“Neurodiversity is acceptance that we are all different”
An afternoon with award-winning author and neurodiversity advocate Theo Smith.
Not just a trending hashtag
Many of us reflected on our past experiences and the way we relate to the world and each other over the pandemic. Notably, terms like “Neurodiversity” and “Neurodivergent” played a pivotal part in the public discourse while many of us were self-isolating:
- Google searches in the UK for the topic of Neurodiversity grew 20-fold from April 2020 to March 2022
- Google searches in the UK for ADHD quadrupled from March 2020 compared to peaks in October 2021 as well as January, March and May 2022
- TikTok videos tagged with #ADHD have 12 billion views, while #neurodivergent has drawn 3.5 billion views [figures true for 16/6/22]
The keyword ADHD specifically exploded on social media, particularly on TikTok and Twitter, with many self-diagnosing the condition. The increasing awareness has contributed to individuals getting diagnosed with a professional and seeking community, support and education. It is worth noting though that – as it often is – social media can be a double-edged sword: during the TikTok boom ADHD misinformation also flourished in the name of “relatable content” to boost account engagement.
The Great Resignation and the battle over highly skilled tech talent are motivating boardrooms across the country to design workplaces and teams that are diverse, inclusive and encourage belonging. A growing focus on health and well-being as well as understanding and accommodating neurodiversity will play a big role in how we reshape and design the workplace of the future.
Neurodiversity encompasses a wide range of mental orientations, including – but not limited to – autism, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dysgraphia, dyspraxia, Tourette syndrome and Down syndrome. Left unsupported, there are enormous consequences that can lead to suffering for the individual but also increased costs on a societal level.
According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), only 1-in-5 people with an autism diagnosis are currently in the workforce. People with untreated ADHD end up costing at least twice as much in medical expenses over a lifetime than a treated condition.
“We’re putting up so many barriers to people and we’ve not even been aware.”
Neurodiversity: an opportunity
For businesses battling recruitment or retention problems on their SWOT diagrams, there is a clear opportunity for us as a society to start tackling our lack of care for our neurodiverse peers. At times the adjustments can be simple – for example adjusting aspects of the office interior or communicating more efficiently. According to auticon’s recent data autistic people report on struggling with the following at the workplace:
- Worries about how to communicate mental health decline to management (49%)
- Preferred learning style not being followed e.g. being given text-heavy documents, when pictorial information is easier (48%)
- Being given too much information at once (43%)
- Feeling the need to hide their autism (42%)
- Processes and procedures not being followed (40%)
- Lack of clear instructions or outcomes (39%)
- Last-minute meetings/calls (39%)
- Bright lighting (36%)
- Open plan office (35%)
- Having to navigate workplace small talk (35%)
Our neurodiversity trainer Theo Smith’s most recent book “Neurodiversity at Work” – which he co-authored with emeritus professor Amanda Kirby – just won Business Book of the Year 2022. It has a wealth of information that has helped Verse become more aware of neurodiversity and its effects on our work culture.
Here are some of the biggest takeaways and moments of clarity from our session with Theo this week:
The stigma surrounding neurodivergent conditions can lead to masking, trauma and the inability to access essential care and support
For many seeking a diagnosis, the constant masking of one’s genuine feelings can lead to exhaustion and emotional burnout. The traditional Medical Model can be useful for neurodivergent people where a diagnosis can be the starting point of a treatment or support plan to help an individual succeed. Knowing means you can learn new coping mechanisms and adjustments.
However, another model to consider neurodiversity through is the Social and Environmental Model. For someone in a wheelchair, is it a lack of a ramp at the entrance that makes a person disabled? Similarly, is your harsh office lighting and culture of impromptu meetings something that is crushing your peer’s productivity and wellbeing?
It is worth thinking about neurodiversity as a spectrum of ways of thinking that accompasses the entire population. Consider if it is necessary to label people: whom do labels serve and why are they being used?
Recruitment pearls instead of recruitment gold
According to a 2020 report by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM), half of UK managers admit they would be uncomfortable hiring a neurodivergent individual. The highest level of bias was against employees with Tourette’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The ILM experts also warn that “the valuable contributions of those with conditions such as autism, dyslexia and Tourette’s syndrome will be lost if businesses don’t do more”.
People with neurodivergent thinking are an opportunity. They often have exceptional skills and abilities, and they can be a source of out-of-the-box thinking in business and otherwise.
Some of the biggest names in STEM, film, music and sports are people who struggled in school with learning and/or thinking differences. Amongst them are Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, Steve Jobs, Stanley Kubrick, Nikola Tesla, Billie Eilish, Jennifer Aniston, Keira Knightley, Cher and Simone Biles.
Not everyone in your organisation can be a unicorn – accompassing all skills and abilities. Great teams are built by bringing people together who have different but complementary skill sets and abilities. With the right support and coaching, a grain of sand builds up to a beautiful pearl.
Sometimes the best advice is the simplest advice
Theo suggests asking “What can we do to help you in this moment?” is the best way to get started on unravelling some of the unproductive behavioural patterns and structures we have built for our organisations.