Diverging Online: a guide to online teaching of neurodiverse student groups

Cora Beth Knowles

I’m going to start off this guide to working with neurodiverse students online with an enormous Disclaimer. It’s so big it needs a capital letter, and a bit of explanation.

I’ve been researching neurodiversity in Higher Education, with a particular focus on online pedagogy at The Open University, for a long time now, and it’s a very personal interest for me. My son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder four years ago, after a diagnostic process which began when he was two years old. I spent years attending workshops and therapy sessions with other families raising neurodivergent children, watching their children develop alongside my own and observing the success – or otherwise – of early intervention initiatives. I started drawing on my experiences in my teaching, focusing more and more on helping adult neurodivergent students in Classics. Finally, this year I was myself diagnosed as autistic, in the category that was once labelled ‘Asperger’s’ – finally graduating from the category of ‘yes I probably am, but I’ve never been tested’.

The rainbow infinity loop is often used as a positive symbol for neurodiversity, replacing the well-known autism ‘puzzle piece’ logo which is now highly controversial

After all that time, and research, and personal experience, the one thing I can say for certain is that we’re all different. People diagnosed with a range of neurological differences are referred to as ‘neurodivergent’ because we diverge from the typical – but we also diverge hugely from one another in motivations, capabilities and barriers, and in our experiences of neurodivergence. That being so, any attempt to generalize is quite possibly doomed from the outset.

So that’s my Disclaimer of Doom. I can provide insight from personal experience and from years of working online with neurodiverse student groups, developing my practice through trial and error – but I can’t speak for every neurodivergent individual, and I don’t intend to try. The best advice I can give is that if you have a student who discloses their autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, or any other form of neurological difference, you should talk to them. They know what their strengths and weaknesses are – believe me, they really do! – and if you ask, they’ll give you the information you need about how best to support them.

Having said that, there are certain elements of online learning which I think many neurodivergent learners might identify as challenging, and I’ll try to offer these as a set of actionable guidelines. Some will be more feasible than others, depending on your own teaching context, and others might not fit your teaching style – but anything you can do will make an impact on neurodivergent students, many of whom have learned to mask their difficulties so well that they don’t even expect people to make adjustments for them any more.

My son, in amused contemplation of neurotypical weirdness

Here are my Top 10 tips for accommodating neurodiversity online

  1. Let people lurk. There’s a dangerous discourse in Higher Education that equates visible participation with learning. Yes, ‘active learning’ is desirable: but active learning doesn’t have to be visible to you as a lecturer, at the point at which you demand it. Active learning can be quiet, or delayed, or even private. Maybe your neurodivergent student will listen to what you say, and then go away and write their reflections up in a diary which you will never see. Please don’t make them perform for you online (either in a live session or on a discussion board or forum) unless you have to, or shame them when they struggle to do so. Trust their commitment: they wouldn’t be putting themselves through the stress of university if they weren’t determined to succeed.
  2. Structure discussion times carefully. When people are talking over one other in a live online session, it’s very difficult for neurodivergent students to follow the thread, and the noise can be physically painful to some. There’s a reason why autistic children are often given ear defenders to wear in school. Too much input hurts. So if you can, try to promote turn-taking when students are speaking.
  3. Don’t make your slides black-on-white. That’s good practice for dyslexic students, but also helps other students who might be sensitive to harsh contrasts. Give your slides and handouts and whiteboard a soft colour as a background – maybe add the occasional picture too – and it will improve concentration and make your neurodivergent students ever so slightly more comfortable. If you’re in any doubt about what might help, just imagine that you have the hangover from hell and can’t face bright lights, glare, sharp contrasts or loud noises (smells too – but that’s less of a problem online!). That will give you a sense of how some of your neurodivergent students feel all the time.
  4. Think about webcams. There’s been a lot of debate over the last year about the pros and cons of requiring students to use webcams, and I don’t want to get into that here. All I want to do is bring up the issue of eye contact. Many neurodivergent children are initially identified as such by their difficulties with eye contact: some actively avoid it, and when forced to make eye contact they feel real distress. I can tell you from painful experience that this doesn’t go away; but as we grow up we learn to tolerate it and mask the discomfort. Webcams, though, take this to a whole new level: it’s like constant, inescapable eye contact with everybody all at once. So if you must have students in vision all the time, you could encourage them to look away from the screen to take notes, or build in breaks during which you switch all the cameras off.
  5. Start each live session with a session outline, ideally broken up into time slots. This can be formal, or casual: ‘For the first half an hour we’ll be talking about this week’s reading; then we’ll look at some new material; and in the last half hour we’ll talk about the work you have to do next week’. Simple to do – but it’s really helpful, particularly if you can make a visual timetable for people to consult. And let’s face it: many of us (neurodivergent and otherwise) thrive on structure! 
  6. Be flexible about attendance. Yes, you need your students to show up for class, whether it’s online or face-to-face. But on some days (the really bad days, when there are no spoons left to give), the fact that your neurodivergent students show up at all is a minor miracle, and the product of enormous effort on their part. So maybe they’ll arrive late, or have mysterious ‘connection problems’, or make some excuse to leave early. Be gracious, and accept that they’re doing what they can, even if they’re not doing it quite in the way that you would like.
  7. Try not to interrogate. Do you ever have those dreams where you’re on stage in a play and you can’t remember your lines? Well, that’s how a lot of neurodivergent students feel when they’re asked a direct question in front of an audience. The words just … vanish.  Online it can be even worse than in a physical classroom, because everybody’s looking at you all the time. Furthermore, if these students think it’s likely that they might be put on the spot, they’ll spend the whole session worrying about it and won’t take in a word of what you’re saying. I know that for a lot of lecturers asking questions is part of their teaching style, and that it keeps most students alert – but for neurodivergent students that alertness can cross the line into panic. A little awareness on your part can make a big difference!
  8. Give them freedom to explore. One of the fabulous things about neurodiversity is the range of interests and passions that it encompasses; neurodivergent people can be truly remarkable geeks (and no, I’m not going to talk about the time I built a Tardis…!). So whenever the opportunity arises, give your neurodivergent students the freedom to pursue an idea that interests them. You might be surprised at the results.
  9. Be creative about modes of working. If you’re giving an online lecture, maybe you could send out your slides to the students beforehand, perhaps with a handout and some written questions to ponder, or a quiz to fill in – anything that isn’t ‘live’. For many neurodivergent students, asynchronous teaching is much easier to process than synchronous, so anything you can do to supplement your synchronous sessions with off-line reading would be good. It works the other way, too. If you’re requiring students to give a presentation, consider giving them the choice between presenting ‘live’ and doing a recording – that can make a significant difference to the quality of work that a neurodivergent student can produce.
  10. Announce your adjustments. Whatever you decide to do to help your neurodiverse group of students, announce it. State clearly and in advance what accommodations you’ll be making, and stick to them. Your neurodivergent students will appreciate the clarity – and some of your other students might too. There are many neurotypical students out there who are dealing with anxiety or depression or illness right now, and your willingness to be proactive in your thoughtfulness might mean more to them than you’ll ever know. 

Finally a tip that doesn’t require any adjustment, other than to appreciate something which you might not see as a way of supporting neurodiversity… Be enthusiastic! Your neurodivergent students are natural, even compulsive, rabbit-hole divers. So whenever you find yourself going off at a tangent, enthusing about something completely irrelevant to the lesson while waving your hands around and talking really fast – please don’t apologise! You just showed your neurodivergent students that there’s a place for them in Classics – and that’s one of the most inspiring things you could do.

I’ll end by pointing out the obvious. This shift we’re seeing in 2020, to online working and social distancing … this is a big opportunity for neurodivergent students to access education on their own terms, with fewer of the social barriers that the traditional seminar room presents. You may hate teaching online, and long to be back in a room with all of your students – but it’s very possible that some of your neurodivergent students are feeling hopeful about what this means for them. So if there’s one thing I’d like to see emerge from the chaos of our Unprecedented Times, it’s an increased confidence in our own agility (yes, I hate that word too!) as teachers. If we can adapt to the demands of a pandemic, then maybe we can also (perhaps even at the same time) become more flexible to accommodate neurodiversity. It doesn’t take much: just a willingness to listen carefully to the quietest voices.

Dr Cora Beth Knowles graduated from Newcastle University in 2005 with a PhD in Latin literature and (simultaneously) a Masters degree in Education from The Open University. She joined The Open University as an Associate Lecturer and has been there ever since, testing out Education theories on long-suffering Classics students. In 2020 she was awarded the OU’s Recognition of Excellence in Teaching Award for Student Engagement. She maintains an active student-facing website, ClassicalStudies.Support

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