Different Thinking About Neurodiversity


By Isabelle St-Jean

While diversity is increasingly recognized as both a competitive differentiator and primary driver of engagement and productivity, it has become a common aspiration for organizations.

As an ideal it speaks to the harmonious potential of people of various ages from diverse backgrounds with diverse abilities working together in synergy. Leaders know the importance of core culture, but have come to realize that each culture and generation carries unique strengths that bring further strength and resilience. A diverse workforce as such can come together to draw on collective intelligence and foster excellence.

Over the past decade, the breadth of diversity in the workplace has grown more inclusive, especially in regards to people with physical disabilities, creating opportunities for organizations and individuals alike.

Neurodiversity Redefines Notions of Normal

However, one category that continues to struggle to find their place of belonging in the world of work are those whose ‘disabilities’ are neurological. The disability label itself is misleading, as people with neurologically diverse abilities have much to offer.

Fortunately, through extensive research on the brain in recent years, we have come to recognize the full scope of our neuro-diversity. Indeed, the spectrum of normalcy for this vital organ is much wider and expansive than previously thought. Moreover, we know now that aspects of brain function can change in accordance with focus, habitual activity and environment. This allows us to better grasp the implications of brain plasticity and neuro-diversity alike.

By recognizing mental ‘normalcy’ as a largely illusory label, we are far better equipped to redefine the potential of other neurologically differentiations. Rather than regarding attention deficit disorder, dyslexia or autism as mental illnesses or the results of abnormality, we can adjust our perspectives accordingly.

Great Strengths Within ‘Different’ Thinking

Although these neurological differences may present certain challenges, they also imply remarkable abilities. For example, it is commonly known that most people who have autism tend to have less social and emotional intelligence, and are therefore challenged by interpersonal relations. However, their ability to focus on details, memorize and integrate information in their fields of interest can be outstanding. How much so? Ask Albert Einstein.

Much of what comprises our definition of normal in the world was created by people who thought differently. In his book, Neurodiversity, Thomas Armstrong, PhD uses a clever analogy to help us understand our own biases when it comes to what we consider “normal”.

A Rose By Any Other Name?

Armstrong encourages us to consider the world of flowers. What if we were to decide that the rose embodied the epitome of what a flower should be? What then would we say about the elegant simplicity of the Calla Lilly—which is odourless and consists of one petal swirling around its pistil? Is that really any less of a flower? Surely not.

How is it then, that we can appreciate the diversity in flowers, yet struggle with our own interpersonal relations. Armstrong’s recommendation is obvious. We need to better appreciate that people have diverse and complementary abilities that can be of tremendous use across a wide variety of occupations.

Specialisteme: Autism an Asset

By better understanding the gifts and assets across the spectrum of neuro-diversity, we can connect them to specifically suitable roles to increase employee satisfaction and productivity.
One of the best known examples of this kind of workplace is a Danish software company called Specialisteme where the company prides itself in having about 75 per cent of their employees with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. Specialisteme is owned by The Specialist People Foundation whose mission is to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges through social entrepreneurship, corporate sector engagement and a global change in mindset. Instead of seeing dysfunction, the company saw the opportunity to put their autistic employees’ enhanced perceptual functioning and attention to small details to work on software development and testing for ‘bugs’. These are two areas that task neurotypical individuals with their difficulty and tedium alike.

While leading the way, Specialisteme and other organizations such as the Technical Standards and Safety Authority are fostering greater awareness and providing information to individuals and employers about neurodiverse conditions. By making a few simple accommodations and reasonable adjustments to the working environment, people on the autism spectrum can develop their full potential while being productive and having a positive experience at work.

Da Vinci’s Gift Revisited

Likewise, dyslexia is another version of neurodiversity which is still largely misunderstood. Although we commonly thought of as a learning disability affecting reading, math, and writing, dyslexia is actually a kind of mental functioning with hidden strengths, in addition to the more obvious challenges. In his book, The Gift of Dyslexia, Dr. Ron Davis, identifies these abilities: sharpened intuition, insightfulness, imagination, awareness of one’s environment, enhanced creativity, multi-dimensional perception, and pictorial thinking.

Given this definition, how many are surprised to find history filled with, and in many cases created, by great dyslexics who were geniuses in their field: Leonardo Da Vinci, Winston Churchill and Walt Disney to name just a few. Moreover, these brilliant people did not have the benefit of the assistive software available today to counteract the challenges of dyslexia at work or at school.

Inclusivity Ennobles Us All

Lastly, speaking from the personal side, as the mother of a young man on the mild end of the autism spectrum, I am relieved to see the diversity conversation becoming more inclusive in the field of human resources and in our society. This will hopefully open more possibilities for neuro-diverse young people to have a brighter future and find their place of belonging while reaching their full potential.

After all, a truly civilized and evolved culture not only champions the obvious strengths and resources of its people; it strives to include and encourage all people to contribute their gifts in the world of human endeavour. Embracing and acting on this ethos not only fosters and expands the true significance of human resources, it ennobles us all.

Professional speaker, author, life and business coach, Isabelle St-Jean, RSW, ACC, brings over 20 years of communication, leadership and personal effectiveness to her audiences, readers and clients.

(PeopleTalk Fall 2013)

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