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Practical tips for designing and facilitating learning experiences for neurodiverse learners

In my previous article, I’ve touched on what neurodiversity is and, more importantly, what it's not. Namely, that would be a strict association with an intellectual disability. I also gave some general considerations about how instructional designers should ensure that the materials they create cater to a variety of learning needs and preferences. Perhaps you might want to check it out again:

Read more: Why instructional designers need to consider neurodiverse learners

Here, I will focus on practical tips for designing learning interventions that work both for neurotypical and neurodivergent learners. The two most important factors that need to be considered are the environment and the content flexibility and accessibility.

Let’s start with managing the learning environment:

Auditory elements

Several things need to be considered here. For example, if we are talking about learners with dyslexia, voiceover is very helpful for e-learning. Not having to read text will make the content easier to process. In the case of participants with ADHD, encouraging them to wear headphones to minimize distractions is also a good idea.

Furthermore, to come to the aid of several types of neurodiverse learners, instructional designers and facilitators should:

  • Avoid major variations in volume;
  • Minimize background noise that is not adding to the learning experience;
  • Match the speaker’s tone with that of the content; in e-learning, if there are several modules, it’s important to have auditive consistency through all of them.

Visual elements

Apart from neurodiverse learners, you’ll probably have to accommodate people with color-blindness and limited visual functions.

For e-learning, it is best to make the navigation buttons larger and leave a lot of space around them, so the choice is easily made. It’s also advisable to keep the white space to a minimum and reduce decorative elements so that learners can focus on what is relevant.

Another great tip is to render the content in HTML. This way, users will be able to customize their viewing options with the use of browser controls. Animations can also be highly distracting, so it’s best to use them only when necessary.

In a face-to-face training environment, it’s important to reduce fluorescent lighting and not have the facilitator dressed in bright, contrasting colors.

Kinesthetic elements

These are prevalent in the classroom environment, and some of the categories that need consideration here are people on the autistic spectrum and those who have anxiety. Spacing the participants will matter, as will the types of activities that could lead to some of them experiencing discomfort.

Here are a few helpful tips for facilitators:

  • Allow learners to move around the room freely as long as that doesn’t interfere with the learning process.
  • Have activities that allow them to sit in various configurations, such as small groups or pods.
  • Be mindful about touching people – something as simple as a pat on the back can be very uncomfortable to some, so make sure you ask for consent before doing that. Some forms of neurodiversity are highly sensitive to touch.

General tips for facilitators

  • Re-think your ice-breakers – frequently, classroom courses begin with a quick tour around the room where everyone is asked to introduce themselves and say something about their expectations. These exercises can be very stressful for introverts that are not neurodiverse but even more so for people who are on the autistic spectrum or have anxiety. One way of avoiding this is to use one of the many interactive apps where learners can log on and give answers to questions, which will show up on a screen. A less tech version is having them write on pieces of paper that the facilitator can then read.
  • Don’t randomly call on participants – again, this gave pretty much everybody nightmares in school – the moment when you were lost in a daydream, and the teacher suddenly called your name to answer the question you, of course, haven’t heard or didn’t much care to elaborate on. It’s better to allow people to participate when they choose to and offer one of the anonymous options I have discussed above.
  • Avoid jargon and colloquialisms – these are, by definition, only known by a certain group of people. It’s difficult enough for some neurodiverse learners to be in a group learning situation without feeling that they are missing the point of what is being discussed or lacking some of the information.
  • Employ visual and auditive clues to prioritize information – if, in the case of e-learning, this would pertain to where you put something on the screen, how large the font is, and how striking the color. When it comes to classroom facilitation, making something look important falls to the trainer. You can write it down, use a different tone of voice or employ gestures to convey the importance of a certain piece of content.

Read more: 4 Awesome tips for successful classroom training

Advice for instructional designers

Considering that neurodiversity refers to different brain paths, it’s important to consider how content design can help learners process it better.

  • It’s best to divide the topics up into smaller units, so you lower the risk of cognitive overload.
  • Setting clear expectations will minimize the discomfort, while constant feedback will show everyone the progress that’s been made.
  • Repetition and reinforcement are important in learning too, regardless of whether the audience is neurodiverse or not.
  • Taking into account that some learners may have cognitive-processing delays, acknowledge that they can sometimes fall behind in conversations or activities as they require more time to understand and integrate the information. As an instructional designer, you should provide them with the space to do so.

Closing thoughts

Instruction for adult neurodiverse learners is a very dynamic field, and new developments happen all the time. No learning intervention can be perfect for each and every one of the participants. Still, it’s important to make the content as inclusive and accessible as possible so that more individuals can benefit from it.