The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society— to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
There are many great efforts to diversify the workplace today, so why are many Diversity, Equity & Inclusion initiatives failing to include neurocognitive functioning? The understandings that neurodiversity offer are bursting with possibilities and play a crucial part in our pursuit of minimising injustice, reaching greater inclusion and extracting maximum benefit out of human talent. Around 15% of the world population is believed to be neurodivergent but perceptions of them are still coloured by information mainly attained from an outside perspective, so they keep facing invisible hurdles from expectations derived from a typical standard.
In the United Kingdom, the right to reasonable adjustments is legally implemented to ensure equity for people who identify as neurodivergent, e.g. autistic individuals like myself, when applying for a job and retention in employment. The Office for National Statistics, however, indicates an unacceptable employment gap for autistic people despite having many strengths and sometimes outstanding qualifications and capabilities. Only 22% are in a paid job, and as low as 16% are ever in full-time employment despite goals and targets set out more than ten years ago to improve this number.
This is not just a human rights issue, but a waste of human resources. We see mind-blowing accomplishments and quality work throughout neurodivergent communities provided they’re given a chance with circumstances adapted to their calibration.
Those who do get their foot through the door are often underemployed with little or no chance to progress. This is not just a human rights issue, but a waste of human resources. We see mind-blowing accomplishments and quality work throughout neurodivergent communities provided they’re given a chance with circumstances calibrated to them. These adaptations are often simple, cheap and can make the difference between struggle for any results or effortless excellence. Neurodivergent people have always existed and propelled the evolution of, for example, science, technology and art, but innovative thinkers don’t dwell within the comfort of “normal”. We need flexible procedures and strength-based policies to create platforms for neurodivergent contributions to be shared.
To change societal attitudes, we need disclosure. But for people to disclose, we need to change attitudes. Positive terminology inspired by the neurodiversity paradigm can accelerate mind-shifts and lower tolerance barriers. This paradigm values cognitive differences as a natural part of human diversity and challenges an overly simplified model treating them as deficits for not following typical development. Creating psychological safety is essential. Masking is an oppressive and often harmful coping mechanism used by many autistics to avoid negative treatment and social rejection. With less masking, energies can be distributed more productively, accommodations can be used if needed, employers can benefit from true skills and the economy gains more contributions.
Also on the Forum Network: From the Shopfloor to the Boardroom: Neuro-equality in society and in the workplace by Charlotte Valeur, Chair, Institute of Neurodiversity ION
The best way to be an ally to the autistic community is to listen to the autistic community. To best develop practices for neuroinclusion is to actively involve the community itself. I can only speak for myself as the autism spectrum is so diverse, but one of my life’s main issues is being disadvantaged and invalidated by underrepresentation without adequate services to support me. When I took to the stage to advocate publicly, I discovered an amazingly skilled and resilient community. It’s diverse and quickly growing, with other pioneering self-advocates who are mobilising and demanding change. I always battled mental health issues and struggled in all areas of my life. Today though, I’m a successful cellist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra and an internationally recognised autistic advocate, enjoying flourishing relationships. Social and communication deficits disappeared when I engaged with other autistics, which suggested to me that the double empathy problem is very real and that communication issues between neurotypes is a reciprocal problem. My relationships now operate on a transparent basis, verbalising inner experience and showing respect by sharing the load to bridge difference.
If people teamed up—using their different thinking styles to combine breadth and depth—imagine what dimensions we could explore and how we could complement each other. Differences are not problems, only challenges.
I admire neurotypical people’s ability to process many stimuli at once without becoming overwhelmed and to see concept before detail for fast information processing. How I divide my attention and prioritise impressions differ. Instead of being broad, autistic people tend to be deep and configured to work best with single focus. We tend to rely less on previous experience and contextual information when reading a situation and may need extra time to allow for many details to form a cohesive whole. Absorbing general outlines quickly is what conventional conversation style requires and what society rewards, but every coin has two sides. Generalisation is also what contributes to assumptions and bias, the biggest obstacles for inclusion. If people teamed up—using their different thinking styles to combine breadth and depth—imagine what dimensions we could explore and how we could complement each other. Differences are not problems, only challenges. It is human attitudes that determine whether they are uncomfortable obstacles that should be eradicated or sources of possibilities that can be harnessed.
As we are all unique, we are all equipped to contribute with something special if we stay true to who we are. Neurodiversity fosters such an environment, challenging inequality and promoting a better balance between adaptation and authenticity. People who disclose hidden neurological differences and share their inside perspectives spark recognition among others who are encouraged to be brave pioneers and disclose, too. This is now creating ripples across the globe. It is important that this generation of neurodivergent people and their neurotypical allies support each other, demand change and challenge harmful stereotypes to hold the door open for the next generation of unique minds. With the daunting challenges humanity is facing, we are going to need their contributions more than ever.
Neurodiversity is a reminder that not everything is what it seems to be and challenges what we think we know about each other. Like a big telescope allows us to see further into space, neurodiversity allows us to see further into the vast universe of inner experience. This doesn’t just teach us about other people, but about ourselves, too. Just as William Anders who took the iconic photo “Earthrise” from the Apollo 8 mission said, “We set out to find the Moon but discovered Earth”. Neurodiversity offers us a view of ourselves in a new context with greater “overview effect”, the kind of effect astronauts talk about when they’ve seen earth from space with their own eyes: a powerful experience that shifts your mindset forever.