Neurodiversity: The Impact On The Workforce

Shehzadi Aziz

October 04, 2020

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Society still has a tendency to group people into categories like "normal," "abnormal," "common," and "weird." Historically, this is even more so - conditions like Autism and ADHD were previously more often thought of in a negative manner than a positive one.

However, from the wider disability and autism rights movement emerged the neurodiversity paradigm. The neurodiversity paradigm comes from the idea that people with conditions like autism, ADHD and dyspraxia do not necessarily have behavioural "problems" that need to be cured, rather that they reflect the variety of ways a human brain can work. Despite failing to meet societal expectations in terms of their behaviour, these individuals often also hold exceptional skills in some aspects of life and work that are often overlooked. For example, people with ADHD are often stereotyped as lazy and undisciplined. It is true that individuals with this impairment find it more difficult to focus for a prolonged amount of time; however, people with ADHD also tend to have the ability to "hyperfocus" and "hyperfixate" on something that they are intensely interested in, often resulting in amazing projects or knowledge about a particular thing. This, of course, goes hand in hand with Albert Einstein's famous quote: "Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid."

People with neurodivergent conditions may also be referred to as neuro minorities, whereas their counterparts are often referred to as neurotypical. This is different from the normal vs abnormal separation because the term neurotypical does not claim there is such a thing as normal, just that individuals who aren't neuro minorities have not been found to have a neurodivergent condition. Some may reject the existence of neurotypicality altogether, but this is just a label used alternatively to "normal." The idea of neurodivergence also does not undermine the fact that many people may still struggle with more severe cases of dyslexia or dyspraxia and so may not wish to be seen as gifted.

In terms of the way that people with neurodivergent conditions are treated in the job market, there still unfortunately is a significant gap between the employment of people with conditions like ADHD, dyslexia and autism compared to neurotypicals. A commonly used study found that unemployment runs as high as 80% (though this figure also includes people with more severe conditions who may not be counted as neurodivergent). This is a frightening statistic that points to the financial instability and other obstacles that the neurodivergent community likely faces as a result. Nevertheless, many companies are making positive changes to not only accommodate but also bring out the best of neurodivergent employees. In addition, it can be difficult to understand things like ADHD and Autism if you do not have these conditions yourself, but the media has allowed for the amplification of neurodivergent voices to help people understand how neuro-minorities' brains work compared to neurotypicals.

In The Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn't Designed for You, Jenara Nerenberg writes about her experience as a sensitive neurodivergent woman. Her book draws attention to the undermining of neurodivergent women, with many sample sizes in psychological studies being overwhelmingly male. She also writes about the experiences she has had in trying to manage her symptoms while maintaining a career and raising a family. In chapter 7 on "Work," Nerenberg discusses her struggles:

"My sense of overwhelm and brain fog was like nothing I had ever experienced, and I was again fired after just six months. A year later I took a low-paying job in a more arts orientated organization--thinking that was where I would find ‘my people' -- but instead I was burdened with administrative tasks. Again, I was fired after a month. The hardest part throughout the trails of these various jobs was the overwhelming sense of loss, confusion, loneliness and uselessness I felt."

Despite the tragic nature of this account, Nerenberg then goes on to tell her readers how her experience with failure led her to start the Neurodiversity Project, to support neuro-minorities and enhance awareness about neurodiversity in the media, academia and so on. The impact of projects like hers should not be underestimated - as awareness of neurodiversity grows, companies become more knowledgeable about how to adjust the workplace for some neurodivergent employees. Outlined in both her article and book, Nerenberg details aspects of workplace design such as open-office spaces vs. private spaces, large windows for sunlight exposure that actually help candidates with ADHD focus, as well as roles that involve less linear thinking and instead more creativity and linear thinking. In addition, Harvard Business Review reports have found that multinational companies such as SAP are working hard to help hire more neurodivergent people and bring out the best in these employees. For instance, SAP have entered multiple social partnerships with state rehabilitation centres and NGO's.

Nevertheless, much more progress needs to be made in research, education, the healthcare system and more institutions in society in order for real progress to continue. Equally, amidst the growth of opportunities for neurodivergent individuals, the struggles that many of them may face in school, family, and in building connections with people are still very real. If the job market goes from seeing neurodivergent candidates as an "inconvenience" to seeing them as a means for enhancing the power of businesses and corporations, then neuro-minorities may also risk having their struggles undermined or having their creativity exploited.

Overall, perhaps the future is looking more positive for neurodivergent individuals and their careers as awareness and understanding of neurodiversity grows, but there remain many more steps to be taken in making a change.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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