Neurodiversity – the overlooked talents of people who think differently

12th May 2020

During a recent workshop, a client asked me about neorodiversity within the context of Equality and Diversity Legislation and best practice.

I regularly help clients to consider their responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010 and to make reasonable adjustments where ‘physical or mental impairments have a substantial and long term adverse effect on ability to carry out day to day activities’. So this should have been a straightforward question to answer, but it wasn’t.

Neurodiversity is a really important and somewhat overlooked aspect of Equality and Diversity. Is this due to lack of knowledge, fear, ignorance or an unconscious bias? It is likely to be a combination of all of these. The term refers to the diversity of human brain functioning and people’s individual neurocognitive functioning – people who have, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Autism, ADHD and other neurological conditions.

Neurodiversity and gender biased diagnosis

It is estimated that around 1 in 7 people (more than 15% of people in the UK) are neurodivergent. Importantly, these figures are predominantly males, as the diagnosis of neurodevelopmental conditions remains far greater in males than females. We are beginning to see an increase in girls and women coming forward to be diagnosed, but many women are well into adulthood before being diagnosed and by then will have missed social, educational and employment opportunities, struggling in life with little or no support.

The predominance of diagnosed male neurodivergents may be due to females masking their conditions and finding coping strategies at a very early age, copying the behaviours of neurotypical girls. Author Liane Holliday Willey, in her autobiagraphy ‘Pretending to be normal’, describes her struggles with Aspergers and how she “figured out how to play the neurotypical game” identifying her ‘differences’ from an early age and camouflaging social difficulties and adopting coping strategies.

Sadly camouflaging takes a lot of effort and energy and can result in mental health struggles.

Neurodivergent women can take longer to diagnose because of their coping strategy and are often misdiagnosed with conditions such as anorexia, bulimia nervosa and personality disorders, by psychiatric professionals who are unexperienced in neurodiversity testing. More detailed information on this can be found in the referenced link ‘where have all the girls gone, missed, misunderstood or misdiagnosed.

The Equality Act and neurodivergence

A person’s neurodivergence may be regarded as a disability and therefore a ‘Protected Characteristic’ under the Equality Act 2010 but what about undiagnosed neurodivergents? Have they struggled with their cognitive differences without any support, often misperceived as ‘strange’, ‘odd’, or ‘different’; not fitting into neurotypical behaviour patterns?

The question asked during that workshop prompted me to take a deeper look at neurodiversity and how I can better support businesses to proactively plan their workplaces and spaces to ensure neurodivergence becomes a fully embedded part of inclusion strategy. Some of the best practice in managing neurodiversity needs more specialised HR approaches than typically applied, these are often simple and incredibly effective.

Despite many workplaces being neurodiverse, there is still a widespread lack of understanding which can lead to misperceptions, stereotyping and potential loss of employees that feel under-supported and unhappy.

Why recruiting neurodivergents makes good business sense

Neurodivergents are typically overrepresented among the long-term unemployed and many have never secured employment for themselves. It is time to take a look at our people management strategies and learn lessons from organisations that have taken a far more proactive approach to attract neurodivergents into the workplace. They demonstrate that with the right support neurodivergents can work very effectively, in their own way, maximising results for themselves and for the business.

The variants in neurocognition offer brilliance which includes: innovative problem-solving; creative insights; visual spatial thinking; attention to detail; lateral thinking; problem solving recall, to name a few. Neurodivergents have skills and abilities that are sought by progressive companies.

It is important to remember that everyone will be different and we must be careful not to stereotype, even where we are talking in a positive tense about abilities and strengths.

Neurodivergents will share some common traits in they way they learn and process information and this can be useful for determining strategies for effective management within the workplace. Taking a look at the strategies you have in place to ensure a fully inclusive workforce will not only attract great talent, but may also help undiagnosed neurodivergent staff already within your business find new ways of personally thriving.

If we think about how organisations have really changed, in terms of equality, over the last twenty to thirty years, then it is encouraging and exciting to think about the advances we can make to creating fair and equal opportunities for neurodivergents. With low cost, easy to implement changes organisations, can become places where ‘individuals who think differently’ can personally thrive, contributing to creating high performing future facing, innovative and creative organisations.

Simple steps, powerful outcomes

It is often an unintentional exclusion of neurodiversity that is the problem so what can businesses do to make sure there is full inclusion for neurodivergents? There are key areas that managers need to look at.