Neurodiversity

Why being different

is the new normal

Delphine Dépy Carron, April 2 2021

When Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen wrote the fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling”, he couldn’t have imagined that his story about being different would still be resonating more than 175 years later. And, in many ways, we have the pandemic to thank for reminding us that it takes all sorts to make a world. Think about the insights we’ve gained from online video calls during the explosion of remote working. Suddenly, we’re looking into our colleagues’ living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens and finding out that Joe from Accounts has a taste for vivid wallpapers, Marie likes to colour code her books or that the MD has a dachshund he clearly adores. These online glimpses are our new reality. They give us clues about the people we are, not the image we choose to present to the world.  And they highlight our differences.

 

Of course, most of us have had a lifetime of training in the art of “fitting in”. At school we are taught to conform—and are punished if we don’t.  From wearing school uniform to how we play and who we play with during the break, we are shaped and moulded by teachers and other pupils, learning to suppress our differences in favour of the collective. And, of course, anyone who is especially different—say, due to Downs syndrome, autism, or “hidden” differences such as dyslexia or being gifted, can expect to be singled out and, often, bullied or ignored.

Experiments in social conditioning have shown how easy it is to develop a culture of conformity—if a group of people in a waiting room stand at the sound of a buzzer, a person who joins the group will also do so without questioning why, even when the rest of the group has left the room.[1] Recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the wearing of masks and social distancing has meant some people have been subjected to abuse for failing to conform. Some governments across the world have inflicted severe punishments on citizens that do not follow the rules—even though there may be legitimate reasons why someone is acting differently. And group behaviours are highly persuasive. A study on social influence shows that participants who identify strongly with a group can react against, rather than conform to normative information if they perceive that the norms presented run counter to their image of the group.[2]

In short, society has shown time and again that being different is something to be feared or avoided. And yet, just as we recognise that our own Eureka moments—when inspired ideas seem to come from nowhere—often rely on us thinking or behaving differently, we can find enormous benefit in being more accepting of people who demonstrate neurodiversity. Because our brains are connected to our senses and our senses translate the world, those with different or extraordinary neural processing can bring a new perspective and other ways to see the world that help our organizations innovate and grow.

Diversity isn’t just gender or skin colour

By accepting neurodiversity in the workplace, alternative thinking styles can add real value. Neurodiverse people are used to not being a good fit in society and they have learned to adapt so that they can survive environments which they find difficult or alienating. And in some instances, they are a better fit for the job due to being “neuro-untypical”. For example, auticon[3] is a business specialising in offering analytics, automation and software solutions from its employees—two-thirds of whom are autistic.  Autism is a congenital deviation of information processing and influences a person’s perception, cognition, and emotions. A combination of specially trained job coaches and work environment adaptations, such as reducing excessive sensory stimuli, means this company is able to take advantage of the autistic workforce’s outstanding cognitive strengths.

 

Better understanding shows how extraordinary people can deliver extraordinary results. For example, some gifted people process information differently which can inspire—or confuse. Imagine the gifted mind is like a like a tree; the branches represent ideas with thoughts sending out new offshoots as the gifted mind jumps from one subject to another. It is often hard to follow a gifted person’s train of thought when most of us think in a more linear way. It can mean that the gifted person needs to find a way to translate the complexity of their thoughts to a simple pattern that others can understand. Gifted people often feel they aren’t understood at all, leading to poor self-esteem and even isolation. When you don’t enjoy the same games, discussions, subjects as others, it isn’t hard to see why that leads to exclusion.

 

For the person that is different, discovering where they do fit can be a powerful experience, opening up a whole new world. As a neuroscientist with personal experience of coaching gifted people, I enjoy seeing people grow in trust and confidence as they find others on the same wavelength and new ways to be heard. For example, I recommended reading to gifted man who was struggling with multi-tasking, so that he could recognize his characteristics in others and come to terms with who he is. I also coached him in guiding others in his thinking patterns, so that they can understand and collaborate better.

 

According to business leaders around the world, there’s a compelling business case for a truly diverse workforce. Companies can benefit from diversity if leaders create a psychologically safe workplace, combat systems of discrimination and subordination, embrace the styles of employees from different identity groups and make cultural differences a resource for learning and improving organizational effectiveness.[4] And there are tangible rewards for companies that tackle inclusion and diversity. A study by consulting organization Accenture found that 45 companies that stood out for their leadership in areas specific to disability employment and inclusion had, on average over a four-year period, 28 percent higher revenue, double the net income and 30 percent higher economic profit margins than their peers.[5]

We need to change ourselves to change the world

 

Encouraging neurodiversity, whether in business or in society, can open our eyes to new possibilities. After all, when we discriminate it is really saying more about ourselves than it is about the person we are discriminating against.  Years ago, left-handed people were actively discouraged from writing with their dominant hand—and left-handedness still has negative connotations in some cultures. The Latin word sinistra originally meant "left" but took on the meaning of  being "evil" or "unlucky" by the Classical Latin era (hence the word "sinister") and so there was a move to exclude the left-handed. But losing that non dominant-handed skill means that qualities (ideas, intuitions) that could have completed those you developed go to waste.

 

Here’s three things you can do to embrace diversity and encourage difference, in yourself and others:

  1. Be more aware of neurodiversity. Be open to differences in others, without judgment or discrimination, and the value and creativity that they can bring. Seeing the world from another perspective is rich and rewarding. If we all follow and behave exactly the same, we will never inspire change and innovation.

  2. Tailor your environment. Understand the needs of neurodiverse people and adapt your working world so that you can find new ways to encourage and develop them. Consider the physical space as well as the cultural shifts you may need to make.

  3. Give yourself permission to be different. Realise that it is important not only to accept differences in others but also to learn from them so that you can embrace your own differences, adapt and become more resilient. Check your “blind spots” on inclusion and diversity and be prepared to admit your own vulnerabilities.

 

Ask yourself what your reaction is when you come across someone who is a little different, at work or at home. How do you feel? Are you apprehensive or keen to pretend that everything is OK? Do you keep your distance or are you curious and want to know more?  In many ways, how you react is how you approach your own vulnerabilities, so it is worth being clear. Being different should be acceptable because when we accept others, we also accept ourselves.

 

[1] Asch, S.E. (1951) Effects of Group Pressure on the Modification and Distortion of Judgments. In Guetzknow, H., Ed., Groups, Leadership and Men, Pittsburgh, PA, Carnegie Press, 177-190.

[2] Livingstone, Young, and Manstead (2011)

[3] https://auticon.us/autism/

[4] “Getting serious about diversity,” Harvard Business Review, November-December 2020

[5] Getting to equal: The disability inclusion advantage, Accenture, 2018. https://www.accenture.com/gb-en/about/inclusion-diversity/persons-with-disabilities

@HiMage / Thomas Carron

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Neuroscientist and executive coach, Delphine Dépy Carron, has been helping leaders, intrapreneurs, teams and organizations to reinvent themselves for nearly 20 years. Studying intelligence, she discovered how animal intelligence can be a powerful source of inspiration and development for humans. She is regularly asked to help organizations develop emotional intelligence, leadership, relational intelligence, and creativity. Her programs involve working with horses or dolphins to accelerate awareness and promote sustainable behavioral change. Delphine is also a trainer at HEC Paris School of Coaching.