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What’s normal and why we shouldn’t strive for it

​Whilst many businesses know that neurodiversity can be highly valuable, much of the wider workplace population remains stuck in the concept that neurodiverse differences are in fact neurodevelopmental disorders that hinder rather than help a business. It may initially be difficult to fully welcome individuals who have particular support needs, but the benefits of employing those whose brains are wired a little differently whilst abundant in strengths, talents and skills, are still being overlooked.

Neurodiversity includes those with cognitive conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and selective mutism, but actually they just think and/or process information differently. The opposite of being neurodiverse is coined ‘neurotypical’ and we often assume the latter is the ‘normal’ way to experience the world.

Let’s challenge the view that fitting the mould is the ideal – it’s somewhat similar to regarding being ‘straight’ as the norm.

As human beings we tend to need people to fit in, and those that don’t are often regarded as ‘different’ and therefore to be treated in an exclusionary, or at least an exceptional, way. This is a flawed belief.

“Neurodiversity refers to differences in the human brain when it comes to all aspects of cognitive neuroscience from emotions to development, learning, attention and mood. The neuro-diverse brain may take a little longer to develop neural networks, or those networks may not switch off quickly enough, or there may be a slower release of neurotransmitters. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, distinctive brain differences and unique needs, but for people who are neuro-diverse these variations can result in both challenges which can often be overcome, but more importantly impressive talent that should be valued.”

Dr Lynda Shaw, neuroscientist and business psychologist

It’s estimated up to 10% of people in the UK have some degree of dyslexia. According to the National Autistic Society 700,000 people are on the autistic spectrum in the UK but just 16% are in full-time work, despite 77% of those unemployed saying they wanted to work. 28% of long-term unemployed are dyslexic.

Why labelling can be a problem

Workers with neurodiversity may have a cognitive profile that is not the same as others’, but they often have unique strengths that emanate from thinking differently. Keeping intersectionality at the forefront is very important because someone with dyslexia is likely to have a whole host of other rich identities and talents – they may be an incredible musician, a single dad, be super creative and so on. Intersectionality relates to how different parts of our identity come together and make us unique and how this influences our interactions with the world, as well as how the world interacts with us. Labelling someone – for instance, ‘she’s autistic’ – is an oversimplification that increases discrimination and can lead to a kind of expungement.

Why is neurodiversity so important to business?

There are many corporations like Dell, GCHQ and Microsoft that actively source neurodivergent talent for their incredible skills. They value people who think differently. More widely, businesses are realising they need diversity because it gives them greater insight into different perspectives, attitudes and beliefs, and helps us fight against ignorance and prejudice. Diversity promotes individuality, different alternate thinking styles, fosters a healthier and more creative work environment, promotes new thinking, leads to better understanding and inclusion, reduces stereotypes, promotes respect, encourages employees to bring their authentic selves to work and is also not bad for brand reputation.

Someone who is neurodiverse may bring incredible lateral thinking, analysis, consistency and innovation to the table. They may be more resilient, have an advanced ability to pay attention to complex details, a phenomenal memory, and often excel at repetitive tasks. Autism can be ideal for numerous roles, bringing structure and consistency.

How can we support neurodiverse colleagues?

  1. Create neuro-inclusive recruitment drives to generate opportunities for individuals who may have been overlooked. Knowing how you can benefit from building a neurodiverse team and acting upon it is key from the offset. Check for unconscious bias seeking identikit employees and look for individuals who bring something new.

  2. Have a welcoming and supportive working environment in which all team members can thrive, are supported and valued, where stigma is challenged and discrimination, harassment, victimisation or a lack of inclusion will not be tolerated.

  3. Encourage openness, transparency and disclosure from senior neurodiverse role models and leaders. Encourage conversations about neurodiversity to raise awareness and develop understanding. Develop strategies to help staff feel comfortable to disclose their particularities.

  4. Establish a neurodiversity support toolkit and have clear signposting of who to go to for help. Mental health is another element of neurodiversity and environments which are psychologically unsafe can be very traumatising. Working to create truly safe spaces benefits everyone.

  5. Provide training for staff who are unfamiliar with neurodiversity to help them understand their colleagues’ experiences. Using appropriate language when discussing difference will avoid causing offence.

  6. Ask for feedback from neurodivergent colleagues and involve them in any change process.

  7. Have strategies to identify, meet and fund reasonable adjustment requirements. Ensure flexible workplace arrangements are in place.

  8. Be proactive ahead of transition periods that occur as a result of unforeseen change, new employment etc., so that any potential bumps in the road can be identified ahead of time. Unexpected changes can be very disruptive for those who thrive in a steady and predictable environment.

  9. Choose to be results orientated. Rather than focusing on the importance of the process which gets us there, aim for good practice, excellent results and a thriving team.

  10. Recognise neurodiverse candidates are premium candidates and need to be empowered, not offered a job as a token goodwill or reputation-building gesture.

There is a theory that early survival of the human species was achieved through those with the highest sensitivities to danger being the leaders. These were, in today’s words, those with neural wiring in their brains which enabled them to take quick action in the face of danger. Perhaps it’s the neurodiverse who are normal and the rest of us who are ‘different’!


Thom Dennis | Serenity in Leadership |

Serenity in Leadership has been transforming organisational cultures for the last 26 years. We believe in a future where employees and employers reflect on and take responsibility for the impact of their decisions on others.