Supporting neurodiversity : unlocking the benefits for all
Nancy Doyle, Professor of Organizational Psychology specializing in neurodiversity at work, and founder of social enterprise Genius Within, explains how supporting neurodiversity in the workforce should be more than a box-ticking exercise and how an innovative approach to staff relationships can yield dividends.
Excluding people with different or unusual thinking skills from participation in society and the workforce means that we are missing out on a wealth of talent and different perspectives, says Prof Doyle. She cites the example of how the Tudor Royal Court used to invite “autistic people and people with learning disabilities into the court because they were known to not pander to power”. These people were valued for their unique contribution and different perspectives, and yet that value became lost once Britain experienced the Industrial Revolution.
“Neurodiversity is a feature of human neuro-cognition and it means that we are diverse as a species in the way that we think, feel and interpret our senses,” she explains. “This is quite a revolutionary idea for the 21st century because, since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been expected to be standard. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, it was okay for humans to be diverse because people would naturally become silversmiths or town criers or farmers. Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve needed humans to perform as automatons and we have standardised humanity.”
A consequence of this, she says, is to create institutional systems like education to standardise the way we think and institutional workplaces to govern the way we work and perform. However, these do not work for everyone.
“This has led to the idea that people who don’t fall within the normal distribution of IQ and the normal distribution of emotional expression, experience and sensory perception must in some way be odd or need a label,” she says. “The neurodiversity movement is trying to say that maybe there’s a reason that we have people at the extremes as well as people in the middle. Maybe that’s purposeful and helpful to our species. What are we missing when we exclude people who have unusual thinking styles from our society?”
A rigid education system excludes many in the wider population
Prof Doyle argues that we are excluding too many people from participation, because we have limited the range of what we regard as acceptable in education, the workplace and society.
“In education, the only way to succeed in education is to be literate. numerate to be able to sit down and concentrate for seven hours at a time and to be able to do so in a noisy environment where there are lots of things happening around you,” she says. “We have limited the way that you can show success or show contribution as a species to these very limited four or five skills and in doing so we have excluded around 15% to 20% of the population.”
She argues that neurodevelopmental conditions that are genetic have been around forever, but as a society we started naming them around the end of the 1800s to early 1900s. Due to the rigid system that we created at that time, the extent to which these characteristics are disabling or non-disabling depends on the social model, environment and the role people are expected to play.
How can we create a workspace that is welcoming to all?
Genius Within supports thousands of clients and their employers each year to achieve their potential in work and education. Prof Doyle, who is herself diagnosed with ADHD, holds a Visiting Professorship at Birkbeck, University of London in the School of Management where she co-founded the Centre for Neurodiversity at Work.
“Genius Within is a not for profit organisation with 68% of staff disabled/neurodivergent (or both) in the company,” she explains. “We work with about 5,000 people a year who were either in work or preparing to go into work because they’re long-term unemployed. When we look at the issues that affect them, it is the organisation of work, the planning of work, the concentration and managing the social relationships, people misinterpreting what they are saying or feeling or doing as negative when the intentions are good, that crop up over and over again.”
When considering what accommodations are needed to help neurodiverse people, the question often arises as to whether the job needs to shift to accommodate the individual and how much the individual needs to shift to accommodate the demands of the job.
“That is one of the difficulties with hidden disability,” she says. “It is easy to interpret those cognitive differences as intentional and as personality deficits. When someone behaves in a certain way, we think of what we would need to be feeling or thinking in order to behave that way.”
At Genius Within, the support within the workplace is “a very delicate management of relationships and being very, very clear about expectations,” she says. “It is about managing boundaries and giving people run-off space so that when something happens, there’s a way of reconciling and recovering relationships.”
This also includes looking at augmented supports to help people with different needs, and putting in place measures to mitigate the chance of people getting into difficult states where their emotions are not as easy to control.
“How can we reduce sensory overwhelm by allowing people to work at home, or encouragement them to put on noise cancelling headphones or sit in a corner rather than in the middle of the desk?” she says. “How can we manage diaries with colour coding and reminders so that we don’t get behind? Can people have email-free Fridays so that they’ve always got time in their diary for catching up on their admin and they never get behind?” she says that managing a company with a majority neurodivergent staff team is not easy.“
I’m an ADHD and I like to break rules. I work with autistic people and they find that really annoying. It is a constant collaboration and connection, and it requires reflectivity.”
She did not write a business etiquette policy herself at Genius Within, but rather she co-produced it with staff, reviewing and redrafting it in order to accommodate different needs and views.
“I came up with some ideas and sent them out as a position paper,” she explains. “We had some workshops to discuss the issues. We then did an anonymous exercise to accommodate the people that don’t like to speak up in workshops. We then rewrote it based on feedback. We went with the majority, but we also looked at the people that were really struggling and worked out something individual for them. When you work in neurodiversity, you have to be in this constant reflective process of negotiating boundaries, giving people the benefit of the doubt when there’s a problem.”
She describes the process of managing her team at work as a “creative, cathartic and dialectic process”. It is a model that is based on adult collaboration, rather than a hierarchical parent-child method of management.
“It’s not for the faint hearted, but what you get out of that is an extraordinary amount of authenticity and trust,” she says. “It’s worth it, but most organisations are still at the toolkit stage, yet what we’re really talking about here is cultural change.”
She acknowledges that incorporating neurodiversity into an organisation can be a challenge.
“I don’t think this is going to come very easily to companies,” she says. “Those companies that are successful are the ones that acknowledge that it is about cultural change.”
Organisations that think it is another thing you have to prepare for and have a form for and a process for, have not really grasped what is needed, she explains.
“Those companies that think there is a tick list of ADHD adjustments and a tick list of Autism adjustments, they are doing what I would call compliance-based inclusion. They are complying with the Disability and the Equality Act, but they are not doing systemic inclusion. When they embrace systemic inclusion they realise that what is needed is cultural change.”
She argues that the neurodiversity movement currently has a “strange kind of diamond in the rough feel to it”, popularised by the concept of companies like Google, Microsoft and IBM embracing a particular set of people who posses a specific set of skills.
She cites how neurodiversity is seen as a “mystical superpower” possessed by “autistic coders who are magical mystical work fairies that will suddenly make everything wonderful for your software design”. In reality, those that benefit from this perception are in a minority and are predominantly “Silicon Valley, white, male, educated, otherwise abled Stanford graduates who happen to be really good at coding,” she says.
Prof Doyle says this idea of the neurodiverse employee as specialist superhero was never the intention of the neurodiversity movement when sociologist Judy Singer coined the phrase neurodivergent and outlined the concept in her thesis in 1998.
“She was talking about neurodivergent people being a minority whose rights were overlooked and who needed to assert themselves as a political movement for inclusion,” she says. “In 2002, I used to have to kick the door down to get people to listen about dyslexia or autism. There has been progress in the neurodiversity field, but I do think it’s because it’s got this kind of sexy superhero vibe, and it feels a bit more like exploitation than inclusion.”
She takes exception to the current fashion for “mining a population for the skills that we don’t have,”. Instead, she argues, we should be thinking about all the neurodivergent people who come in different shapes, sizes, colours, genders, sexualities, and who don’t necessarily fit the gifted coder stereotype.
“One of the big things that has shifted in the last four or five years is that neuro diversity is part of the equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives rather than occupational health,” she says. “That is a shift because if you’re doing it as an EDI intervention, then it is about culture change. If you’re doing it as occupational health, then it is health and safety and it is what you have to do to not get sued. EDI is much more about culture and that is a shift.”
Her research has found that the strongest predictors of whether a neurodiverse employee is planning to leave an organisation is psychological safety and career progression.
“People want the help of the adjustments, but they also want to be heard and they want to be valued,” she says. “You need to create psychologically safe workplaces and you need to train your managers. We need to argue the case and we still haven’t done that.”
She also says that assistive technology, seen as a solution for some conditions, will only succeed if people are trained to use it effectively.
“The success of adaptive technology is moderated by the provision of training,” she says. “If you give people in their 40s a load of new software, and don’t teach them how to use it, then they are not going to find it helpful.”
Universal Design for ND at Work
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