Last reviewed 24 December 2019
Tricia Palmer, HR consultant, executive coach and leadership trainer discusses the impact of neurodiversity in the world of work. She considers what employers can do to encourage and support employees who are diverse and discusses the concept of neurodiversity as a disability. The article also argues for the consideration of neurodiversity as difference, which is of benefit to the world of work and society in general.
“Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what wiring will be best at any given moment?” Harvey Blume, Journalist — The Atlantic 1998.
Neurodiversity is a relatively new concept and refers to the way the brain functions and analyses information. Most people are seen as neurotypical in that their brains function and interpret information in the way that society expects. Neurodiversity covers a range of conditions including autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD (Attention Deficiency Hyperactive Disorder), mood and anxiety disorders and intellectual disabilities. Thomas Armstrong, in his book The Power of Neurodiversity — Unleashing the Advantage of Your Differently Wired Brain, comments that all these labels attract negative thoughts and attributions from family, professionals and others. However, if you start to look deeper, these individuals often have remarkable strengths, talents and abilities. Removing the negativity and looking for positives enables these individuals to flourish at what they are good at. As employers — and in society in general — not only do we have a moral duty to reconsider how we view neurodiversity, it also makes good business sense, as this article will demonstrate.
Neurodiversity as a strength
In order to reset how we consider people who are “differently wired”, it is worth reviewing some of the terminology we use. Individuals who “suffer” from what are considered “mental disorders” are often seen as disabled. Although we have moved towards labelling them as children or people with special needs to convey a more positive approach, we still consider their conditions as “disease-based”. The word neurodiversity starts to coin a more positive approach and conveys richness in the way that cultural diversity and biodiversity do. Autism Advocate Judge Singer describes it well when she says:
“Neurodiversity is just the right word at the right time to account for recent evidence from brain science, evolutionary psychology and other fields that suggest amid the damage and dysfunction appearing in the brains of people with mental health labels, there are bright, shining spots of promise and possibility.”
So instead of trying to cure individuals of their differences we should be seeking out their hidden strengths. The continued use of the heavily medicalised language around brain diversity is not helpful, and simply serves to alienate individuals who do not appear to fit our social norms.
I remember an eccentric (note the use of the word “eccentric”, and not “mentally disabled”) character from my teenage years. He was a slightly scruffy elderly gentleman with round spectacles. We would see him around the town and he would walk miles and miles everyday, seeming to wander aimlessly and talking to himself. He would stop to talk to everyone and buy a doughnut at the same bakers at the same time every day. He behaved a little like a homeless individual; he was out in all weathers, but in fact lived in and owned an impressive house on the hill overlooking the sea. We all thought he was a little odd because he didn't fit our social norms. However, he was the glue of the community — he knew when someone was ill and would call on them, he provided news (not gossip because he wasn't malicious), he stroked the dogs and admired the newborn babies, and the kids new bikes. He was kind and thoughtful and had time for everyone. He didn't work but he had his own money — nobody knew from where, some said he was a millionaire and he would give it away to the needy at regular intervals. When he died, he left a large hole in the community, even though no one knew his name. I do not know if he “suffered” from a condition; he always seemed happy without a care in the world, but I suspect in today's world he would have been diagnosed with something and attempts would have been made to cure him.
This brings me on to the idea that what is normal in terms of how are brains are seen to function is a product of time and context. If we consider the three major symptoms of ADHD — hyperactivity, distractibility and impulsivity — we will see crucial skills that were needed in previous times. Thomas Armstrong argues that an individual who is hyperactive and has increased motor skills is better at foraging for food, seeking shelter and generally surviving. The distractibility means that they can quickly shift their attention from one thing to another, which makes them constantly vigilant to possible threats of safety to themselves, their family and their tribe. The capacity to act quickly (distractibility) is a vital skill in averting danger. This is described well by Thom Hartman (American Radio personality, psychotherapist and business man and diagnosed as ADHD); he says that people with ADHD are:
“hunters in a farmer's world. The hunter is always moving, always vigilant, always tuned into his (sic) instincts while seeking food and shelter, and trying to avoid becoming prey. The farmer is very different. He plants seeds in the ground and waits. Patience is required. Instead of living in the present, the farmer needs to think about the future and plan ahead. These two important precursors to modern civilisation, hunting and farming represent two distinct energy styles that still persist in our contemporary world.”
While it may seem that our current “civilised” environments are worlds away from the hunter and the farmer, there are requirements for both types of energies. In our more recent history, it is likely that the likes of Einstein (as the quintessential absent-minded professor), Picasso, Mozart and Shakespeare would be seen as exhibiting many of the characteristics of ADHD.
Einstein once said he was delayed in his own development and was quoted as saying “I sometimes ask myself, how did it come that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about the problems of space and time. These are things he thought of as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had grown up.”
Recent studies have shown that children with ADHD are “late bloomers” and not kids with defective brains. In the field of developmental biology, there is a concept known as “neoteny”, which is Latin for “holding youth”. In addition to childlike behaviour (Einstein sticking his tongue our for the photographer, Mozart's practical jokes and Shakespeare's childish puns and insults), they hold on to the curiosity, playfulness, humour, wonder, flexibility and inventiveness of their childhood. Many of us lose this and conform to the adult social stereo types of seriousness, becoming more rigid and less spontaneous. These are seen as the prerequisites of good reliable employees; spontaneity, humour, and playfulness have no place in today’s workplace. However, Armstrong argues that if we have a civilisation of inflexible people, this could be disastrous for the future; we need to continue to be curious and inventive to resolve the global issues of today. Greta Thunberg, the young climate change activist and Nobel Peace prize nominee (2019), maintains that her Aspergers is a gift, which enables her to think outside the box. No matter what you may think of her views and approach, she certainly has made an impact on the world stage.
Neurodiversity and the world of work
I will discuss later the connection between ADHD and creativity, but for the moment it is interesting to note here some of the work of enlightened employers in harnessing the strength of neurodiversity. In 2016, one of the largest global professional service firms, Ernst and Young, piloted a neurodiversity programme in its Philadelphia office to recruit and train individuals with high functioning autism in order to streamline its process of compiling and analysing client data and reduce the workload of client-facing employees. Lori Golden, abilities strategy leader for the Americas talent team at EY (as the company is now known) explained the reasoning behind the initiative:
“We needed to divert this work to individuals who were particularly good at data crunching, pattern recognition and paying close attention to detail. We know that individuals who are neuro-diverse tend to have a lot of the characteristics we're looking for.”
They found that working alongside their “neurotypical counterparts” the individuals with autism had higher levels of productivity, quality of work and innovation.
While this seems a significant step forward for individuals who have different skill sets, there are some commentators who are a little dubious. Marianne Calnan at the CIPD highlighted her concerns:
“There's something that bothers me about EY's approach; it seems that they are trying to pigeonhole this cohort into a stereotypical profile. I don't dispute that autistic individuals, on average, tend to be ‘good at data crunching, pattern recognition and paying close attention to detail’, but not every person with autism fits this profile, nor are they necessarily interested in doing that type of work. Many people on the spectrum would be dismayed to hear that an employer is only interested in them for specific, technical roles, or assume they would only be successful in these positions (and not others) because of their disability. Instead of identifying a profile and finding the population that most closely matches it, perhaps they should think about how they can make their talent sourcing program more inclusive of people with disabilities in general, and allow well-suited individuals to gravitate toward the positions that fit with their abilities, interests, and professional ambitions. While it's great to see an organisation focusing on autistic candidates’ strengths rather than assuming that disability means weakness, this particular approach may not be as inclusive as it looks.”
The key here for me is the penultimate sentence; the trick is to match individuals to roles which best suit their abilities, interests and ambitions, and not assume that certain populations possess certain skills.
ADHD and creativity
Some of the diversity in the brain can be explained by brain chemicals. Research has shown that in the ADHD brain there are lower levels of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter (a chemical that facilitates the communication of the nerve impulses in the brain). This neurotransmitter regulates motor activity, motivation and reward seeking, and the lower level helps to explain the need for constant movement, impulsivity and thrill-seeking. These traits are not well-suited to regulated work, office cubicles and repetitive tasks. ADHD children are seen as disruptive in the classroom and problem employees at work. Contrary to popular belief, these individuals need higher levels of psychostimulants to calm them down. What stimulates the average person is not enough for them, so they need a range of activities, which support the search for “thrills”.
It is argued that the problems with dopamine regulation is genetically based, and has been called “the novelty-seeking” gene. It is more prevalent in “thrill-seekers” or people who undertake extreme sports. It is associated with risky behaviour, but scientists are now beginning to appreciate its value in furthering the evolution of the species. Individuals diagnosed with ADHD have been found to have a gene variant, which is involved in dopamine production. Robert Moyzis (Professor of biological chemistry at California University) found that this gene variant was an unusual, spontaneous mutation which was advantageous for humans. Novelty seeking was particularly important in earlier forms of civilisation. Those with this variation were more likely to explore new territories, find new food sources and create new social organisations, thereby securing a better future for their offspring.
In today's society, these could be the people developing new technologies, forging new ways of living and creating new solutions for the protection of our environments. Their natural curiosity and drive for novelty could be fostered to create these new paradigms. Unfortunately, this is difficult in many workplaces, where conformity is rewarded and people are expected to toe the line. I have worked with brilliant individuals who are vibrant and creative, rule-breakers and dynamic (not sure if they were diagnosed with ADHD, but they certainly exhibited many of the traits). Frankly they are a nightmare to manage in the normal set-up of the public sector; they tended to be disruptive in meetings, distracted from day-to-day tasks such as budgeting and childish in the team. However, where I could, I forgave them these tendencies because the quality and inventiveness of their work outweighed the negatives. The problem was that others in the team, and senior managers, questioned the “fairness” of this and often wanted me to reign them in. While I hadn't heard the term “neurodiversity” at the time, I was conscious that this simply wouldn't work with these individuals.
If we take a moment to consider the traits of a creative person and the so-called warning signs of someone with ADHD, we can start to think more positively about the “condition”. Bonnie Cramond from the University of Georgia did just that and came up with these fascinating observations:
an ADHD person is considered impulsive; for a creative person we would call that spontaneity (think Jackson Pollack and his penchant for wildly throwing paint on a canvas)
an ADHD person is said to be distractible; while a creative individual would be thought of as having a divergent mind — they follow ideas, instincts and images wherever that may take them
an ADHD person is described as hyperactive; for the creative this is seen as vitality — someone constantly on the lookout for new ideas and solutions.
It is unfortunate that people diagnosed with ADHD are described as having a deficiency; they are labelled as having an attention deficiency. This is in fact incorrect; they are very good at paying attention, but only in those things that interest them. This is known as “incidental attention”. Lara Honas-Webb’s book The Gift of ADHD put it beautifully:
“While the A level students are learning about photosynthesis, the ADHD kids are staring out the window and wondering if it still works on a cloudy day.”
Children and adults with ADHD have a different attentional style than neurotypical individuals. They have a roaming style where they notice lots of different things in a short space of time, and a homing style where they fasten on to a single thing and concentrate on it for long periods of time. If we are unable to accommodate these types of individuals in the world of work, we are missing out on a significant range of skills. While the ADHD trait of “hyperfocus” is seen as negative, this ability to focus the mind for hours on a single topic has been a trait of the greatest minds over the centuries.
The way for individuals with hyperactive brains to find fulfilling work is to focus on careers which emphasis their gifts. Physical movement, change, novelty and hands-on activity are some of the ingredients that make up good niches for ADHD adults. Some research has found that many firefighters exhibit the traits of people with ADHD, including a frequent search for stimulation, impatience, creativity and quick decision-making. It was also found that those with ADHD who had trouble keeping on task and managing their time were helped by the fire service discipline and structure.
Another area which plays to their strengths of an ADHD person is in business and entrepreneurship; their high energy and creativity combined with their different way of looking at the world are well suited to innovation and driving business. In his book, Armstrong comes up with a proposed list of careers which play to the gifts of ADHD adults. They include DJ/radio announcer, forest ranger, artist or sculptor, inventor or designer, craftsperson and music or dance therapist and even private detective. Many of the careers included in the list are based around travel and novelty, from nature photographer (where the range of roaming and homing attention is ideal) to fashion model and public relations consultant. Just don't try to keep them in the office on mundane tasks.
Autism and its positives
The “disorder” of autism was discovered independently of each other by two physicians — Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger in the 1940s. However, it was not until the 1990s that it was recognised as a special educational need. People with autism tend to have difficulties with social interactions and communication, and often exhibit repetitive and obsessive behaviour. Autism has a spectrum of behaviours from extreme (non-speaking, socially isolated, intellectually disabled and repetitive physical movements) to high function autism and Asperger's syndrome. In the latter case, individuals exhibit good language skills, average to high intelligence and interests in specialised areas. The causes of autism and Asperger's syndrome are hotly debated and theories include genetics, pregnancy or birth complications and viral infections. Research has shown that there are abnormalities in several areas of the brain in the autistic population, including the frontal lobes (which are responsible for planning and control), the limbic system (which regulates emotions) and the cerebellum (which is responsible for motor control). In addition, high levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin have been found in a significant number of autistic children.
One interesting theory relates to the non-working of the “mirror neurons”, which are in the premotor cortex of the frontal lobes. Research has found that the mirror neurons fire up when, in this case macaque monkeys, perform an action. They also fire up when they observe another creature perform the same action. This explains how we can learn how to perform a task by watching others do it. However, this system does not appear to work in individuals with autism, which means they cannot read or interpret the actions of others. In a world where social interaction is highly prized, these autistic individuals can become isolated and undervalued. In his book, Solitude: A Return to Self, psychiatrist Anthony Storr argues that satisfaction can come from solitary pursuits. He is concerned that the mental health profession contribute to the view that happiness can only come through relationships with others, while he believes that some people find value in the impersonal rather than the personal.
It is clear that in the workplace those people who do not fit and find the social elements of work difficult. often do not do well. However, by disregarding these people, we are overlooking a wealth of talents. Many autistic individuals have some very significant skills; they have an ability to see detail (they're experts at Where's Waldo), they are more likely to have perfect pitch and be able to pick out individual notes in a complex musical score, and many have formidable memory. It is therefore ironic that many psychologists define these gifts as “deficits”, where the ability to pick out detail is seen as “weak central coherence”, ie an inability to see the big picture. It has been argued that if we use more positive language — eg “strong local analysis” — for the ability to see the detail in a complex picture, then we put the emphasis on what is working and not what it is perceived as needing fixing.
The reason that these ideas are important in the world of work is that it questions how we measure people's abilities. All too often we select through interviewing — a nightmare situation for an individual with autism or Asperger's syndrome and something they would probably fail at. Take, for example a data analyst — is it important for them to be able to present themselves socially or to have a dogged determination to get something right, an eye for detail and a good memory? If we are to tap into this population, we need to reconsider how we select and concentrate on finding their strengths.
Armstrong argues that “success in life depends on modifying your surroundings to fit the needs of your unique brain (niche construction)”. It is a challenge for employers to tailor jobs to suit individual strengths and difficulties, but if done properly could pay dividends. If we think for a moment about the skill of a high functioning autistic person to see the parts instead of the whole, we can see they are ideally suited to roles which require a keen eye for detail, eg art historian, archaeologist, biological researcher, archivist, accountant, computer programmer, horticulturalist, mechanic or industrial designer.
Many people with autism find themselves working freelance because it frees them up from the social complexities of the workplace and enables them to express their individual talents. Another element of niche construction is the environment within which they work. Many people on the autistic spectrum have very acute senses, being sensitive to noise, light, and touch among other things. This need for niche construction is well recognised by Danish executive Thorkil Sonne who runs his own software company, Specialisterne (The Specialists). 75% of his workforce are on the autistic spectrum, and they are very effective at testing software. When they are on a client's site, Sonne provides the client with instructions on how they wish to be treated. He requires a separate working environment, with no interruptions or noise and he gives guidance on how his employees wish to be interacted with, including not being constantly interrupted. While this may seem a little inflexible, he points to a fault rate of 0.5% compared to 5% from other testers, and he has a range of high-profile clients from Microsoft and Oracle to LEGO.
Making neurodiversity work
You may be forgiven for thinking that all this theory and research is all very interesting, but how is it practical to use this knowledge in the workplace? It is believed that neurodivergent people probably make up about 10% of our population and therefore will be a significant proportion of job applicants, customers and existing staff. It is also significant to note here that only 16% of autistic working age adults are in employment in the UK, while research shows that a significant majority (77%) want to work.
In order to try and shed some light on this issue, the CIPD has worked with Uptimize —“a company that helps organisations attract, hire and retain brilliant talent that thinks differently” — to produce guidance on Neurodiversity at work, which is both thought-provoking and practical. The guide explains the terminology associated with neurodiversity and provides the working definitions listed below to help consistency and start the conversations around the subject:
neurodiversity — this relates to the infinite variation in human neurocognitive function and behaviour and is similar to biodiversity
neurodiversity paradigm — a perspective on neurodiversity that suggests that it is a natural variation, and that there is not one brain-type. This is in contrast to the medicalsed view that many brain conditions are disorders that need to be cured
neurodivergent — having cognitive functions that are different from normal or different from the neurotypicals
neurotypical — exhibiting functioning and behaviours that are within the social norms, although this is problematic because what is considered normal is both cultural and contextual
neurominority — being part of a minority group with similar characteristics.
It also covers some explanations of common neurodivergent thinking styles. While these are helpful, they should be treated with caution, as no two people are alike. However, there are some common characteristics among neurominority groups, and below I list some of the more common conditions and their strengths to support the positive view and strengths based approach.
Autistic people — problem-solvers, analytical, logical thinkers, data-drive thinking style free from confirmation bias. Ability to focus and concentrate for long periods of time, exceptional at retaining detailed information, an aptitude for acquiring assimilating detailed knowledge and specialist skills. Often punctual, reliable, dedicated and loyal employees.
Dyslexic and dyspraxic (condition affecting motor skills) people — inventive and creative, excellent at pattern spotting, takes a big picture view, and often have powerful qualitative reasoning skills, can create a vision and inspire others through storytelling, often resourceful and inventive having had to learn to navigate through a world designed for neurotypicals.
ADHD — comfortable taking calculated risks and at ease with uncertainty and pushing the boundaries. Insightfulness, creative thinking and problem-solving are their strengths, as are multitasking and an ability to cope with changing environments and work pressures, talents that are particularly precious in today’s changing world.
It is worth noting here that neurodiversity is not the same as mental health — Mind (2016) defined mental health problems as affecting “the way you think, feel and behave. They affect one in four people in Britain and range form common mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, to more rare problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder...” In short, if someone is neurodivergent it doesn't mean they have a mental health problem, although some research by the National Autistic Society has shown that mental illness can be more common for people on the autistic spectrum.
To make your people management approach neurodiversity smart, it is necessary to review your processes and practices from employer branding to recruitment and selection practices, and to ensure that your approach to reasonable adjustments takes neurodiversity into account. The CIPD guide gives some detailed advice on how to do this including making your job profiles clear and concise, not focusing on ticking all the boxes equally (neurodivergent people have some exceptional skills, but not necessarily some of the ones relating to social interaction) and concentrating on strength-based selection processes.
Once a neurodivergent individual has been employed, it is vital to make sure that the onboarding and induction is sensitive to their needs, providing information in different formats and allowing for individuals who find some situations awkward. The working environment is important to their needs, and I often find that the adjustments required are not complex; simply ask the individual. It may just be an adjustment to lighting or assigning a desk in a quiet area. A further useful suggestion from the guide is to provide a mentor, support officer or coach, although I would suggest that this is good practice for any new employee.
Neurodiversity is a relatively new term for individuals who think and behave differently to our social norms; it is argued that this is as important to human development as biodiversity is to the balance of the planet. A significant part of the population are not “neurotypical”, and their conditions should not be seen as having deficits, but simply being different. However, it is difficult for many neurodivergents to operate in a world designed for neurotypicals, just as it is difficult for a person in a wheelchair to navigate areas designed for ambulant people. It is vital for us to support the concept of niche-construction, which helps design environments which support neurodiversity, maximising opportunities and enabling organisations to secure the best talent.
Thomas Armstrong — The Power of Neurodiversity — 2010
Thom Hartman — Attention Deficiency Disorder, A Different Perception — 1997
Robert Moyzis — Attention-Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder Related to Advantageous Gene — Press Release, University of California 2002
Neurodiversity at Work — CIPD and Uptimize — February 2018