Autism awareness, what does this really mean? Logos, colors and symbols that represent autism awareness are prevalent during the month of April. People equate the symbols with the autism spectrum. However, being aware that autism exists and comprehending what the autism spectrum is composed of, the challenges faced by families, children and adults who live with autism 12 months out of the year is a totally different and pressing issue.
By David Banes
Defining neurodiversity as individual difference
When we discuss neurodiversity we are recognizing that the way we all process and perceive information, think, and learn can be different from person to person. This diversity may be mild, or can be significant and we have learned that traditional approaches to education and accommodations have not been successful in recognizing that diversity. Technology has had a crucial role to play in supporting those across a continuum, but the setting within which that technology is implemented is equally critical.
Accommodating individual difference through technology
Traditionally technology has been used to accommodate needs by addressing the mechanics of perceiving, creating and organizing ideas. Some of the best known examples include:
- Text to speech – allowing text to spoken out by technology as an alternative way to present information
- Word Prediction – As we type, our technology predicts the word we are typing and even the next word we want to type, making it easier to transfer thoughts to text
- Spell and grammar checkers – that apply rules of spelling and grammar to our written work to help us correct any mistakes
- Mind-mapping or graphic thought organizers – that help us to organize our thoughts visually, rather than just as lists or script
- Voice recognition – translates our speech into the written word, making it easier to produce large amounts of text, especially when combined with other tools.
Increasingly these tools are incorporated into the technologies that we carry with us for use at work, in the classroom or as part of our daily lives. These technologies reflect an understanding that the ways in which we interact with information and communicate are varied. They may change as a result of our setting (voice control and hands free when driving) a need or disability (large text or high contrast in low light) or as a result of the ways our minds process that information. Neurodiversity is one of the reasons why universal design is valued and reflects the principle that we are all different and one size does not fit all.
The framework for Universal Design for Learning (UDL) adopts these tools and techniques and places them within a paradigm and setting based upon meeting that diversity of needs through fluidity of access
Core principles of UDL
Universal Design for Learning is an approach to providing instruction aimed at meeting the needs of all participants in a learning environment. It is based on three primary principles of providing:
- multiple means of engagement,
- action/expression and
These principles lay the foundation to approaches that address all learner’s needs. It is vital in that it that seeks to accommodate not just those who are neurodiverse, but anyone to help achieve their potential and aspirations.
The role of accessible technology within Universal Design involves the implementation of digital tools that support these three main principles. Whilst accessible and assistive technologies are not essential to a universally designed classroom or environment, there is little doubt that those environments are more responsive to difference and diversity than those which do not embrace the opportunity that technology offers. Examples of the integration of technology into environments have included the use of screen reader technologies for those with visual impairments or literacy challenges or magnification/zoom features in operating systems and smart phones.
How do we apply UD and UDL to Neurodiversity
Recognising that diversity is important, but in the Universal environment we anticipate and plan for diversity offering a range of ways for people to interact with the environment, with information and to communicate. It empowers people to engage with these in their preferred manner, that allows them to demonstrate their capability and potential in a form that is most effective. It doesn’t require teachers or employers to accommodate needs on the basis of having identified a disability but instead understands that a breadth of ways of interacting provides a the greatest foundation to accommodate diversity.
There will always be those who have clearly identified needs, who will need individual accommodations and technology solutions, tailored to that need and designed to provide the greatest level of support. We need to ensure that those needs are never ignored. But for many a fluidity of approach to three principles will ensure that they can fully participate in the classroom, workplace or social setting. Because those settings are truly inclusive, not only of variations in the ways we think, but also because of other differences we can embrace – culture, language, context age and capacity.
Actions and recommendations
Rethinking our environments on a universal design basis is not simple. It takes time and consideration and needs to be based upon a broader definition of inclusion. Some things to consider would include
- The setting focuses on both what is to be achieved and how.
- We seek to find ways to engage with tasks and resources in a range of ways that reflect diversity and choice. We don’t assume that we are dealing with someone who we consider to be “typical”.
- We present materials in a variety of ways. A meeting or discussion, a video with captions, a written summary with action points.
- We understand that these accommodations are for all.
- We use tools that allow text to be made available in multiple formats, including text-to-speech, Braille, digital text and large print.
- We support our teams or learners to understand and choose how they want to engage productively.
- We set goals and targets that are owned by all.
- The environment has a flexible setup, where space and noise can be controlled and privacy respected. Rooms are configured different for different kinds of work, quiet, individual, small and large groups.
- There are multiple ways to complete a task.
- There are many options to demonstrate what we know, and that those options are helpful to the recipient as well as the producer.
- Everyone gets continuous feedback on how they’re doing and are all encouraged to reflect on achievements and the extent to which we achieved our goals, personal and within teams. Such reflection is given time and space to be undertaken in a setting that feels “safe”. This might involve peers rather than those seen as being in authority.
Recognizing that creating classrooms, workspaces and social settings that can be configured, reconfigured and used in many ways is at the heart of engaging with universal design. Understanding that those that use those spaces to learn, work or relax are all different helps us consider those that are neurodiverse, helping us achieve greater access for all, to the benefit of all.
David Banes is Director of his company David Banes Access and Inclusion Services having previously led assistive technology services in Europe and the Middle East He now works across the globe building access infrastructure from policy to practice, based upon a detailed model of the ecosystem that supports implementation. Recent projects include the development of a response to disruptive innovation in the access industry, identifying solutions to meeting the needs of refugees with a disability, and building a business case for public investment in assistive technology, whilst supporting entrepreneurs to bring products and services to market. He has a special interest in emerging technologies and the impact upon the daily lives of people with a disability. He is currently exploring issues around literacy and disability for students in low and medium income countries. David supports those working in assistive technology through a series of publications and resources, all under open license and free. These include the weekly Access and Inclusion through technology and monthly Global Symbols newsletters, the recently launched Three Minute thoughts on AT and “Voices” a magazine format dedicated to the thoughts and opinions of disabled people and those that support them.