Neurodiversity – A reason to celebrate

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March 21st – 27th marks this year’s Neurodiversity Celebration Week, a worldwide initiative that challenges stereotypes about neurological differences. The aim of the event is to change how neurodivergent individuals (such as those with autism or dyslexia) are perceived and supported, while moving towards a more inclusive culture that recognises the talents of neurodivergent people and focuses on difference rather than deficit.

“As a teenager who is autistic and has ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia, my experience has been that people often focus on the challenges of neurological diversity. I wanted to change the narrative and create a balanced view which focuses equally on our talents and strengths.” – Siena Castellon, Founder of Neurodiversity Celebration Week

What is neurodiversity?

The term neurodiversity was coined in the late 1990s by Judy Singer, a sociologist with autism. It refers to the idea that it’s normal for people to have brains that function differently from one another and that neurological difference is the result of natural variations in the human genome. The movement pushes for a wider view of “normal” when it comes to how our brains work.

“I think the concept of neurodiversity has been world-changing, by giving us a new perspective on humanity, but it needs to mature to the point where we see that human nature is complex, and nature is beautiful, but not benign.” – Judy Singer

Neurodivergent versus neurotypical

A neurodivergent person usually has a brain that functions differently than a neurotypical person. They may be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, autism or Tourette’s. Neurodivergent people are usually made aware that their brains function differently and there is often a focus on trying to “fix” them or make them more “normal”. It’s estimated that between 15 and 20% of the population is neurodiverse.

Neurotypical people (individuals with standard brain processing and behaviours) usually do not realise they are neurotypical because they function in a way that most other people do too. They have historically been considered “normal,” whereas neurodiverse people have been treated as though their brain function is disordered. It’s rooted in similar soil to the idea of heteronormativity, the idea that being straight and cisgender is the default for most people and that any other sexuality or gender identity is abnormal.

The benefits of a neurodiverse workforce

If the neurodiversity movement becomes mainstream, it could lead to truly exciting reforms in education and the workplace. Most managers are familiar with the advantages organisations can gain from diversity in gender, culture, and other individual qualities of employees. Arguably the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce are even more direct, fostering diversity of thought, different approaches to work and sparking innovation. In fact, research suggests that teams with neurodivergent individuals in certain roles can be 30% more productive than those with a more neurotypical profile.

The qualities and traits of neurodiverse individuals include everything from enhanced mathematical ability to extreme creativity, which can be incredibly advantageous in education or the workplace. In fact, the Harvard Business Review actively considers neurodivergence to be a “competitive advantage”.

“No, autism is not a ‘gift’. For most, it is an endless fight against schools, workplaces and bullies. But, under the right circumstances, given the right adjustments, it CAN be a superpower” – Greta Thunberg, Environmental Activist

For example, people with ADHD may struggle with time management, but are often passionate, driven and intensely creative. “Even their impulsivity can be an advantage,” says Sarah Cussler, assistant director of Undergraduate Writing and Academic Strategies at Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. “Because they’ll say things other people are afraid to say.”

Neurodiversity in the workplace at Glassmoon Services

We analysed our workforce using our ground-breaking digital tool, SeeMe and we’re proud to say that 28% of our workforce are neurodiverse (as a benchmark, national statistics for the Local Government Association care sector reveals 15% of employees are neurodiverse). SeeMe allows organisations to extract deep level diversity insights from their workforce and to create a working environment that supports a culture of diversity, inclusion and belonging.

“Glassmoon supports  and celebrates everyone’s individual quirks and uniqueness, making team work so much more interesting and life affirming.  No one needs to worry about their differences when working for Glassmoon as you are respected for just being you.” Andrea, Glassmoon Services 

“I feel accepted for who I am, and can completely be myself, quirks and all. I sometimes experience social exhaustion, my line manager understands this and supports me by giving me tasks that I can focus on that require little interaction such as research or report writing! Steph, Glassmoon Services 

Revisiting the hiring process to enhance neurodiversity

Expanding neurodiversity within the workforce requires a concerted effort to be more conscious when hiring talent. Casting the net differently when promoting a role can be a good first step, actively recruiting within universities that cater to neurodivergent individuals. Hiring managers should be sensitised to different personality types and encouraged against drawing conclusions based on deviations from expected behaviours (for example handshakes, eye contact). The interview process may also need to be looked at, moving questions from abstracts to specifics, scheduling interviews across several days to reduce stress, offering trial work periods to provide applicants with opportunities to demonstrate their skills, and moving towards collaborative interviews (involving more employees) rather than the traditional face-to-face format.

Supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

There are many ways in which an organisation can support its neurodiverse employees. These include:

  • Adapting the workplace – create quiet areas, fixed desks for those who are averse to change, appropriate IT equipment to support employees’ needs.
  • Listening to neurodiverse employees – creating regular feedback opportunities for neurodivergent employees to highlight how they can be better supported.
  • Providing neurodiversity training – providing staff with regular training opportunities on different neurological conditions and how they can support colleagues.
  • Creating a safe, consistent environment – many neurodiverse individuals have a strong dislike of change and a need for routine, and this should be respected where possible, and support should be offered if it is not.
  • Remaining mindful during turbulent times – ensuring that neurodivergent individuals are not disadvantaged during redundancy or promotion processes.

The National Autistic Society has some great tips on employing and supporting neurodiverse individuals in the workplace.

Neurodiversity – what the world needs now?

As we’re repeatedly reminded every time we switch on the news, we’re living in unprecedented times right now. We’re learning to ‘live with Covid’, Ukraine is in turmoil, and the climate crisis grows ever more pressing. We’re shifting constantly between our reptilian brain (survival) and our neo-cortex (thinking and decision making). Many within the neurodiverse community experience fight / flight responses daily, and are often better equipped to deal with existential crises. Without the energy depletion that can occur through social interaction, autistic individuals are often left with more processing power for problem solving, and there is a singular focus and drive that can come with neurodiversity, which may be exactly what we need right now – just look at Greta.

“I’m proud to be autistic and on the rainbow spectrum! Our honesty, direct focus, intense love for our passions and a deep sense of injustice are traits that the world needs right now.” – Dara McAnulty, Autism Advocate