Designing for Neurodiversity. Download full resolution PDF here.
As instructional designers and educators, we are uniquely positioned to provide support structures for neurodiverse students who might otherwise struggle to engage with a course, and these support structures foster success for neurotypical students who benefit from these design strategies as well.
What is Neurodiversity?
Harold Blume (in 1998) and Judy Singer (in 1999) first coined the term “neurodiversity” to shift autism discourse from deficit to difference with the goal of creating more inclusive practices for autistic students and individuals. More recently, neurodiversity extends beyond autism, and is used to acknowledge and describe neurological differences in the brain that influence how an individual interacts with and experiences the world. Rather than categorizing these differences as deficits, neurodiversity accepts them as normal variations of the human brain, variations that are viewed and celebrated as any other human variation.
Strengths of diverse neurotypes
While it is true that neurodiverse individuals often have difficulty in neurotypical environments, they also have abilities and characteristics that help them excel beyond their neurotypical peers. Neurodiverse students often excel in:
- Pattern Recognition
- Systems Thinking
- Perception – see what others miss
- Divergent thinking
- Persistence on activity when hyper-focused
Examples of diverse neurotypes
Because neurodiversity is not a medical term, there is no single criteria for defining or diagnosing neurodiversity. However, individuals often have one or more of the following conditions, and it is important to note that many neurodiverse individuals often have concurring neurotypes that intersect with each other:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Dyslexia (difficulty with reading)
- Dyscalculia (difficulty with math)
- Dyspraxia (difficulty with coordination)
- Dysgraphia (difficulty with writing)
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Traumatic Brain Injury
- Social Anxiety
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Sensory Processing Disorder
Models of Disability
A quick note about the medical and social models of disability.
The medical model views disability as a defect that needs to be cured, and as such, treatment approaches focus on correcting or modifying the disability to fit into what society considers normal.
The social model views disability as an inability to participate fully in home and community life, and as such, focuses on changing society so that individuals are accepted and able to fully access their environment. Treatment focuses on helping individuals enhance their daily function in society.
Neurodiversity aligns with the social model of disability, recognizing that there is no “right” or “wrong” way for the brain to function. Neurodiverse individuals simply have brains that function differently than neurotypical brains.
Why Design for Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is not a medical term. Rather, it is a term used to celebrate the many different ways the human brain experiences and engages with the world. Without a medical definition or list of criteria, then, we might question why we should make design decisions with neurodiverse students in mind. Consider that these students often:
- Have neurotypes that potentially lack visibility
- Are less likely to self-disclose due to fear of the stigma associated with their neurotype
- Self-report higher levels of anxiety, especially in non-academic spaces
- Have higher rates of difficulty than their neurotypical peers
- Are less likely to seek support
- Lack equitable access to a correct diagnosis, especially women, racial minorities, and individuals experiencing financial insecurity
Additionally, there is no single neurodiverse experience. Students with the same neurotype will often have very different experiences. Designing for neurodiversity acknowledges these experiences, moves beyond making decisions just to meet the requirements as required by law for an accommodation, and ensures that all students in a course can fully participate.
What Design Strategies Support Neurodiverse Students?
Discussing the entirety of ways to support neurodiverse learners is beyond the scope of this article. The strategies below provide a starting point. Not all will apply to every neurodiverse student, so rather than think of these as a checklist, consider them holistically as you work to make your online courses and spaces more accessible.
Apply UDL Strategies
Universal design originally focused on designing physical environments that can be used by the largest number of people. The goal is to design accessible spaces that benefit all users. In the same way, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) removes “barriers to learning for kids with disabilities in ways that also enhance everyone else’s ability to learn” (Armstrong 2012, pg.17). While this list is not exhaustive, consider ways to:
- Provide choice in how students demonstrate learning
- Build in support structures for executive function (checklists, step-by-step instructions, multiple opportunities to check in and receive feedback, etc.)
- Offer flexibility as much as possible
- Allow options to work alone or in groups
- Present materials in a variety of ways
Clear, Consistent Layout
A clear, consistent layout helps establish a routine for navigating the course which can improve learning and minimize the anxiety brought on by uncertainty or change. Consider ways to create consistency from large-scale to small-scale aspects of the course, including the:
- Navigation of the whole course from start to finish
- Progression through each module
- Structure of each page
- Organization of assignment descriptions
- Use of font, color, etc.
We often think of minimizing distractions in a physical environment— a space that is free of interruptions; is mindful of distracting sounds, sights, and smells; and provides access to tools that help learners focus. Minimizing distractions in the online space is equally important:
- Limit unnecessary information/minimize clutter
- Be purposeful with images, animations, font color, etc.
- Limit navigation away from the primary objective
- Avoid video and audio recordings with unnecessary background music or extreme variations in volume
Chunk content into smaller sections
Large sections of text and long videos may be difficult for learners who need more time to understand material, struggle with attention, or face difficulties seeing relationships between topics and content. Breaking content into smaller, more digestible sections gives learners more control of pacing and helps reinforce the relationships of content.
- Use heading structure to organize content on a page. This provides a visual map for the content.
- Break large text portions into smaller sections on a Canvas page or in cases where the text is extensive, use multiple Canvas pages for each section
- Keep videos short, ideally under 10 minutes if possible. Additionally,
- Enable captions that students can toggle on and off
- Allow for variations in speed
- Incorporate time stamps or knowledge checks
Clear and Concise Assignment Descriptions and Grading Criteria
For students who prefer direct communication, a clear path to complete an assignment, and an outline of clear expectations, consider structuring assignment descriptions that adhere to the following guidelines:
- Avoid including unnecessary or redundant information
- Avoid long paragraph descriptions for instructions
- Provide step-by-step instructions and examples when possible
- Use headings or bulleted/numbered lists to outline steps
- Begin each step with an action verb (read this, write a response that…, incorporate xyz, etc.)
- Provide clear expectations and use rubrics to outline specific grading criteria and point values
References and Further Reading
Armstrong, T. (2012). Neurodiversity in the classroom Strength-based strategies to help students with special needs succeed in school and life. ASCD.
Baumer, N. & Freuh, J. (2021, November 23). What is neurodiversity? Harvard Business Review.
Cleveland Clinic. Neurodivergent.
Clouder, L., Karakus, M., Cinotti, A. Ferreya, M.V., Fierros, G.A., & Rojo, P. (2020). neurodiversity in higher education: a narrative synthesis. Higher Education 80, 757–778.
Fabri, M, Fenton, G., Andrews, P., & Beaton, M. (2022). Experiences of higher education Students on the Autism Spectrum: Stories of Low Mood and High Resilience. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 69(4), 1411–1429.
Luchs, C. (2021). Considering neurodiversity in learning design and technology. TechTrends 65, 923–924 .
Robison, J. E. (2013, October 7). What is neurodiversity? Psychology Today.
Wood, E. (2021). Design for neurodiverse learners. Talent Development, 75(5), 24–29.
London Skiles is an Instructional Designer with EdPlus at ASU Online where they collaborate with faculty in the design and development of online courses and course materials.
Graphic created by Ron Carranza.