Neurodiversity: How can we do better?
TJ talks to three experts about neurodiversity: how it affects people and why leaders should embrace it
Neurodiversity includes conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia and refers to differences in the human brain relating to emotions, learning, mood, attention and development. Over 1% of us are on the autistic spectrum, 10% of us are dyslexic, 10% are dyspraxic and 3% - 4% of adults have diagnosed ADHD.
We talked to three experts in neurodiversity to understand more about how we can do better to support neurodivergent individuals in the learning and development sector. Caitie Glover is 17 and has dyslexia and dyscalculia and is already running her own successful tutoring business, Syper Education, with seven people already hired. Her mother, Naomi Glover, is an applied neuroscience and brain health specialist, recently diagnosed with ADHD. She runs Neuro-Informed Ltd, a training, coaching and consultancy company for forward thinking organisations. Thom Dennis, CEO of Serenity in Leadership, is an expert facilitator and culture integration and leadership specialist, whose mission is to create harmonious, productive and equal workplaces with diversity and inclusion actively embedded at every level.
How has neurodiversity affected your life?
Neurodiversity affects everyone’s life in that we all have strengths and weaknesses. Being neurodivergent means that we have more extreme strengths and weaknesses. Being neurodivergent affects you in many ways – I struggled in primary school in particular, and lost confidence due to getting left behind. Then I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia. Fortunately, I was able to increase my confidence and academic achievements by learning cognitive strategies that addressed my challenges. I also developed skills such as perseverance and problem solving alongside strengths that come with being neurodivergent. Specifically, I combined my ability to hyper-focus with entrepreneurialskills and started my own business, when I was 11.
All individuals benefit from a strengths-based approach to development, but for neurodivergent people this approach is even more important
How does your training business help with learning?
A large proportion of the population are neurodivergent and most of us went through similar problems at school such as being labelled a ‘naughty or dreamy child’. I wanted to look at different ways of using technology to identify dyslexia early which gained a lot of traction as people identified with the problems I shared. I later started tutoring neurodivergent children in primary and lower secondary. The students respond well because they are being helped by someone who they can relate to, both because of age and because they’ve had similar challenges. Now I have recruited seven student tutors and we teach students from age six to 16. Pupils benefit from having innovative ways to learn that suit them as neurodivergent individuals and give them new strategies to help them succeed academically and develop confidence. We are also role models to them as people with neurodivergence who have succeeded within the education system.
What is your best piece of advice for helping neurodivergent people learn?
Educate yourself about how they might learn best and teach them about their brains. Understanding how to help yourself learn is the most empowering thing. If you are dyslexic, you might have advanced logical skills. If you are autistic, you may not want to have direct eye contact, but you might have increased focus. Ask the student how they would like to learn and what is going to work for them alongside spaced repetition, memory palace, scaffolding techniques or simply asking them if they want to stand rather than sit while doing a task.
Do you have any top tips about how we can work with the neurodiverse brain rather than against it in the learning and development industry?
Historically there has been little training about neurodiversity. This applies to teacher training, HR and L&D training or leadership training. There is good evidence to suggest that all individuals benefit from a strengths-based approach to development, but for neurodivergent people this approach is even more important.
Interventions like VIA Character Strengths from positive neuroscience and positive psychology are useful and well-evidenced. “We need to focus on where each individual adds most value, whilst giving them any support they need so they gain confidence, develop resilience and succeed for themselves and the business.
What can learning and development leaders do to help colleagues with neurodiversity?
A lot can be learnt from schools that are supporting young people with neurodivergence well. At school there is a SENCo (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) who is responsible for those students with learning differences or disability, but in most organisations whilst there may be an inclusion specialist and perhaps coaches, it is unlikely there will be experts in neurodivergence who have solutions and strategies to support neurodivergent individuals to overcome specific challenges and really leverage their talents.
Training all colleagues about neurodiversity would be a great start. Not everyone can think on the spot; someone with dyslexia might want to go away and be more analytical then come back with feedback. People with ADHD might come up with a lot of different solutions very quickly. Outdated management training emphasised the importance of body language, but we now understand that lack of eye-contact does not make someone untrustworthy. It’s also important to have quiet spaces or flexible working practices wherever possible.
Create meeting practices that support all staff to contribute at their best. Perhaps clarify the agenda to help colleagues to stay focused and give alternate opportunities to those who find it hard to speak out in a group. This will also benefit anyone with mental health challenges or who could be experiencing brain fog, perhaps from long Covid, or even the menopause. Train all leaders and managers to design meetings, interviews and working practices that are accessible to all, that improve organisational trust and psychological safety. Compared to low-trust companies, individuals at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 50% higher productivity, 76% more engagement and 40% less burnout, they even report being 29% more satisfied with life. It’s absolutely the way forward.
In your experience do leaders still believe that there isn’t a business case for hiring people with neurodiversity?
There is still a lack of understanding around neurodiversity, a belief that these employees will somehow make it difficult for everyone else rather than enrich an organisation. Over 80% of autistic adults are unemployed and 28% of long-term unemployed are dyslexic which is unforgivable because these very individuals are likely to have unique talents and their ability to think differently can be highly valuable if harnessed.
What skills do people with neurodiversity bring to the workplace?
Perhaps colleagues with neurodiversity may need more time to complete a project or want to work different hours, but the advantages heavily outweigh any slight shift in extra support when you benefit from their abundant strengths, abilities, talents, lateral thinking, analysis and consistency. They may be more resilient, pay great attention to intricate details, have an exceptional memory, and thrive at repetitive, structured work as just a few examples.
Leaders who want to foster a healthier, more inclusive work environment will naturally value neurodiversity, appreciate original ideas, alternative viewpoints and innovative thinking and want their team to bring their genuine selves to work whilst at the same time seeing the benefits to the bottom-line. They will also avoid labelling and stereotyping and can check themselves for unconscious bias. Great leaders want to cater to the individual and do their best for every member of the team to get the very best out of them. They themselves should be open and transparent about their own uniqueness and champion discussion, raise awareness and foster understanding. They should also include neurodivergent co-workers when making plans for any changes for the better.
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