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Neurodiversity: The Impact of “Standard”

21st Sep 2021

A Guest Post written by Unleashed's People & Culture Partner, Pavneet Khurana, with support from the Unleashed team - and a special thank you to Holly Moon.
“When asking a former employer to honour their legal obligation to offer reasonable adjustments, I was told by a senior HR business partner "In your case I can’t think what that would be because you’re not physically disabled” for my neurodiverse conditions.” - Anonymous Unleashed Contributor

Following our recent article about the impact of microaggressions, we asked to hear your experiences so that we could point our content series in a direction guided by what would be most helpful for you. One of the respondents of our survey shared the above experience. Thank you so much to the individual who chose to share this with us. 

This, in particular, stuck with us… “You’re not physically disabled”

The individual who shared this story with us was experiencing something that, sadly, is far too common within organisations. The unseen gets dismissed. The unknown is not treated with empathy. And it’s often why neurodiverse individuals don’t feel accepted or supported within the workplace.  

Narrow definitions of how individuals act and think have formed a limited view on what we refer to as “normal”, “typical”, or “right”.  But what really is “normal” or “standard” when it comes to our minds, our thoughts, our behaviours? 

Considering that question has led us to explore the impact of these dated, rigid and exclusive “standards” in the workplace - this article focuses on how ‘standard’ can harm individuals who may identify as neurodiverse. Our intention is to help change the narrative and shed light on why difference (in all its glorious forms) adds value and how embracing individual and different ways of thinking can transform your workplace culture.

What does ‘neurodiverse’ mean?

Sociologist, Judy Singer, describes Neurodiversity as a subset of the world’s biodiversity. There is an enormous variety of life on Earth, and just like species of plants, of rock, of creature, every person has a unique combination of traits, needs, and abilities within which there is infinite variation. In the same way that we look different from one another, we have different strengths and weaknesses and there are also differences in the ways our brain reacts to certain stimuli.

Therefore, it is totally “normal” for us to be different.

When we talk about neurodiversity in the workplace, we’re describing the spectrum of difference between individuals. Every person has a range of talents, abilities and traits, meaning that they find some things easier and some more difficult than others. However for many, the variation between these can be much wider and have a significant impact on their life. 

The vast spectrum of neurodiversity includes dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, the autism spectrum and mental health. It is not a blanket term and it is important to remember that HUGE differences and variances within the list above also exist. 

It’s also important to note, not every neurodivergent person has a diagnosis even though this is the case for 10% of the population. Often neurodivergent individuals live for years with fatigue, social anxiety, or problems with concentration. Some choose to pursue a diagnosis, but not everyone does.

The impact of “standard” within organisations

Organisations have historically been designed by the majority, for the majority.

When individuals don’t commonly experience inequities, they hold a level of privilege, which means that they’re often unaware of the needs of others who don’t benefit from ‘majority norms’ in the same way, therefore continue to design for the same groups of people, not considering that others may not be able to access (or work within) our organisations in the same way. 

When we continue to do this, the gap we create between ourselves and those who are different to use becomes wider and wider.

With that in mind, it’s important that we cast a more critical eye over a traditionally patriarchal and imperialist view of what success looks like, and begin to consider how to create organisations where all people can thrive.

The definition we shared above stems from the social model of Neurodiversity, which reframes diagnoses from ‘flaws’ and ‘deficits’ to differences in strength and ability. Based on this, a neurological difference should not constitute a barrier to inclusion or access… right?

Sadly, that is not always the case. The social dynamics in many organisations which prevent inclusion for neurodiverse individuals are closely aligned to those which result in so many people feeling excluded on the basis of gender, ethnicity, culture etc. A lack of diversity at senior levels creates and perpetuates power inequities and standards of normative behaviour, which fosters cultural blind spots and a lack of awareness and understanding of the needs and experiences of neurodivergent individuals. This creates a vicious cycle where workplace practices are designed only with neurotypicals (the opposite of neurodiverse) in mind, reinforcing barriers to inclusion and access for those who don’t fit.

Failing to create an environment for neurodiverse individuals means that companies are missing opportunities left, right and centre. It doesn’t take much more than a quick google to find long lists of incredibly successful and influential individuals who think differently. Agatha Christie, Steven Spielberg, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Charles Darwin, Emily Dickenson, Mozart, Picasso, Greta Thunberg Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol all have (or are reported to have had) autism, Asperger’s, dyslexia or ADHD (source).

By challenging the way we think about and talk about “standard”, and embracing the perspective that there is no one identity, there is no standard brain, we will be able to move toward a more inclusive working world.

The impact of “standard” on individuals

Neurodiverse individuals are subject to microaggressions (read: ignorance) daily. Microaggressions, both verbal and non-verbal, can be intentional and unintentional unacceptance of individuals with differences. Lack of knowledge or understanding of various conditions, stereotyping, uncertainty as to how to interact with someone who is different, or fear of “saying the wrong thing” may cause avoidance behaviours.  

Common examples of microaggressions in this context can be:

  • “But, you don’t look disabled”
  • “Why can’t you act normal?"
  • “Isn’t there a pill you can take?
  • Making assumptions about an individual’s ability.
  • Talking in a condescending tone of voice.
  • Speaking on behalf of an individual.

‍Behaviours like this that are demeaning are rooted in stereotyping, prejudice and a sense of intolerance, which have a negative impact on the individual in question.

As Astrid McGuire, our Founder Story of the Month, describes, “it’s frightening and no one really dares to do it” (check out our full interview with Astrid McGuire here). It can be difficult for individuals to ask for support or guidance when others are not due to the fear of being perceived as “different”. Which means that often individual needs go unspoken, dismissed and unsupported. It can also be particularly difficult for individuals who have not sought out a diagnosis. We often hear, and many of us at Unleashed have experienced, that uncovering a label of some sort can be really liberating, and provide grounding for an experience of difference that has caused distress, discomfort and feelings of being divergent from the norm.

How can you meet the needs of those who are neurodiverse? 

We need to be talking about differences in needs, and not perceive anything that seems different to your definition of “normal” as a flaw. If we don’t consciously make our processes and practices inclusive, we will inevitably exclude individuals who will do nothing but enhance our organisation. 

It is important for all of us to recognise that improving accessibility and support for all people will be leaps towards creating inclusive working environments.

It’s not visible, so be curious: Surprise! Not everything that goes on in another’s mind is visible to everyone else. Just because you cannot see a person’s diversity, does not mean it is not there. Individual needs will be vastly different from one another.

As our user’s experience at the top of this article demonstrates, a neurodivergent individual is able to receive reasonable accommodations to support their ability to work well. However, (and this is why we have a huge dislike for rigid policy!) they must disclose that they have specific needs to do their best work. We like to ditch that rule and ask every individual if they require support in an individual way regardless of their diagnosis. Don’t make assumptions. 

Ask questions like the following in order to offer the right support.

  • What will enable you to do your best work?
  • Is there any additional support that you require?
  • How will I know when you need support?

Focusing on Strengths: Neurodiversity can be a competitive advantage when individuals are in an environment that is supportive of their strengths. So, put your efforts towards enhancing and strengthening the strengths that individuals bring to you, the team, the environment. 

Challenge your traditional view of “normal”: There are struggles that come with being far from “normal” and struggles that come with being almost “normal”—not to mention, ‘typical’ is hardly free of challenges! Many of us think we know what ‘normal' looks like but, we’re very limited by our own experiences and a normal experience means different things to different people. It’s so important to celebrate and learn about people's differences, what makes them unique and work to understand different perspectives. 

Champion Neurodiversity: Neurodiversity is a super power and a critical asset for organisations who need to be innovative. Who doesn’t need to be innovative these days? No one. Going back to our point earlier where we referenced organisations being built by the same people for the same people - perhaps that’s where they’ve all gone wrong. 

Hiren Shukla, Neuro-Diverse Centre of Excellence leader at EY, explained how processes that took two to three hours were reduced to just two minutes, thanks to programming by members of their neurodiverse workforce. These employees were able to see inefficiencies that neurotypical employees had either become used to or had never even noticed.

Bring in the super powers and outshine the rest.

Assume a percentage of your workplace is neurodiverse: There will be individuals within your organisation who are neurodivergent, fact. Whether this is diagnosed or not,  you should assume 1 in 5 individuals within your team have some form of neurodiversity. So, if you start to assume that a portion of your employees are neurodivergent before waiting until they tell you, you can already start to support them by creating a space for open storytelling and normalising difference. ¹

Open up the floor to storytelling: Storytelling is all about sharing your own story or someone else's where the core elements are recognised and real. When you show vulnerability, people will respond. We need to be real in what we share and avoid toxic positivity like ”my life is great, even with ADHD”. No, let’s start telling the truth and talk about some of the symptoms of neurodiversity that may have been difficult to deal with and how you can work to overcome these. This is so much more empowering, memorable, and educational for those who do not understand or are aware of your experiences.¹

Coming out as Neurodiverse is heavy:  It can be really frightening. The misconception is "Oh, yeah, but we're so open and we're OK for you to share your true self". But that's not always the case even in the most well meaning environments. We must truly prioritise creating an environment that supports open conversation where every person is continuously learning and all involved feel safe to share their superpowers.¹

‍Impact of NO ACTION on your organisation

Our approach here is not to sell neurodiversity as ‘du jour’, but to encourage leaders and organisations to redesign for every person. Re-design your processes, practices and culture to ensure that your environment is not only equitable for individuals who are neurodiverse, but are nurturing and strengthening. Here’s a little analogy to leave you on: when considering ‘how’ to redesign for all people, think of the toilet. Don’t “add” in a disabled toilet that is exclusively for the use of some individuals, and not others, that can create long cues, that requires additional effort to use - redesign all of your toilets so that all people can use them well. 
Disclaimer: at Unleashed, we don’t claim to be experts in neurodiversity. However, we want to encourage our readers to embrace an inclusive attitude and approach to supporting all individuals within your organisation.

We're working to raise awareness and educate our audience and our clients on workplace discrimination - and in particular, the experiences of microaggressions and the impact this is having on individuals. If you’d like to share any of your own stories of microaggressions in the workplace, please click here. Your submissions will be anonymous unless you wish to be known.

Pavneet Khurana, Hannah Keal + Holly Moon

Contributor: ¹ McGuire, Astrid. Interview. By Holly Moon. 30 July 2021.

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