The term neurodiversity first came to prominence in the 1990s. It was coined to describe a set of cognitive and behavioural traits – those on the autism spectrum, dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia, Tourette’s and more – which, up to that point, had always been treated as pathological conditions, but had never fit comfortably with the rest of the field of mental illnesses and impairments.
For one, there is no ‘cure’ for the characteristics which fall under the neurodiversity bracket. For all that we can tell, they are simply the result of people’s brains functioning in different ways, and that is that. The thread that connects them all is that they describe people who learn and process information in ways which are divergent from the norm.
Nor do they necessarily mean the individual experiences the kind of life-limiting disability associated with reduced cognitive functioning. Yes, some people diagnosed as on the autistic spectrum experience sometimes profound difficulties with things like language development. But many people with autism are described as ‘higher functioning’, meaning their cognitive capabilities are much like anyone else, it just manifests itself in different way.
It is estimated that around 15% of the UK population falls under the neurodivergent umbrella. That means, in your workplace, the odds are there are people who are autistic or dyslexic, who constantly battle involuntary ticks and / or verbal and physical outbursts, who struggle from attention deficit or hyperactivity, who are governed by obsessive and compulsive impulses. And we might not know anything about it.
The tyranny of normal
Sadly, because of the stigma surrounding mental disability, people are often compelled to hide their neurodiverse traits. What colleagues at work might just see as slightly peculiar behaviour could be a hint of a much bigger story. And think how exhausting, how emotionally demanding, that must be, to day in, day out feel you have to hide the person you really are, for fear of not being understood. It’s the tyranny of trying to be like everyone else.
That is one reason by neurodiversity is so much more than a buzzword. We know, for example, that people who have been diagnosed with autism are chronically under-represented in the workplace, even when they have attained high levels of education. It can’t be anything other than prejudice – once the cat is out of the bag, as it were, people with autism simply do not get equal opportunities in the workplace. Yet it is estimated that tens of thousands of people on the autistic spectrum manage to lead productive working lives keeping it hidden from everyone around them. You can understand why, but at what cost does this come to them?
One pressing issue is that neurodiverse people are prone to being bullied in the workplace, sometimes forcing them out of employment completely. This is where the culture of secrecy becomes obviously counter-productive – people try to hide what they are for fear of being labelled different, and yet they end up being victimised for their difference because there is no understanding. Embracing the concept of neurodiversity in the workplace is not just about putting yet another label on people. It is about driving cultural change, one that doesn’t just play lip-service to diversity, but promotes understanding through education. Sadly, victimising people out of ignorance is an all-too human characteristic. We can only hope that through the power of information we can create more inclusive environments for everyone.
Finally, this leads onto one more significant point about education – dispelling the myth of normal, which has indeed become its own form of tyranny. On what basis do we judge that ‘normal’ people’s brains all work the same, anyway? From an employer’s perspective, we all know this is absolutely not the case. Some people are good with numbers, others with words. Some people are naturally creative, others very hands-on and practical. Some people make great organisers, some people are full of great ideas.
What are all these different skills and aptitudes if not forms of diversity? As employers, we organise our workforces and our workplaces to accommodate the relevant strengths and weaknesses of our teams. If you want to maximise performance, you make allowances for that brilliantly creative ideas person who is dreadful at timekeeping. You don’t ask that super-efficient organiser who hates writing to draft a 3000 page report for senior management that will take them days and need major re-editing anyway. It’s just a basic mis-allocation of resources.
We have always had neurodiverse workforces, and the best operators know how to embrace and get the best out of diversity. The current focus on this area is essential for two reasons – giving a marginalised section of the workforce the long-overdue support and inclusion they deserve, and hammering home the point to employers that you get nowhere from expecting your staff to behave and perform like a bunch of automatons.