“The Simulation Exercises That Expand Educators’ Understanding of Neurodivergent Students”

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This article was originally written by Suzanne Robertshaw and published by ADDITUDE inside the ADHD mind on March 21, 2023.

“Ultimately, a neurotypical person can never truly understand the neurodivergent experience. But without fail, there is always a tangible shift in the room following these exercises.”

As an educator dedicated to supporting students with ADHD and other learning differences, I’ve delivered many presentations over the years to teachers of students who learn differently. One training session, in particular, stands out. I desperately wanted to effect real change, and I remember putting immense pressure on myself to drive home the importance of inclusive teaching strategies.

As I quietly reflected on how to achieve that, I jotted down a list of essential presentation components: statistics on learning differences, findings from peer-reviewed journals (naturally), quotes from psychologists — anything I thought would make an impact on this group of teachers. Still, for all their compassionate intentions, it was possible they would forget my words by Monday morning.

Then I realized what was missing: the human element. To put yourself in someone else’s shoes is a powerful way to appreciate (or try to appreciate) the lived experience of others. That’s what I wanted the teachers to do.

On the day of the training, I asked the teachers to try some exercises to better understand the top challenges facing their students with learning differences. I still use these and other simulations for educators today.

Simulations for Educators: Activities to Understand Students with ADHD and LDs

To Simulate Difficulty with Focus

For this activity, I have teachers read a short text on a screen and try to retain key points (like names, dates, and places) without taking notes and while loud, distracting noises (traffic, children playing, birds tweeting, and so on) play. The text also disappears off and on the screen during the activity, interrupted by intermittent thought bubbles that display questions like, “I wonder if it’s going to rain later” and “Did I remember to switch off the gas?”

[Get This Free Download: What Every Teacher Should Know About ADHD]

Without warning, the text abruptly disappears from the screen, replaced by a series of questions about the text. The teachers then have a few minutes to answer those questions.

To Simulate Sensory Overload

I ask teachers to take a short quiz in this activity, but the quiz isn’t the main point. The purpose is to gauge how they feel in their environment as they’re taking the quiz and as multiple environmental changes are taking place, unbeknownst to them. These changes are meant to provoke strong sensory responses similar to those experienced by students with sensory processing challenges.

Before starting the quiz, I have teachers sit uncomfortably close to one another (within reason). I also bring in a few extra lamps. During the quiz, I turn up the heating, turn on the extra lamps, keep blinds wide open if there is bright sunlight, type loudly on my keyboard, and shuffle papers. I also start a ticking countdown timer or coordinate ahead of time with the room next door to have them make lots of noise during the quiz.

To Simulate Auditory Processing Difficulties

In this listening exercise, teachers have to write as I read aloud from a passage. (I choose an intermediate-level text). However, embedded into every sentence is a completely made-up, nonsense word. As I read, I do not stop to explain or spell this word. I continue to read as if I’ve said nothing unusual, ignoring the looks of confusion and other reactions from the audience.

[Read: What Is Auditory Processing Disorder? Symptoms, Comorbidities, and Exercises]

To Simulate Visual Strain

Many students with dyslexia experience visual perception issues that affect reading. (Though visual strain is also common in dysgraphia and other learning differences.) Black text against white backgrounds tend to cause most visual strain, even causing letters to appear blurry, distorted, and at different line heights. This is somewhat straightforward to simulate. I have teachers read blurry black text printed on a white sheet of paper, and I ask them to compare that to the experience of reading the same text, but printed in blue and on cream-colored paper. The latter, of course, reduces visual strain.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Helping Neurodivergent Students Succeed

Ultimately, a neurotypical person can never truly understand the neurodivergent experience. But, without fail, there is always a tangible shift in the room following these exercises. I know that I’ve hit the mark when I hear “wows” and see heads nodding — or shaking. Teachers will share that the activities made them feel “stupid,” “frustrated,” “uncomfortable,” and “ashamed.” They are instantly curious and eager to know what they can do to avoid making their neurodivergent students feel this way. They want to know how to become inclusive educators who can help all students succeed. They want to enact real change.

Simulations for Educators: Next Steps