Talking Teaching: Supporting neurodiverse learners


Every month our team of Instructional Designers meets for “Talking Teaching” – sessions where we share and discuss interesting articles, methods, and pedagogies. This month, we discussed Neurodiversity. In this blog, I’d like to discuss how to support neurodiversity in academia.

Some relevant articles and resources we’d like to share this month are:

What is neurodiversity?

As with most things, brains aren’t wired in just one of a few ways. Just like bodies, everyone’s brain is slightly different. Neurodiversity refers to the idea that all brains function differently and that this diversity is both natural and beneficial. There’s no “normal” brain that can serve as a baseline and the different variations should not be viewed as an ailment to be cured.

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for a variety of developmental conditions, including: dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD, autism, dysgraphia, Irlen syndrome, Tourette syndrome, OCD, hyperlexia, synesthesia, and chronic conditions like MS, chronic fatigue, and recently added – long COVID. These conditions are not exclusive, so any individual can have more than one.

Strengths and challenges

The most commonly affected traits are executive functioning, motor skills, language, perception, sensory skills, and fixations. These traits are typically either heightened or diminished - so a person may have extensive perception to the point the incoming information is overwhelming, or a person may struggle with time management as multiple tasks arise that grab their attention.

Most literature focuses on the challenges neurodivergent people face instead of highlighting their strengths.

Neurodiverse students can offer new perspectives on your teaching style and strategies.

Commonly documented strengths of neurodivergent people include:

  • The ability to hyper-focus on an important or interesting subject
  • Innovation and creativity.
  • Pattern recognition
  • Information processing

Neurodiversity is a people thing, so it affects both staff and students. Some brain types have difficulties that are not readily supported (like sensory overload), some have difficulties that are known and have some sort of support (like longer exam times for students with dyslexia), and some get by in the current system just fine. Common challenges neurodivergent people face involve

  • Overstimulation
  • Difficulty with social cues
  • Difficulty maintaining concentration, either remembering too much or too little,
  • Organization
  • Feeling constantly unsupported, misunderstood, and/or lonely.

Support strategies

Education is one of humanity’s most powerful tools, and it continues to shine here. Educating students and staff about neurodiversity and celebrating the strengths of neurodivergent people helps improve the culture on campus. Discussing successful people who are neurodivergent (like Tim Burton, Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates) is another good way to highlight the positives of neurodiversity.

Teaching universal skills is another way to not only support neurodiversity, but also support those who may not be recognized as neurodivergent (either formally or by themselves).

Typical testing frameworks might unintentionally disadvantage neurodiverse students.

Courses that provide incoming students with time management skills, prioritization and organization strategies, and ways to keep workflows visible would not only help out any individual who wants to build these skills, but have the added benefit of greatly helping those who are neurodivergent.

Additional support and resources can also be set up to alleviate some of the challenges neurodivergent people face. For example, some small things that help are:

  • Allowing extra time on exams for those who struggle in a test environment, like those with dyslexia. This would help level the playing field.
  • Provide calendars, checklists, and folders to help students organize their learning.
  • Provide fidgets so students can keep their hands distracted while their minds focus.
  • Design support alongside neurodivergent people. The best way to make sure any strategies are effective is including the people they are aimed at.
  • Keep any UI simple, the easier an online tool or interface is to use, the better.

The takeaway

Supporting neurodivergence shouldn’t be resource or labor intensive. Embracing neurodivergence as natural and not something to be corrected, encouraging all students to build executive skills, and providing calendars, extra time, fidgets, or other assets as required are effective tools to help provide a healthy learning environment.

What strategies does your campus use to support neurodivergent students and staff? Are there any strategies you’ve adopted that work well for you, your colleagues, or your students?

Join the discussion

Have you had success with group activities when teaching biology? What’s your preferred way to encourage research skills? What methods worked best for you when teaching labs remotely? Join us on our community pages and let us and other educators know your thoughts!

Lt Community

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Additional Resources:

Powerful data: How Dr. Bridget Ford nurtures curious students using Lt’s online physiology labs »

Talking Teaching: Pedagogy of care and the role of faculty in student mental well-being »

Talking Teaching: How to improve students’ lab report writing »


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