design instruction that is inclusive, memorable, meaningful and applicable. Thanks, Emily for the incredible insights!
Thanks Claudia!
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This article was right on time. I am currently looking at how we can ensure our trainings are accessible for our agency. Reading this article was big help in seeing what we are already doing and where we have some gaps.
Hi Patreace, that's great to hear. I hope that you are able work with management to address the gaps you've found and how to remediate them.
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Good article. We don't consider people who process differently in training and work environments. Thank you for starting this conversation. I'd love to connect with you and others who are including neurodiverse options in your workplace training programs.
Hi Beth. Absolutely. Let's connect!
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Agreed! Count me in! I need to provide stats and reasoning to change our onboarding process where I work.
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