The workplace is becoming more and more diverse. When we think of diversity, we often think of cultural, gender and racial diversity, but diversity does not end there. More and more, we are recognizing the need for understanding a new type of diversity: neurodiversity. This type of diversity is not based on outward appearance but, rather, differences in cognition and behavior.

As organizations focus on diversity and inclusion, it is important for learning and development (L&D) professionals to consider how they can adapt training to meet the needs of neurodiverse employees. This article provides insights into how to adapt training for employees with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one form of neurodiversity, in order to ensure effective and inclusive training.

While diversity in behavioral traits and brain function create opportunities for enhanced organizational innovation, it is also important to consider adaptations across the organization, including the area of training. The goal of this article is to help training professionals apply the concept of differentiated instruction to the design and development of training programs to be more inclusive of employees with autism.

The Growing Autistic Workforce

The number of employees with autism is growing. In her book “Asperger’s and Adulthood,” Dr. Blythe Grossberg estimated that between 2015 and 2025, about 500,000 adults with Asperger’s (formerly a diagnosis for a type of autism) would enter the workforce. These workers have a wide variety of strengths to offer any organization; while every person is unique, many are detail-oriented, have a great ability to focus and have average to very high intelligence, for example. Autistic people can be great writers and editors, documentation experts, data analytics experts, and software developers.

With those strengths, however, there may also be challenges recognizing social cues, difficulties understanding emotional issues and challenges with sensory overload. To reap the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce, organizations must adapt their training solutions to ensure equity and inclusiveness for employees with autism.

Adaptive Training Strategies

Here are six strategies to ensure successful training solutions that meet the needs of, and support successful outcomes for, autistic staff:

1. Offer Flexible Training Solutions

According to a research report by Microsoft and Harvey Mudd College researchers, many people do not share that they are neurodiverse. Because employees may not always disclose their autism diagnosis, it is important to embed flexibility in your organization’s training solutions to accommodate even the undisclosed autistic employee. Offer a mix of types of training, including alternatives to interactive learning solutions.

2. Minimize Sensory Overload

Be mindful of the possibility of sensory overload when developing training. For example, steer clear of large-group, forum-based training. If you offer this type of training, consider a one-page takeaway sheet highlighting the key points, and consider offering headphones that cancel out all noise other than the instructor’s voice.

3. Offer Independent Learning Opportunities

Some team members with ASD may find human interactions challenging. Because non-verbal cues such as hand gestures, sarcasm, voice inflection and facial expressions can sometimes be difficult to understand, these learners may prefer independent tasks.

Autistic employees can be significantly less comfortable communicating with co-workers in face-to-face conversations than neurotypical team members, according to the Microsoft/Harvey Mudd report. If a training program includes group work, consider using only one brief breakout session, or include multiple breaks so that autistic learners do not feel overwhelmed by the social engagement.

4. Create a Plan for Self-study Curriculums

Training managers cannot necessarily avoid self-study curricula. It is often advantageous to use third-party training curricula to enhance employees’ skill sets without incurring the costs of in-house development and/or facilitation. When assigning self-study courses, create a plan to help learners with autism stay on track. Set up milestones, and schedule bi-weekly check-ins to ensure that they are making progress and that all information is clear. This approach will help employees manage their required training amid their other responsibilities.

5. Provide Support Materials

eLearning training tools often have PDF downloads and training transcripts to help accommodate different learning preferences and abilities. Consider incorporating similar support materials into your instructor-led training and webinars to help learners who find it difficult to take notes while paying attention to the facilitator.

To support asynchronous learning, consider using chatbots. They can serve as an ongoing resource to help learners navigate any lack of clarity by providing instant support.

6. Obtain Continuous Feedback

Consider including surveys at the end of all instructor-led or self-paced training solutions to ensure that you are capturing information on what employees find helpful. This feedback will help your training team refine your training strategy to meet the needs of the ever-evolving workforce.