Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. Thanks for coming back, I appreciate it. I want to start this week with a bit of a personal update, before going on to my main subject of Training The Trainer. You may be aware, if you follow me regularly on this Blog or Twitter, that I’ve not been well, recently. I’ve had a combination of physical health issues and depression. Part of my mind is stuck in the immediate now, hating how I feel and thinking I’ll never feel better again. But part of me knows I will recover from this flare-up of autistic depression at some point. It seems to be cyclical in nature, and I think that’s because autistic depression is fundamentally different from neurotypical depression. Let me explain a little…
Autistic people can be hit by neurotypical depression, too. That’s the type of depression most people are familiar with. It has many causes but is often linked with certain triggers, such as bereavement, or unemployment, for example. Autistic depression is different. Autistic depression is constant, and we have to live with it. Neurotypical people will never understand the strength of autistic people continuing to go ahead with their lives bearing the weight of autistic depression. Sometimes, the autistic depression flares up beyond the ability to bear, though. And this is usually a result of autistic burnout. If the neurotypical world is pushing really hard at an autistic person for a prolonged period, an interim burnout will occur, followed by a “hangover” period of autistic depression. One thing that has worried me about my current flare-up is that it has somewhat sapped my will to write. For someone who literally brands himself as The Autistic Writer, that is a problem. It has been several weeks now since I wrote any fiction. However, at least for this week, I’ve found the will to write this blog post. And that’s because I was inspired. Allow me to explain…
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Recently, I was contacted by someone working for a huge private sector company, asking for advice for trainers about how to make training material more inclusive and more accessible for neurodivergent employees. This is a subject very close to my heart. I feel neurodivergent people are often treated very badly in workplaces. Sometimes this is intentional, with certain neurotypicals deliberately targeting anyone who seems a bit different. Sometimes, it’s unintentional, with unhelpful behaviours and attitudes being displayed by good people who just need educating. And sometimes, the bad treatment is institutionalised by employers with policies, procedures and cultures that are not inclusive. This extends to the realm of training. The advice I was asked for was purely in relation to printed texts, online texts, and online or virtual presentations – so, not classroom situations or zoom sessions, etc. Despite me feeling pretty awful, this request fired me up enough to get some thoughts down in writing, which I emailed to the appropriate person. I’m going to share those thoughts below, so please feel free to share or implement the suggestions in your workplaces, if you think they are helpful. The most surprising thing about the measures I suggest is that they are so obvious, so simple, and so easy to implement…
Training The Trainer – Neurodivergence: Introductory Issues
- The first thing anyone needs to know when designing training packages that accommodate neurodivergent (ND) people is this: There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will perfectly accommodate all neurodivergent people equally. Neurodivergence is complex, and each neurodivergent person has a different type of neurodivergence; it’s as individual as a fingerprint. Therefore, the best an inclusive training package can do is to take account of some of the most common difficulties and most likely triggers faced by ND people when accessing materials and media, and be open to specific requests for further individually tailored support.
- The various difficulties and triggers faced by ND people act as incremental irritants that can add up to overwhelm. So, a given ND person might be able to deal with, for example, one or two issues on a good day with little difficulty. But a large number of triggers even on a good day will cause overwhelm. Alternately, just one issue on a bad day will be too much. Therefore, the design of training materials needs to consider ND inclusivity across all areas of design. Making one change as a way of putting a tick in the ND inclusivity box is not acceptable. So, onto my suggestions:
Interlude: A brief message
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- Printed texts:
- Mainly, these should be black typeface on a nearly-white (not brilliant white) background, unless someone with visual processing differences specifically requests different colours. ND Trainees should be asked in advance if they require certain colours of text and/or background. The font should be plain and simple, such as Arial. [Edit, in response to feedback: Some people have issues with sans serif fonts. To be safe, alternative versions of printed texts should be available in both types of font.]
- Avoid sidebars and text boxes. Keep the text narrative as a constant flow, with short paragraphs, and line spaces between paragraphs. This makes it easier on the eye.
- Avoid mixing bold, italics, underlines, ALL-CAPITALS, highlighting, and different coloured fonts in the same text. Titles and headings can be differentiated from body text simply by bold, or font size.
- Make the printed material available in different font sizes, for people who require large fonts.
- On-screen texts:
- Avoid flashing images. Avoid clashing colours, or lots of mixed colours.
- Use a simple black font on a neutral background (not glaring white), unless, as with printed texts, a trainee requests different colours. Having an on-screen menu for individual users to choose their own colour, brightness and light/dark mode options is the best method.
- Avoid pop-up boxes, text boxes, sidebars, pinging noises, flashing text, scrolling text and unnecessary images. If it is “window dressing”, lose it.
- Make sure there is an on-screen control for font size.
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- Video presentations:
- As with on-screen texts, avoid pop-up boxes, text boxes, sidebars, pinging noises, flashing text, scrolling text and unnecessary images.
- Allow a broad range of sound volume control. If an ND trainee has sound-processing issues, they may need sound equalizing facilities (a graphic equalizer), or a much louder volume of sound than is normally available from workplace desktop computers, etc. To be fully inclusive, provide headphones, too.
- Every video presentation should come with full and comprehensive subtitles that represent every spoken word on the video; not just a summary. Many ND people with sound processing issues rely on a combination of listening, subtitles, and ad-hoc lipreading. If the subtitles do not exactly reflect the words being spoken on screen, that can cause confusion and distress. [Edit/clarification in response to feedback: Subtitles are not for everyone: To be clear, subtitles should not be “always on”, but there should be an option to switch on subtitles, just like when you’re watching Netflix. The point is that the subtitles should fully and accurately match the spoken words.]
- Every video presentation should come with full rewind, pause, and fast-forward controls for every single part of the presentation.
- Tests and Questionnaires:
- When putting together questions, ensure the phrasing and context of the questions accurately relate to the required answer. ND people will often notice things about the phrasing of a question that other people might not, and will weigh up the wider possibilities and implications of a range of answers that other people might never consider. Think carefully about how different questions can be interpreted, including how multiple-choice answers might not seem to offer a “correct” option to someone who has thought through the question in great detail. If possible, get an ND person to do trial runs on the questions to spot how these pitfalls can be avoided. When putting together questionnaires, you must remember that what might make sense to you might make no sense to everyone else…
Training materials are only part of the training experience. The ND trainee’s ability to engage with the material will be affected by the environment in which the materials are accessed. What might be minor irritants or barely noticed issues to neurotypical people can be major obstacles to ND people. Potential difficulties include:
- Fluorescent lighting.
- Sunlight across screens.
- Dim or too bright lighting.
- Poor quality sound system / inadequate sound volume.
- Nearby conversations.
- Ringing telephones.
- Slamming doors.
- Humming machinery/processors.
- The room is too hot.
- The room is too cold.
- Too close proximity to other trainees / crowded room.
- Being unable to ask clarifying questions if learning from a text / pre-recorded presentation. ND trainees should be given the option to email someone for clarification if necessary, which might mean they get to submit answers to tests much later, once clarification has been received.
I hope that’s helpful. That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care, be good, stay proud.
Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.