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Why instructional designers need to consider neurodiverse learners

With all the recent focus on diversity and inclusion, it’s high time instructional designers learn what neurodiversity really is and how they can adapt the L&D programs to neurodiverse learners. Initially, the term referred to people on the autism spectrum, but today the definition is wider, encompassing all individual differences in brain functioning regarded as normal variations within the human population (Merriam-Webster dictionary).

The number of people who qualify as neurodiverse is higher than one might think. One out of eight individuals exhibit such differences in brain function (even though half of them don’t know it). Neurodiverse people may have also be diagnosed with hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, among others.

Neurodiversity does not affect intelligence

There is a common misconception that neurodiversity is a disability. Section 508 of the Americans With Disabilities Act refers to an individual with a disability as someone who “has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activity.” However, this is not the case for all neurodiverse people. Many don't have cognitive deficits but merely exhibit thinking processes that differ from the norm.

A neurodivergent individual may or may not be covered under the ADA, depending on the specific neurodiversity. Therefore, instructional designers need to understand the needs of these individuals and provide the appropriate learning environment so they can take full advantage of learning experiences.

Read more: Beyond 508 – UX e-learning design

Environment is key

Neurodiversity as a concept is linked to the social model of disability where an individual’s limitations depend on social factors such as their environment rather than their physical abilities.

For example, when focusing on inclusive office design, architects will include ramps and spaces that can be used flexibly – with easily adjustable furniture, the possibility to dim the lighting and change the heating and cooling settings.

When it comes to instructional design, it’s crucial to also look at the multitude of factors that influence both neurotypical and neurodiverse learners for that particular training intervention.

Learner needs assessment

To provide the best type of training for your audience, you need to know who they are and how they learn. Learner-centric design is the way to go, which is true not only when considering neurodiverse individuals. However, it’s paramount that you keep all the possible participants in mind when running your training needs assessment.

Read more: Doing a Training Needs Analysis for the future

It’s important to know the objective of the learning intervention so you can thoroughly investigate the gaps that it will need to fill. A pre-assessment can be immensely helpful in determining a learner’s understanding of the training content. Starting from this information, you can then focus on the content areas most lacking or difficult to comprehend.

It’s important to note here that this assessment is focused on content only, not on running any test meant to identify possible cognitive differences.

Ensuring you provide positive experiences

As you can easily understand, even if you aren’t a neurodiverse individual, group learning experiences can be very stressful for someone who is. Most managers today understand the importance (and the perks) of including neurodiverse individuals in their te. The L&D department must follow suit.

Organizations are continually growing their efforts to sustain diversity, equity, and inclusion. These employees should feel comfortable and encouraged to embrace their differences.

The L&D function should stay true to its supporting quality and ensure that all learning interventions, from onboarding to compliance training and competency development, are positive experiences for everyone.

Closing thoughts

Neurodiversity presents many opportunities for organizations but can also pose challenges for learning specialists who have to make sure that all programs are tailored to fit their employees. Instructional designers will need to research the vast (and continually developing) subject of neurodiversity and then find innovative ways to create programs that meet these needs.

For more practical tips on how to address neurodiversity in instructional design, keep an eye on the Business Blog, as I’ll dive into those in the very next article!