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Neurodiversity and Social Presence in Distance Education: Role of the Instructor

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Published: 9th Dec 2019

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Neurodiversity and Social Presence in Distance Education: The Role of the Instructor


The purpose of this paper is to present a review of available literature on social presence of neurodiverse learners in distance education and the role of the instructor in facilitating their (social) inclusion. With the growth of distance education and the increased inclusion of neurodiverse learners, it is important to create a social community for all learners in a web class or distance learning environment. The first part of the paper discusses what neurodiversity is and common social limitations and difficulties neurodiverse students have. This is followed with a discussion of how the instructor can establish in online learning communities a sense of social presence for a segmented group that is often characterized as awkwardly social; his increased feeling of social connection benefits all in the community.


I could not help but notice him as I entered the classroom on the first day. He had established his location in the classroom, center chair, near the back; textbook, notebook, pencils, and phone all lined up precisely with the front of the table. He wore sunglasses ~ the kind where it is difficult to see the other person’s eyes ~ and gently tapping the table as he waited for class to begin. Over the next sixteen weeks, I kept noticing him. He was attentive, always on time and in class, sitting in the same chair, with his materials laid out exactly the same way. When he did not understand something, he raised his hand and asked questions, being exact in his repeat of my answer to him, almost as if he were making sure he did not lose any imagined capital letter or a period in my oral answer. He would work in pairs or small groups if asked to but clearly preferred working by himself. His speech was very stiff and formal, as precise in grammar and syntax as his laid out class materials. He deferred coming to the board to write anything in a class exercise, and I did not push him. He always wore his sunglasses even though the classroom was located in the center of a building with no windows, artificial light only. He was nice but seemed odd..

The class was a hybrid reading class for adult second language learners preparing themselves to go to college. Face to face class time was generally energetic and friendly, with laughter and smiles at vocabulary meaning mix ups or pronunciation mistakes. He usually just sat with a poker face. Online, the students were required to analyze a weekly story through a discussion forum. The exercise had students answering questions about content and giving their impression. For many in that class, the writing skills often did not express what I had come to know could be expressed verbally, except for him. While others in the class seemed to get flustered or word tied online, concerned and feeling pressured about the online class component, he excelled. His words were (I sensed) carefully chosen, exactly crafted, and complete. Not one word was wasted, but the fluency and ability to write online was extraordinary. When I made a compliment online to him individually, there was no reply.

What I did see, however, was that as awkward as he was in the physical and social component of the class, he was relaxed, active, and very much a part of the online class community. It was almost as if there were two individuals. I later learned, at the end of the term, that he was a high functioning ASD (autism spectrum disorder) learner. This was my first time having a student in class who was on the spectrum.

Students with disabilities are becoming more prominent in colleges and universities. The National Center for Education Statistics, 2010, reported that 11.3% of higher education students identified themselves as having a disability. Between 2004 and 2014, students with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, represented the largest subgroup within the disability category (Parker,         ). With increased inclusion occurring, administrators, support faculty, and teachers need to be aware of the unique approaches these learners bring to the classroom – all classrooms, physical as well as virtual.

Students with special needs require strong support in the online learning environment. “Many higher education instructors, however, assume that all materials online are accessible to all students” (Masterson & Meeks, 2014, p. 47). Clarebout, Horz, Schnotz, and Elen, in 2010, found that from a survey of online teachers, nearly eighty percent did not consider the needs of students with disabilities and less than fifteen percent partially took the needs of special needs students into account when designing online courses. Alamri and Tyler-Wood (2017) found that students with disabilities in higher education may perform better in online courses than in traditional courses. Burgstahler (2015) found many advantages for college students with special needs in taking online courses, including “1. They interact virtually more easily than in person, 2. They benefit from the consistent format typically used in these classes; 3. They avoid social stigma; 4. They can control the physical environment to minimize sensory overload; 5. They can maintain their routines with course details and assignments more easily; 6. They can interact socially with their peers and the instructor in a more comfortable setting than physical social settings require” (Alamri & Tyler-Wood, 2017, p.61 ).

For instructors, being separated from the learners by time and place can create a challenge for establishing a feeling of presence and social community. This very distance, however, can be an advantage for learners with special needs when it comes to having (feeling) a social presence in an online class (Holins & Foley, 2013).

The purpose of this paper is to present a review of available literature on the social presence of neurodiverse learners in distance education and the role of the instructor in facilitating their social inclusion.



Social presence for special needs learners starts with word choice. Many individuals with special needs, specifically learning disorders see themselves as having deficits. This view is often simultaneously held by instructors as well (Twiss, 1997). Neurodiversity is an idea which asserts that atypical neurological development is a normal human difference that is to be recognized and respected as any other human variation like culture or gender (Armstrong, 2012). The term currently embraces five types of diversities, including autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), intellectual disabilities, and emotional and behavioral disorders. For this paper, the term neurodiverse is narrowed to focus on learners with high functioning cognitive learning challenges, including ASD and ADHD.

The neurodiversity movement was launched in the mid-1990s with the objectives of deleting the negative label associated with the word autism (Jurceic, 2007). “The neurodiversity paradigm suggests focusing on assets rather than labels…Despite our best intentions, we’ve created a system of special education based on deficits… (we need to) replace the disability paradigm with a belief system based on diversity” (Armstrong, 2012, p 13). The neurodiversity perspective is in stark contrast to the medical model, which sees disability as something to be managed or treated (Harris, 2017).

How is this simple change in words related to social presence and distance education? It has to do with how both teachers and special needs learners see the individual self. Research has proven time and again that when a teacher sees a student as having a negative label, the success of that student is diminished (Dawson, 2006; Field, Parker, Sawilowsky, & Rolands, 2010; Osterhom & Nash, 2007; Hall, Peterson, Webster, Folen, & Brown, 1999). This in turn feeds into the special needs learner as feeling as if something is wrong with him or her (Nevill &White, 2011; Osterhorn & Nash, 2007).   In a limited research study, Jurecic, 2010, found that individuals who embrace the term neurodiverse, have a more positive sense of self ~ they distinguish self as being differently wired ~ than those who identify with the medical terms of disability.


Social Presence

Social presence (in online learning venues) has many definitions. Tu and McIsaac 2002, defines socials presence as a “measure of the feeling of community that at learner experiences in an online environment.” This author includes that social presence has two components: intimacy (body language, physical positioning of the body in relation to another, eye contact), and immediacy (perceived psychological distance between a communicator and the receiver of that communication) (Tu & McIsaccs, 2002, p. 135). Kim, Kwon, and Cho (2011) define social presence as “the specific awareness of relations among the members in a mediated communication environment and the degree of proximity and affiliation formed through it” (Kim et. al, p. 1515)). Borup, West, and Graham (2012) reported Garrison et.al (2000) stated that stronger communities emerge when online interactions allow students to see them online cohorts as real people with individual thoughts, feelings, and humor. Sung and Mayer (2012) refer to social presence as the degree a person is perceived as a “real person” in mediated communication. They go on to propose that how people communicate online could be an influential factor in a person’s sense of intimacy and immediacy, reflective of physical communication. Alamri and Tyler-Wood (2017) includes that social presence has three components: a feeling of belonging to a community, open communication in a trusting environment, and the development of interpersonal relationships. It is this second item, open communication in a trusting environment, which has the greatest potential for neurodiverse learners to have social presence in the online community.

Social Skills and Neurodiversity

The social dimension of neurodiverse (learning disabled or LD) individuals is well researched. Kavale and Forness (2000) documents that individuals with LD were at greater risk for social skill deficits than nondisabled individuals. Specific social skills deficits include: lower peer status, difficulty with interpersonal skills, social competence in a physical setting, challenges with communicative competence, and struggles with social perception, social cognition, and social relationships ( Kavale & Forness, 2000, Kavale & Forness, 1996).

Even with extended research, the reason why neurodiverse learners have social troubles is not clear. One contributing factor for the lack of social skills may be poor self-concept and lack of self-esteem. Kavale and Forness (2000) in a research study of measuring sense of self with LD learners, found that  70% of students with learning disabilities showed signs of negative self-esteem. In another study by Jurecic, 2007, comparing the terms learning disability and neurodiverse, it was found that individuals who identified themselves as neurodiverse felt a 60% greater sense of positive self-esteem than those who identified themselves as learning disabled. In other words, learners who saw the positive and unique side of their learning processes felt better and stronger about themselves than those who identified themselves as having a (medical) deficit. Shortfalls in social competence have lasting consequences including the lack of ability to forge and keep friendships and low self-esteem (Adreon & Durocher, 2007; Betts, Cohen, Viet, Aplhin, Broadus, & Allen, 2012; Jobe & White, 2007). This diminished success translates over to (post-secondary) education endeavors, no matter the class venue. .

Experiencing success at the undergraduate and graduate levels assumes (and requires) a person to have advanced social skills (Kim et. al, 2011). Slight changes, such as how individuals define themselves, have a vast effect on social confidence. This in turn, shows up as social presence in distance education. Without the fear of being labeled as a person who lacks but rather accepted as a person with uniqueness goes a long way in all areas student success. This change in perception is especially critical from an instructor’s point of view.


A crucial element for colleges and universities is the ability of faculty to work with neurodiverse learners, especially in the online environment (Masterson & Meeks, 2014; Slater, Pearson, Warren, & Forbes, 2015). Although the American with Disabilities Act (Amended, 2008) requires inclusion of neurdiverse learners, how to implement the necessary accommodations is not spelled out. A common problem for neurodiverse students is the preconceived label they have from faculty’s own perceptions of ability in relation to a label (Jeffs & Richarson, 2010). Kavale and Forness (2011) found that teachers who saw a student as having a “disability” also saw the student as having academic problems and most likely would not succeed. Also in Kavale and Forness’s study, teachers and nondisabled peers who were surveyed placed 75% of students who were “learning disabled” as being deficient in social skills.

Research has shown a correlation between instructor presence in online courses and increased social presence (Alamri & Tyler-Wood, 2017). Richardson and Swan (203) found a strong correlation between perceived social presence, course satisfaction, and instructor satisfaction. Tu & McIsaac (2002) mention that instructors with higher social presence were viewed as more positive and effective. Sung and Mayer, 2012,   found a positive relationship between immediacy and cognitive learning.  Kim et. al  (2011) noted “instructor’s teaching played…an important role with regards to students’ social presence and learning satisfaction. The close link between quality instruction and students’ perception of social presence and learning satisfaction provides useful implications for online faculties and trainers” (Kim et. al ,2011, p. 1518). Alamri and Tyler-Wood (2017, p. 64 ) comment:

The instructor… has a role to play in impacting the degree of social presence through the way they design their assignments (such as using group activities) as well as by means of teaching activities (such as creating informal discussion areas) and through various other teacher behaviors…collaborative learning activities (also) play an important role in the development of social presence.

What does all this mean for neurodiverse learners in online courses? Instructors need to design their online courses with an awareness of many diverse learning styles and abilities and be cognizant of the strategies and knowledge that learners bring (Sung & Mayer, 2012). It is not a matter of using one specific media tool or another, one lesson design or another, it is a matter of instructors being aware that there are numerous learning styles and abilities represented by their students. Being neurodiverse or a typical learner becomes a moot point if instructors are aware, sensitive, and open to all learning forms.

Sung and Mayer (2012) suggest five instructional design strategies for instructors to use to help build social presence: strategies that benefit all learners in the community. First, the instructor needs to establish through example and class expectations a sense of respect for all learners in the class. Secondly, one way to establish this, is to have an open and hospitable environment, establishing a venue that encourages (and expects) diversity. Fourth, individual names should be used whenever possible. Finally, “the instructor and learners need to share their personal stories and experiences (Sung and Mayer, 2012, p. 1744). This modeling establishes through instructor example what information is good to share and how to share it. This template offers support for neurodiverse learners who know what they should do but are uncomfortable or uncertain about what they should share. Borup et. al (2012) adds that using video conferencing is a positive means to reach all learners. The same author also recommend that instructors require more than one comment on discussions. Both of these are a way for learners to have their personalities become more evident, which in turn helps neurodiverse learners feel as if they are connected to their classmates as social equals.


Trust issues play a critical role in online interaction (Tu & McIsaac, 2002). The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Sections 504 and 508, require educational institutions to provide reasonable accommodations to students who need them, including online learning. In order to receive accommodations, however, students with special needs are required to disclose their disability to the instructor and formally request the special accommodations. Unwillingness to reveal sensitive information ~ such as having a cognitive challenge, is a significant obstacle for neurodiverse learners online (Cook & Gladhart, 2002; Jeffs & Richarson, 2010. This disclosure depends on trust. In other words, if disabled students are trusting of the environment, they are more likely to disclose their disability to the instructor, receive accommodations, and thereby ease acceptance problems. Students with learning challenges may be less likely to self-disclose their need to the instructor due to the impersonal nature of the online environment (Holins & Foley, 2013). Jeffs & Richardson (2010) reported that neurodiverse students who received more types of accomodations and support services tended be more successful in course completion than special needs students without special accommodations.

In a study conducted by Wang (2014), feedback from 15 neurodiverse students in online courses was investigated. The majority of students had initially held reservations against disclosing their needs. The tone of the class, as established by the instructors’ communication, changed 60% of those students’ minds from not disclosing to telling the instructor of their needs. A feeling of trust, as perceived by the learners from the instructor’s communication, was established.

Course Design for Success

Several methods are suggested for instructors to build a course that encourages social presence for all learners. As stated by Norbury and Spark, 2013, the first and foremost is for the instructor to see the course learners as all diverse learners, not as having a lack because of a label. It is helpful to consider multiple learning styles, present material in multiple formats, with clear organizational structure, and simple writing. Knowing, for example, that a neurodiverse student with autism will probably do better with small details than with the big picture, an instructor can design lessons that begin with concrete examples and then move toward generalities (Armstrong, 2012). Learning strategies that integrate games or art related activities (Armstrong, 2012) can help neurodiverse learners feel comfortable in the class, which can lead to feeling included and socially present. The availability of photos of classmates and the instructor can help with social awkwardness (Parker & Banerjee, 2007).

Instructors should create platforms that promote various delivery methods for discussion, such as written text, video, and voice (Rao, Edelen-Smith, & Wailehua, 2015). Voicethread is a user friendly system for allowing different forms of comment. Asynchronous discussion boards allow neurodiverse learners to take their time in stating opinions or replying to others (Pittman & Heiself, 2016). Offering opportunities for students to give each other feedback before submitting assignments is another tool  (Sung & Mayer, 2012). Setting specific dates for students to respond to each other on assignments or discussion boards can increase the feeling of social presence for all learners (Rao et. al, 2015; Kim et. al, 2011). Neurodiverse individuals can benefit from the detailed expectations rather than just an implied socially appropriate time frame.

Gornitski (2010) advocates for Universal Design for Learning in designing online courses. Universal Design for Learning refers to the process of removing barriers to learning for students with disabilities in ways that also enhance everyone’s capacity to learn (Rose & Meyer, 2002). “The principles include allowing for multiple forms of representation of material, multiple means of expression, and multiple means of engagement” (Gornitski, 2010, p. 99). She also comments that “retrofitting accommodations in online environments is an arduous task” (Gornitski, 2010, p. 99) Front loading a course with these components will benefit all learners and might help alleviate the pressure for neurodiverse leaners to disclose their needs or not to the instructor.


While the literature is scattered and often focused on other primary research, several points have emerged in regard to neurodiverse learners and social presence online. The first is that neurodiverse learners, who typically have social difficulties, may benefit from the distance learning format. These individuals who frequently have social quirks (autism, not looking at another person in the eye, monotone way of speaking; ADHD with impulsivity or hyperactivity challenges) can participate in the class online without their social “impairments” distracting others or labeling them as “odd”. This feeling ~ of being included and on the same social level as peers ~ can increase a feeling of self-worth. The design of many online assignments, such as discussion forms, can be tailored to match neurodiverse learning styles: establishing a model of how or what to answer that can be followed, allowing different methods of discussing, such as video. The asynchronous nature allows learners who often suffer from anxiety in addition to learning differently to relax, reflect, and take their time in composing or replying.

Instructors can play a prominent role in helping neurodiverse learners become more socially present by designing classes and assignments for a wide variety of learning styles. Establishing an online community of respect and value illustrates to all class participants the communication expected. Setting a friendly and relaxed tone, such as sharing personal information about hobbies, experience, can lay a foundation of trust right from the start. Trust from the neurodiverse learners perspective being especially important whether they would chose to share their special needs or not with the instructor.

On a larger scale, the relatively straightforward change of words from “disabled” to “neurodiverse” or “diversity” assists neurodiverse learners, instructors, classmates, administration and support staff, in reaffirming the positive view of each individual. This helps set up students with special needs to understand they are equal to “non-disabled” students.  This change of positivity has long reaching consequences both academically and socially.


The limitations to this is literature review are many fold. There is a glaring need for more research on neurodiverse students in higher education distance education and also on their own concept of social presence. None of the research was directly addressed how neurodiverse students see and feel about their social interactions, physically or online. While the biggest benefit that could happen would be for an education wide adoption of the term neurodiverse, the conditioning of disability has a long history. Any change in perception would take years to be socially adopted. Jurecic’s 2010 research on how special needs aligned their sense of self as neurodiverse or disabled warrants further study in depth. All faculty need to be familiar with different learning styles; instructors in particular need to be sensitive to multiple learning methods and create online courses that can meet those styles. Professors cannot simply assume that because a course delivery is online that materials for students with special needs can use the technology easily or even use the technology successfully to allow full social participation online. Instructors should design courses from the start for these multiple styles of learning rather than including accommodations after the fact. Finally, the fact that students with special needs have to self-disclose their need to their instructors should also be a key consideration in the design of the course and the communication tone. This disclosure is a sensitive and personal revelation for neurodiverse learners and it involves trust, a trust that could be insensitively ignored or treated.



A neurodiversity perspective brings together the best elements of both regular and special education to serve the needs of all learners. An essential need exists for more human computer interaction with learners who are neurodiverse to help students form better relationships. (Glazetov, 2012) Institutions and universities need to design and develop more training programs in the areas of disability awareness, virtual environment, and online accommodations for neurodiverse learners to help educate and train current and potential instructors (Slater et. al, 2015). By implementing strategies and features that enhance the trustworthiness of online learning environments, online instructors can be more effective in meeting responsibilities for inclusion and helping neurodiverse students be socially included online. The mindset that “each individual has a unique brain” (Harris, 2017, p. 116) means teaching strategies and learning environments must be tailored to the strengths of the learners so their whole learning experience benefits~ cognitively as well as socially.


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