Geri preferred to blend into the background and not stand out among her peers. She had completed an undergraduate degree in business decades prior when the Selectric typewriter was a luxury. Gradually, her discomfort with everyday computer items — including using a mouse and employing keyboard shortcuts — disrupted the entire new-hire class due to the extra assistance she required. When the trainer turned to their supervisor for help, the answer was to “go the extra mile,” a not-so-thinly-veiled admonition to “try harder.”

Despite all efforts, the trainer fell behind schedule and was confronted with frustrated managers demanding an explanation for the delay. By the end of the weeklong contact center onboarding, learners were hastened into the live environment with substandard results and fingers pointing at the trainer, who felt demoralized and incompetent despite advanced education and several years of experience in learning and development (L&D). Ultimately, Geri left the company before the end of her second week, assumably feeling the same.

This was not Geri’s fault, for the organization had failed to properly assess her skill set during the hiring process. Nor was the trainer entirely responsible, as the organization had failed to provide the trainer with the proper support and resources to navigate the situation. What happened was an aggregate of neurodiversity,  the differences between individuals’ perception and interaction with their environment, and digital literacy,  the level of knowledge or awareness related to emerging tools and trends in technology. Geri’s circumstances were further compounded as she was competing with digital natives, those raised in the modern era who hold the advantage of familiarity with the latest devices and their use.

The Intersection Between Neurodiversity and Digital Literacy

Some leaders may dismiss the need to factor digital literacy into L&D programs, holding the opinion that learners will either understand and move forward or not and move on, yet the implications are far-reaching. The COVID-19 pandemic — and resulting chaos forcing industry and academia into the virtual realm — found many in unchartered territory, facing evolving mediums of communication overnight with little-to-no preparation while businesses struggled to maintain production within this altered model. Meanwhile, The Great Resignation led scores of employees to pursue new careers or resume their education — often after an absence of decades — only to struggle upon discovering the systems used were beyond their grasp.

Encountering this, trainers find themselves at an impasse, striving toward universal objectives while organizations, especially those desperate to fill entry-level positions, do not properly evaluate competencies as a routine component of hiring — while still expecting every participant to receive appropriate resources and reinforcement to deliver a return on their investment of time and money. Solutions entail the creative application of research driving various cognitive and learning theories, including those rooted in special education and spectrum disorders.

In Geri’s case, she demonstrated a weak central coherence theory, the skill of summarizing components in context. Psychologist Uta Frith advanced this idea in her book, “Autism: Explaining the Enigma,” describing how some contending with autism may see hundreds of individual people but not recognize that together they form a crowd. Whether or not Geri had a specific diagnosis, she could not link singular elements sequentially. Even rudimentary tasks most take for granted such as highlighting specific fields to cut, copy and paste elsewhere eluded her despite constant reminders and reviews. Potentially problematic for inclusively categorizing multiple steps, chronological checklists are nonetheless advantageous for itemization.

Consider this example of a line-by-line checklist for scheduling appointments:

    1. Click on [Client].
    2. Enter client last and first name in the appropriate fields.
    3. Verify client information (email address, phone number, etc.).
    4. Click the calendar icon.
    5. Select desired date.
    6. Select desired time.
    7. Confirm services client requesting (oil change, vehicle inspection, etc.).
    8. Confirm year, make and model of vehicle.
    9. Offer appointment reminder text, email or telephone call.
    10. Thank the client and end call.

At first glance, this appears effective; but participants can still have difficulty successively bridging individual constructs. The challenge is in explaining the procedure to neurodiverse audiences while avoiding boredom or withdrawal among those who acquire information at an accelerated rate. To mitigate this, trainers can engage in the three stages of demonstration, scaffolding and assessment.

Stage 1: Demonstration

Some trainers, particularly those new to the profession, place too much credence in the demonstration phase, failing to understand why this alone is insufficient for bringing performance up to standard. Demonstrations, used appropriately, are introductions that present topical overviews. A basketball coach teaching a three-point shot may choose to execute one themselves, explaining each move as they progress through stance, aim and release but does not reasonably expect those observing to immediately display mastery.

For this reason, the initial presentation is concise yet brief, conveying the general idea with a shifting focus to specifics when individual practice begins. In the example of scheduling appointments, the trainer can share their screen view and walk through the routine number-by-number, aware that reinforcement will occur organically through practice and repetition.

Stage 2: Scaffolding

Scaffolding involves constructing learning frameworks that are gradually removed with growing proficiency. It is an inverse relationship between assistance and ability: The greater the improvement, the lower the interaction between trainers and learners. Successful scaffolding capitalizes on the neocortex’s constant search for pattern recognition that builds central coherence and enables learners to synthesize individual pieces cohesively.

When asked for assistance, trainers reinforce central coherence by taking learners to the step prior to where they stopped, encouraging them to reference notes and job aids. Per the example below, steps 1 and 2 are withdrawn, and the scaffold shifts its starting point to step 3:

    1. Click on [Client].
    2. Enter the client last and first name in the appropriate fields.
    3. Verify client information (email address, phone number, etc.) (1. RESUME HERE).
    4. Click the calendar icon (2. IF STOPPED HERE).
    5. Select desired date.
    6. Select desired time.
    7. Confirm which services client requesting (oil change, vehicle inspection, etc.).
    8. Confirm year, make and model of vehicle.
    9. Offer appointment reminder text, email or telephone call.
    10. Thank the client and end call.

This works well because the most recent successful attempt is still fresh in the learner’s mind as they bridge the knowledge gap, avoiding any perception of punishment by starting completely over and reinforcing central coherence when they select the correct action to further connections.

Stage 3: Assessment

Research and discussion surrounding differentiated instruction often overlooks how these principles and techniques can effectively assess the unique needs of neurodiverse populations. This results in a broad, sweeping approach that inaccurately indicates failure and disproportionately skews outcomes. Unfortunately, most organizations — especially in the for-profit sectors — do not have the luxury of differentiating assessments. This should not, however, mandate standardized testing nor imply that every learner requires extensive adaptation.

In workforce settings, privacy is effective for differentiating assessments in both live and remote classrooms. Given the adverse emotions those encountering unfamiliar technology may experience, testing — especially in front of others — might be received unfavorably. Using a separate area for testing can alleviate anxiety, allowing learners to stay on task without the concern of being observed by others. The breakout room functions in Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other collaboration tools work well for virtual sessions but are also effective in brick-and-mortar settings if the extra space is unavailable, affording comfortable anonymity with the chat function used for instructions and feedback while also accommodating colleagues with hearing impairments or other communication disorders.

Properly administered, assessments operate as a natural progression of scaffolding, the final step toward task independence. Additionally, assessments are a referendum of course rigor to indicate where adjustments can be made to improve. Trainers can then reflect on their proficiencies, observing if the learner’s comprehension parallels efforts invested in curriculum, structure and differentiated instruction.


There is a significant need to align content with individual learning needs while maintaining the interest of those who excel. Simultaneously, trainers are at a considerable disadvantage since many of the processes and means to accommodate variances in cognition and aptitude — including individual education plans (IEPs) or adaptive technologies — are often absent or unavailable in workforce settings. Meanwhile, organizations continue leaning with increasing pressure on trainers to do more with less, driving outputs with fewer resources.

Those who have yet to plan for these learners are behind the curve, depriving themselves of a talent pool of substantial numbers which competitors are aggressively recruiting. Neurodiversity and digital illiteracy are not coming — they are here.  In the workforce, universities and the community, neurodiversity and digital illiteracy are increasingly prevalent. It is incumbent for trainers to prepare for these evolving trends, receive these learners and facilitate a seamless transition that welcomes them into organizational cultures.