Neurodiversity – What is it?

Neurodiversity describes the range of differences in individual brain function. These differences reflect a normal variation in the human population. The term neurodiversity was coined in 1998 by Australian sociologist Judy Singer (who is autistic) and has gained a lot of attention in recent years. The neurodiversity movement was spearheaded to encourage the inclusion of ‘neurological minorities’. The term was originally used to describe autism but has since evolved into an umbrella term and includes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and other learning disabilities (this is not an exhaustive list).

Neurological differences were previously (and still in some places) viewed as medical deficits that needed to be treated or cured. The focus on treatment and cures has shifted to acceptance and accommodation. Just like all other human traits, neurological functioning differs between individuals. It is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Neurodiversity rejects the idea that there is one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning and behaving.

People whose brain functioning is considered to be the social norm are called neurotypical. People whose brain functioning deviates from what is considered ‘typical’, i.e., having traits of autism, dyslexia, or ADHD, are called neuroatypical or neurodivergent.

Neurodiversity does not only recognise that brain functioning differs between people, but also puts forward the idea that these differences can be beneficial. For example, the American bank, JPMorgan Chase, offers an ‘Autism at Work’ programme. The employees in this programme have been found to be approximately 90 to 140 per cent more productive than neurotypical employees and make fewer errors. It is important to note that while the neurodiversity movement celebrates neurodivergent brains, it does not disregard the struggles and difficulties that neurodivergent people can often face.

Neurodiversity in the workplace:

Many environments like workplaces were set up by neurotypical people and therefore may not meet the needs of neurodivergent people. Understanding and embracing neurodiversity in the workplace can make a more inclusive work environment for everyone. Here are some simple accommodations that can help to foster an inclusive working environment:

  • Neurodiversity awareness training – Stigma and lack of awareness can have harmful impacts on neurodivergent employees. Awareness training programmes allow employees to develop an awareness and understanding of their neurodivergent colleagues. Suitable training also allows employees to become comfortable in talking about neurodiversity.
  • Sensory needs – Some neurodivergent people may experience sensory challenges. Offering accommodations like noise-blocking headphones, modifications to the work uniform (if applicable), lighting modifications and extra movement breaks can help to meet their sensory needs.
  • Ask, don’t assume – There is huge variability within the neurodiverse population. No two neurodivergent brains are the same. It is therefore important to ask people their individual preferences and needs rather than making an assumption about what their needs could be.
  • Utilise different communication styles – Consider peoples preferred communication styles. There are numerous communication channels available that can ensure accessibility for all employees. For example, some people may prefer to communicate on a call rather than an in-person meeting and vice versa.

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    Anna McLoughlin

    Digital Wellbeing Specialist @ Wrkit