Animated outline of two people's heads, showing different building blocks in their brains, representing neurodiversity

How can organisations support neurodiversity in digital learning?

It is vital to support neurodiversity in the workplace to ensure a safe, accessible environment. As ever, L&D teams have a central role to play. With this in mind, we’ve decided to ask: how can organisations support neurodiversity in digital learning?
Dom Murray, Content Writer

Diversity and inclusion is a fundamental part of any successful workplace. L&D professionals have known this for a long time, and thankfully, more and more organisations are embracing the principles of diversity and inclusion in 2021. 

According to LinkedIn’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report, 64% of L&D professionals say their executive team has made D&I a top priority this year. Given this, companies with robust D&I programs are 22% more likely to be seen as industry leaders with high-calibre talent. 

Pull quote with the text: Companies with robust D&I programs are 22% more likley to be seen as industry leaders with high-calibre talent

Additionally, Emerald Works finds that 58% of high-impact learning cultures (defined as the top 10% of surveyed organisations) embed the principles of diversity and inclusion into their daily work, compared to just 34% of other L&D teams. These figures show that a well-developed D&I program can take your L&D team to the next level.

Supporting neurodiversity is vital to any successful D&I program. Estimates show that about 18% of the population have neurodiverse learning needs. Therefore, it is vital to support neurodiversity in the workplace to ensure a safe, accessible environment. As ever, L&D teams have a central role to play.

With this in mind, we’ve decided to ask: how can organisations support neurodiversity in digital learning?  We’ll start by explaining what neurodiversity is, before diving into the benefits of a neurodiverse workplace. Finally, we'll analyse how L&D professionals can ensure their programs support neurodiverse learning needs.

What is neurodiversity?

The term neurodiversity was coined in the 1990s by Australian sociologist Judy Singer. According to Ms Singer, neurodiversity refers to “the virtually infinite neuro-cognitive variability within Earth’s human population. It points to the fact that every human has a unique nervous system with a unique combination of abilities and needs.”

Ms Singer adds that just as biodiversity is important for a rich and healthy ecosystem and a variety of species is vital to a functioning animal kingdom, so too is neurodiversity essential to provide the full spectrum of human experiences and perspectives. 

As such, there is no single, encompassing definition of neurodiversity. The term can mean different things to different people based on their unique lived experiences. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network explains that the term generally refers to “neurocognitive differences such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, intellectual disability, and schizophrenia.” 

Similarly, the Autism Awareness Centre explains that “neurodiversity is the concept that humans don’t come in a one-size-fits-all neurologically ‘normal’ package. Instead, it recognises that all variations of human neurological function need to be respected as just another way of being, and that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal/natural variations in the human genome.”

Pull quote with the text: Supporting neurodiversity in digital learning means creating an environment that is equally accessible to all, regardless of their unique abilities or needs

Put simply, supporting neurodiversity in digital learning means creating an environment that is equally accessible to all, regardless of their unique abilities or needs. 

The benefits of neurodiversity

On a human level, the benefits of a neurodiverse workplace should be apparent. Not only is supporting neurodiversity the right thing to do, but it also leads to a greater diversity of experiences, ideas, and perspectives. Unfortunately, this has rarely been the case.

According to Neurodiversity Hub, 78% of neurodiverse people experience difficulty at their place of learning, with the main challenges being fitting in socially (60%), learning difficulties (55%), and communication difficulties (51%). Further, ​​Autism Spectrum Australia estimates that about 1 in 70 Australians is on the autism spectrum. However, only 40% are employed. 

Many of these biases are evident from an early age, with Neurodiversity Celebration Week finding that 33% of educators believe learning and thinking challenges are sometimes an excuse for laziness, while one-third of parents say they wouldn’t want others to know if their child has a neurological difference.

These problems are far too common. Yet, when workplaces do embrace neurodiversity, the results can be staggering. For example, James Mahoney, the former head of JP Morgan’s Autism at Work program, told Fortune Magazine, “Our autistic employees achieve, on average, 48% to 140% more work than their typical colleagues, depending on the roles.”

It is worth emphasising that neurodiverse people should not have to overachieve to such a degree just to be afforded the same basic respect and inclusion as their neurotypical colleagues. However, these results are incredibly impressive, providing just one example of the power of a neurodiverse workforce. 

Similarly, a 2019 report by EY found that people with dyslexia often display the most in-demand skills for the workforce of the future – leadership, creativity, and initiative. 

Another study by German software company SAP found that “teams who have colleagues with autism report a rise in patent applications, innovations in products, and an increase in management skills and empathy.” 

Finally, Professor Rob Austin recently completed a study on the best practices of companies with neurodiversity employment programs. Mr Austin explains that teams who embrace neurodiversity in their recruitment process “are claiming an innovation benefit with these employees, because they think differently, ask different sorts of questions and tend to trigger changes in the way companies do things."

While neurodiversity has often been stigmatised and underrepresented in the workplace, teams that embrace neurodiversity tend to achieve incredible results. Not only is this the right thing to do from a diversity and inclusion perspective, but it can also lead to new perspectives, new skills, and greater levels of innovation.

For more information, be sure to read our articles on unlearning unconscious biases, as well as our D&I blog series from guest expert Maureen Frank.

How can organisations support neurodiversity in digital learning?

With these findings in mind, the question becomes, how can organisations support neurodiversity in digital learning? 

In an interview with Digits, Amanda Kirby, co-author of Neurodiversity at Work and a Professor in the field of neurodiversity, explains how L&D teams should best approach this question. 

“You really need to be starting with the first principles of universal design – so how do you suit the learning preferences of everybody?” 

“It isn’t about doing this for autistic people or this for dyslexic people. It’s about how do you ensure that the way you deliver learning and development is inclusive and fits with strengths and minimises challenges. This has to include people who are visually or hearing impaired.

“Where you can, you should be person-centred. So, in the same way that the best conversations are those when you understand the person you’re talking to, that’s exactly what neurodiversity is all about. Ask your neurodivergent employees what they want. 

“Don’t be afraid of asking and don’t pigeonhole people,” she said. 

As such, a holistic approach is vital. By taking this approach, you can fulfil everyone’s learning needs, rather than viewing neurodiverse learners as an entirely separate category. 

Additionally, Matrix recommends a learner needs assessment can be helpful to support neurodiversity in digital learning. They explain, “it’s important to know the objective of the learning intervention so you can thoroughly investigate the gaps that it will need to fill. A pre-assessment can be immensely helpful in determining a learner’s understanding of the training content. Starting from this information, you can then focus on the content areas most lacking or difficult to comprehend.” 

Finally, Training Magazine recommends taking a learner-centric approach to course design, saying, “making an organisation more inclusive for neurodiverse individuals requires an appreciation of each person within his or her work context and a focus on getting to know employees individually and leading people on a situational basis.” 

If you're ready to start supporting neurodiverse learners in your workplace, Go1 can help. Sign up for a free trial today to access courses on Understanding mental health in neurodiverse learners and Positive Assessments, featuring Nancy Doyle, an Occupational Psychologist who specialises in neurodiversity.

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