Designing for Neurodiversity: Making In-Person Education Events More Inclusive for All Learners

Making In-Person Education Inclusive for Neurodiverse Participants

In-person education events like conferences and courses are important because they provide skills and knowledge that advance professions and transform industries. But only if these programs can meet the needs of a diverse population.  For your neurodiverse participants, the in-person format presents inherent challenges that should be addressed as part of program design.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Training and Professional Development

The conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) isn’t new. DE&I has experienced a gradual and ongoing increase in importance since the 1950’s. Today it’s a critical component to the success of individuals and organizations.

In the training classroom or at an educational conference, this means creating an environment where all participants feel valued, respected, and included regardless of their background, identity or characteristics. But one component that is often overlooked in a DE&I strategy is neurodiversity because it is less visible, under-represented, and extremely misunderstood.

What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity acknowledges and celebrates differences in the way people think, learn, and process information as normal variations of the human brain, and not deficits. These neurological differences (also referred to as neurodivergent) are most often diagnosed as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia, among other conditions.

Over the past few decades, these differences have become more widely recognized. Today, an estimated 15-20% of the global population is neurodivergent, although some sources quote a number as high as 40%.

Designing for Neurodiversity Starts with the “Why?”

There are countless articles available that provide tips on how to design educational programs that better support neurodivergent participants. But many of these articles don’t provide an adequate explanation of why.

And how can you design a more inclusive training program or conference if you don’t understand what you’re designing for?

As Samantha Evans, Certification Manager at the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAPP) points out, “Getting at the why means understanding the who, so that we can put together the how, to deliver the what. We have to start with the people.”

What can make this challenging is the neuroscience behind neurodivergent conditions is not fully understood. And the exact cause of these neurodevelopmental disorders is still unknown. This means autism, ADHD, dyslexia and other neurological differences are primarily diagnosed and defined solely based on observed symptoms or behaviors.

Thankfully, scientists have made significant progress identifying differences between neurodivergent and neurotypical brains.  Connecting all these insights into a clear narrative is still a work in progress.

What We Know About the Neurodivergent Brain, in Simple Terms

The human brain is an extremely complex system comprised of billions of nerve cells arranged in patterns, transmitting information back and forth that coordinate thought, emotion, behavior, movement, and sensation.

The degree to which certain areas of the brain are activated may differ from person to person. It’s why one person may be an exceptional gymnast, while another may excel at math, for example. But in general, neurotypical brains all follow a similar pattern for how they transmit and process information.

Neurodevelopmental disorders like autism, dyslexia, and ADHD are information processing disorders caused by differences in brain structure, brain chemistry and/or atypical brain organization. These differences affect which parts of the brain are activated, how much they are activated, local and long-range connectivity, how easily or quickly they pass information back and forth, and how the body responds.

These connections are how we make sense of the world around us and shape how we react to it. This means things that are “easy,” “normal,” or “status quo” for neurotypicals can be difficult, confusing, and overwhelming for a neurodivergent person.

Dyslexia

In dyslexia, these differences are more isolated to the areas of the brain that process language.

As young children, we all learn how to connect letters to the sounds they make, and then how to blend those sounds into words. But once we establish those connections, they stick. We don’t “read” familiar words anymore—we simply recognize them, and our brain fills in the gaps for us.  For dyslexics, this process isn’t automated. Those connections must be re-established every time. Especially with words and phrases that don’t follow conventional rules (which happens a lot in the English language!).

Dyspraxia

In dyspraxia, differences in brain function and connectivity affect the person’s ability to process gross and/or fine motor tasks, like running, balance, using scissors, or writing. As a neurotypical person, you can pick up a pen without thinking about it because those connections are already established. For those with dyspraxia, these connections are weaker and take longer to form.

ADHD

Scientists have found that ADHD brains have low levels of the neurotransmitter called norepinephrine which is linked to dopamine – a chemical messenger that affects our ability to think, plan, and focus. People with ADHD often have difficulty maintaining attention, prioritizing, organizing, managing thoughts and actions, and controlling movement.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Autism is perhaps the most complicated neurological disorder because it affects some of the more complex processes that require us to combine or assimilate information in different parts of the brain, like social function. And these neurological differences vary from person to person. Some connections may be stronger, and some may be weaker. This has made it more difficult for scientists to pinpoint which functional differences contribute to autistic behaviors, and which don’t.

Regardless, these differences often manifest in common behavioral traits that are used to identify and diagnose autism:

Rigid and restricted interests

Strong or intense interests in specific topics or objects, which can make it difficult for autistic people to absorb new learning, complete tasks, or connect with peers on topics outside of these interests.

Issues with sensory processing and regulation

Over-responsiveness (hyper-sensitivity) and under-responsiveness (hypo-sensitivity) to a wide range of stimuli, including sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, balance, awareness of body position/movement, and awareness of internal body cues.

Hypersensitivity leads to sensory avoidance, like pulling away from physical touch, avoiding eye contact, or limiting exposure to certain textures, tastes, smells, and loud noises. Being exposed to multiple stimuli in a concentrated space for a certain length of time (like in a classroom) can cause sensory overload, making it extremely difficult for the person to pay attention, complete tasks, or absorb new information.

Hyposensitivity may cause a constant need for certain types of sensory-seeking movement (stimming). It can also make it more difficult to recognize sensations like hunger or pain.

Unusual emotional reactions and expressions

Autistic people sometimes have a harder time regulating their emotions. They may also have a more difficult time recognizing and interpreting the emotional expressions of others, causing them to respond in unusual or inappropriate ways (in a neurotypical sense).

Difficulty “connecting the dots”

As a neurotypical person, you probably don’t even realize how much you use inferences to get through your day. A neurotypical brain automatically groups similar objects, instructions, and situations so it knows how to respond to something similar in the future. We rely on these patterns to fill in any gaps or differences from one situation to another without explicit instruction.

Autistic people tend to be very concrete, literal thinkers. The neurodivergent brain doesn’t automatically group these things together. Everything is filed away as a separate piece of information, with no apparent similarity. Some patterns can form over time, but if they do, it takes longer, with a lot more repetition to form.

In the context of training and professional development, this means no two conferences, classrooms, or assignments are the same, even if they follow a similar structure and approach. Autistic people will often need much more explicit direction and guidance every time, not just the first time. And it’s important not to skip steps in your instructions, taking for granted everyone will “just know” what that means.

(This article provides two perfect and very authentic examples of what this looks like in real life.)

“Bottom-up” thinking

In general, neurotypical people tend to be top-down thinkers. They start with the big picture first, forming a general concept by combining what they see in front of them with extrapolation, using prior knowledge, experience, and inference to fill in the gaps, and then adding in the details later. It’s common for autistic people to be bottom-up thinkers, identifying and categorizing lots of fragmented details before sorting them into a meaningful big picture.

Neither way of thinking is better than the other. There are pros and cons to each approach. Because bottom-up thinkers aren’t relying so heavily on what they already know, there is the opportunity to be more innovative. But it can take longer to draw a more meaningful conclusion. And most training programs are designed with a top-down approach.

Literal language interpretation

Concrete thinking also applies to language interpretation. Autistic people have a greater tendency to take words and phrases literally, and therefore struggle with abstract or figurative language, nuances, and intent. This applies to how they interpret both text and social interactions. Conversely, autistic people may also be very blunt and direct in their responses, which can make social situations more difficult.

Challenges with social interactions

The net result of these behavioral traits is that social “norms” most of us take for granted are more challenging for autistic people. It becomes more difficult for them to read, interpret, and respond to non-verbal cues, participate in reciprocal conversation–especially with unfamiliar topics, and maintain an appropriate body position (spacing, eye contact, gestures, etc.).

How to Make In-Person Training and Educational Events Neuro-Inclusive

An educational event is only successful if all attendees can participate and learn equally. To do this, it’s important to design our events for all types of learners. Here are just some of the actions organizations can take to embrace and support the specific needs of neurodivergent participants at events held in-person.

Before the event:

  1. Solicit input from your neurodivergent members and participants early in the planning process.
  2. Provide as much information in advance as possible to help participants feel prepared and avoid surprises. This includes:
    • Clearly stating in your event materials what accessibility features you are including in your event, so people don’t have to ask
    • A detailed conference schedule, agenda, or course syllabus
    • Course or speaker materials, allowing people to review ahead of time
    • Clear and explicit directions and maps both to and within the venue; this includes: registration area, restrooms, information table, quiet areas, where meals will be served, etc. Don’t skip steps and don’t make assumptions about what people “should” inherently know
    • Clear and explicit expectations, including the timing and duration of breaks, whether and when to ask questions, what to bring, dress code, etc. Be sure to provide specific examples wherever possible
    • If meals are involved, include the full menu with descriptions so participants can plan ahead and pack extra “safe” snacks if necessary
    • Name and contact information for any pre-event questions or concerns, and how to locate this person on-site
    • A pre-recorded video walk through of the venue or training space, so people can make a mental map of where they need to be
    • This information can be packaged in a “Tips and Tricks” list for all participants
  1. Create a neuro-inclusive schedule and environment.
    • In all pre-event communication, state your commitment to creating an event that supports neurodiversity
    • Welcome all participants to share any accommodation requests, sensory needs, and food preferences (not just allergies) during the registration process
    • Assess and adjust stimuli that could be overwhelming or distract participants from learning, such as bright lights, intrusive smells, loud/complex sounds, bright colors with ultra-high contrast, or seating arrangements that may be too close. You can even go so far as to ask all participants to refrain from wearing strong fragrances as part of your pre-event communication
    • Provide sensory-friendly food options with less intense flavors and textures, or a menu where components are served separately (e.g., pasta bar with plain noodles)
    • Welcome and encourage the use of noise-canceling headphones
    • Provide (or have a sponsor provide) quiet, non-distracting fidget toys for every participant, like squish balls, marble & mesh toys, and doodle pads to help them focus and regulate their sensory input
    • Schedule breaks. These should be true breaks, and not time for socializing or visiting sponsors
    • Providing clearly marked, designated quiet spaces for sensory breaks; provide livestreaming of the class or event so participants don’t miss anything
    • Provide different spaces for people to sit and participate within the session or classroom, like different types of chairs, potentially configured in smaller groups. Place these in different areas of the room that may be quieter or further from distractions
    • Make sure there is clear signage in all key places so everyone can get to the right destination

During the event:

  1. Continually model and encourage behaviors that will support neurodivergent participants.
    • Provide reminders to take breaks, and where the designated quiet spaces are
    • Communicate that it’s okay to get up and move around during a class or session, designating areas of the room to do so to minimize disruption
    • Introduce designated support staff
  1. Provide content in a way that supports many different styles of learning
    • Provide both written and verbal information and instructions
    • Keep text short and to the point, using bullets instead of large blocks of text
    • Include visual supports to accompany text
    • Minimize the use of slang, colloquialisms, metaphors, and jargon
    • Pay close attention to line spacing, font sizes, and the use of colors to make it easier for participants to focus and absorb the information
    • Build-in opportunities to revisit topics and information during or just after the class or session
    • For training classes, use multiple ways to assess competency, providing explicit feedback early and often
  1. Be mindful of forced social interaction
    • Minimize how much you require people to pair up or form small groups during learning sessions
    • If you are going to form small groups, keep the groups the same for the duration of the exercise
    • Provide quieter spaces for groups to collaborate, rather than having everyone together in one, noisy room
    • During networking and social events, dedicate areas for more intimate conversations
    • Provide supports that encourage topic-based conversations
    • Create a culture that makes it okay to participate in social events in different capacities, or to opt out entirely

After the event:

  1. Provide opportunities to re-visit course or session content
    • Distribute course materials, video recordings, and speaker materials
    • Schedule individual or small group follow up discussions to ask questions or reiterate key topics
  2. Solicit feedback on all aspects of the event, including neuro-friendly components, but without requiring anyone to self-identify

In the current era of professional development and education, understanding and accommodating the needs of all participants is crucial. By planning in-person events that are more neuro-inclusive, more people can participate while feeling welcome and supported, which enhances the event for all participants.

Watch the Panel Discussion on This Topic:

Want to learn more about how to apply these strategies at your educational events? Watch this recorded discussion with three neurodiversity advocates, as we discuss what specific steps event planners and training professionals should take to make their in-person conferences, courses, and workshops neuro-inclusive.

For more information on how to design in-person educational events with neurodiversity in mind, we recommend the following:

The Neu Project: An Event Professional’s Guide to Neuro-Inclusion

International Association of Accessibility Professionals EIC Advance Resources

CAST – About Universal Design for Learning