Neurodiversity and Learning Design: Bringing Equity to the Classroom

by Heather Brown

An Interview with Heather Brown, Learning Designer, Distance Learning

by Michelle Bannerman

Reading Time: 7 minutes


Brooklyn Bridge
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We invite you to learn more about neurodiversity and bringing equity to the classroom in this conversation with Heather Brown, a Learning Designer at Northwestern and champion for neurodiverse learners, and Michelle Bannerman, a Graduate Student in the Northwestern Information Design & Strategy (IDS) program, parent of a teen with ADHD, and a career-changer pursuing a path in Learning Design to bring equity to the classroom.

Heather and Michelle cover a variety of topics, from classroom accommodations to gender expression to learning design recommendations to create experiences that include everyone.

The Interview

Michelle: Hi Heather, thank you for meeting with me to talk about neurodiverse learners. Your presentation in Dr. Noffs’ and Dr. Jackson’s IDS Learning Design course encouraged me to start exploring ways to champion students like my daughter, who will enter higher education soon. 

I’m not an expert in neurodiversity, but I have taken courses on ADHD to learn how to support my daughter. I may not have all the right questions or language to use, but I want to learn how to support neurodiverse learners.

I want to start by asking what is the correct language to use for having these conversations. What is the definition of neurodiversity?

Heather: Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in countless different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences, such as those characterized by brain variations like ADHD, ASD, dyslexia, for example, are not viewed as deficits.​ 

The neurodiversity movement emerged during the 1990s, aiming to increase the acceptance and inclusion of all people while embracing neurological differences. Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, coined the term neurodiversity to promote equality and inclusion of “neurological minorities.”​ 

As this movement evolves and people engage with and expand on what neurodiverse looks like, so does the language used to capture their understanding of their experience. For instance, I recently saw an Instagram post by the psychologist and author Devon Price promoting the term “neuroconforming” because it refers to what we understand as “neurotypical” as not a type or person but an authoritarian social standard that hurts us all. 

Michelle: I’m glad to see the conversation is evolving and challenging the standard that there is a “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving. When my daughter was younger, she asked if she had a disability, and I said no, you do not. I told her that today’s systems were developed for one type of brain and that those systems needed to change. 

Over the years, she has told me and her 504 counselors that she doesn’t want special treatment or to be singled out from the group. In our IDS Visual Communication course, we discussed Bryce Johnson’s talk Recognize Exclusion Design for Inclusion. He advised not to design for the “other someone.” 

How do you avoid “othering” someone in your Learning Design work?

This is who I am
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Heather:  I can certainly understand the fatigue that your daughter no doubt feels due to the cumulative experience of having to assume in a given instructional environment that she needs to request accommodations to achieve a baseline of equity. It’s the responsibility of people whose path to access learning is relatively clear to challenge themselves to ask, “Are we effectively designing for all brains?” 

Michelle: Yes, I totally agree! As a workaround to equity in the classroom, neurodiverse learners have the option to file accommodations in a 504 plan with their school. For example, ADHD learners may need to sit in the front of the class, have extra time for assignments, or use guide cards to read one line at a time. Since she doesn’t want to be singled out, she resists using these accommodations. Educators may get frustrated when students don’t want to use them. Is there another way? 

Heather: This is definitely a challenging situation and one that’s extremely common. Something too often overlooked in the dynamic of “help me help you!” is that, though well-intentioned, the person who holds the institutional power (the teacher) doesn’t have proper respect for why the person with far less institutional power (the student) might not trust them. Educators need to build a relationship with students that foregrounds mutual respect, and that begins with recognizing that students might have good reasons for being skeptical of their authority. 

Michelle: That is a great first step. I can understand the challenges educators have to learn about each person’s way of thinking, learning, and behaving and develop those relationships with potentially 100s of students. When my daughter has teachers with ADHD, her comfort level increases. I think if there are more conversations about how neurodiverse learners experience the classroom, that will help in building those relationships. 

Today, we can openly talk about gender and how people like to express themselves. It is part of our daily conversations. Do you see neurodiversity becoming part of the daily conversation in a similar way? How can we get there? 

Heather: I think it’s always important to frame how and where these conversations are happening because the extent to which people feel safe talking about gender expression varies wildly. One need only look to the insidious phenomenon that is the “gender reveal” party for baby showers to see just how invested in the gender binary our current culture remains. 

Very often, it dramatically impacts public opinion when a trusted and well-known public figure announces that they occupy some kind of minority status. It can go a long way toward de-stigmatizing the perceived deficit, as this certainly has happened with gender and sexuality. 

Michelle: There is certainly a long way to go to establish real and lasting change in our culture for both gender expression and neurodiversity. Our conversation keeps reminding me of lessons I have learned throughout my IDS program. In our IDS Persuasion class, we spent a lot of time talking about expectations for changing cultural views. When we want to persuade someone to our point of view, it is not a one-time effort, and long-lasting, permanent change takes time. I think our conversation today is one of many that will get us there.

As an educator, what would you recommend to someone that wants to start addressing neurodiversity needs as part of their teaching materials and learning experiences? 

Heather: Bear with me, but I’m going to use what could be construed as a physical deficit to answer this question: when someone has celiac disease, which is an immune reaction to eating gluten, it is enormously helpful when they find that a restaurant has indicated on the menu exactly what items are or can be prepared gluten-free. 

It means that the restaurant has taken seriously the question, “How can we include more people in this experience?” I would say that a person designing for instruction must center this question at the beginning of the process. In other words, put neurodiversity on the “menu”! 

Michelle: As a Celiac myself, I like that analogy! Put it on the menu! 

How do you build the classroom menu so everyone can be included in the experience?

Heather:  If there were one way to meet the needs of all learners, then we’d all be doing it! The best we can do is to design for flexibility and build in as many options as possible while focusing on what counts as success in meeting a given learning outcome. 

The reality is that accessible design will positively impact all learners. For example, I’m a learner who hasn’t experienced significant barriers in environments that might present challenges to neurodiverse learners, but I routinely benefit from learning environments that have multiple means of representation, such as audio and closed-captioning. 

Michelle: Yes, the multiple means of representation can help learners explore what works best for them. And it may change depending on the subject. For example, an ADHD brain needs to be interested in the topic to hold attention, then they tend to hyperfocus. My daughter loves math, so she jumps right in, but for US history, with a lot of reading, she says that her teacher designs the classroom with breaks between lessons and activities, which helps keep her engaged.

As a community dedicated to equity in the classroom, what do we need to do to promote neurodiversity? Are there steps that we can take to move this forward? 

Woman reflection
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Heather: The first thing to do is to normalize talking about neurodiversity. Start with introducing the concept of neurodiversity and being ready to explain and offer examples of what it looks like from the perspective of people who are members of neurological minorities. 

What this will require, of course, is being willing to learn and test the limits of one’s knowledge and experience. We need to share ideas, stories, and questions about what works and what doesn’t to meet the needs of neurodiverse brains. We need to be willing to identify neurotypical/neuroconforming standards for what they are, acknowledging the inherent limitations. 

Michelle: Heather, thank you so much for your time today! I’m so energized and excited about the road ahead!

How can people learn more about neurodiversity and advocate for neurodiverse learners? 

Heather: Not to be redundant, but once again: start talking about it! Neurodiversity is all around us and not unlike diversity in general, the world would be nothing without it. Thinking about how to reach as many learners as possible means aligning with the principles of Universal Design for Learning, which guides course design here in the SPS Office of Distance Learning. 

By focusing on what we, as learning designers, can do to create an inclusive learning environment, we hold ourselves accountable to always ask, “What can I do to reduce barriers to meaningful learning?” 

For people new to neurodiversity and designing for inclusion, here’s a short reading list to get you started: 

Recommended Resources 

What is neurodiversity? (2021, November 23). Harvard Health. 

Is disability designed? If so, what does love have to do with it? | August de los Reyes | TEDxBasel. 

Clouder, L. (2020). Neurodiversity in higher education: A narrative synthesis. Higher Education, 80, 757-778, 

Fung, L. K., Ulrich, T. L., Fujimoto, K. T., & Taheri, M. (2022). Neurodiversity: An invisible strength? JOM, 74(9), 3200-3202. 

Price, D. (2022). Unmasking autism: Discovering the new faces of Neurodiversity. HarmonyHarvard Business Review. (2021, November 22).

Neurodiversity at Work, The Anxious Achiever [Audio podcast episode].

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