What is Neurodiversity?

What is neurodiversity? Article image

What is neurodiversity (and particularly in the context of work and business)? Well…


Search as you might, there is no brain that has been pickled in a jar in the basement of the Smithsonian Museum or the National Institute of Health or elsewhere in the world that represents the standard to which all other human brains must be compared.”


So wrote educator, writer and psychologist Thomas Armstrong in a seminal 2015 article entitled The Myth of the Normal Brain: Embracing Neurodiversity.


As someone who has worked in and written about the neurodiversity at work field for some time, I have always particularly liked this image and quote, and frequently come back to it.


Why? Because it encapsulates the fundamental reality of human neurodiversity – one so important, yet until recently so little discussed – no two brains are alike, and we are all wired differently.


In business, as the topic of embracing neurodiversity continues to rise in prominence, it is still often misconstrued. Graphics that show “Neurodiversity” to be (only) relevant to neurodivergent identity groups such as autistic people or ADHDers are misleading. Similarly, “Neurodiversity” is not simply a new form or pillar of corporate diversity & inclusion efforts.


No – again, everybody is wired differently, and this is the true meaning and essence of neurodiversity. We may or may not each have a conscious neuroidentity, per the above – some do, very consciously, feel a neurodivergent identity in the sense of a brain that (to quote author and educator Nick Walker) diverges in terms of societal expectations of normal. Some may not feel much of a conscious neuroidentity at all, regardless of the true nature of their own brain wiring.


But back to the essence of neurodiversity – something that by definition means that any organization, any team, and any candidate pool is neurodiverse in the sense that no two people’s brains are alike. That means that within any such group, how each person experiences the world and processes information is different – leading to different preferences in terms of how, when and where to work to achieve optimal output.


For example, our brain wiring shapes how we prefer to communicate. Regardless of how your team communicates as a ‘norm’ (and there may be several different channels used), do a quick show of hands and you’ll find different preferences around which channels work for different people in specific situations. Some neurodivergent people may have particularly strong preferences here, but find these preferences unaccommodated by the rest of the team, leading to stress and reduced productivity.


How our brains process information shapes how we all like to problem-solve, too. Are you a verbal, visual thinker who likes to think things through in a live group and draw big pictures on the whiteboard? Me too, if so, but this type of creative endeavour simply doesn’t work for everybody. As a leader or collaborator, remember that your way of problem-solving may not be other people’s choice – some people may prefer to share ideas ahead of time, or have a longer period to consider the rest of the teams’ thoughts in their own time before contributing their own.


How and where we like to work is also shaped by our brain wiring, as this influences our sensory experience of the world and our energy management patterns. Studies suggest, for example, that around 60% of knowledge workers prefer remote work – a sizeable number, but many do not. Flexibility here, then, helps allow people work where they work best – and flexibility can and should be taken into work environments too, given some people’s sensory experience means they may have a strong preference for quiet spaces or natural light.


Similarly, when it comes to when we work, perhaps not surprisingly a flexible work schedule is the number 1 desired “accommodation” by neurodivergent professionals, though of course this ideally should simply be the norm.  


Neurodiversity matters, then, at work because it is the underlying reality of every interpersonal interaction and personal experience. Yet, it has largely been ignored until recently. The very term “neurodiversity” was only coined in the late 1990s, and only now is neurodiversity vocabulary gaining wider conversational usage and currency. Indeed, at Uptimize, we often experience new customers expressing to bring great neuroinclusion to their teams, while self-consciously stumbling over terms like “neurodiversity” and “neurodivergent”.


Given neurodiversity’s importance, then, it is extraordinary to think that best practices, ideals and expectations around things like collaboration and leadership have until now typically failed to take into account the fundamental realities of brain wiring differences.


The myth of the ‘ideal leader’, for example, suggests leaders must have certain personality traits to be successful – when in reality, any brain profile can make for a successful leader (given supportive circumstances). Equally it is a crucial but too often overlooked part of a leader’s job to recognize, appreciate and leverage differences in thinking style within their team.


In practice, societal (and business) ignorance of neurodiversity until recently has led to workplace norms – things like an over-reliance on interviewing (even for roles that barely require this kind of interaction), or the ubiquitous open-plan office design.

Such norms (just about) work for many, but they don’t work for all. For people, for example, with challenges and anxiety relating to thinking-on-your-feet social interactions, or with sensory sensitivities, they can be highly exclusionary.


Interestingly, action here to challenge or evolve these norms to help ensure everybody can thrive is often appreciated by all. The vast majority of people, for example, actually find interviews anxiety-inducing, so a new trend for sharing questions in advance can be appreciated much more widely than simply by neurodivergent employees, or by employees for whom English is a second language. Managers taking the time to be more customized in how they give instructions or feedback, too, can be particularly appreciated by neurodivergent team members but also widely welcomed.


Many teams and managers remain unfamiliar with neurodiversity and what it means. Such ignorance and misconceptions continue to cause concern, discomfort, friction and even turnover in teams where people feel like their way of doing things is misunderstood and they are not able to be themselves and contribute their best work. Strikingly here – and remember that neurodivergent people are likely around 1 in 5 of the population as a whole – more than half (52%) of neurodivergent professionals have either quit a job or have considered quitting because they didn’t feel supported.


Neurodiversity at work, though, shouldn’t be a cause for concern, marginalization and reduced team and organizational performance. Many teams today are embracing the topic through training and education, through mentorship, support and participation, and quickly seeing dramatic results. Not only are such efforts immediately appreciated by neurodivergent staff – sadly, they often represent their first experience of an organization committed to better including them – but by perhaps formerly cynical managers and colleagues too.


“I was sceptical about this topic”, one manager confessed to Uptimize, “but (learning about it) is the best thing I’ve seen in Leadership in 20 years”.




Want to find out more about neurodiversity at work?

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Ed Thompson Founder CEO Uptimize

Ed Thompson is the CEO and founder of Uptimize – a unique corporate training platform that helps organizations attract, hire and retain talent that thinks differently. Uptimize works globally with organizations like Salesforce, JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte and IBM, building robust and impactful neurodiversity at work programs. Ed has also become a frequent speaker on the topic of neurodiversity in the workplace. His book, A Hidden Force, is available now.

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