Neurodiversity is the final frontier in equality, diversity and inclusion. Although most employers recognise the benefits of diversity in the workplace, few are transforming the workplace to support neurodivergent individuals, including people who are autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic or have other cognitive differences. Neurodivergent individuals remain a largely untapped and overlooked pool of cognitively diverse talent. However, employers are beginning to recognise the many competitive advantages and benefits of actively recruiting, hiring, and empowering neurodivergent individuals in the workplace.
Cognitive diversity in the workplace improves productivity, increases innovation and broadens skills sets. According to EY’s head of recruiting for the Middle East and North Africa, some autistic, dyslexic and dyspraxic employees rank in the top 2% of employees in certain skills and business areas, such as IT technical skills or attention to detail in the assurance business. When J.P. Morgan hired autistic employees, it found that they were 50% more productive and learned faster than neurotypical employees.
However, due to low awareness, deeply entrenched stereotypes and misconceptions about cognitive differences, most employers are not adequately attracting, recruiting and retaining neurodivergent talent. In addition, traditional recruiting, hiring and management practices often include hidden obstacles that impede or block diverse talent and skilled people from obtaining positions in workplaces where they could thrive. Furthermore, since approximately 20% of the population is neurodivergent, most employers currently have cognitive diverse individuals within their workforce. These invisible employees are likely to face multiple unseen barriers that can prevent them from achieving their full potential in the workplace. In order to address these challenges, employers will have to consider how to integrate a broad range of people with differences in how they act, think and are motivated, including neuro-atypical individuals who display variances in brain function and behavioural traits through autism, dyslexia, ADHD, and other neurodevelopmental conditions.
When I was 16 years old, I sought to address some of the similar challenges and barriers that I faced in education. As someone who is autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic and has ADHD, I struggled to achieve my academic potential. Much like the workplace, the school system is rigged against neurodivergent individuals. It is designed in a way to set us up to falter and fail. The chronic underfunding and lack of neurodiversity staff training in schools meant that I was not diagnosed until much later than I should have been. Worse yet, since classroom teachers do not receive any training on how to identify and support neurological differences, most relied on outdated and harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about autism and learning differences.
As a consequence, my parents were told I could not be dyslexic because I could read (when in reality I had visually memorized the words). Instead, I was repeatedly told I was careless and lazy. Despite having significant sensory sensitivities and being relentlessly bullied and ostracized for being a “freak” and a “weirdo,” the possibility that I could be autistic was never explored because I was a well-behaved girl. Instead, my teachers referred to me as a drama queen for complaining that wearing the school uniform was physically painful. I was also repeatedly told that I brought about the bullying because I was antisocial and I didn’t make enough effort to fit in. Growing up, I heard the message loud and clear. There was no room for anyone who was different. Everyone was expected to be homogenous and to think, learn and act alike.
Although my eventual diagnosis came as a welcome relief that finally provided an explanation as to why I was so different, it opened the door to another series of challenges and obstacles. I now had an answer to why I struggled with things that came so naturally to others. Yet, much to my dismay, my diagnosis did not change anything at school. I was still misunderstood, unsupported and left to fend for myself in a hostile environment that treated neurodivergent students as expendable burdens. Worse yet, some teachers succumbed to their prejudices by lowering their expectations and writing me off. Despite becoming a high-achieving student, I was often underestimated and held back as if my future held less value and promise.
I launched Neurodiversity Celebration Week in 2018 to challenge harmful misconceptions and stereotypes about neurological differences. To bring about change so that future generations of neurodivergent students will have equal access to education. I sought to flip the narrative from perceiving neurodevelopmental conditions as a one dimensional deficit to also recognizing the accompanying attributes, strengths and talents. I wanted to emphasize that although some neurodivergent students may not flourish in the rigid confines of the classroom, their cognitive difference will be the key to a successful career. I felt it was time to highlight that our ability to think outside the box, innovative problem solving skills, creativity and unconventional perspectives have revolutionized the world we live in. I wanted to celebrate our accomplishments and to remind neurodivergent youth that they have an important role in the world. Imagine a world without the contributions of giants like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, James Dyson and Einstein. I also wanted to address the lack of neurodiversity training in schools by providing classroom teachers with free downloadable resources and opportunities to learn how to better understand, identify and support their neurodivergent students.
There are currently over 1,500 schools and 965,000 students worldwide registered to take part in Neurodiversity Celebration Week 2022. Last year, over 300 businesses, charities and government agencies took part, including the UK Royal Navy, the Ministry of Defence, BUPA, Savills, Deloitte and AstraZeneca. Although we still have a long way to go, the landscape and mindsets are slowly beginning to change. As more employers begin to change their false perception of neurological differences and are starting to recognise the accomplishments, contributions, talents and unique skill sets of neurodivergent individuals, they are moving towards developing and implementing strategies to overcome neurodiversity barriers. In doing so, we are edging closer towards conquering the last diversity frontier and creating truly diverse and inclusive workplaces for all.
Siena Castellon | www.neurodiversity-celebration-week.com
Siena Castellon is a 19-year-old multi-award winning neurodiversity advocate, bestselling award-winning author, a UN Young Leader for the SDGs and founder of Neurodiversity Celebration Week, an international initiative that challenges stereotypes and misconceptions about neurological differences by highlighting the strengths and accomplishments of the neurodivergent community. Siena is the author of The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide: How To Grow Up Awesome and Autistic, which won a 2021 Silver Nautilus Book Award and the First Place 2021 Purple Dragonfly Book Award. Siena is also the author of The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Toolkit: The Workbook for Autistic Girls. Siena has won numerous international awards for her advocacy, including the 2021 Common Wealth Youth Award, and the Campaigner of the Year at the European Diversity Awards. In 2020, Siena was a finalist for the International Children’s Peace Prize. Siena is an engineering student at Stanford University.