I saw a brief film clip recently of a four-year-old black girl who thought she was ugly because of the colour of her skin. She is four. #BlackLivesMatter is a huge campaign applying across the generations, but I think it’s particularly devastating to see a child of four believe she is ugly. #HerLifeMatters and it should not be tainted by this belief.
Let’s apply this same perspective to people who are neurologically different, such as autistic children that do not understand how the children in their class have friends to play with, and they don’t. Children that are perpetually reprimanded because they don’t quite fit into the social expectations of the classroom. Children that simply do not understand verbal explanation, as what they really need is a diagram or picture for the information to settle in their brain; and as a result get distracted, simply because it’s too hard to concentrate on a delivery method that does not work for them. And as a result of becoming distracted, get told off again!
The problem here is not the child. It’s that the social expectation does not fit that child’s experience. For an autistic child who may be exceptionally bright in a particular area, they may just not understand that asking a difficult question can actually upset their teacher, because the teacher is embarrassed they do not know the answer. They may ask the question anyway and then face rejection because that same teacher is also too embarrassed to admit they do not know the answer. So, the child faces a confusing response. A response that penalises them for curiosity. A response that prevents them from seeking the answer themselves because they now believe they should not investigate further, or they will get told off. Of course, autism is not the only difference for neurodiverse individuals, but it can incite the most extreme reactions if not recognised simply because their behaviour and responses are not ‘normal’, and therefore difficult to cope with.
Now apply this to adults in an office.
What happens when a direct report asks a senior manager a difficult question regarding the motive behind a decision? Does that senior manager explain their logic and leave themselves open to further discussion, or do they dismiss the question? I suspect the latter… and for some people this simple absence of explanation would be unacceptable when that individual is still required to carry out the task. Presumably without question, given the reaction.
Many autistic people have a strong sense of fairness, logic and perceptiveness (please see this article on female autism). They know they are being asked to do something illogical. They know the thought process behind that action is flawed. They know that their senior manager is not being honest or transparent with their justification. What they may not understand is ‘why’? Given this scenario most people would drop the subject knowing it will be contentious, and therefore not of benefit to them long-term. An autistic individual may not, as the other common trait is persistence. However, this approach is unlikely to play in their favour and they may not have a clue that other social consequences are likely to follow. As a result, their popularity declines and they may find themselves incrementally further excluded from the general group. In other words, the popular kids won’t like them anymore and won’t let them play! Classic pack behaviour.
For women on the autism spectrum, something that was considered impossible before the millennium, the challenges can be even greater as women are expected to be more socially aware than men. As a result, many autistic women and girls conceal their true feelings from a very young age to appear ‘normal’. For men and boys, specialist and niche interests are seen as normal, but for women to fit in they need to conform to a specific set of expectations. Below is a diagram of the particular issues autistic girls and women face:
One of the most interesting traits in this list when thinking about office life is the comment on ‘Usually holds it together well while out and explodes at home’. It is worth remembering that while a colleague may appear to be coping, in fact they may not be. There is also a chance that due to an invisible manifestation of stress, that individual may suddenly reveal their real stress level with no real warning. To colleagues this response may not only be unexpected but seems unreasonable and may lead to further alienation of that person.
In the publishing industry, we talk about eliminating discrimination all the time. We advocate diversity and inclusion and are visibly appalled at the exclusion of people who are different, but do we reflect on why this discrimination might occur. Do we change our own behaviour to actively include that person who is being excluded?
The challenges and benefits of being different
Being different can be fun, but not always. As a child, especially as a student, being different can result in bullying, isolation, and confusion. As an adult these experiences often continue even though the impacts may be less obvious. In place of bullying, the individual may just experience subtle teasing, exclusion, or misunderstandings. If the condition is understood and accepted by their immediate community then any misinterpretations or ‘errors’ in social expectation may just result in mild humour, which often helps the integration process. If not, then fitting in can be hell.
In this interview by Elizabeth Day with Siena Castellon, who has Autism, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia as well as ADHD, she gives some great examples of how not to support a neurodiverse individual, but also highlights how she herself has overcome this lack of support (very funny in places): https://howtofail.podbean.com/e/how-to-fail-siena-castellon/. But neurodiversity is not just about these conditions:
“The term neurodiversity refers to variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions in a non-pathological sense.The term neurodiversity refers to variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions in a non-pathological sense.” Wikipedia
Other conditions and circumstances should also be considered; these include:
- Autism (which now includes aspergers)
- Dyslexia and dyspraxia
- Mental health conditions such as:
- Borderline personality
- Psychopathic behaviour
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Brain injury and the impact of strokes
- Learning difficulties
- Savant or genius traits
The importance of supporting dyslexic, dysgraphic or dyspraxic individuals and the value these employees often bring – from truly unique perspectives on how to deconstruct and solve problems to hyper-focused attention to detail, to many other impressive skills – have been written about a lot over the past decade. Specific support systems and good management processes that can be put into place are not overly expensive or time consuming.
Dyslexia affects the learning processes and is far more common than most people think, with about 1 in 10 people classed as dyslexic. The likelihood of you knowing someone at work with dyslexia is pretty high. While 10% of the workforce might be dyslexic many employers don’t have inclusive hiring processes in place to bring onboard diverse talent, nor do many have structures in place to support dyslexic employees if they do make it through the hiring process.
Many dyslexic people have developed good coping strategies over the years and as a result you may not even be aware that we are dyslexic, but our coping strategies are not all that we need. There are simple things that employers can be looking at to make the lives of dyslexic employees easier, more productive and to make the workplace more inclusive. Although not exhaustive, I’ll highlight two areas that can help: technology and education.
The nature of our dyslexia will dictate the type of support an employee may need, so getting tested is key to identify where support would be the most beneficial. Some of the software or processes below can really make a difference:
Structuring Thinking & Organization
- Microsoft has done a lot to support dyslexic users so take a look at some of the tools and services they now provide
- Mind-mapping software – there is a lot of software options available such as MindMaster, or Mural
- Speech to text software can help support writing
- Provide spell checkers like Grammarly or for scientific focused writing Writefull
Enabling General Wellbeing
- Anti-glare screen filters can help
- Letting the employee have a say in the technology they need to their jobs
On the education front, there are benefits to training managers on neurodiversity and how to support employees thrive with dyslexia. The same is true of training for employees themselves who may be working hard to manage traits of their dyslexia within everyday work.
- Be aware that a change of manager (and therefore potential management style) can cause short-term disruption for your dyslexic employees as they work to learn expectations and working preferences. Being explicit about your way of working and being mindful of this transition on behalf of the employee is helpful.
- If you’re sharing large amounts of written information, consider the tl;dr version – adding brief bulleted summaries or key points so that it’s easy for someone to take away the key points
- Consider presenting information through audio or video, diagrams, and flowcharts.
- Provide information ahead of meetings, including agendas and reading materials to enable your team members to assimilate information, consider their perspectives and come prepared ready to share. A little heads up goes a long way
- Be mindful that people work in different ways, dyslexia or not. Your openness to different ways of working will enable dyslexic members of your team to thrive.
- Speak up! The years of schooling usually drills into us the urge to hide our disability but by speaking up you can request the support you need and deserve
- Build planning time into each day. Everyone is different but I have found that if I have an hour every Monday morning to plan my week and 30 minutes at the start of each day, I’m able to organize and plan much more efficiently.
- Consider changing your line spacing to improve readability to around 1.5/150
- Using a dyslexic friendly font can really help: serif fonts, such as Arial and Comic Sans or fonts created specifically for dyslexics like dyslexiefont.
For someone with dyslexia, their workplace strengths are represented in this diagram and include the ability to use visual and 3D thinking to solve problems in new ways. In my view, the need to consider the difficulties faced by someone with dyslexia and to implement tools to help them can only improve an office culture. Their needs will require investigation into tools to help them, which will also help others as awareness grows within an organisation. According to this diagram they are empathetic and able to interpret events and justifications into stories. These storytelling qualities will subsequently help to develop a stronger marketing presence and align teams to focus on a united goal. As the need for great user interfaces will only increase, these individuals with strong design skills will be able to contribute at a very high level, both increasing usability and being great testers for new interfaces and Web tools. A fantastic group to recruit! So to all the companies out there that don’t have something in place: Are you serious about championing your employees and creating a more diverse and inclusive environment?
Mental health conditions
Mental health is ultimately invisible to others apart from any resulting unusual behaviour. As a result, it can be very challenging to relate to and adapt to someone who is suffering from a mental health condition. It can also look like poor performance or deliberate obstinacy instead of being a genuine condition. So how can organisations adapt to ensuring the mental well-being of all, minimising impact on the organisation and individual and offering the most appropriate support to that person and their colleagues?
For people with mental health conditions, there may be an increased sensitivity of the emotions of others. While this may look like a difficult characteristic to integrate within a team, it could actually help that individual show compassion for others, which could be an asset in customer service or team building roles.
For someone who does not or has not yet been depressed, this condition may be seen as just sadness. However, sadness usually has a direct cause, depression does not. Depression can be difficult to cope with for the individual and their colleagues, as sitting next to someone who is sad for no reason can lower your own mood. It’s difficult for the individual who may feel the need to pretend to be happy in order to cope; it’s difficult for their colleagues who may want to help but do not know how, or who find it hard to deal with their own mood becoming sadder as a result. There is no easy solution, but compassion and understanding go a long way to supporting both parties.
The benefits of a depressive individual are difficult to identify but supporting someone who is sad does reveal the true nature of colleagues and leaders. Would you want to promote someone to a leadership role when they cannot show compassion and support their colleague in distress? Supportive and responsive behaviour is essential at the top to ensure staff retention, mental well-being and intuitive decision making. In addition, the individual suffering from depressive episodes may be exceptionally bright and contributing at the highest level of performance despite their illness. Please bear in mind the saying that ‘Depression is the curse of the intelligent.’ These individuals identify problems and barriers to implementation early, are generally able to cope even under duress and are sensitive to the feelings of team members and the broader culture. Attributes that are very useful in any organisation.
Mood fluctuation is the primary characteristic of Bipolar. The highs are usually very high and the lows very low. What is not often discussed is bipolar rage, high sex drive which can look like charisma and tempestuous sorrow. Unpredictability is often the most difficult factor in supporting someone with this condition, as you never know what mood you will be faced with on what day! There is also a risk of psychosis, particularly when under exceptional stress or when the individual is experiencing a combination of life events, oddly positive or negative ones. A bereavement, a new love or a relationship breakdown, moving house, changing jobs or simply a dependent child becoming ill unexpectedly. Depression is also a factor, and usually the most apparent characteristic of the illness and many people are misdiagnosed because the highs look like ambition or energy, where depression looks like extreme sadness.
For people who experience bipolar, managing stress and having a routine which includes ‘reset’ time is critical. By reset time, I mean a period when there is no external stimuli, no need to interact positively with others, and where work is parked for a time. This allows the individual to manage their emotions, particularly any reaction to stress or criticism, and re-enter the human world a more balanced, reasonable person! It’s great if colleagues and managers understand this need and do not view it as absenting yourself or being anti-social, as it’s merely a need that needs to be met to ensure future, productive participation.
Hallucinations are a central part of schizophrenia, with some individuals experiencing a kind of split personality. As this person is likely to be emotionally changeable and vulnerable to stress, it is useful to establish a supportive environment with an understandable set of structures and routines. Under the hallucinations, particularly where someone has multiple personalities that may emerge, it can be very difficult to maintain socially acceptable behaviour. Needless to say, this would at least look eccentric and at worse erratic or disruptive.
The benefits of employing someone actively experiencing schizophrenia may be difficult to quantify at first. On the one hand, if the individual is on the right drugs to manage hallucinations with the right support then they likely operate close to a neurotypical individual. As a result, they will not need many adjustments, only that of recognising if their behaviour and mental health deteriorates and helping them to get help. Ironically, this understanding could create a more compassionate culture with a high awareness of mental health issues and their impact. Everyone then benefits from the increased compassion in the organisation, as people see neuro-difference as normal and have a more human approach to managing and incorporating appropriate support and well-being techniques into the day to day operation.
Borderline personality disorder
When a person is struggling with borderline personality disorder, they are hypersensitized to the world around them, as shown in the quote below:
“Everything in the world hurts more than it seems to for everyone else and any ‘thick skin’ [I am] supposed to have just isn’t there.”
Historically in the UK we have expected people to have a ‘stiff upper lip’ or a ‘thick skin’ and to be able to cope with criticism, negativity, or general difficulties in life. For someone with this condition, the expected response is just not possible and as a consequence they may both feel the disappointment around them as well as the sting of the emotional reaction. Double trouble for this person! In experiencing this level of hurt, their response may be considered anti-social or inappropriate, as it is outside of normal expectation and thus dismissed as hysterical. However, this unusual reaction to situations or negative stimulation is not that individual’s fault; it may stem from childhood abuse or be a side effect of historical trauma or stress.
The advantage of borderline personality disorder is that the individual is likely to sense a destructive culture a mile off. They will literally perish or wither within it. So, for the management teams and organisational structure, these individuals are an excellent and early indication of negative behaviours and unhealthy cultural trends. All the senior management need to do is notice the reaction and adjust policy, leadership style or even the company strategy and approach to resourcing. If integrated well, a ‘sensitive’ type can prevent rising attrition rates, correct negative team dynamics, and essentially keep the senior leadership in check with a ‘warning light’ when things are going wrong internally.
Narcissism is essentially being exceptionally self-centred, resulting in an inability to see another’s perspective or walk in someone else’s shoes. This can create very negative relationship issues and disrupt the team dynamic, as this person just does not see the boundaries or concerns others may have. It’s not their fault, they just don’t see it. However, team members may find themselves reluctant to work with a narcissistic individual without always understanding why they feel that way, and ultimately may increasingly exclude that individual. This leaves the person with narcissism being left out without understanding why, creating even more anxiety, and likely making their behaviour even more self-centred as a coping mechanism. Needless to say, the team will quickly disintegrate around them.
Management of this dynamic and the resulting negativity may be very difficult as the narcissist may require a great deal of support to see the impact of their behaviour and find it harder still to change it. On the other hand, an individual with narcissistic tendencies is likely to have an innate drive to achieve the goals they set or are agreed with their line manager, almost without hesitation. Perhaps then the best way to benefit from someone who experiences narcissism is to set them challenging goals that no-one else would attempt or believe possible, and have the need to work in a team environment minimised so they can just get on with it. A facilitator to sit between them and the wider team may be helpful to reduce exclusion and misunderstanding.
A psychopath does not sense or consider the feeling of others, potentially not at all. It is not a case of being selfish or self-centred, they simply do not see that other people have feelings and needs. We associate psychopathic behaviour with the tendency to commit murder, but this is rarely the case. Most psychopaths simply sit outside any sense of community as they have no awareness of that need in others and do not need it themselves. In that way, they could be seen as truly independent which is generally seen as a positive trait. In a team environment, they are unlikely to be effective managers but may operate well as long as they have clear guidance on what they are required to do. Much like narcissists, they are probably excellent at delivering difficult tasks simply because they do not see the potential emotional response or resistance of others and as a result have complete faith that it can be done.
Working with a psychopath could actually be very interesting as they may have a vision way beyond the average, just because they see no ‘people boundaries’ to delivering that vision. What’s possible becomes substantially greater that an organisation may ever have envisaged. Clearly there needs to be some moderation to make a required cultural shift or explain in a way others can understand, but with this in place a psychopath could create seismic change ever thought possible by a neurotypical individual.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD can arise from many different situations, ranging from childhood trauma and abuse to rape or violence that has been experienced by the individual. The condition is unpredictable, can be debilitating and results in exceptionally erratic responses to stress. Negative stimuli that may look like nothing to other people can cause extreme reactions. For example, something as simple as a small piece of negative feedback associated with a familiar and disturbing gesture can trigger distress, including hysterical tears and anger. What would seem trivial to a normal person, can be highly distressing for someone who recollects trauma similar to the trigger of the feedback given. In many cases PTSD results in hypervigilance, where the individual is constantly looking for perceived threat even when there is no actual threat at all.
As you can imagine, appearing irrational and becoming angry over minor triggers, certain words, or gestures, can be humiliating in a work environment. No one like to cry in front of their boss, but many people have including me. The other difficulty can arise when feelings of aggression when under stress, where others do not understand that the cause is related to previous experience not what is happening now. Ranting through hysterical distress proves very embarrassing and unwarranted for many work colleagues, who just wanted to have a sensible discussion! When there is seemingly little cause, individuals may be discredited or even disciplined for inappropriate behaviour which adds to the traumatised response mechanism (usually because their hippocampus has endured severe pressure under stress and develops an uncontrolled response when the individual sees echoes of that trauma).
If PTSD is well understood, acknowledged, and is handled well when triggered, the individual can and will make a positive contribution. They need an environment where stress triggers can be minimised to avoid too many outbursts and can help in identifying cultural issues much like someone with borderline personality disorder due to their sensitivity to negative behaviours. When treated with compassion, these individuals gradually recover and are less likely to have an unusual reaction to negative stimuli as time goes on.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Many people get bored. Many people have issues with concentration. However, for people with ADHD this is a fundamental reality and a major barrier to working in an office environment. In an office, you’re supposed to sit still at your desk for hours! You’re not supposed to flit between different projects or zone out in a meeting, but these expectations can be near impossible to achieve with ADHD. In addition, individuals with ADHD may have sleep and anxiety issues which are not going to help concentration over long periods.
For someone with ADHD, I suspect a desk which can be adjusted for a seating or standing position and the ability to hot desk around the office would help substantially. In addition, a line manager should acknowledge that doing a single project or task for long periods of time would be detrimental to this individual’s performance. Instead they could try setting an expectation that tasks can be completed as best suited to the individual with ADHD, in order to provide variety and cater positively towards coping with an inability to concentrate for long periods, including breaks as necessary. Obviously, deadlines can still be set but the path to achieving them may vary from the average person.
Someone with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may be quite exciting to work with. The chances are that they will produce multiple streams of ideas and contribute a high level of energy to the group. I have also found people with ADHD have a highly developed sense of humour, so hopefully would cheer colleagues up under pressure!
Brain injury and stroke
Brain injury and stroke usually stems from an accident or unexpected physical condition. As a result, these individuals have gone from being fully functional and probably neurotypical, to experiencing many layers of frustration. From speech difficulties to the inability to process information at a normal speed to an unusual response to stimuli, they face constant challenges. They are also likely to have a before and after scenario within their current job, if indeed they manage to return to work.
Having seen James Cracknell on Celebrity Masterchef after his brain injury, and seen the effort he needed to apply to maintain pace with the competition, I started to understand the devastating effect of an injury like this for a previously healthy individual. The level of determination, focus and humour required to overcome his constraints would have been valuable for any organisation, if for nothing else than to inspire others around him.
My daughter has real difficulty in absorbing information that is delivered in multiple formats at the same time. I have difficulty absorbing and understanding information that is written, especially in dense text. Of course, there are much more serious learning difficulties, which are much harder to overcome. The lesson I have taken from my experience is that an individual can ask for an alternative and easier format for them to understand. And that an understanding teacher or boss will accept this need and be able to adapt their style, without dismissing the question. Ultimately it helps for the aim of the information to be more rapidly delivered and prevents misunderstanding or just confusion for the recipient.
Sara Rankin, a Professor at Imperial College Dyslexia and Dyspraxia, speaks of how she has overcome learning difficulties, particularly with literacy, and gone on to succeed in an academic environment:
Someone with learning difficulties within any organisation, offers a unique opportunity to extend our view of the potential market, particularly for a technology organisation. Where we often look at neurotypical personas with which to define products and user experience, these individuals could make us question the real needs of every individual. Apart from being a great testing opportunity, the problems they experience (whether in literacy, learning style or their capacity to learn a new interface) could force designers to design in a totally different way. We need to offer inclusivity and someone like this could really bring the challenge home, to define a unique set of user stories.
Savant or genius traits
For an individual who has an exceptional IQ or a specialist skill which far exceeds their peers, life can be challenging, which may sound strange and unfounded. It’s challenging because no one else can keep up with their pace of thought! This regularly leads to frustration as colleagues may not be able to understand the thought process to reach the conclusion or even the conclusion itself. As the savant is often called on to explain in great detail and make their thought process transparent to others, the individual may feel frustrated at the need to be so specific and take so much time in explanation and creating understanding. This may sound like a nice problem to have but is actually quite difficult.
To lubricate the wheels of communication, it can be helpful to have a ‘translator’. A bit like someone who can talk technology and can interpret this for the lay people in a business. The most helpful approach is not to dismiss the approach or the conclusions reached, but perhaps to ask where the idea started, what steps were taken generally to reach the conclusion and what the next steps would be. This enables the genius to explain but not at a level of detail that is painful. The translator can then communicate the theories onto other colleagues and come back to the source of the ideas with questions. It just helps, preventing frustration, miscommunication, or outright rejection.
The benefits of having savant or genius traits within an organisation are probably obvious. New and inventive solutions, turning complex problems into simple solutions, and being truly original offering a unique selling point for your organisation. I believe Steve Jobs was a savant (unfortunately a very lonely one when he died). His story brought home to me the incredible impact a new and revolutionary way of designing something can have, but also the risk to this genius of being excluded because his manner did not fit with office politics, as initially Apple fired him. However, their subsequent profit margins were a direct result of his inventiveness.
The reality of embracing neurodiversity
Sometimes neurodiverse conditions can be seen as a barrier to succeeding in the workplace; however some conditions may actually offer workplace advantages if the individual is included in the most appropriate way. For people with autism, the organization may benefit from an alternative way of solving problems as autistic people often see and analyze the world differently to a neurotypical person. They might think visually, in shapes and pictures, which enable them to distill information rapidly. Neurodiverse people may have been compelled to observe detail in human behaviour to a high degree to fit in, so can sense issues in culture or team dynamics.
There are several organisational questions which you could ask listed below. For each condition, the individual will have a different experience of trying to fit in and the challenges in doing this will vary enormously. I believe that to help facilitate integration and understanding, we should be asking the following questions:
- What does true neurodiversity really mean?
- What benefits can neurodiversity and real inclusion of diverse personality and brain types offer an organisation?
- How are individuals impacted by these conditions?
- How are colleagues and organisations likely to be affected if individuals have this condition?
- Should the individual disclose their condition and with what expected outcome?
- How do we plan for multiple individuals with one or more conditions?
- What day to day adjustments could be implemented and who will benefit from these adjustments?
- What could technology offer to assist in including neurodiverse individuals? See article by Betsy Beaumon, Benetech here: https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2019/10/04/guest-post-why-inclusion-matters-to-technology-and-technology-matters-to-inclusion/
- How can companies accommodate neurodiversity in their policies and day to day operation?
- How does implementing support and adjustments affect the bottom line?
- What costs might be involved annually?
Any organisation will inevitably employ neurodiverse individuals, just because it is statistically probable. Consequently, not catering to this neurodiversity will automatically impact negatively on productivity and team alignment with the overarching goals.
Within the publishing industry, we are very focused on having diverse and inclusive cultures even if sometimes the level of knowledge in the organisation is not at the optimum level. This article aims to go some way to increasing understanding of different conditions, and the benefits as well as the difficulties that individuals and their workplaces can face. As we move forward with the strategy and aims of the Publishing Inclusion Enabled group, we hope to both increase understanding as well as offering advice and suggestions to people employed at every level.
Please do get in touch with us if you would like to discuss our groups’ objectives further, offer advice on policy or real-life situations, or just discuss the challenges you currently face. We look forward to hearing from you.
If you would like to see us talk further about our experience, please see a video of Katy and Ruth in conversation here: https://youtu.be/PfLzFYzR5kc
Ruth Wells at Inventing Change (firstname.lastname@example.org) & Katy Alexander at Digital Science (email@example.com)
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash