Enabling Neurodiversity In The Workplace: The Importance Of Removing Barriers In Order To Harness The Strengths Of Diverse Thinkers.

What if I were to offer you a way of giving your business a competitive advantage, and becoming an employer of choice that attracted, recruited and retained productive, engaged employees in the face of significant skills shortages and ‘The Big Quit’; I’m assuming you’d be interested? 

If you are, you’ll be joining one of the many forward-thinking organisations such as Microsoft, Google, EY and GCHQ that are harnessing the strengths of neurodiversity. 

If you are unfamiliar with the term, neurodiversity reflects the natural variation and diversity of thought that exists within the human species. As natural and important as biodiversity is for the natural world. Neurodiversity recognises that we all experience the world differently, have individual traits, characteristics, preferences, strengths and challenges. In that sense we are all neurodiverse. Neuroscience recognises that brains are all different, there is no ‘normal’. As Catherine Harmer, a cognitive neuroscientists at the University of Oxford said: “We’re all unique… kind of like a fingerprint.” 

Neurodiversity has now become an umbrella term, and indeed a movement encouraging celebration and respect of a distinct set of cognitive differences. For the most part, we are born with these cognitive differences, it is the way our brains are wired and the way in which we learn and process information, and experience and interact with the world around us. We are also now recognising that neurodivergence can be acquired, some mental health conditions and acquired brain injuries, for example. 

You might be more familiar with the names of neurodivergent conditions, or neurotypes; dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia, autism, Tourettes. You may also be more familiar with descriptions of the challenges that people encounter, often referred to as ‘struggles’, ‘difficulties’ leading to them ‘suffering’ from their respective neurotypes.  

It is true that people do experience challenges, sometimes significant. However, this is only half the story. Our knowledge and understanding to date on neurodiversity is couched in a deficit model of disorders, that only looks at what people can’t do, with many myths and misconceptions swirling around, that perpetuate this deficit model and often impact the wellbeing, motivation and aspirations of neurodivergent thinkers.  

However, we now recognise a common thread amongst our historic and present day gamechangers that have ensured our species has not only survived but thrived: neurodiversity. It is now thought that Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, Walt Disney (amongst many others) were neurodivergent. Their different way of thinking, different approaches and perspectives leading to ground-breaking invention and innovation. We wouldn’t be driving cars or using computers if it weren’t for neurodivergence.  

Amongst our modern day gamechangers, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Greta Thunberg, Richard Branson and Jo Malone all now openly sharing how their neurodivergence has contributed to their successes (and two have been to space!) 

So, given this, why do we know so little about the positives of neurodivergence? Why do we only know what people can’t do? Because we don’t create environments where people can thrive. We wouldn’t expect a tree frog to survive, let alone thrive, on the streets of a city, and we wouldn’t then call it stupid or think that it was broken if it didn’t; we would recognise that it wasn’t in the right environment.  

Within our human species we often measure cognitive abilities based on a neurotypical brain, which functions and processes information within an expected range. This is usually through reading, writing and recall, often in time bound environments, with exam grades and job offers dependent on these performances. This creates barriers for many neurodivergent thinkers.  

As Albert Einstein is thought to have said:  

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” 

The good news is we can remove these barriers to success, often quickly, easily and at little or no cost. In workplace settings, utilising technology, providing information in advance, agreeing communication preferences, and harnessing the skills of neurodivergent thinkers such as problem solving, big picture thinking or data analysis can often yield great rewards. Those that have identified and removed barriers and set their teams up for success are feeling the benefits. An ever-increasing evidence base of productivity, innovation and retention.  

If we are to harness the strengths of neurodivergent thinkers, we must create a welcoming space where people feel safe to share this information. Often subtle messages conveyed in our business practices such as the terminology we use or the questions we ask, may either create a sense of psychological safety and belonging, or not.  

We need to educate and empower our workplaces on appropriate tools and enabling strategies that can help us to see past the deficit model and enable our neurodivergent thinkers to thrive…and your business to benefit as a result.  

Kate Dean, 

Director of Enable Disability & Inclusion Consultants Ltd 

May 2022 

Understanding ADHD During Neurodiversity Celebration Week. 

As part of Neurodiversity Celebration Week in March, join us to hear from Kate Dean, Director of Enable, as she mentors us through ADHD, how it can affect women and strategies to help us thrive in the workplace. Kate brings her own experience and the strengths of her Neurodiversity to her work and is joining us for this mentoring session.

Thursday | 16th March 2023 | 1 pm

FL Awards 2022 Panel Discussion on: How Neurodiversity is affecting women

The FL Leadership Summit & Awards brought together leading women to talk about their experiences as neuro-divergent women in the workplace. They shared the journey to their late diagnoses of autism and dyslexia and how the knowledge gave them insight into struggles faced at work and helped them leverage their strengths as leaders. 

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