5 tips for working with neurodivergent adult learners

How people learn can be just as individual as they are, so creating an inclusive educational environment is crucial. In Canada, there are 600,000 neurodivergent adults, yet most learning does not consider neurodivergence in its design.

Here, we’ll explain what it means to be neurodivergent, plus share a few practical tips on how to help your neurodivergent adult learners.

Neurodivergent definition

As a society, ways of behaving, thinking and communicating have been identified and deemed “normal” or neuronormative. Based on these traditional definitions, human brains are categorized as either neurotypical or neurodivergent. A neurotypical brain conforms to neuronormative standards, while neurodivergent brains deviate from what is commonly considered typical.

Neurodivergency is a broad term and includes various developmental diagnoses. A few examples of these diagnoses include:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Dyslexia

Challenges for neurodivergent adult learners

Neurodivergent learners face barriers in conventional education settings. Although diagnoses and individuals vary, there are some common challenges facing neurodivergent learners:

  • Verbal communication: Teachers often provide instruction and knowledge using verbal communication. For a neurodivergent learner, it may be challenging to follow along at the same pace as their peers. It may also be more difficult for neurodivergent learners to understand or retain information, especially when delivered verbally.
  • Sensory input: Neurodivergent learners may find certain stimuli overwhelming, like lights, sounds or temperatures. These sensitivities can impact an individual’s ability to learn and add another layer of complexity in an educational setting.
  • Executive function: Executive function helps us control our thoughts and emotions. When it comes to academia, managing time or prioritizing tasks is necessary. Some neurodivergent learners may struggle with organization, scheduling or completing tasks. 

How to support neurodivergent learners

Helping neurodivergent learners overcome challenges can result in a more successful learning experience. To be more adaptive and inclusive for neurodivergent learners, consider utilizing these five tips:

1. Create a supportive environment

Designing the learning environment with sensory sensitivity in mind is essential because it can impact neurodivergent learners. When creating a space for neurodivergent students to learn, you’ll want to:

  • Make the space comfortable
  • Add quiet zones
  • Provide a flexible schedule
  • Give the student more control over their environment

2. Offer various learning methods

Learning styles vary from one individual to the next. Being able to offer different ways to absorb knowledge is key. Some neurodivergent learners may succeed better with videos or hands-on experience instead of lectures. Another teaching method is project-based learning, which allows neurodivergent students to focus on their interests.

As an example, if you want to support students with dyslexia, there are several tools you can incorporate. Techniques such as using specific fonts on learning materials or providing a scanner pen (a small portable device that reads text aloud) can help with learning.

3. Break down tasks into manageable steps

If a task seems too daunting, a neurodivergent learner may hesitate to continue. Literacy practitioners can use task analysis to determine the small steps within a more significant task and make the task more manageable.

To further support neurodivergent learners with task management, use step-by-step guides with pictures and offer multiple times to practise a new skill.

4. Use clear communication

The ability to communicate ideas and information is integral to learning. To best support neurodivergent learners, you must communicate concisely and literally. Keep things straightforward, and avoid using jargon or metaphors.

Communication is about what you say and how you say it. Don’t hesitate to ask your neurodivergent learners about their preferred communication method. Text or email may be better for some adult learners, whereas others prefer to communicate in-person.

5. Promote self advocacy

Getting first-hand information from a neurodivergent learner can go a long way.

Invite individuals to be open about their learning needs by establishing a safe space for discussion. Encourage your neurodivergent learners to advocate for themselves and receive the type of educational experience that helps them the most.

Getting support for your organization

A supportive learning environment for neurodivergent adult learners is essential for their success and well-being. By implementing these practical tips, you can work towards building a more inclusive classroom that celebrates neurodiversity.

At ABC Life Literacy Canada, we’re here to support you in your literacy program offerings. Contact us today to learn more about our free programs to help your adult learners thrive!