This week (March 13 – 19, 2023) is Neurodiversity Celebration Week, a worldwide initiative that seeks to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about neurological differences and change the way neurodivergent youth are perceived and supported by the world around them.
At IYF, we believe young people are some of society’s best problem-solvers, change-makers, and leaders. Unfortunately, we know from experience that opportunities are not equitably distributed, and that systems—from health, to labor market, to education systems—don’t always understand or serve the best interests of youth, particularly those who experience intersecting forms of discrimination, including because they may process information and learn differently. That’s why so much of our work focuses on strengthening youth agency and creating more youth-inclusive systems to support and encourage young people as they face challenges, embrace opportunities, and work to create the world they want.
No two brains function exactly alike, and this natural learner variability can make it easier, or more difficult, for individuals to learn and process certain types of information, in certain environments, or in certain formats. “Neurodivergent” means that the way we experience the world, learn, or process information falls outside of what is considered “typical.” Neurodivergent individuals may be considered to have a learning difference, or disability, such as dyslexia, ADHD, or dyscalculia. “Typical” brains are not as common as we might think: a whopping 1 in 5 people may be neurodivergent—that would be 20% of people! People who are neurodivergent often have different strengths and challenges than people who are neurotypical, and while they may struggle with some types of learning, processing, or interacting with the world, they may be incredibly gifted in other areas.
At IYF, one of the ways we intentionally program for learner variability and neurodiverse youth is by working to incorporate the principles of universal design for learning (UDL) into the development and delivery of our curricula and trainings. A research-based set of principles to guide the design of learning environments that are optimally accessible and effective for all, UDL is gaining global traction as a foundational element of inclusive education. Donors have taken notice: not only has USAID made a commitment to mainstreaming UDL in its education programming, but Oak Foundation’s recent funding of IYF to partner with neurodivergent youth in participatory grant-making emphasizes that young people with learning differences need to be active participants in identifying what works for all youth.
Here are five simple things we do at IYF to engage and build on the strengths of all individuals:
- Provide information verbally and in writing. We see this technique in infomercials for a reason—"call now!” in writing on the screen and repeated by a voice-over helps ensure that everyone gets the message.
- Break information down into several smaller pieces. When writing, use bullets, paragraphs, and numbering; when speaking, pause between pieces of information, give some time to process, and use verbal headings like “Now we’ll talk about _____.”
- Provide alternatives for participating or interacting with information. One size doesn’t fit all, so build in alternatives and options that allow individuals to choose what works best for them: for example, “stand or sit,” “unmute or chat,” “raise your hand or say ’aye’.”
- Use a larger, readable font and digestible, consistent formatting. No matter how trendy a font, print size, or page layout is, if people can’t easily read it, they may skip it.
- Make sure there’s enough color contrast between printed information and the background it’s printed on. Use white type only on dark colors; use black type only on light colors, and make sure background graphics don’t compete with the printed word.
It’s not enough to prepare young people to see and interact with the world differently; we also need to prepare the world to see and interact with young people differently. This week, consider integrating simple UDL strategies into your work as a way to honor and celebrate neurodiversity and improve your offerings for all!
For more information and tips on UDL, check out CAST’s UDL framework and guidelines here.
Gail Guillard is IYF's Digital Projects and Curricula Manager, US Workforce and Development.
Sarah Jonson is IYF's Technical Advisor, Youth Agency & Engagement.