Designing for Divergence: Establishing Neuro-inclusive Classrooms

Brief Abstract

It is estimated that up to 30% of learners in your classroom may have some form of neurodivergence including autism, ADHD, and more. (Conditt, 2020, para. 4). They are gifted with a unique way of processing information but face challenges of learning in classrooms that do not support this variance.

There is a fee of $300 for this pre-conference Master Class. You may also register for this Master Class as part of a special $550 Combo package of 2 Master Classes (1 AM and 1 PM class).

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Tracy Balduzzi is the Associate Director for Strategic Initiatives at Syracuse University and an adjunct lecturer at Utica College where she teaches courses on leadership development and project management approaches to research.
Megan Kohler is a Learning Designer with the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute at Penn State. She has presented at international conferences, such as Open Ed 2010 in Barcelona, Spain, the International Conference on Arts and Humanities in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the Online Learning Consortium in Orlando, Florida. Megan relies on her training and experience as a professional actor to create a fun and engaging experience within her presentations and design work. Among her professional accomplishments, she is recognized for her work as the lead instructional designer and project manager on Penn State’s highly-rated Epidemics MOOC. She conceptualized the MOOCs by Design Webinar series and served as the pedagogical lead for the Penn State Digital Badges Initiative. She continues to explore interesting opportunities focused on improving the online learning experience for higher education.

Extended Abstract

“The increasing number of students with learning difficulties associated with neurodiversity entering higher education (HE) poses a shared and growing challenge internationally for teachers and institutional leaders” (Clouder, et. al, 2020, p. 757). As educators, it is imperative that we begin cultivating learning environments that are supportive of this type of diversity. In fact, it is estimated that up to 30% of the learners in your classroom may have a condition that classifies as neurodivergent such as autism, ADHD, or Tourette’s syndrome among others (Conditt, 2020, para. 4). These individuals are gifted with a unique way of viewing the world and processing information but are faced with the challenge of learning in classrooms that do not support this variance. 

A major factor that contributes to this challenge is that many neurodivergent learners do not have an official diagnosis or may not have recognized they are neurodivergent until adulthood (Polyzoi, Ahnemark, Medin, & Ginsberg, 2018; Happe & Frith, 2020). A lack of diagnosis prevents students from understanding the support they need in higher education.  Similarly faculty are challenged with addressing the specific learning needs without fully understanding what accommodations they need to provide. To add to that challenge, there is no universal strategy that works for every learner. This trifecta highlights the need for institutions to equip faculty with the appropriate support, techniques, or strategies for creating neuroinclusive learning environments. As educators, it is necessary to take steps to ensure that everyone’s time in academia, including the neurodivergent, truly does accommodate every learner.

While it is hard to know how to design neurodiverse learning environments in HE there are reasonable academic, sensory, and social adjustments that can benefit all learners. First and foremost we need to dismantle the paradigm that views neurodivergence as a disability and to instead reframe our understanding of neurodiversity as a difference in the way individuals process information. Currently “post-secondary administrations seem to view neurodivergence as a disability as well as through predominantly medicalized, legalistic, and deficit-based lenses''. (Dwyer, et al. 2022, p. 3) We fundamentally disagree with this stance. 

In this session, our goal is to shift this narrative and to create an understanding that neurodivergence is a gift. As educators we need to first explore the variations by which neurodivergent learners view and navigate the learning experience. This primarily lies within their executive functions, specifically within the areas of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Intentionally designing learning environments that help develop executive functioning skills can provide a foundation for neuroinclusivity.

Working memory is our ability to select “behaviorally relevant information, maintain it in time, and reference it when appropriate” (Chatham & Badre, 2015, p. 23) so we can make decisions on how to act in the world. Working memory is important because it impacts our long term academic and social success into adulthood. Supporting working memory is important because it helps us make the transition from memorizing to doing something with the learned information. 

Cognitive flexibility refers to our ability to switch between tasks or change our thinking quickly and easily. Cognitive flexibility is important because it is how we differentiate between important and unimportant information. Developing cognitive flexibility is essential for students to organize thoughts, make connections between concepts, and manage time and tasks. 

Inhibitory control is a major contributor to educational performance and is what helps students hold back an action that feels automatic or is especially rewarding. Inhibitory control is considered the main building block for our more complex cognitive functions. Developing inhibitory control is essential to help students follow through on long term goals and refraining from behaviors that interfere with reaching a goal or task while providing a strong foundation for developing other executive functions. 

By exploring these executive functions and their impact on learning abilities, attendees will engage in a humanized approach to understanding neurodivergent individuals. Through the investigation of authentic case studies, participants will learn various strategies for supporting and accommodating differences in these areas. Each case study emphasizes a different aspect of the executive functions allowing for deep exploration of the associated affordances and barriers. 

Attendees will be able to:

  • Identify the unique challenges of neurodivergent students. 

  • Engage in exploratory activities to better understand neurodivergence.

  • Learn key strategies for supporting neurodivergent students.

Attendees will engage in the following activities:

Exploration of authentic casesStudies
Redesign a sample course with an eye toward neuroinclusion


Chatham, C. H., & Badre, D. (2015). Multiple gates on working memory. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 1, 23-31. doi:

Clouder, L., Karakus, M., Cinotti, A., Ferreyra, M., Fierros, G., & Rojo, P. (2020). Neurodiversity in higher education: A narrative synthesis. Higher Education, 80, 757-778.

Conditt, S. (2020, April 22). Neurodiversity in the college setting. Retrieved from

Dwyer, P., Mineo, E., Mifsud, K., Lindholm, C., Gurba, A., & Waisman, T. (2022). Building neurodiversity-inclusive postsecondary campuses: Recommendations for leaders in higher education. Autism in Adulthood, 1-14. doi:DOI: 10.1089/aut.2021.0042

Happé, F., & Frith, U. (2020). Annual research review: looking back to look forward – changes in the concept of autism and implications for future research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 61(3), 218–232.

Polyzoi, M., Ahnemark, E., Medin, E., & Ginsberg, Y. (2018). Estimated prevalence and incidence of diagnosed adhd and health care utilization in adults in sweden - a longitudinal population-based register study. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 14, 1149–1161.