The Ahead Journal

#AHEADjournal

A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

The ENGAGE Programme - Creating an Online Inclusive and Equitable Learning Environment for Neurodivergent Adults

Claire O'Neill

Researcher and Writer, University College Cork

@claruineill

About the Author

Introduction

This article outlines the fundamentals of the ENGAGE programme, an original inclusive learning framework designed to support adult neurodivergent learners (re)entering further education. This programme, although facilitated online, is designed to be used flexibly and to be adapted to specific contexts and individual learners. The article begins with an outline of the programme’s background, aims and key theoretical underpinnings before focusing on each component of the ENGAGE framework. Finally, some key takeaways are shared, including ideas for future use and emerging questions relating to inclusive learning for all.

As encouraged by AHEAD’s submission guidelines, the author makes full use of graphic representation of information throughout the article. This also aligns with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), fundamental to the design of the programme. Each graphic has alt text embedded which is accessed by right clicking on the image and selecting alt text from the menu.

Background and Context

Thriving Autistic and Galway Autism Partnership provided the author with funding to design and facilitate a six week, online back to education programme for neurodivergent adults. The initial scope provided parallelled with AHEAD’s aim of highlighting practices in further and higher education contributing to the support, progression, and achievement of disabled learners.

The original participants were recruited through an open call over Social Media channels. Participants were self-selecting and met set criteria including formal or self-confirmation of neurodivergence, aged 18 or over and planning future or re-entry into further or higher education. The group was capped at eight participants to keep the facilitator to participant ratio low. This fostered the capacity to individualise the programme for each participant. The bespoke nature of the programme is a key factor to the success of the programme.  For example, the original cohort of participants, although sharing a neurodivergent status, nevertheless, were heterogeneous and had back to learning goals including repeating the Leaving Certificate, engaging with in-career professional development, accessing adult education classes and postgraduate education.

The participants reported that some attributes of the programme designer and facilitator enhanced the efficacy of the programme. These attributes included the facilitator’s lived experience as a multiply neurodivergent learner engaging in higher education. The facilitator drew on her experience and training in facilitation, coaching, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and inclusive education while developing and facilitating the ENGAGE programme.

Although ENGAGE is designed to be delivered in a wide range of educational settings, the original cohort of participants reported that the online environment reduced barriers to inclusion. equity increased and promoted the wellbeing of the learners.

Underpinning Theories and Concepts

This section contains a brief overview of underpinning theories and concepts and helps further contextualise the ENGAGE programme.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4

In the broadest context, international policy like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG, United Nations, 2015) and specifically, Goal 4 were consulted while designing the ENGAGE programme (Figure 1).

This diagram depicts the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.  It shows SDG 4 - to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Figure 1. Visual Representation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Goal 4. (SDG 4)

The key indicators of subsection 4.a provided a frame to scaffold the planning, delivering and evaluation of the ENGAGE programme. Goal 4.a  advocates the provision of education where the learning environment is disability sensitive, safe, inclusive, and effective for all learners.

Neurodiversity Paradigm

Drilling down from the overarching frame of the SDGs, the neurodiversity paradigm (Walker, 2022) provides a finer grained philosophical foundation for the ENGAGE programme. A neurodiversity-affirmative stance means that differences in body-mind systems are accepted as natural variations in the human way of being. Just like in biodiversity, human body-mind diversity is a neutral fact and so the paradigm does not view neurodivergence as something to be feted, nor as something to be pathologised. The neurodiversity paradigm is outlined clearly by Walker (2021) and Fletcher-Watson (2022) and their pillars of neurodiversity are presented in a concise and accurate manner in Figure 2.

This infographic depicts the 4 pillars of the neurodiversity paradigm. This is adapted from the work of Walker (2021) and Fletcher-Watson (2022).  The 4 pillars are: 1. Neurodiversity occurs naturally, 2. No neurotype is better than another, 3. Neurodiversity operates like other dimensions of equality and diversity and 4.  There is a collective value and strength in diversity.

Figure 2. The Pillars of Neurodiversity

Universal Design for Learning

The programme is also influenced by education-specific approaches. One of these is Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The three principles of UDL as outlined in figure 3 are operationalised at every stage of the programme.

This blue diagram shows the three principles of UDL which are:  Multiple means of 1. engagement, 2. representation, 3. action and expression. engagement = the why of learning, representation = the what of learning and action and expression = the how of learning.  The aim of following these principles is to foster learners that are motivated, resourced, knowledgeable, strategic and goal-orientated.

Figure 3.  The Three Principles of Universal Design for Learning

The ENGAGE Framework

The ENGAGE Framework is designed to be delivered over six, 90-minute workshops. ENGAGE is an acronym and each workshop focuses on a specific component of the framework. The components are presented in figure 4 and this visual representation is followed by a brief description of each of the six components.

Graphic depiction of the ENGAGE framework, designed in blue and white.  The framework consists of: 1.Establishing a Plan for Success 2.Next Stop Strengths 3.Getting Ready with Executive Functioning Supports and Study Skills 4.Accounting our Energy and Self-Care 5.Getting Familiar with Accommodations and advocacy 6.Engage Toolkit

Figure 4. The ENGAGE Framework (O’Neill, 2022)

1. Establishing a Plan for Success

The programme starts with establishing a sense of community within the learning group. This includes introductions, collaboratively agreed group expectations, exploring learning and comfort online, sharing the communication preferences of all involved, individualised goal setting and signposting.

With the first cohort of the programme, the facilitator chose to share relevant personal background information, including facilitator positionality, interdisciplinary professional experience and lived experience as a multiply neurodivergent learner. Participants reported that this contributed to the establishment of a high-trust learning environment. The varied contexts of participants in relation to disability, intersectionalities, and educational experiences past, present, and future were shared and discussed.

This first component of the framework helps create a sense of belonging, trust, and safety within the group. Preliminary activities like introductions, goal setting and sharing communication preferences create a sense of certainty about a new learning experience.

2. Next Stop Strengths

The ENGAGE Programme takes a strengths-based approach (O’Neill, 2023). This framework specifically uses character strengths, associated with a field of psychology called Positive Psychology (Seligman and Peterson, 2004).

A strengths-based approach does not ignore that individuals have challenges. However, only focusing on challenges is problematic as this is not a holistic approach. A deficit-based approach does not consider the person as a whole person with unique talents and strengths. This approach often sees the ‘problem’ as being within the person and not due, or partially due to external factors like stressful environments, unsuitable supports in further or higher education or lack of adequate resources and equitable adjustments. When an approach over-focuses on challenges, it typically de-motivates the individual (Hammond, 2010).

In contrast, a strengths-based approach is a person-centred approach where strengths are identified and valued. With this approach, the individual’s learning environment is considered, and equitable adjustments are made where necessary. Other external constraints are considered, and efforts are made to remove them where possible (McCashen, 2017).

The ENGAGE programme prioritises a focus on strengths in the neurodivergent adult returning to study and this is a departure from many other neurodivergent-specific approaches that can focus on what is perceived as wrong instead of what is strong. Moreover, participant awareness of individual strengths can help with course and assignment selection as it is easier to identify attributes one can utilise in course work and study teams. Furthermore, strengths awareness gives the individual information about how they learn best.

3. Getting Ready with Executive Functioning Supports and Study Skills

Executive functions (EF) are a group of processes that allow an individual to manage their thoughts, actions, and emotions to get tasks done. They enable the learner to plan, manage time and organise. Strong executive functioning supports a learner’s ability to align thoughts, feelings, and actions with individual goals.

Many neurodivergent learners experience some difficulty with executive functioning and the reasons for this are multi-faceted and complex (Thompson, 2023). Overly generalised study advice is often geared towards neuro-normative experiences. This can cause frustration for neurodivergent learners, especially if they experience differences in executive functioning that diverge from what is considered typical in learning environments.

The ENGAGE programme addresses these differences and advice in relation to study skills is individualised. Several key strategies are explored and some of these include positive self-talk, Mind Maps® (Buzan, 2006), colour coding, assistive technology and planning and problem-solving strategies like the CO-OP Approach (Polatajko et al., 2001).

4. Accounting our Energy and Self-Care

Exploring the well-being and self-care of neurodivergent learners is an essential component of the programme. To begin, a selection of more generalised well-being frameworks were introduced (Seligman, 2018; Aked et al., 2008) and explored before taking a more neurodivergent-specific approach to self-care. Central to this exploration were activities relating to energy accounting (Toudal, 2020).

5. Getting Familiar with Accommodations and Advocacy

This component starts with a generalised exploration of the language and legislation related to equitable adjustments. This leads into a more focused and individualised examination of equitable adjustments and advocacy based on the context of each learner. Self-advocacy guidelines (O’Neill, 2023) are shared and discussed collaboratively in the group discussion.

6. ENGAGE Toolkit

The final workshop focuses on each learner refining their bespoke ENGAGE toolkit which develops iteratively over the six-week period. Toolkits, although sharing a similar structure are nevertheless unique to each individual learner. The bespoke nature of the toolkit is made possible by the programme design and key features like small participant size thus allowing participants to engage with the facilitator both online and offline and to focus on individualised learning and reflective activities.

Key Takeaways

In its initial offering, the ENGAGE programme was evaluated iteratively throughout the six weeks. This continuous assessment was supplemented by a brief exit survey. Participants were highly satisfied with the programme and participant-identified factors that influenced its success included the neurodiversity-affirmative approach, the spirit of collaboration and community, the facilitator’s lived and professional experience, the flexible framework, the programme being cost-free and the online environment.

Possible future directions for the ENGAGE programme include adapting the ENGAGE framework for self-directed learning, trialling the programme in different contexts and running ENGAGE with other learner cohorts.

On reflection, ENGAGE is a potentially useful resource for those wishing to create safe, inclusive, and equitable learning environments for neurodivergent adult learners.

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to sincerely thank ENGAGE programme participants, Thriving Autistic and Galway Autism Partnership. The development of the ENGAGE programme was assisted by funding from the Thriving Autistic and Galway Autism partnership.

This image has a laptop and a book back to back. The main title is: Engage and the subtitle is: The Engage Programme

 References 

Aked, J., Marks, N., Cordon, C., & Thompson, S. (2008). Five ways to well-being: The evidence. London: New Economics Foundation.  Available at: Five ways to wellbeing | New Economics Foundation. Last accessed 1st January 2024.

Buzan, T. (2006). Mind Mapping. Essex, England. Pearson Education. ISBN-100563520345

Fletcher-Watson, S. (2022). CRAE Annual Lecture 2022: "Neurodiversity-affirmative education" (16/03/2022). Available at: CRAE Annual Lecture 2022: ‘Neurodiversity-affirmative education’. Sue Fletcher-Watson (16/03/2022) (youtube.com). Last accessed: 1st January 2024

Hammond, W. (2010). Principles of Strength-based Practice. Resiliency Initiatives, 12(2), 1-7.

McCashen, N. (2017). The Strengths Approach (Second Edition). Victoria, Australia. Innovative Resources. ISBN: 978 1 925657 00 5

O'Neill, C. (2023). The Strengths-based Guide to Supporting Autistic Children: A Positive Psychology Approach to Parenting. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. London. Claire O'Neill Archives - Outside the Box Learning Resources (otb.ie)

Polatajko H J, Mandich A, Missiuna C, Miller L T, Macnab J J, Malloy-Miller T, Kinsella E A. Cognitive orientation to daily occupational performance (CO-OP): Part III–The protocol in brief. Phys Occup Ther Ped 2001; 20(2/3)107–123. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/J006v20n02_07

Seligman, M. (2018). PERMA and the building blocks of well-being. The journal of positive psychology, 13(4), 333-335.DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2018.1437466

Seligman, M., & Peterson, C. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues. A handbook and Classification. New York. Oxford University Press. ISBN-10: 0195167015

Thompson, L. (2023). Executive Functioning Interventions for Individuals with ADHD: A Systematic Review. Unpublished Thesis. Available at: ‘Executive Functioning Interventions for Individuals with ADHD: A System’ by Lauren Thompson (uri.edu) Last accessed: 1st January 2024.

Maya Toudal, M. (2020). Energy Accounting. Available at: Social Media - Middletown Centre For Autism (middletownautism.com). Last accessed: 1st January 2024.

United Nations (2015) The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. United Nations, New York. Available at:  THE 17 GOALS | Sustainable Development (un.org). Last Accessed 1st January 2024

Walker, N. (2021) Neuroqueer Heresies: Notes on the Neurodiversity Paradigm, Autistic Empowerment, and Postnormal Possibilities. Fort Worth, TX: Autonomous Press

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This article appeared in the AHEAD Journal. Visit www.ahead.ie/journal for more information