One of my work interests at the moment is in finding ways to provide more accessible learning and research environments for individuals with neurodivergent traits that impact on their learning needs. I tend to focus on ADHD and autism because they are where my difficulties lie and this allows me to speak from personal experience.
A great example that I have encountered myself recently is around finding, processing and presenting information when you have ADHD. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, there is some irony in this situation. When researching accessible learning, I am carrying out academic tasks and still find the usual road blocks in place that make the topic ….. well, inaccessible. One obstacle I have overcome in terms of communication is in writing this blog. This blog isn’t proof read by anyone. I don’t spend hours tying myself in knots over the quality of my writing. It is imperfect, but it is also authentic.
I am keen to develop good practice and conduct some research around universal design for learning (UDL) in higher education, specifically in relation to supporting learners with autism and ADHD. UDL is a way of designing learning experiences with accessibility as a starting point rather than an after thought. The idea is to build a learning session with the flexibility that allows different styles of learning and assessment to be utilised, but that ultimately leads to the same outcomes. We can all get to the same point via different routes, right? I am keen to see how recent increased awareness of neurodiversity will influence research on learning styles over the coming years.
Now, having ADHD I know exactly where my weaknesses lie when trying to research new topics. I struggle to read, so much that I will often avoid reading anything unnecessary. This is going to be a difficult concept for some folk to comprehend, but the following description is how my reading attempts usually work. I have a passage to read (book, magazine, website etc) and will read the first sentence, maybe two. Then I immediately become aware that I am reading text, and have a sort of out of body experience- you know the kind of thing where you say a word too many times and it loses all of its meaning? I tell myself I need to focus and continue reading but this time whilst being aware that I am tying to focus, I will read a few sentences further. However, this is just looking and recognising words, not comprehending the information. At this point, my brain has branched off into a number of different thought lines and I have seven things going through my head, none of which are the four sentences I have just read.
You will think this part is hyperbole, but I often feel physical discomfort during this process. If I become hyperaware that I am reading, my body wants to crawl out of my skin, a sensation similar to restless leg syndrome but with a touch of tinnitus added in. And I repeat this cycle many times until I give up. I want to read the document / book that is in front of me, I desperately want to know the information, but I somehow struggle to get my brain to focus and assimilate information in this way. So it ends up that producing academic outputs that require reading comprehension of any kind (such as writing an essay, journal paper etc) becomes a difficult task.
But its not impossible, and I have adapted mechanisms and strategies that have allowed me to survive this long in academia. I am essentially a top down assimilator of information. Having to research and understand a new topic in academia (especially when you get to senior academic levels) usually requires the synthesis of a significant amount of information. This can feel overwhelming when you struggle to read one paragraph without getting stressed. So I tend to gamify the process of acquiring the information which usually turns it into a hyperfocus session of organising things into groups.
I usually start at a journal or library search engine (Teesside Uni Discovery, and Scopus are my favourites) and start with keywords. Maybe I’ll get 10,000 hits for a topic, so I adjust the keywords and criteria to narrow down my returns. This bit can be fun, because its doesn’t involve reading anything more than one or two sentences of a header or abstract, which I can happily do. I can flit through lists, reorganise and whittle down to a nice concentrated subset of papers / journals etc. Finding a really enjoyable search engine that allows you to play around with criteria and document the process of searching is important for this part.
When I’ve completed a number of searches using different combinations of keywords, its easy to see the same papers coming out again and again as being most relevant. I will often export the search results into OneNote when the list gets manageable where I can use coloured highlighters and stickers to play around with my lists and eliminate papers I don’t need.
A good reference management system helps here. If you can export a whole list of reading material into RefWorks then you can also play around with organising the material into groups. Just from skimming over the titles – which ones have the most citations? This is often an indication that the publication was seminal in its disciple (or hugely controversial) but worth looking over. Which paper is the oldest – who started off this work? Yes, its probably out of date now but sometimes its interesting to see the beginning of an idea. Can you organise into subfolders by publication date, discipline, keywords, author?
To many students and researchers, this probably sounds like a standard way of working – you do searches and read some papers, what’s revolutionary about this strategy? Well, to an individual with ADHD this is probably the most important stage of the process. Moving onto the step where you actually have to read the material can be challenging. But if you have managed to organise a volume of material it is highly likely that you will already have provided yourself with a pretty basic overview of the topic already without even reading one source. Your brain will have inadvertently picked up on important keywords, different contexts in which the topic arises, an understanding of the timeline during which the topic has evolved, any closely and tenuously related topics that sit beside the main research idea. All of this is great information when wanting to understand a new subject.
It does feel overwhelming when you still have a list of documents to read over. One strategy I use here is to narrow down my reading to a specific subset of items – maybe 10 pieces that look important from my searches. This is quite an important step for me because even though I still need to do some reading, I have defined the upper boundary for my project (for now anyway). And already having an understanding of the breadth of the topic makes it easier for me to manage “reading” smaller chunks of text. I already have a framework to hang the ideas from – and that allows me to retain the information more easily.
This is similar to my other favourite tools of learning which are knitting and Minecraft. Using these building tools to construct information from a scattered array of knowledge helps me to focus and allows me to think in pictures rather than using language, which is an area where I struggle.
So, I can go on a fantastic and enjoyable learning journey without extensive reading and use of literature that is often expected from an academic. On that note, today’s piece of crochet is more for fun than education!