What is neurodiversity and why should you care about it?
I sat at the back of the room, staring out of the window. Everyone else was busy tapping away at their keyboards, occasionally looking up to the screen at the front, or asking Andy, the IT manager, a question.
Andy was training us on a new system at the advertising agency where I worked. He noticed I wasn't doing anything.
"Are you OK?" he said.
"Yes, I'm fine thanks," I replied.
"Have you finished?"
And then he left me to stare out of the window again.
I am used to this. Finishing a task before everyone else. Getting through my work quickly. But also feeling like I couldn't do the simplest of things, and not understanding why I always felt so left out.
I have autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which are two neurodiverse conditions. Others include dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dypraxia. All of these conditions are neurodevelopmental, which means we're born with them and they don't go away – although we might get better at coping with them. That's a key difference between a neurodiverse condition and a mental health issue – mental illnesses can fluctuate a great deal and it is possible to recover from them. But neurodiverse differences are lifelong.
There are no reliable statistics on how many people have a neurodiverse condition, but you probably know at least one neurodiverse person, maybe even a few. Diagnosis rates vary between countries, as do diagnostic criteria. Women and girls are much less likely to be diagnosed, particularly with autism and ADHD. Race can play a part too, with black people less likely to get an accurate diagnosis. Some people don't find out until quite late in life that they have a neurodiverse condition.
People with neurodiverse conditions are usually classified as disabled. We are also categorised as having special needs, learning difficulties or disorders. But some of us with these conditions don't feel like they're a disability or disorder at all! We feel that, while they definitely present challenges, they also come with unique strengths and abilities.
As a neurodiversity coach and consultant, I work one-on-one with business people and entrepreneurs who have one (or more) of these conditions. I help them not only face the difficulties these conditions might bring, but also make the most of the things they're good at. I also train organisations to show how people with these conditions are actually an asset to the companies where they work, rather than a liability. Having ADHD and autism myself means I have a first-hand understanding of what it feels like to be neurodiverse, and of the accommodations that make our lives easier.
Every neurodiverse individual is different, and our conditions can vary a lot. It's possible to have more than one neurodiverse diagnosis, and it's also possible to have additional conditions, such as learning difficulties or a physical disability. All of us have challenges with executive dysfunction, which means we have trouble doing tasks, activities or projects – even (or especially) those which neurotypical people (those without conditions) find easy. Most of us also tend to be very sensitive, open-minded and kind.
Each condition comes with specific key characteristics.
- In autism, these are difficulties with social communication and interaction (with neurotypical people), obsessive interests and rigidity.
- People with ADHD have trouble with planning, focus and time management.
- Dyslexia is characterised by challenges with reading and writing.
- Dyspraxic people have difficulty with movement and sequences.
- People with dyscalculia have trouble with numbers.
Each of those challenges comes with a benefit – and in the workplace, the benefit will generally outweigh the challenge.
For example, you might find the way an autistic talks to be strange, but the advantage of that is that we tend to always be clear in our communication, because we're not very good at nuance or euphemisms. Our love of order and logic will extend to a methodical way of working, and a commitment to doing every job properly.
You might think an ADHD person is unable to focus. But one of our strengths is that we can hyperfocus – and when we do that, we're able to work much faster than our peers. People with ADHD are also good at multi-tasking and work well under pressure.
A dyslexic might need extra support because of their challenges with reading and writing. But you will find that they sometimes work faster because of their ability to detect patterns, make connections, think visually and understand spatial information in a way that others can't.
Sometimes companies fear that employing a neurodiverse person might be difficult and expensive. They fear that the adaptations the neurodiverse employee requires will have a negative effect on the rest of the workplace. But actually, research shows the reverse is true. Inclusive workplaces have lower staff absence and improved performance (Harvard Business Review, 2019). When you make an accommodation for one individual, the entire workplace benefits.
59% of adaptations that are made for neurodiverse employees cost nothing at all (US Job Accommodation Network). Many of the remainder are low-cost and easy to implement. Being inclusive towards neurodiverse people doesn't have to be expensive. And others benefit from these adaptations – for example, allowing staff to work flexibly benefits all kinds of people, not just the neurodiverse.
And the economic benefits are enormous. Neurodiverse employees are a staggering 30% to 50% more productive than neurotypical people (Harvard Business Review, JPMorgan). This is due to our ability to learn very quickly, and work to our strengths. Being productive is down to our creativity, insight and incredible problem-solving skills.
The biggest advantage of understanding neurodiversity is that having a variety of people in your workplace who understand and play to each other's strengths multiplies the individual advantages – and that extends to neurotypical people too. Working in teams, you might have an autistic person paired with someone with ADHD so they can inspire, balance and support each other, or you could have someone who is very detail-focused working alongside a dyslexic, so that together, they can produce extraordinary work.
So if you've been thinking about being more inclusive to neurodiverse people, now is the time. Like everyone else, we have specific needs and we may have challenges – but those are far, far outweighed by the enormous benefits.
Author: Rachel Morgan-Trimmer is a neurodiverse coach and consultant who runs training workshops online and worldwide for companies who want to be more inclusive. www.sparkleclass.com
Series Editors: Ezree Ebrahim, Head Business Development (Healthcare), Absolute Health Group. For Further information, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Christopher F. Bruton, Executive Director, Dataconsult Ltd, email@example.com Dataconsult’s Thailand Regional Forum provides seminars and extensive documentation to update business on future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.