At a glance:
- There are strengths inherent in certain conditions that are tailor-made for specific tasks.
- Rejecting the stigma is not just about being ethical or moral anymore, but embracing a business advantage.
- But has neurodivergent become a fashionable term?
Do you like your surroundings to be especially organised, to the point where people pass comment on the fact? Or are you perhaps less sociable than your friends? Do you find that conversation doesn’t come easily, but that number puzzles are a cinch? Such predilections might be a long way from their sometimes debilitating versions, but they’re immediate, if anecdotal, evidence of how our respective brains’ wiring is as different as our physical capabilities are. That's not such a hard idea to grasp.
And yet, while variations in our physicality are accepted as part of nature’s infinite variety, those in the human brain remain marginalising. Differences in sociality, attention, learning, mood or mental functions—traits that define so-called neurodevelopmental disorders the likes of autism, ADHD, Asperger’s and dyslexia—are ranked against some ill-defined standard of normality. But what if, instead, we considered our individual human brain as sitting somewhere on a spectrum of variations, one with disadvantages for sure, but also, critically, with advantages too?
The term to drop is ‘neurodiversity’. That was a new one for Megan Levine, who, a year ago, joined the healthcare products giant Proctor & Gamble as its associate human resources manager for global diversity and inclusion. In doing so she took on a pilot programme launched some 18 months ago that saw the company actively seek to employ people with autism. And that wasn’t just out of some sense of all-together-now cosiness or in order to meet a legal requirement. It was a coolly calculated business decision.
“There was this awareness that there’s a talent pool out there that the company culture wasn’t good at attracting or retaining and, what’s more, that it was a special kind of talent we had huge need for. Without wishing to stereotype, it was autistic people’s propensity for paying deep attention to detail, the ability to really focus on an issue. It’s the kind of talent that a company like ours can’t afford to miss out on,” explains Levine.
“And it’s very real. We’ve had instances whereby we’ve introduced a new software package and it’s taken an employee on the autistic spectrum two and a half days to grasp it and other employees a month. It’s like, ‘oh Megan, do you want me to explain that to you?’. We’ve come across a similar experience before. We have people working for us who have low or no vision and they’re bringing insights [to product creation and design] that sighted people would never bring,” she adds.
“Sure, this is all unknown territory for us so we've taken expert advice wherever we can. But there's a lot of excitement in the company about it all. This isn’t about recruiting 100 people with autism for a feel-good story only to see 95 of them leave.” Nor is Proctor & Gamble alone. Ernst & Young and Microsoft are among other global companies that have looked into employing people typically sidelined because of their mental condition precisely for the benefits that the condition brings.
When, for one of its distribution centres, Walmart hired staff who were neurodivergent, the centre quickly became its most productive in the US. Goldman Sachs recently launched a neurodiversity initiative too. But these are still the exception rather than the rule. A report in 2018 from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that neurodiversity is not on the radar of three-quarters of employers in the UK. Small wonder then that the vast majority of autistic adults are not in full-time paid employment.
“Organisations are crying out for the skills that neurodivergent people offer and yet it’s not something most of them are even considering,” concedes Dr Jill Miller, CIPD’s diversity and inclusion adviser. “There are a lot of incorrect assumptions about what neurodivergent people need to function in a workplace, when in fact many changes—better lighting, for example, or quiet places to work—are to the benefit of all employees. Besides, the statistics would suggest that a number of employees are already neurodivergent, undiagnosed but doing fine.
There’s an opportunity here for employers to take a lead role in changing wider societal attitudes to neurodiversity. They can take on the myth-busting required.” Certainly the idea of neurodiversity—that the new normal is that there is no normal—is not widely known, despite being some two decades old, at least inside specialist fields of study. Australian sociologist Judy Springer—autistic herself—first used the term in the late 1990s as a challenge to the idea that neurodevelopmental disorders are inherently pathological.
Rather, Springer proposed, much as physical disability might be seen primarily as a product of the societal barriers that disable people—because society is structured around a norm of ‘typical’ physical ableness—so deviation from what's typical in mental function might likewise be seen as largely a matter of perception.
We should, she argued, think more in terms of there being a neurological pluralism.
This was an idea that built on the work of Jim Sinclair, an autism advocate who, in a groundbreaking 1993 speech entitled Don’t Mourn For Us, re-framed autism not as a problem but more as a neurologically atypical way of being. “It is not possible to separate the person from the autism,” as he summarised. Their way of being cannot be ‘fixed’. Rather, much as shops and public transport, buildings and businesses seek to accommodate the physically disabled, so those elsewhere on the neurological spectrum from the typical likewise need to be accommodated through services, technology, training and the like.
To railroad them into being a way that’s consistent with merely a popular notion of normality is to ignore their difference. “The idea of neurodiversity is, I think, an attractive one. We’ve honoured ideas of biodiversity and cultural diversity so this is a next step in recognising that brains have a diversity akin to, say, that of flowers. We don’t pathologise a calla lily for not having petals [any more than] we diagnose an individual with brown skin as suffering from a ‘pigmentation disorder’,” argues Dr Thomas Armstrong, author of The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of your Differently Wired Brain.
“But what’s really new is that we’re finally starting to turn our attention to the strengths inherent in certain conditions—that, without ignoring the hardships that people with the likes of autism might suffer, they’re more able to recognise patterns and small details in a way that makes them tailor-made for computer programming, for example.” It’s not just autistic people either.
Dyslexic people have above-average reasoning and well-above-average visual thinking ability. As well as the ability to hyper-focus on an area of interest, ADHD people also score higher on creativity tests than non-ADHD people. Even people with intellectual disabilities the likes of Williams syndrome are often found to be especially musical. Indeed, the argument has been made that evolution has not yet selected such brain wirings out of the gene pool precisely because of their distinct, adaptive utility, which might prove crucial to the human race—in the computer or cybernetic age, the autistic mind may prove superior.
This would be more readily appreciated if there wasa reboot in how we think about the brain: less as a computer, more as an ecosystem and one that exists along continuums of competence in relation to everything from attention to sociability, learning to literacy. Also requiring understanding is that how this competence is defined depends an awful lot on your culture. Dyslexia is more apparent in a culture that places an emphasis on reading ability, which, 150 years ago, was the exception, not the rule.
Armstrong notes how in pre-Civil War America, black people were sometimes diagnosed with drapetomania, defined as “an obsession with the urge to flee one’s slave masters”. Then as now, atypical neurological conditions are stigmatised as a burden on society because they don’t conform to the uniform demands of that society. “But attitudes are changing. The critical shift is in seeing these gifts not as just another part of the syndrome, but simply as gifts,” says Armstrong.
“It’s not ‘hyper-focus’ as another indicator of disability, for instance. Rather it’s a real and atypical ability to pay attention. That emphasis on the strengths is important because it takes us away from that nice idea that ‘everyone is beautiful in their own way’. Neurodiversity is not about that [kind of relativism]. And I think, with the research that’s going on, we’ll soon get a firmer scientific underpinning for the idea that it expresses real abilities.”
Real abilities that are many and productive too. Dr Tony Lloyd, CEO of the ADHD Foundation in the UK, points out that, with an estimated one in five people neurodivergent— that’s 20 percent of the global population—this is hardly surprising. Indeed, he says that there is evidence that there’s a very high prevalence of ADHD, specifically among entrepreneurs, also among professional sportspeople and those working in the creative industries.
Leonardo Da Vinci and Einstein are suspected to have had ADHD, been autistic or (since many neurological conditions overlap) both. Great minds, as it were, do not think alike. “In fact,” he says, “although it hasn’t always had that name, neurodiversity has always been accepted with the creative industries, where neurodivergent people have tended to thrive,” he says.
“Show me a professional chef who doesn’t have some degree of ADHD. The problem is that, while there are more neurodivergent people in public life, we generally don’t see these people celebrated for their difference because they don’t fit that stigmatising stereotype of the unruly schoolchild. But this is just not about being ethical or moral. The fact is that to be an entrepreneurial business in the 21st century, you have to embrace people whose brains are structurally and functionally different, who can thus think in different ways. And it's not just about staffing either. One in five of your customers is neurodivergent too.”
The stigma is still strong, however, for perhaps two key reasons. Language is one: the medical profession is improving—it wasn’t that long ago when ‘moron’ and ‘imbecile’ were diagnostic medical terms—but it has some way to go. “Words shape our reality,” as Armstrong puts it, “so calling something a disorder, dysfunction or deficit, well, that’s bound to make us think a certain way about a way of being. Look at ADHD. In that one acronym alone there are three negatives: deficit, disorder, hyper. Labelling is a social act. And the labelling here is all wrong.”
Secondly, as Judy Springer pointed out, there’s the dominance of the medical model that seeks to pathologise deviations from some standard, a model reinforced by the advent of brain scanners and an improved understanding of genetics, both of which underscore the received wisdom that there’s such a thing as a ‘normal’ brain.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, tends not to look at people as being on a spectrum or a series of spectrums, but rather slices deviations in brain function into ever finer disabilities such that the categories of illness it lists has more than tripled since it was first published in 1952.
At this rate, everyone will have some or other illness. “We’re working against a disease-based model that doesn’t say ‘let’s find the strengths in this condition and go with that’, but rather ‘let’s cure it’,” notes Armstrong. Nevertheless, neurodiversity has gathered momentum, with the concept recently applied more broadly to include mental health conditions the likes of bipolarity, schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder.
But neurodiversity has not gathered that momentum without controversy.
Advocates for some neurodevelopmental conditions have suggested that, in these times of confusing and sometimes abrasive identity politics, neurodivergent has become a fashionable term, encouraging a self-diagnosis that may account for the increased prevalence of various conditions. Others have argued that simply claiming that we’re all somewhere on the spectrum may have noble intent, but doesn’t reflect the realities of those severely impacted individuals who need a lot of support to get by in society, if not needing 24/7 care, until the day they die.
“When people talk about neurodiversity in relation to autism, for example, it tends to feel like they’re primarily talking about people like me,” says George Stanbury, spokesperson for the National Autistic Society. “I’m autistic but hold down a good job, live independently, function perfectly well in society. And, while they’re not necessarily in opposition, neurodiversity’s idea that autism is part of who an individual is, and the idea that it’s a condition to cure, well, that’s proving very divisive.”
Certainly, 20 years on from its first being proposed, root and branch reforms to help neurodivergent people still seem a long way off. If attitudes in the medical world are slowly changing, and business is starting to drive change, in most countries education still lags behind current thinking. As Lloyd stresses, the traditional educational paradigm—and as a consequence our notions of what constitutes intelligence—still tends to revolve around the ability to retain information and then regurgitate it during an exam, so many neurodivergents are inevitably excluded.
“Sure, we have to acknowledge that there are risk factors in working to bring the neurodivergent more into the mainstream of society. A high proportion of people with autism or ADHD, for example, also suffer from anxiety,” he says. “But the question yet to be answered is whether that anxiety is part of their condition or a product of their having been told that there’s something wrong with them. Will the mental health of such people improve when society accepts the idea of neurodiversity? We’ve got a lot to work out. It’s comparable to where we were with race 20 years ago. But the difference here is that we’re hardly talking about a minority.”
Indeed, neurodiversity can be totally inclusive, argues Armstrong, who has experienced bouts of unipolar depression which, he noted at the time, made him more creatively ruminative in a way that assisted his writing. “And that inclusivity is simply because the fact is all of us have different brains,” he says. “There’s no ideal brain in a vat somewhere against which all other brains should be compared. Accepting that is a potentially seismic shift in thinking, so change is bound to be a slow process. But we do need to accept how we’re all wired differently—without shame, blame, categorisation or diagnosis.”
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