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Neurodiversity – An Expert’s Perspective


According to Wikipedia,“the term neurodiversity refers to variation in the human brain regarding social ability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions in a non-pathological sense”. The range of “conditions “includes inherent forms of neurodiversity such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism and ADHD amongst others.

Some definitions include conditions such as bipolarity, depression, schizophrenia and anxiety under the umbrella of neurodiversity and they may coexist or be a more integral part of that spectrum but that is not what I am writing about here. A topic for another time perhaps.

The term “neurodiversity” was coined in the 1990s. American journalist Harvey Blume may have been the first person to use it in a publication when he wrote in 1998 in The Atlantic: “Neurodiversity maybe every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will be best at any given moment?”

The History

Before the 1990s neurodiversity had typically been seen in a medical model as illness or abnormality which, given that it significantly affects some 10% of the adult population, seems illogical.

Like Harvey Blume I believe not only that it should be seen as part of the spectrum of our neurological differences, but that these are important variations that make us a more creative and successful species.

A major part of our challenge is that we have evolved ways of doing things that work for the majority but have hidden bias. Our brains vary as much as our faces and body types.

No two are the same and the range of difference means that some people find it more difficult to function in the societal and work structures we have created. Those individuals fall into groups that can be identified and classified as neurodiverse. Even then no two of those individuals are the same.

Neurodiversity In The Workplace

From an employment perspective neurodiversity represents an opportunity. 10% of applicants for jobs are likely to fall into this group and they can bring tremendous strength to the workplace.

As employers increasingly approach neurodiversity with the mindset of the social model of disability, the realisation emerges that many of the challenges neurodiverse individuals experience are a result of the way that society and the workplace are structured to meet the needs of the neurotypical population.

By making changes to meet the needs of neurodiverse employees many of the apparent disabilities are reduced or removed because they are a function of the situation and structures rather than the person.

It is worth saying that the “reimagined workplace” and flexible working/hot desking can be particularly challenging for people who as part of their neurological pattern do not like change, be very sensitive to excessive sensory stimulus (noise, people walking past etc) or disruption. Employers need to take pause to consider their needs now more than ever.

Neurodiverse individuals often have very specific strengths and skills with “spikes “in the profile of their abilities where they are unusually high performing in contrast to more neurotypical individuals who have a more consistent and flatter profile of ability.

Bringing together people who have different areas of ability and skill can create much stronger and more imaginative teams.

Someone with excellent verbal skills and powers of persuasion for example, may not be the best at administrative skills but will fit well in a team where their skills are leveraged and supported by others with different skill profiles.

Someone may be extremely numerate but not have good social skills and may struggle with nonverbal communication. It is a waste of a rich pool of talent and potential to ignore the neurodiverse.

As Ray Coyle, Chief Executive of Auticon UK is quoted by the CIPD as saying “Employers need to get better at making the most of what people are good at and make role adjustments for the things they are not good at. That is how you get the best from talented people. Essentially, to get at the things people a great at, we need to start focusing on what people aren’t good at.”

The ability to think outside the box and differently also makes a fantastic contribution to teams. Groups of people who all think the same way will all reach the same conclusion and it may not be the right one to solve a problem.

A truly diverse team are like pieces of a jigsaw that come together to create a sophisticated picture. The ability to quite literally think differently brings upside to business.

To quote the CIPD document on neurodiversity at work “What do Microsoft, JP Morgan, EY, Google, SAP, DXC Technology, Ford and Amazon have in common? Answer: They are all running neurodiversity at work initiatives or are developing one”. I can add Deloitte to that list.

Dr Gill MacLeod, Senior Executive OHP

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