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Neurodiversity and Universal Design for Learning: Engaging Students and Educators

By Dr Tamsin Kilner

Planning My Education Incubator Project

So, I began thinking about my Incubator Discovery project in the following terms:

‘The literature indicates that neurodiverse students face greater challenges in HE, both in terms of engagement in learning and retention (see for example Clouder et al. 2020). They are also at greater risk of mental health and wellbeing challenges. This facilitated workshop will bring together colleagues with a range of experience of Universal Design Learning (UDL), together with student partners from across the institution, to explore ways to embed principles of UDL in workable and ‘light touch’ ways so as to enable educators across the institution to begin to engage with this approach in session, module, and programme design.’

I wanted to include academics, Professional Services staff, and students in the workshop to support joined-up conversations recognising the wider context of the institution. Having spent a few weeks worrying about whether anyone would show up – it was peak train strike time, and many people weren’t back from leave taken over the winter holidays – I was delighted to find myself with a cohort of sixteen participants, drawn from all over the university, and regretful apologies from a further ten who couldn’t make it on the day.  

The Focus of the Workshop and Design Thinking Activities

I started out by thinking about the importance of understanding students’ experience of learning and teaching and recognising and valuing their perspectives while also acknowledging that for many educators, it is daunting to consider ways to change practice when your schedule is already (over-)full and you aren’t confident in making the right choices. This led me to think about empathy maps, with which to understand both student and staff needs. I introduced a couple of structured discussion tasks as we talked through our different understandings of neurodiversity, some of which are captured in the screenshot here, and inclusivity, before reflecting some of the discussion in a Mural that explores each of the key principles of Universal Design for Learning: providing multiple means of engagement; providing multiple means of action and expression; and providing multiple means of representation. These principles acknowledge the need for variability in order to meet varied needs: no single solution will work for all students, so bringing in options is crucial to an inclusive curriculum.

Screenshot of Menti slide sharing understandings of the term ‘Neurodiversity’; responses include: ADD; ADHD; autism; dyspraxia; diversity of minds; different learning styles; different ways of thinking; recognising we don’t all learn in the same way.

For Robert Chapman (2020), it seems that ‘Neurodiversity  means  a  lot  of  different  things  to  different  people.’ [i]  Some key points here centred on how different our understandings of these terms were. For some, both inclusivity and neurodiversity centred on specific conditions, situations, or challenges, while for others, both represented much wider concepts. (And for anyone looking to explore this a little further, you might like to look at the differences between neurodiversity, the neurodiversity paradigm, and the neurodiversity movement, via Walker (2014).[ii])


Everyone in the room learned something here, including a reminder that neurodiversity can be acquired through brain injury, and that inclusivity must avoid making assumptions about ‘autistic people’, whose needs will not be uniform. We also explored accommodations for students where needs may be diametrically opposed (answer: talk to them ahead of the session and find out what works in practice and how accurate their ILP might be; be proactive in offering support and emphasise that while you may not be able to change certain things – the room timetabled for the session, for example – you’re open to trying things to find the best way to support them).  The most obvious learning for me here was that we need more spaces for these discussions, to share practice, ideas, and questions, and that these conversations need to take place before the design phase can be begun.

‘This feels really useful’

‘It was great to have this space to really think about this stuff and to get some ideas about what we can change – more please!’

Workshop Feedback


What worked really well was having some space off-campus for this workshop, so that people were able to really focus on the discussion  without fear of interruption or distraction. It was also fantastic to have many different perspectives in the room – colleagues from different academic disciplines but also academic developers, welfare advisors, recent-graduate student success mentors, careers consultants, digital learning developers, and current students. Hearing the synergies between different academic disciplines and areas of professional expertise in relation to how better to offer support for neurodiverse students was brilliant, as participants shared ideas, questions, and suggestions openly and respectfully.

What didn’t work so well was my understanding of how much time and space was needed for people to really begin to engage with these concepts. The discussion throughout the workshop was lively and engaged and I was so pleased that literally every participant told me how valuable they had found it, but in terms of the mapping exercise and the Mural I had created for this purpose, we only managed to make a start on one of the three principles of UDL, and I had hoped to cover all of them.

Next Steps

My experience in creating and facilitating this workshop leads me to suggest that it would be great to offer a series of these workshops, each one exploring one facet of UDL, with mixed groups such that the conversations could be equally rich and varied, and offering once again the opportunity to find common ground amongst varied disciplines and areas of professional expertise. I’m really keen to build on the enthusiasm and interest this workshop generated, and am actively looking at options to continue this project in the longer term. If you’re reading this and would like to know more, please do get in touch; you can find – and contribute to! – the Mural I created for the workshop here, and you’re also welcome to use the template as a way to think through your design process the next time you’re designing a session. (If you do use it, I’d be grateful if you could let me know how it went (

[i] Robert Chapman. ‘Defining neurodiversity for research and practice’. In Neurodiversity Studies: A new critical paradigm. Eds Hannah Rosqvist, Nick Chown, and Anna Stenning. London: Routledge, 2020.

[ii] Nick Walker. ‘Neurodiversity: some basic terms & definitions’. In Neuroqueer Heresies: Notes on the Neurodiversity Paradigm, Autistic Empowerment, and Postnormal Possibilities. UK: Autonomous Press, 2021.

Discovery Grants 2022-23

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