Remote learning and cognitive overload

Remote learning requires all learners to adapt and change the way they study and learn, but for neurodiverse learners there may be additional challenges that can increase the time it takes them to adjust. 

This blog aims to outline some of these additional challenges and help educators understand why this sudden change will affect some students more than others. 


A new (distracting) environment

Imagine the following scenario: a student is watching an online lecture. They have multiple tabs open on their screen that they are tempted to look at while they are meant to be watching/listening, then an email comes through as a pop up notification at the top of the screen; at the same time they get a social media notification; as this happens someone sends them a text, etc. 

It is likely to be much more difficult for neurodiverse learners to disregard the irrelevant or superfluous information (email, social media notification, phone) and this will inevitably prevent them from processing the important, primary, information (the lecture audiovisual).

Cognitive overload and neurodiversity

Cognitive overload occurs when there is too much information for us to process at one time. The result is often that we do not process any of the information at all. 

Cognitive overload is more of a problem for learners with reduced working memory capacity or executive function difficulties. 

This is because we use our working memories to store and manipulate information in the short term before committing it to long term memory or using it to deliver a response. Many neurodiverse learners fall into this category including those with autism, ADHD, and Specific Learning Difficulties. 

For learners with autism, this concept of cognitive overload is very common. Due to their difficulties with sensory filtering they are less able to ignore extraneous unnecessary stimuli or information, and they struggle to organise information adequately to process it. 

Why ‘meltdown’ is a real risk

As neurodivergent learners have difficulties attending to a singular stimulus, online learning that involves multiple simultaneous streams of information may lead to cognitive overload and a potential shutting down of the brain (leading to what is commonly referred to as ‘meltdown’). 

Students may be required to simultaneously listen to the lecturer, watch the slides, engage in polls or Q&A activities, and monitor chat windows for discussion points. When all of these activities have to be done on the computer, it can overload the neurodiverse learner

The sudden shift in education delivery is likely to cause problems for neurodiverse learners who find it difficult to…

  • manage their time,
  • adjust to a more relaxed structure,
  • adapt to a new and different routine,
  • change the way they communicate with peers and tutors,
  • motivate themselves to study,
  • and pay attention and focus when there are many distractions around them. 

There may also be a higher chance of misunderstandings in content and assignment instructions for students who are stronger in processing and remembering verbal information than they are in processing written information.  

When we are working or learning online, we often focus in a way that results in us being continuously engaged in many activities/tasks but not giving any one of these tasks our full attention. 

This is different to ‘multi-tasking’ where we are seemingly engaged with different tasks simultaneously, as this continuous yet partial attention occurs for long periods of time when we are constantly seeking opportunities to absorb yet more information.

Whilst this may seem a useful strategy for increasing information flow, it has costs; it impairs our cognition, increases stress, and reduces our ability to plan and make decisions. It relates to our limited processing capacity and the difficulties our brains have in attending to multiple streams of information at once. A sudden shift to online teaching and learning for those with even further reduced capacity for processing is likely to be challenging.  

These are challenging times, but students can still thrive

This is not to say that neurodiverse learners cannot adjust to this way of learning, far from it; it simply means that they will need extra time and support, and will need to employ novel ways of maximising their strengths while minimising the impact of the challenges they experience.

As we put together routines and get gradually more used to our changed working environments, it’s always worth keeping this point in mind.


We’ll be publishing more content from Dr. Sue in the coming weeks, including articles on the science of remote learning, implications for disability support and more.

Meanwhile, learn more about the science of remote learning.


Get Glean for FREE

Glean, Sonocent’s new distraction-free note taking app, is now FREE until August 31st. Sign up through the link below to help your neurodiverse students navigate online note taking:

Published by

Dr Sue Wilkinson

Dr. Sue Wilkinson is a cognitive psychologist, Senior Fellow of the UK’s Higher Education Academy and and is an Independent Neurodiversity and Education Consultant. With 10 years’ experience in Higher Education and 4 years working with students with disabilities, she’s developed a particular expertise in neurodiversity in education, its effect on cognition, and the use of assistive technology to support learning.

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