Neurodiversity

Jordan McDonald on Unsplash

Neurodiversity is the idea that it is normal and acceptable for people to have brains that function differently from one another.

Neurodiversity embraces the differences in brain function and behavioral traits as a natural element of how diverse the human population is; rather than thinking there is something wrong or problematic when some people do not operate similarly to others.

Formerly considered a problem or abnormal, scientists now understand that neurodivergence can have many benefits.

It is not a disability but a difference in how the brain works. Practitioners are no longer treating neurodivergence as an illness. Instead, they are viewing them as different methods of learning and processing information.

Neurotypical

  • People with standard brain processing and functioning
  • Neurotypical people often do not know that they are neurotypical
  • Seen as “normal”

Neurodivergent

  • People whose brain functioning and processing deviates from what is considered “typical”
  • Neurodivergent people are usually made aware that their brains function differently
  • Seen as “abnormal”

Neurotypical

Neurotypical is a descriptor that refers to someone who has the brain functions, behaviors, and processing considered standard or typical.

Neurotypical people may have no idea they are because the subject has likely never come up for them before.

Neurotypical people usually hit all of their developmental and behavioral milestones at the same times and ages that are considered standard for most people.

Once grown, they generally move through life without having to wonder if their brains function in the same way as others do.

Neurodivergent

Unlike neurotypical people, neurodivergent people are usually made aware that their brains work differently.

A neurodivergent person has one or more ways in which their brain functions outside the “typical” way.

Neurodivergence now refers to any structured, consistent way that brains work differently for a group of people than they do for the majority of others.

For example, neurodivergent people may be diagnosed with autism, ADHD, OCD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, or Tourette’s.

Neurodiversity advocacy focuses on embracing and celebrating neurodivergent brains instead of trying to fix them and make them neurotypical.

Other Neurodivergent Types

Other types of neurodivergence include Tourette’s, dyspraxia, synesthesia, dyscalculia, Down syndrome, epilepsy, and chronic mental health illnesses such as bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, and depression.

What Is It Like to Be Neurodivergent?

People are individual and unique; in the same way that it doesn’t feel the same for all people to have bodies, it doesn’t feel the same for all people with different neurodivergent diagnoses.

Life is experienced differently by all humans, whether their brains function very similarly to the majority of people, or very different.

The Impact Of Understanding Neurodiversity

It is not just neurodivergent people who benefit from society understanding neurodiversity.

The understanding of neurodiversity allows us to look at each other and appreciate how we function differently. Instead of thinking there are “right” and “wrong” ways of functioning, we can embrace all of these differences.

Education and Employment

The advancement of alternative therapies instead of ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis seeks to make people with autism behave more similarly to neurotypical people) for children with autism is a strong example of advocacy and the changing narrative around educating neurodivergent people.

The knowledge that neurodiversity can lead to powerful specific skills has led to a shift in which neurodivergent people are more sought-after for employment.

For example, The Harvard Business Review made a case for employers to hire more neurodivergent people, calling neurodivergence a “competitive advantage.”

Social Change

The stigma and hardships that neurodivergent people face haven’t yet disappeared from our society. Still, the cultural understanding of neurodiversity helps provide us with a framework to change how we think about the topic and how we treat neurodivergent people.

A few decades ago, left-handed students were forced to write with their right hands, which had long-term impacts.2 Now, left-handedness is considered a difference, not a disorder, and we are accustomed to allowing children to learn to write with whichever hand comes naturally to them.

Similarly, the more strides we take to understand and embrace neurodiversity, the better we will interact with one another and help all individuals learn and behave in the ways that suit them

Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage

Although corporate programs have so far focused primarily on autistic people, it should be possible to extend them to people affected by dyspraxia (a neurologically based physical disorder), dyslexia, ADHD, social anxiety disorders, and other conditions.

Many people with these disorders have higher-than-average abilities; research shows that some conditions (including autism and dyslexia) can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics. Yet those affected often struggle to fit the profiles sought by prospective employers.

Neurodiverse people frequently need workplace accommodations (such as headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation) to activate or maximally leverage their abilities. Sometimes they exhibit challenging eccentricities.

In many cases the accommodations and challenges are manageable and the potential returns are great. But to realize the benefits, most companies would have to adjust their recruitment, selection, and career development policies to reflect a broader definition of talent.

Perhaps the most surprising benefit is that managers have begun thinking more deeply about leveraging the talents of _all_ employees through greater sensitivity to individual needs.

Why Neurodiversity Presents Opportunities

Many individuals who embrace the concept of neurodiversity believe that people with differences do not need to be cured; they need help and accommodation instead.

Everyone is to some extent differently abled (an expression favored by many neurodiverse people), because we are all born different and raised differently. Our ways of thinking result from both our inherent “machinery” and the experiences that have “programmed” us.

Because neurodiverse people are wired differently from “neurotypical” people, they may bring new perspectives to a company’s efforts to create or recognize value.

Nevertheless, the neurodiverse population remains a largely untapped talent pool. Unemployment runs as high as 80% (this figure includes people with more-severe disorders, who are not candidates for neurodiversity programs).

When they are working, even highly capable neurodiverse people are often underemployed. Program participants told us story after story of how (despite having solid credentials) they had previously had to settle for the kinds of jobs many people leave behind in high school.

When SAP began its Autism at Work program, applicants included people with master’s degrees in electrical engineering, biostatistics, economic statistics, and anthropology and bachelor’s degrees in computer science, applied and computational mathematics, electrical engineering, and engineering physics. Some had dual degrees. Many had earned very high grades and graduated with honors or other distinctions.

Why Companies Don’t Tap Neurodiverse Talent

What has kept so many companies from taking on people with the skills they badly need? It comes down to the way they find and recruit talent and decide whom to hire (and promote).

Especially in large companies, HR processes are developed with an eye toward wide application across the organization. But there is a conflict between scalability and the goal of acquiring neurodiverse talent.

In addition, the behaviors of many neurodiverse people run counter to common notions of what makes a good employee: solid communication skills, being a team player, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, salesperson-type personalities, the ability to network, the ability to conform to standard practices without special accommodations, and so on; these criteria systematically screen out neurodiverse people.

In recent decades the ability to compete on the basis of _innovation_ has become more crucial for many companies. Having people who see things differently and who maybe do not fit in seamlessly helps offset the tendency to all look in the same direction.

You might think that organizations could simply seek more variety in prospective employees while retaining their traditional recruiting, hiring, and development practices.

But two big problems cause them to miss neurodiverse talent:

The first problem involves a practice that is almost universal under the traditional approach: interviewing.

Although neurodiverse people may excel in important areas, many do not interview well.

For example, autistic people often don’t make good eye contact, are prone to conversational tangents, and can be overly honest about their weaknesses. Some have confidence problems arising from difficulties they experienced in previous interview situations.

Neurodiverse people more unlikely to earn higher scores in interviews than less-talented neurotypical candidates. Fortunately, interviews are not the only way to assess a candidate’s suitability.

The second problem derives from the assumption that scalable processes require absolute conformity to standardized approaches.

Employees in neurodiversity programs typically need to be allowed to deviate from established practices which shifts a manager’s orientation from assuring compliance through standardization to adjusting individual work contexts.

Most accommodations (such as installing different lighting and providing noise-canceling headphones) are not very expensive. But they do require managers to tailor individual work settings more than they otherwise might.

How Pioneers Are Changing The Talent Management Game

The tech industry has a history of hiring oddballs. The talented nerd who lacks social graces has become a cultural icon, as much a part of the industry mythos as the company that starts in a garage.

In his book NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman points out that the incidence of autism is particularly high in places like Silicon Valley (for reasons not completely understood).

He and others have hypothesized that many of the industry’s “oddballs” and “nerds” might well have been “on the spectrum,” although undiagnosed.

Thus, hiring for neurodiversity could be seen as an extension of the tendencies of a culture that recognizes the value of nerds.

Innovation calls on firms to include people and ideas “from the edges”

Dissatisfied with the rate at which his own company could create jobs, Sonne established the Specialist People Foundation (recently renamed the Specialisterne Foundation) in 2008 to spread his company’s know-how to others and persuade multinationals to start neurodiversity programs. Most companies that have done so have worked with the foundation to deploy some version of the Specialisterne approach. It has seven major elements:

1. Team with “social partners” for expertise you lack.

2. Use nontraditional, noninterview-based assessment and training processes.

Despite the social difficulties experienced by many neurodiverse people, candidates often display complex collaborative and support behaviors during the project-based assessment period.

3. Train other workers and managers.

Short (some are just half a day), low-key training sessions help existing employees understand what to expect from their new colleagues such as they might need accommodations and might seem different.

Managers get somewhat more-extensive training to familiarize them with sources of support for program employees.

4. Set up a support ecosystem.

Companies with neurodiverse programs design and maintain simple support systems for their new employees. SAP defines two support circles: one for the workplace and the other for an employee’s personal life.

The workplace support circle includes a team manager, a team buddy, a job and life skills coach, a work mentor, and an “HR business partner,” who oversees a group of program participants.

Buddies are staff members on the same team who provide assistance with daily tasks, workload management, and prioritization.

Job and life skills coaches are usually from social partner organizations. Other social partner roles include vocational rehab counselor and personal counselor. Usually, families of employees also provide support.

HPE takes a different approach. It places new neurodiverse employees in “pods” of about 15 people, where they work alongside neurotypical colleagues in a roughly 4:1 ratio while two managers and a consultant are tasked with addressing neurodiversity-related issues.

5. Tailor methods for managing careers.

Employees hired through these programs need long-term career paths, just as other workers do. This requires serious thought about ongoing assessment and development that will take the special circumstances of neurodiverse employment into account. Fortunately, over time supervisors usually get a good sense of program employees’ talents and limitations. Participants undergo the same performance evaluations that other employees do, but managers work within those processes to set specific goals.

If anything, neurodiverse employees must satisfy more requirements than others, because they must meet program objectives in addition to the performance objectives expected of anyone in their role.

Some participants quickly demonstrate potential to become integrated into the mainstream organization and go further in their careers.

HPE’s pods are designed to provide a safe environment in which participants can build skills that will allow them to perform well and eventually to transition out of their pods into more-mainstream jobs.

6. Scale the program.

SAP has announced an intention to make 1% of its workforce neurodiverse by 2020 — a number chosen because it roughly corresponds to the percentage of autistic people in the general population.

Microsoft, HPE, and others are also working to enlarge their programs, although they have declined to set numerical targets.

HPE is deploying neurodiverse specialists nine at a time, in pods, to client organizations — in effect, selling packages of the advanced capabilities derived from neurodiversity.

The HPE model has intriguing scale possibilities, both because many workers are placed at once and because client demand enlarges the domain of possible placements.

7. Mainstream the program.

The success of neurodiversity programs has prompted some companies to think about how ordinary HR processes may be excluding high-quality talent.

Companies have experienced a surprising array of benefits from neurodiversity

A Major Shift in Managing People

Neurodiversity programs induce companies and their leaders to adopt a style of management that emphasizes placing each person in a context that maximizes her or his contributions.

People are like puzzle pieces, irregularly shaped. Historically, companies have asked employees to trim away their irregularities, because it is easier to fit people together if they are all perfect rectangles. But that requires employees to leave their differences at home — differences firms need in order to innovate.

This suggests that companies must embrace an alternative philosophy that calls on managers to do the hard work of fitting irregular puzzle pieces together — to treat people not as containers of fungible human resources but as unique individual assets.

The work for managers will be harder but the payoff for companies will be considerable: access to more of their employees’ talents along with diverse perspectives that may help them compete more effectively.

References

What Is Neurodiversity?

What Is Neurodivergence and What Does It Mean to Be Neurodivergent?

Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage

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Jeff Holmes MS MSCS

Jeff Holmes MS MSCS

I am an AI Engineer with an M.S. in Mathematics and MSCS in Artificial Intelligence with 30 years of software engineering experence.