Opportunities for change
Reprinted from the The Many Faces of Neurodiversity issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (3), pp. 12-14
At one of my first presentations on Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I was nervous. I have worked with many neurodiverse children, teenagers and young adults throughout my career. This was the first time I was going to talk about UDL to an audience of university and college instructors, and here I was, sore-stomach nervous.
I talked about curriculum design and flexibility. I talked about human neurodiversity and the importance of inclusive teaching practices. I got all the theory right. But the room was silent and a red siren was going off in my mind. “Are there questions?” I stammered. “I think there are questions.”
Someone piped up. “We just don’t get it. At all.”
I panicked and saw spots. Because I was nervous and new at UDL, I had overlooked some of the most important aspects of building a UDL experience: I didn’t build community, I didn’t check for meaningfulness and I didn’t ask what the educators in the group were hoping to learn.
I changed my approach. “Has anyone ever taught a little kid how to make pancakes?” I asked. I then described how there are actually many ways to do so. You can:
- read a recipe
- talk about the steps for making pancakes
- dive in and make pancakes through trial and error
- draw pictures of pancake making
In the end, you’ll make pancakes, I told my audience, but these are four ways you can learn to do it. Most importantly, you can offer a choice about how to learn, and the child can pick. That way, they get to use their minds and their bodies to be the best pancake makers they can be. After that example, my workshop turned out great, and I got some strong lessons in neurodiversity.
Judy Singer1 was one of the first to use the term neurodiversity. Robert Chapman2 gives an excellent overview of how this concept highlights inclusion, political activism and a fundamental shift to a more humane and compassionate understanding of different kinds of minds. The term moves us away from stigmatizing disability labels and towards a view of human minds as flexible, contextually developed and deserving of being understood in terms of strengths, weaknesses and preferences.
In his 2011 article, “The Power of Autism,” Laurent Mottron argued that models of autism tend to underscore negative characteristics while overlooking strengths, such as bottom-up processing (where we perceive information through the senses), strong visual processing and the ability to mentally manipulate three-dimensional shapes. Mottron believes autism “should be described and investigated as a variant within the human species” and that we should emphasize the advantages of autistic strengths.3
The idea of neurodiversity helps us move past disability labels and understand a diversity of human experiences—like learning to make pancakes in different ways. This honours some people’s preference to understand by example and the ability to think on one’s feet.
What is Universal Design for Learning?
UDL starts with the idea that expert learners are highly variable. Learners vary in their interests, strategies, means of using words and pictures, and even in how they like to work with others (or not). UDL is a set of design principles that helps us build teaching and learning experiences that accommodate the widest spectrum of learners so that as few people as possible are excluded from participation.4
UDL challenges the traditional core of education, where the curriculum is at the centre of learning. UDL puts the learner at the centre. Instead of labelling the learner as disabled, underachieving or in need of special services, we define the curriculum in terms of how adequately it can accommodate diverse learners.4 Teaching to the average means not only that we exclude many learners, but also that we miss rich teaching and learning opportunities that grow out of diversity.5
UDL gives us a framework, grounded in neuroscience, to be ready for variations in learning. Developed by researchers at the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST), this framework identifies three brain networks we can use to provide more flexibility in accessible design for learning:
- the engagement network helps us understand the “why” of learning
- the representation network helps us understand the “what” of learning
- the action and expression network can reveal the “how” of learning
This framework helps us design schools, classrooms, materials and assistive technology for accessibility, choice and meaningfulness. Do we want learners to have the best chance of learning content? Design materials that can be read and watched. Do we want better engagement in class? Offer students a choice of whether to talk in small groups or write down their thoughts. Partner with students in driving decision-making, get feedback and have clear expectations to create inclusive learning experiences.
So in English class, students might write a traditional essay, but they can also compile a portfolio. In math, they might memorize a formula, but they can also watch a video about how that math works in everyday life or get an explanation of the purpose behind the formula.
Universal Design for Learning and neurodiversity
For neurodiverse learners, UDL offers the chance to reflect on and express skills and preferences that may have been overlooked in their education. They get to ask:
- what kind of learning feels good, productive and comfortable for me?
- what kind of classrooms make sense?
- how can I find like-minded individuals?
Sometimes having choice can be overwhelming; integrating feedback into UDL learning design helps neurodiverse learners narrow those choices or ask for different ones. UDL can mean there is a place for more and clearer structure (to remove the guessing about teachers’ expectations), for course outlines that make sense, for more or different detail and for opportunities to deeply investigate compelling topics.
The main focus in UDL is not on disability, but rather variability. The work of UDL is precisely this: to investigate and acknowledge how people vary in their learning strengths, weaknesses and preferences. We can design for choice and flexibility in the paths people take to reach their goals.
That’s why UDL and neurodiversity make such excellent friends: UDL offers learners—sometimes for the first time—the chance to have a voice and to be part of an education that truly includes them.
Interested in learning more about UDL? Seanna recently co-wrote the book Universal Design for Learning: A Practical Guide. It is downloadable for free from: pressbooks.bccampus.ca/jibcudl (Takacs, S., Zhang, J., Lee, H., Truong, L., & Smulders, D., 2021, JIBC.)
About the author
Seanna is a faculty member in Accessibility Services at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. She holds a PhD in educational psychology from SFU, where she was also an instructor for 10 years, teaching courses on instructional psychology, reading and learning disabilities. Seanna is a cat lover and snake and spider rescuer. She never tires of being part of learning
Singer, J. (1999). ‘Why can’t you be normal for once in your life?’ From a ‘problem with no name’ to the emergence of a new category of difference. In M. Corker & S. French (Eds.), Disability discourse. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Chapman, R. (2020). Defining neurodiversity for research and practice. In Rosqvist, H., Chown, N., & A. Stenning (Eds.), Neurodiversity studies: A new critical paradigm (pp. 218–220). London: Routledge.
Mottron, L. (2011). Changing perceptions: The power of autism. Nature, 479(7371), 33–35. doi.org/10.1038/479033a
Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.
Takacs, S. (2019). Making assumptions. Pedagogy and Practice, Kwantlen Polytechnic University.