Designing for Neurodiverse Learners

Designing for Neurodiverse Learners. Rainbow infinity symbol superimposed over light gray silhouettes of people. The logo for Scissortail Creative Services is in the corner.
This post shares six tips for designing for neurodiverse learners, an important part of building an inclusive culture and implementing UDL.

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

Introduction

Designing for neurodiverse learners is part of building an inclusive culture and implementing universal design for learning (UDL). Unfortunately, even for companies committed to accessibility, neurodiversity is often an afterthought.

Organizations that are focused on meeting Section 508 requirements may not realize that those standards barely touch on cognitive accessibility. Even W3C recognizes that “some cognitive accessibility user needs are not addressed in existing W3C standards.”

In this post, I’ll share six tips for designing for neurodiverse learners.

What Is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity refers to the different ways our brains work, including the way we process and perceive information and interact with the world. People whose brains work differently than society generally expects are considered neurodiverse or neurodivergent. (“Neurodiverse” generally describes a group of people, while “neurodivergent” is used to describe individuals. However, some individuals prefer the term “neurodiverse.”)

The majority of the population is neurotypical, or “neurologically typical.” According to most studies, between 15 and 20 percent of the population is neurodiverse, although some estimates put the number as high as 30 to 40 percent.

Some examples of neurodiversity include:

  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Dyscalculia
  • Tourette’s syndrome
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

In addition, some people have acquired neurodivergence through traumatic brain injury, stroke, dementia, or other condition.

Neurodiversity has nothing to do with intelligence; it’s simply a matter of the brain functioning differently.

I’m willing to bet you have several neurodiverse people in your life and that you have neurodiverse learners in your organization. So, how can you make sure the learning experiences you design work well for these learners?

Tips for Designing for Neurodiverse Learners

Here are some tips for designing learning experiences that work for neurodiverse learners. The great thing is, they also make learning experiences more effective overall, for all learners.

Just say NO to big blocks of text.

Avoiding walls of text is good advice when designing for any learner, but it’s especially important for those with dyslexia or cognitive disabilities that make reading difficult.

Break up blocks of text into smaller chunks, organized under headings, and use plenty of white space to make reading easier. Illustrate concepts graphically whenever possible.

Try to make it easy for learners to identify the main points. For example, you could list study questions at the beginning of the lesson to direct learners’ attention to the key takeaways. You can also identify key terms in bold text.

Including audio narration in eLearning courses is very helpful for dyslexic learners. But remember Meyer’s Redundancy Principle: people learn better from graphics and narration than they do from graphics, narration, and on-screen text.

Give instructions verbally and in writing.

Clear and concise instructions in multiple formats are helpful for every learner and especially important for neurodiverse individuals. For example, dyslexic learners will find oral instructions the most helpful, while learners with memory impairments will want to refer to the written instructions.

Don't time learners.

Adding a timer to a game can increase the fun factor for neurotypical learners. But for many neurodiverse learners, it only adds stress that detracts from the learning experience.

A dyslexic person may not have time to read the instructions or question in the amount of time given. A person with anxiety may immediately become so nervous about being timed that they’re unable to pay attention to what they’re supposed to be learning.

If you do use a timed interaction in an eLearning course, provide a way to pause or stop the timer. This is also beneficial for learners who use eye-tracking software or other alternative input devices that may require more time than clicking a mouse.

Timing a learner might be appropriate if they’re required to perform a task in a given amount of time as part of their job requirements. But even if that’s the case, consider whether the activity you’re designing is truly an authentic representation of that task. For example, in real life, would the learner be required to read instructions within that time limit? 

Don't overwhelm learners with sensory overload.

Autistic learners can be highly susceptible to sensory overload. In the early days of my “mild” traumatic brain injury years ago, I got a small taste of what my autistic daughter goes through every day.

My brain wasn’t able to filter out all the extraneous input it was receiving all the time—from sidebar conversations across the room, to brightly colored posters on the wall, to the noises of traffic outside the window. If I were trying to have a conversation with someone, all of those different sensory inputs were demanding equal attention in my brain. Trying to tune them out to pay attention to the person talking to me was overwhelming and exhausting.

Think about ways you can reduce sensory input for learners. Here are some examples:

  • Don’t use background music behind audio narration.
  • Provide a way for learners to stop any moving objects, such as GIFs or videos. In a classroom or webinar environment, provide a warning so learners can look away. This is especially important for learners with seizure disorders or vestibular disorders.
  • For in-person instruction, whenever possible, have breakout rooms available so groups can work in a quiet place rather than having the noise of many groups talking at once.
  • If possible, dim the lights slightly—especially if they’re fluorescent.
  • Allow learners to wear noise-cancelling headphones if they wish.
  • Don’t use bright colors and ultra-high contrast. These can be overwhelming to some learners and can even trigger migraines, dizziness, and other issues. Instead of white text on a black background, try off-white text or a dark gray background. The difference is subtle but can make a huge difference for some learners. 
High Contrast versus Ultra-High Contrast. The high contrast example shows white text over a dark gray background. The ultra-high contrast example shows white text on a black background. The tag @ScissortailCS is included at the bottom of the image.

Set clear expectations and limit surprises.

Knowing what to expect in a learning experience is beneficial for all learners. It’s especially critical for autistic learners, who may have a harder time adapting to uncertainty. Clearly communicate the objectives and how learners will be assessed. For in-person instruction, send a schedule in advance with a syllabus or outline of the class.

If plans need to change, give advanced notice whenever possible. For example, in one week-long instructor-led class I observed, the weather forecast required an outdoor practical exercise to be rescheduled for a different day. The instructor communicated the change to learners a few days before the scheduled activity. This allowed them to plan their clothing choices appropriately.

Unless extemporaneous speaking is a critical skill for your target audience, avoid putting people on the spot, such as calling on someone who didn’t volunteer. This sort of unwelcome surprise can be especially difficult for autistic learners and those with anxiety.

Don't make assumptions.

If you saw someone drawing silly cartoons through a lecture, would you assume they’re not paying attention? I hope not, because doodling has actually been shown to help people concentrate and pay attention.  

What if you saw a learner slip in earbuds and pull up Netflix in the middle of class? For many learners with ADHD, turning on music or a television show for background noise can actually help them pay attention better—by helping them tune out other extraneous noise. That doesn’t mean you should let learners watch Breaking Bad in your class—thus distracting everyone behind them—but it’s a perspective to consider before jumping to conclusions. Perhaps you can let them listen to music (with headphones) as they’re working.

How about if you saw a learner get up and pace during class, or fidget with something on their desk? Or if you noticed an employee playing Candy Crush while they’re taking an eLearning or Zoom class? These are all methods that can help neurodiverse learners (and some neurotypical learners) pay attention.

Summary

Using these tips will help ensure that the learning experiences you design are more inclusive and more effective—for all learners. Here’s the list again as a recap:

  • Just say NO to big blocks of text.
  • Give instructions verbally and in writing.
  • Don’t time learners.
  • Don’t overwhelm learners with sensory overload.
  • Set clear expectations and limit surprises.
  • Don’t make assumptions.

This is not an all-inclusive list. Please add your tips for designing for neurodiverse learners in the comments!

Bonus Tip/Random Rant

Here’s a bonus tip for all the Slack users. Or a rant disguised as a tip.

Can everybody please, please stop using the parrot party emoji? It’s that brightly colored parrot that dances, and people love to use it to celebrate a comment. Yeah, yeah… it’s cute. But it also makes me physically ill. Really.

Slack doesn’t make it easy for those of us with vestibular disorders to turn off this type of movement. I have to go to the accessibility settings for every workspace I’m in and uncheck “Automatically play animated GIFs and emojis.” I forgot to do that with a new group I recently joined, and this freaking parrot did a sneak attack that triggered vision issues and a migraine for the rest of the day.

He looks so innocent, doesn’t he? Don’t let him fool you. He knows what he did.

parrot party emoji from Slack

BTW, LinkedIn is also unfriendly with their GIFs. There’s currently no way to set them so they don’t automatically play. If you love GIFs, I’m not telling you to quit using them, but please be mindful of how quickly they loop, as this can create a flicker effect that can trigger seizures and other issues.

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