Learning techniques for neurodiverse students

This piece was written by Emil Koch.

Neurodiversity describes the variation of brain functioning and human experience in the world. About one in five students of the world population exhibit forms of neurodivergence, which includes autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and dyscalculia. While neurodivergent characteristics pose some challenges in work, they also come with unique strengths in creative or detailed thinking. 

The case of ASD: 

Students with autism may find it hard to understand the big picture, focusing on minute details. Metaphorically speaking, an individual with ASD would see individual trees instead of a forest and wouldn’t develop a global understanding of the situation. Although detail-focused processing is advantageous in some situations and may enable ASD learners to obtain advanced skills through unique memory skills, in tasks where you have to put the details together into a coherent whole, students with autism might struggle. Further, learners with ASD may have difficulty using the context to resolve lexical ambiguity, which makes open-ended questions hard for many on the spectrum.


The case of ADHD: 

ADHD reduces executive functioning, thus making it harder for people with ADHD to plan and organize their thoughts and actions. A student with ADHD may have difficulties meeting deadlines or remaining focused in school, which causes a lack of attention to detail. Apart from that, it is noteworthy that ADHD is associated with motivational problems due to a dysfunction of dopamine pathways which is not laziness; nevertheless, it sometimes poses a challenge in the study motivation. Meanwhile, students with ADHD frequently report ceaseless mental activity, which gives rise to spontaneous thoughts that are divergent or outside-the-box thinking. 

The case of dyslexia: 

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that affects the skills involved in fluent word reading and speaking. Since reading and verbal expression are required across all disciplines in academic settings, educational performances can be widely reduced. At the same time, students with dyslexia consistently demonstrate above-average creative ideation skills. 

The case of dyscalculia: 

Dyscalculia is a persistent difficulty in mathematics that occurs across all ages and abilities and consists of struggles with a number sense, including symbolic and non-symbolic comparison and ordering. Like other neurological conditions, students with dyscalculia possess strengths such as above-average problem-solving and strategic thinking skills. 

If you are a student with one of these neurological conditions, you may have faced some challenges in your educational career. If you are an educator, use the following techniques to support your neurodiverse students.

Organization 

Perhaps you are struggling with organization, and both ASD and ADHD have impairments in executive functioning, which makes it hard for you to keep up with assignments or learn the material for exams. You may take notes in classes that are difficult to review due to disorganization. Or you lose structure and don’t know which materials belong to each other. 

Therefore, keep things together with a paperclip (if handwritten) or in the same digital subfolder and use colored folders for each class. Test, whether you are sensitive to some colors and avoid them – in autism, an aversion to bright colors like yellow and a preference for green and brown, is often present. Colors act as non-verbal means to communicate and to get the reader’s attention; thus, use color-coding in your notes and structure the information in a clear outline every time. Formatting content with bold words and adding headers could also help to enhance orientation in reviews and may serve as a visual memory aid. In fact, dyslexic students can quickly grasp the meaning in revisions and reduce reading errors when utilizing colors with overlays. Additionally, enlarge the font size if you have difficulties reading small text sizes. All of these little adjustments can affect learning performance significantly.

Revision 

To engage in classes or prepare for a test, you need to review your notes. 

One vital aspect of learning is knowing your strengths so make sure you use a learning technique that exploits your talents, whether it is creative thinking, focusing on the details, or problem-solving. Are you engaged when playing games or love reading books and using words and their semantic meaning to build your knowledge? Colors, fonts, and audio effects also can be friends of neurodivergent learners since they give clarity and meaning to the content. Many people with autism are visual thinkers; therefore, they use visuals to remember words and design visual mind maps to grasp an academic topic. Research substantiated that people with autism connect words with images rather than emotions. However, not all people with autism think in pictures. Indeed, some people with ASD think of audio tapes or both. In other words, use the knowledge of how you think to take advantage of assistive technology such as text-to-speech software to understand and memorize something. For example, regarding dyscalculia, you could write out a math problem or draw the problem if you are a visual learner.

Given that you can now play on your strengths, here are some general guidelines for the review process. First, rewrite the notes you have taken in the classes in an ordered manner and fill in the gaps of missing information. Second, summarize the content of each outline so that you focus on the main points. In addition, a strategy you can adopt for each paragraph in texts is as follows: first, only read the topic and concluding sentences to get a rough idea. Third, visualize the details in a mind map to see the interconnections that form the coherent whole, or record yourself summarizing the content and listening to it. Lastly, play games to keep you motivated. As a matter of fact, game-based learning facilitates mathematical comprehension in students with ASD. 

Nevertheless, game-based learning may not work for everyone, meaning how can you motivate yourself to get started studying? 

You can also try the  Pomodoro technique, where you focus on a task for 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break. Most people can focus for 30 – 45 minutes on a topic, and in integrating circles of intensive focus and short breaks, one can stay attentive for a long time. Yet, what if you can not dive into the 25 minutes of concentration? Then, try the reverse Pomodoro technique that flips the original period of 25 to 5 minutes of concentration and 5 to 25 minutes of a break, which can be incredibly powerful if you see your reward coming after just 5 minutes. The idea is to start small but to begin with something (anything!) since for those with executive dysfunction inertia or task initiation stops them from starting. Again this technique may not work for everyone, but it can help build consistency and increase the spans of attention. 

What about priority issues? Everyone knows these stressful periods of exam weeks and high workloads, and difficulties in prioritization. One can imagine how hard it can be for some students with neurological-based disorganization. In this regard, creating a calendar for each month, printing it out, and putting it somewhere where you would see it regularly which can help you stay on top of your tasks; a digital calendar works as well if that is what you prefer. This first step gives you an overview of all the tasks ahead, and now the magic happens through prioritization. The Eisenhower principle or urgent important matrix can do wonders. Create a simple grid out of four quadrants and give the two columns the header urgent and non-urgent and title the lines important and unimportant, thus putting only those tasks into quadrant one that is both urgent and important. Follow this principle with all your work then you will be sorted shortly, but see this resource. You can also color-code your assignments and other projects in your calendar and generating a visual progress report each month to visually see the progress you make can help with your motivation. 

Test preparation and test-taking: 

It is exam time! Studying is one thing, and test-taking is the other. There are dozens of brilliant students out there who have test anxiety which prevents them from unfolding their potential in classes. One thing that might help is to plan ahead of time and start learning early, so instead of one, begin two weeks before an exam. This way, you have more flexibility for other commitments and can include mock exams that might be beneficial in view of test anxieties. 

Many neurodiverse students are entitled to accommodations such as quieter spaces in testing areas, enlarged test booklets, and extra time. Subject to the diagnosis, adjustments to academic requirements can take place at the college level. If you have a diagnosis, get the support you are eligible for and simulate the exact testing conditions when taking practice exams. Furthermore, many students with neurological conditions exhibit sensory sensitivities; hence, employing noise-canceling headphones could be one way to reduce the noise level around. 

Concluding remarks 

To create inclusive and equitable educational settings, we need to focus on the students’ strengths and not their disabilities because doing so we will notice more barriers, and more weaknesses, and this can cause more frustration. Finally, being aware of your weaknesses and strengths can benefit you as a student. In the larger context, inclusive classrooms that acknowledge special needs prove to be advantageous for all students (also without special needs) in terms of recognizing diversity, practicing social skills, and developing cognitive abilities.