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The Neurodiverse Workforce

  • Posted on January 18, 2011 at 7:58 AM

The first proposed chapter for my book, tentatively entitled “Neurodiversity at Work: A Manager’s Guide,” is designed to introduce the concept of neurodiversity in a business-friendly context.

Most of what is written about neurodiversity is from a social justice perspective.  While there are very real reasons for this, a consequence is that information about neurodiversity is not presented in the language most business people speak.  So this first chapter will ground the relevance of the social justice issue to the business world by translating the social justice language to the business language.

What does it mean to be neurologically diverse or neurodiverse?

As used in this book, neurologically diverse and neurodiverse are two different terms.  Understanding both is important to understanding how neurodiversity impacts the workplace.

Neurologically references the structures and mechanisms of the nervous system, including the brain, and the effects the nervous system has on how people experience life.  Diversity references the fact that there is no one neurological state.  We all are neurologically diverse.

Neurodiverse, on the other hand, represents a sense of identity.  Someone is neurodiverse, in this sense, rather than being neurotypical.  Societies tend to prefer a certain set of neurological traits; this set of preferred traits is perceived as neurotypical.  In some societies, including the United States, traits that deviate from this preferred “norm” are perceived as damaged or insufficient.  This creates stigma and an environment of prejudice against anyone who demonstrates neurodiverse traits.  This prejudice can be extreme, such as the prejudice faced by people with so-called low functioning autism, which is considered an extreme deviation from the norm.  This prejudice can also be relatively mild, such as the prejudice faced by people with depression, which is considered a less extreme deviation from the norm.

So, what does it mean to be neurologically diverse?  It’s means you’re a human being.  Humanity is neurologically diverse.  What does it mean to be neurodiverse?  It means you are part of a perceived “undesirable minority” and will face stigma and prejudice as a member of the workforce.  This prejudice and stigma will continue unless managers learn to manage a neurologically diverse workforce or you learn to hide your undesirable differences.  It also means you may carry a label of mental disorder, as your neurotype may have been medicalized due to its undesirability. 

At least an estimated 26.2% of the American adult population could identify as neurodiverse, or one in four adults.  According to the 2004 census, that’s an estimated 57.7 million people in America alone.  This minority is too large and too important to ignore, but the business world often ignores the needs of this population.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is about the confluence of two distinct beliefs:

1) People are naturally and normally neurologically different.  Some of these natural, normal differences are labeled “abnormal,” “disorders,” “syndromes,” or other value-laden labels that interferes with our ability to understand the different subsets of human neurology.

2) Human beings are valuable, in all their diversity, in and of themselves.

As such, neurodiversity is a social justice movement that is affiliated with the disability rights arm of the civil rights movement.  Neurodiversity is also strongly tied to autistic advocates, who advocate for acceptance and accommodations for autism, so they can better interact with societies that devalue the autistic ways of being.  As used in this text, neurodiversity is not exclusive to autistics, but encompasses the wide set of neurodiverse individuals who participate in the workforce.  This includes individuals with autism, mood disorders, attention deficit disorders, and other neurotypes that may or may not involve a medical diagnosis.

How does this social concept apply to the business environment?

Consumers are neurologically diverse.  Workers are neurologically diverse.  Business is, by extension, an interaction of neurologically diverse individuals for profit.

Understanding, respecting, and accommodating neurological diversity is an important business survival strategy as the world changes in the face of social pressures from neurodiversity advocates.  Businesses have long struggled with issues stemming from a neurologically diverse workforce, but have yet to come to terms with these issues.

The time is now; because, as pressure mounts, if businesses cannot or will not respond, consumer and legislative pressure will force businesses to respond in ways that suit bureaucratic form rather than the flexible business environment and the needs of your workers.

Disabled, Disordered, and Ill

  • Posted on October 7, 2009 at 2:49 AM

The concept of neurodiversity is very complex and it’s something no one has (or, in my opinion, should have) a corner on.  My personal view is that neurodiversity is for everyone.  While some people have a greater need for their neurology to be respected and appreciated – because their basic human rights are taken away when their neurology is not respected – everyone deserves respect and acceptance for their uniqueness.  That’s my long-term goal.

There are more pressing short-term goals.  In this respect, neurodiversity refers to a civil rights movement intended to urge or force society to acknowledge, protect, and respect the human rights of people society considers disabled due to mental disorders or mental illnesses.  Yet, inherent in that description, there are three labels to which I object.

Are neurologically atypical people “disabled?”  The answer is “yes” or “no” depending on how you define the term.  I have children who are recognized by the federal, state, and local governments to be disabled.  This definition means they are not able to function adequately in society without modifications or accommodations and that this state of being is not likely to go away.  This does not mean they are “unable.”  They can function in society and they can function more successfully with modifications and accommodations.  Nor does this mean that they were disabled, which is a key point for me.

The reason I’m not comfortable with the words “disabled” or “disability” is because the shared root of these words is not something I believe to be in evidence.  The root word is “disable.”  A dictionary definition of disable is:

1. to make unable or unfit; weaken or destroy the capability of; cripple; incapacitate: He was disabled by blindness.

2. to make legally incapable; disqualify.

(emphasis added)

With these definitions in mind, the question then becomes:  “If neurologically atypical people are disabled, what disabled them?”  As a society, we use language that assumes that people with neurological differences were at one point able, but something was done to them to make them unable, thus they are disabled.  We assume this.  We seek causes for this.  We do NOT know that something disabled neurologically atypical people, but because they are different we assume something must have made them different and that it is bad for them to be different.

My “them”s and “we”s are kind of screwed up and backwards in that last paragraph.  First, I don’t assume there are “causes.”  People are people, and we are all different from each other.  That some are more different than others doesn’t surprise me, and I’m not really sure I understand why some people think that’s such a big, scary deal.  Second, while I am not autistic and I am (probably) not an aspie, I am also not neurotypical.  I have sensory processing issues that are mostly managed, but are sometimes debilitating.  I have been diagnosed with both depression and with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  In order to make eye-contact, I must consciously force myself to do so – and I still don’t get why eye-contact is important.  I didn’t even know I didn’t make eye-contact until the therapists tried to teach me how to encourage my children to make eye-contact (which, as you might imagine, doesn’t work so well).  If I’m in a room with more than ten people, I need to consciously manage my reactions, because my fight-or-flight response kicks in – I feel threatened, even if there’s no danger.  If you crowd me in with too many people and too little space, then a panic attack is possible; if people are bumping and jostling me, a panic attack is likely.  These are not neurotypical traits.  But does that mean there’s a cause or causes of my atypical traits?  The way I see it, that’s just part of who I am.

My problem with “mental disorders” and “mental illness” stems from the same argument.  First, let’s take a look at the dictionary definition of disorder:

1. lack of order or regular arrangement; confusion: Your room is in utter disorder

2. an irregularity: a disorder in legal proceedings

3. breach of order; disorderly conduct; public disturbance.

4. a disturbance in physical or mental health or functions; malady or dysfunction: a mild stomach disorder.

(emphasis added)

The first, second, and third definitions assume for something to be ordered there is a regular standard to base the order by; therefore “order” is subject to the norm and anything that deviates from the “norm” is disordered.  The most applicable is the fourth definition.  A mental disorder, such as autism supposedly is, is a disturbance in mental health or functions; it’s a malady.  Or, so society assumes.

A dictionary definition of illness is:

1. unhealthy condition; poor health; indisposition; sickness.

(emphasis added)

And the dictionary definition of unhealthy is:

1. not in a state of good or normal health; in an unsound, weak, or morbid condition.

2. symptomatic of or resulting from bad health: an unhealthy pallor

3. not conducive to good health; unhealthful: Night air was formerly considered unhealthy

4. morally bad, harmful, or contaminating: unhealthy examples for the young

5. dangerous; risky: Asking questions in this neighborhood can be unhealthy.

(emphasis added)

Again, “good” and “normal” are paired together, implying that the norm is the standard and whatever deviates from that “norm” is illness and bad.

Society assumes that because people with these traits are different that we are disordered or ill, and that being disorder or ill is bad for us (and bad for society), so society is obliged to fix us.  Because that assumption has been made for so long and by so many people, the burden is placed on those of us who struggle to function on society’s own terms to prove that we are not disordered or ill.  But since both “disordered” or “ill” are unfairly based on social norms, we cannot do so.  Yet, both “disorder” and “illness” come with the stigma of being broken and needing fixing that is assumed, but not proven in the first place.

The reason I advocate for neurodiversity is because I do not believe society has the right to label people as disabled, disordered, or ill based on assumptions and subjective criteria.  I find it absurd, offensive, and sickening that they do so and use their doing so as a reason to take human rights from individuals who have done no harm, at least no more harm than “normal” people have done.

Now, admittedly, I am not considered disabled by society’s standards, which I find rather odd.  This is not because I’m normal, but because I’ve learned coping mechanisms that have helped me succeed based on standards society recognizes.  For example, because I can articulate myself well and learn through normal teaching methods, I can demonstrate my intelligence effectively.  Intelligence is valued, and so I’m acceptable.  My sons have not developed coping mechanisms independently, do not articulate themselves as well, and do not learn as well using normal teaching methods, so their intelligence is habitually questioned and they are considered disabled.

This is not the world I want my children to be adults in.  My children, and everyone like them, deserve a better world.  If society wants to feel obligated, then it is my belief that society should feel obligated to provide this better world.