The Neurodiverse and Online Learning

 In Musings on Teaching and Learning

In the not so distant past, many doctors and educators viewed students who had difficulties with learning at the same rate and in the same ways as their peers as being in some way deficit. They were frequently labelled with what would now be very unacceptable language and, in much the same way that World War One veterans who suffered from what is today recognised as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were said to “lack moral fibre”, such children were said to “lack resilience or effort. For many decades any difference was seen as a medical disorder or disease and education focused on remediation in order to ‘fix’ them. It would be wonderful if this were no longer the case; However, it is interesting that the American organisations responsible for tracking the incidence of one of the key contributors of such difference, Autism, are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While it is true that the conditions of many (if not all) Neurodivergent students can be traced to organis brain differences or chemistry, it is erroneous to view such diversities as a disease. The CDCP that the incidence of autism in the United States is now 1 in 42 among boys and 1 in 189 among girls (Austin & Pisano, 2017). It is likely Australian statistics are similar. Girls, unfortunately, are often undiagnosed for long periods.

In more recent years, changes in language have been reflective of research-based efforts to move away from such deficit models, to a view which regards the wide range of learning differences in a more pro-active rather than reactive manner. As research revealed the surprisingly large diversity of learning types in every classroom, the focus became less upon a one-size-fits all (or one-size-fits none) model, to one that attempted to differentiate for individual learning needs the term Neurodiversity was, “Coined in the early 1990s by journalist Harvey Blume and Australian autism activist Judy Singer, the term neurodiversity can be defined as an understanding that neurological differences are to be honoured and respected just like any other human variation, including diversity in race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, and so on”( Armstrong, 2017).

Many of the following strategies which are useful for Neurodiverse learners are also of use with Neurotypical students. However, it is important to remember that, for many Neurodiverse students such approaches are vital. Interesting, the same can be said of research-based advice on teaching Gifted and Talented students, many of whom are also Neurodiverse learners. Modern approaches to addressing the specific needs of Neurodiverse students focuses on what (Armstrong, 2012) calls positive niche construction or creating environments within which Neurodiverse students can thrive. A Neurodiversity-oriented approach to education is a positive, growth mind-set orientation which focuses on strengths rather than deficits. Just as all education should, education for Neurodiverse students should focus on building students’ capacities to use their strengths to maximise their learning, rather than focusing on ‘fixing’ them as learners, or an over-emphasis of attention to their deficits.

Effective education is based on using knowledge of the student to encourage the development of each students’ own self-reflection capacity and a growth mind- set. Strategies known to work for Neurodiverse students must be integrated into their learning as a non-negotiable. Teachers should also be on the look-out for Neurotypical students who seem to benefit from the same strategies, especially given the diversity of individual student needs. Just as Neurotypical students show infinite variety, so, too, do Neurodiverse students. Such students are not all the same. Students with ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia or On the Autism spectrum, are as different one from another as any other group of students. As is always the case, the primary focus of educators must be to come to a deep understanding of students’ needs and work out what works best for each.

Despite this fact, research has provided sound advice for practical strategies to help particular Neurodiverse students. Brown, in a blog I commend to you, argues that because many Neurodivergent students are highly visual learners, it is vital to consider visual layout. The use of Sans-Serif fonts (such as Arial or Comic Sans) is recommended. However, some dyslexic individuals find comic sans letters difficult to differentiate unless character spacing is increased. “Neurodivergent students should always have the option of resizing text, colour and layout to meet their needs. Line spacing of at least 1.2 suits most people and makes reading easier for Neurodivergent students. Increasing character spacing can also help.” (Brown, n.d.).

Additionally, using colour overlays that reduce visual glare is also helpful. Natural colours and high contrast layouts are best. So, too is reducing visual clutter by the use of strategic bullet points. Rogers and Short suggest tranquil blues and greens are useful colours for Neurodivergent students. There have been suggestions that Yellow is a trigger colour for some sensitive individuals (by Grandgeorge & Matasaka, 1975, for example).

In advice worth testing with both Neurotypical and Neurodivergent students, Brown further reminds educators of the value of dual-coding. The use of easily recognised icons to break up text and to anchor ideas is strongly recommended. Subheadings paired with icons is an especially useful strategy. Icons trigger memories and allow slower readers to quickly find a space in a text. Avoid too many icons and cluttered graphics and text. If students use text to speech adaptive technologies, be sure to provide adequate description of texts. As with earlier advice on colour, a single shade with high contrast is often the best. Brown (n.d.) summarises his advice saying “Neurodivergent students need a clear visual hierarchy to aid comprehension. Ideally, students should be able to recognise the top three most vital elements of content from their colour, shape and position alone.” I’m sure educators will agree this is equally true for Neurotypical students.

Just as diversity of perspectives makes for improved decision making, diversity of processing and approach can also be very advantageous. Neurodiversity advocates offer a nuanced and complex approach to the origins of these conditions, focusing, for example, on the evolutionary advantages of particular Neurodiversity categories as a way of explaining why the genes for certain categories are still in the gene pool (for instance, see Harpending & Cochran, 2002, on how ADHD symptoms might have been adaptive to hunting and gathering societies). In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the researchers pointed out the advantages neurodiverse people can bring to a team or workplace (Austin & Pisano, 2017). “Many people from particular Neurodiversity categories have higher-than-average abilities;” they argue, pointing out that “research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.” Schools and businesses should not underestimate the capabilities of Neurodiverse people. Armstrong (2017) points out that, “For example, a person with autism spectrum disorder may function at a level surpassing a typically developing individual when working at a job that capitalizes on the ability to discover tiny errors in computer code, as has happened with employees at the Danish software company Specialisterne (Henry, 2015).’

It is worth remembering that Neurodiverse people frequently need workplace accommodations, such as headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation, and prefer online learning and communication to face to face human contact. It is the role of schools and teachers to activate or maximally leverage the abilities of Neurodiverse students. This can be easier said than done, especially as some Neurodiverse students can exhibit challenging eccentricities. Hence, there are numerous advantages of an online learning and working environment for Neurodiverse students. One is that students can create a safe, comfortable learning environment in their own home and employ ergonomic supports to learning, such a stress balls or ergonomic balls instead of traditional seats. They can also stand at an adjusted desk rather than sit at a table, and move how and when they need to. A further benefit is the capacity for students to adjust brightness and volume to suit their sensitivities. While there is no doubt that teaching Neurodiverse students is challenging, it is equally true that working with such students is tremendously rewarding. To end my blog, I’d like to share Armstrong’s beautiful metaphor on the brain of the Neurodiverse student. Rather than a machine, which carries connotations of requiring fixing or changing, Armstrong directs us that, “an emerging theory about the brain that's particularly appropriate in helping students understand their neurological differences is Nobel Prize-winning biologist Gerald Edelman's model of the brain as an ecosystem (1994).  A brain-forest metaphor, on the other hand, allows us to speak to students about the beauty of diversity, about how nutrients grow plants in the brain forest, and about the resilience of the brain forest to regrow itself even after suffering
substantial damage” (Armstrong, 2017).

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