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  • Writer's pictureJudy Katz

Designing for Autism, ADHD, and More: Rethinking Instructor-Led Training

In the first article of this series, we covered the DEI component of making your workplace and learning initiatives more neurodivergent-friendly: recognizing the positives of neurodivergence and how to represent neurodivergence authentically and respectfully in language and visuals.

In this article, we’ll start to cover neurodivergence from an accessibility perspective: how to rethink the design of your learning initiatives to accommodate neurodivergent learners. This article covers instructor-led training and the final one will cover virtual ILT and elearning.

The Social Model of Disability

But first, let’s reframe how we talk about disabilities in the workplace. The prevalent way of thinking is the medical model of disability, in which we think of disability as the impairment or difference itself: a lost limb, impaired vision, or an autism diagnosis. Society, often at a loss for a way (or the will) to accommodate impairments or differences, sometimes focuses on putting a positive spin on them, using phrases like “differently abled” instead of “disabled”.

In comparison, the social model of disability asserts that the disability is not the impairment or difference itself, but the barriers created by the lack of accommodation in society. I consider this an empowering definition for both people with disabilities and those around them, because it follows that by reducing the barriers in society, we can actually reduce disability, instead of just putting a positive spin on it.

And that is the mission we’re embarking on when we rethink our workplaces and learning initiatives to better accommodate neurodivergent learners: actually reducing the disability caused by decisions and designs that don’t take neurodivergence into account.

Instructor-Led Training

Neurodivergent learners can have a range of needs when in a physical training room that make instructor-led training challenging for us. You may not be able to accommodate all of these needs in every situation, but being aware of them and making an effort to accommodate what you can will lead to a more productive learning environment.

Accommodating diverse needs may require education on the part of the instructional designer, the trainer or facilitator, the training manager or coordinator, and other parties within the organization.

Sensory needs

Neurodivergence can cause greater sensory sensitivities (higher sensitivity to sound, light, smells, etc) that can make meeting in a physical space more distracting or even painful. Here are some tips to help accommodate sensory needs:

  • Keep some lights off or dimmed to allow for learners to be in a part of the room that doesn’t have bright or flickering lights. (Fluorescent lights can be a double whammy due to flickering and humming.)

  • Allow learners to sit anywhere in the classroom that they choose.

  • Allow learners to manage their sensory inputs using headphones or dark glasses.

  • Provide quiet fidget toys and allow doodling so that learners can manage their stimulation to stay engaged… without distracting others.

  • Turn off unneeded electronics if possible (yes, some neurodivergent learners can hear–and be distracted by–electrical sounds that others don’t notice).

  • Provide a scent-free environment as much as possible. Trainers should refrain from heavy scents and pre-training emails should ask learners to do the same.

Audio processing issues

Many neurodivergent learners have some amount of difficulty processing auditory inputs. While our hearing may be fine, processing can be delayed or take a great deal of cognitive effort, especially at the end of a long day of listening. 

Allow for quiet times and some other input method, such as reading, to lighten the audio processing load… and don’t allow a lot of complex sounds, such as people talking over each other, during training times.

Instructions and navigation

Providing clear, jargon-free instructions should be a basic tenet of good learning experience design, but it is doubly important for neurodivergent learners; we’ll discuss that in more depth when we cover elearning.

What isn’t often talked about is the stress that can come from being in an unfamiliar place or situation with inadequate scheduling and signage. Some neurodivergent learners struggle with geographical navigation to a degree that can be difficult for others to understand (personally, I can get lost in parking garages). Clear signage is always appreciated, even when learners have been at a new location for multiple days.

A final element of signage that may go unnoticed by others is name cards for everyone in the training. Some neurodivergent learners have face blindness, or difficulty distinguishing faces from each other, so name cards or name tags are helpful… even on subsequent training days.

Classroom interactions

Not all neurodivergent learners enjoy working or learning in groups… but some thrive on it! To accommodate everyone, consider offering activities that can be completed in groups or individually, or provide alternatives to group activities for those who prefer to work alone. 

Some learners may need extra time to process questions when they are called on by the trainer… or, frankly, they might be in a mental rabbit hole on a different topic (and let’s face it, everyone needs a mental break occasionally). To accommodate them, use the learner’s name before asking a question to give them a heads-up that they’re being called on, and become comfortable with silence without jumping in to “rescue” them unless they ask for clarification.

Finally, some clear don’ts with regard to physical interactions:

  • Don’t touch someone without asking.

  • Don’t require eye contact.


As a final note, remember that you probably won’t know who your neurodivergent learners are–they might not even know, themselves–but it is never appropriate to speculate that someone is neurodivergent based on their choices in the classroom. 

Someone who prefers to work alone may be shy around new people for reasons that have nothing to do with neurodivergence. Someone who expresses relief that the training welcome email asks for no heavy scents might be inclined towards migraines due to a completely separate condition. Flexibility is key. And you never know, your efforts to make your learning environment more neurodivergent-friendly will likely accommodate a wide range of other invisible needs.

I look forward to others sharing their challenges and fixes for instructor-led training environments… and in the final article of this series, we will wrap up with more accessibility issues for virtual instructor-led environments and elearning.

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