The way we design workplace learning and development (L&D) programs has changed quite frequently in recent years, keeping pace with a culture more attuned to inclusion. Employee training should address the audience it serves and not simply deliver knowledge. The next wave of inclusivity when revising learning programs may center on the neurodivergent community. Neurodivergent individuals, whose brain function and behavioral traits deviate from traditional notions of “normal” or “neurotypical,” are more prevalent than the common perception, with an estimated 1 in 5 adults falling under this category.
The term “neurodivergent” includes a range of cognitive conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and more. While many conditions share the same “neurodivergent” label, the manifestations can vary significantly among individuals. Due to its prevalence, there are statistically few workplaces that are not neurodiverse, meaning the staff is comprised of both neurodivergent and neurotypical people. Acknowledging this vast range of neurological differences and embracing the inherent strengths of the team is an important step to implementing inclusive strategies for all learners. Here are five meaningful ways to revise learning and development (L&D) strategies with a neurodivergent audience in mind.
1. Offer Choice With the Use of Equivalencies
Offering the learner options to choose their preferred learning modality can have a significant impact on engagement and knowledge retention for any learner, but especially for those within the neurodivergent community. For instance, text-based content can assist those with auditory processing challenges, while visual or video-based content can facilitate faster and easier information processing for dyslexic learners. By implementing equivalencies in learning technology, each modality can be assigned equal value for a given learning objective. This lets learners arrive at the same learning outcome regardless of the modalities they choose. Whether attending a group instructor-led training or watching a recording of the same session with playback controls, equivalencies enable all individuals to receive equal credit for their efforts.
2. Allow for Customization of eLearning Tech
With a customizable dashboard, giving the individual the ability to change the look and feel of the learning experience, learners can organize and display what matters most to them and remove what doesn’t.
For neurodivergent learners, this could look like:
- A streamlined view using only relevant gadgets and learning data to avoid distraction.
- A standard dashboard but with customized fonts and text sizes.
- A gamification-rich dashboard filled with badges and leaderboards to help keep learners motivated, engaged and provide small amounts of dopamine throughout their training.
- A dashboard containing every possible gadget to avoid issues surrounding object permanence.
Offering choice in the learner’s experience can serve to empower them with an ownership stake in the process.
3. Close the Communication Gap
Effective communication channels are essential for neurodivergent learners to thrive in any training environment, especially given that they may struggle to communicate what they need due to concerns about disclosing their condition. Allowing learners to submit feedback through anonymous surveys, emails, physical notes, voice memos, etc. can help leaders discover the needs and challenges that might otherwise go unaddressed. Offering a variety of communication methods, such as face-to-face interactions (in person or on video) and written exchanges via email, chat, forums and discussion posts can also allow individuals to choose the mode that best aligns with their communication preferences, fostering inclusivity and facilitating social learning interactions.
Alternative methods of communication may also be necessary for delivering feedback to learners. Some neurodivergent individuals may face difficulties sensing the tone of written feedback and prefer face-to-face to avoid confusion, while others may have high levels of anxiety surrounding this type of social interaction and respond better to automated feedback that does not require a person on the other side. Being aware of preferences and flexible to meet that request can have ripple effects on the overall employee experience.
4. Optimize the Learning Environment
Just as architects design for accessibility, learning leaders should prioritize creating training environments that will be more conducive to the neurodivergent learner. Decades ago, city planners updated standards for streets, sidewalks and parking lots to include features like curb cuts and ramps. This was originally done for accessibility purposes and was intended to benefit wheelchair users. However, this accommodation has proven beneficial for others by improving the flow of pedestrian transportation, including parents pushing strollers, shoppers with carts and people riding bikes or scooters. Similarly, when employers make accommodations for neurodivergent learners, they can have broader influence on both neurodivergent and neurotypical employees. Taking steps to create more inclusive learning environments like classrooms, study rooms and individual eLearning spaces can send a message to employees that the organization is committed to their success.
A few accommodations to consider offering include:
- Designated quiet spaces for learners to focus.
- Flexible seating options such as standing desks.
- Adjustable lighting options in classrooms and workstations.
- Closed captioning for video content.
- Noise-canceling headphones.
- Pomodoro timers to aid with time management.
- Opportunities for short breaks.
- Assistive technology (such as programs that can read written materials aloud at a speed set by the user).
5. Think Outside The (Check) Box
Simple box-checking exercises are rarely engaging, especially for learners with limited periods of peak focus and optimal performance. Topics like compliance, cybersecurity and other crucial training materials are too important to assume that employees are truly absorbing and retaining the information. Incorporating collaborative learning projects, interactive activities and gamification elements can enhance participation and ultimately improve knowledge retention. One method that some neurodivergent individuals find helpful and engaging is to group learners into competing teams and award points/badges/team rewards as each team works together toward common goals. Creating learner cohorts with clear goals can help limit sensory overload while also encouraging social learning and contributing to a sense of belonging and contribution.
When evaluating the effectiveness of different strategies and techniques, consider utilizing multiple assessment types to get a more accurate picture of performance. Offering choices in assessments can help highlight the diverse strengths and challenges individuals may have beyond a standardized test. For example, written exams may pose challenges for those with dyslexia or ADHD. However, by deploying an alternative like a video assessment, individuals with dyslexia or ADHD can demonstrate their skills and knowledge in a medium where they feel more comfortable and thrive.
Key Considerations for Inclusive Learning
The key to fostering an environment of inclusivity and respect lies in providing choices and, equally importantly, honoring those choices once they have been made. This approach recognizes and respects the diverse needs of neurodivergent employees, who may have unique learning styles, sensitivities or communication preferences. By including the learner in the process, organizations demonstrate a genuine commitment to meeting their specific needs, ensuring that they can fully engage and excel in the training process. Embracing this approach can help organizations cultivate a culture that values individual differences and promotes a sense of empowerment for neurodivergent learners.