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17 October 2022

Is neurodiversity being hijacked?

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By Mark Thorpe, Head of Thought Leadership

[Neurodiversity means] The range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autistic spectrum disorders). – Oxford Languages

The word neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities. – Harvard Medical School

One of the few positive things to have come out of the “Covid years” has been the emergence of diversity and inclusion as one of the most pressing causes across many nations. The uprising of a “no going back” sentiment lifted swathes of populations across the globe and made many millions of people believe that change is possible. However, like the greenwashing we have seen with some so-called sustainability initiatives, aspects of D&I are becoming victims of calculated expediency.

Neurodiversity, once a neglected fringe player, is now undoubtedly the new hero of the D&I cause. Centre stage and a prominent part of much that is written and spoken about. The mantra, now, is that having a neurodiverse workforce equates to a better, more productive and fit-for-purpose business. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this belief. Indeed, a central tenet of D&I is (and should be) that diversity enriches culturally, socially and economically.

There is a problem, though, with some of this valorisation of neurodiversity: authenticity has been replaced by expediency. For businesses struggling to get to grips with D&I, neurodiversity is like a gift from the gods. “It” covers a multitude of human possibilities, behaviours, limitations and abilities. “It” is often hidden away “inside the mind”. “It” is often hard to define and difficult to point out (or at). This lies in stark contrast to the clear visibility of the absence of Black or Brown faces within an organisation. This “hiddenness” and breadth of definition leaves neurodiversity open to abuse and provides opportunity to be “creative” with how the concept is appropriated and used.

Neurodiversity as the “always amongst us”

Neurodiversity is being hijacked in order to create an illusion of change; without the need to create real, tangible gains in relation to either diversity or inclusion. The concept is being stretched so far that the focus has become simply one of difference – encompassing different people with differing points of views and different ways of thinking. For the more “creatively pragmatic” amongst us, this is truly wonderful. It means that neurodiversity has always been with us; wrapped up in an entangled human ball of multiple ways of seeing and thinking. To paraphrase the thinking, “we’ve just never really looked at what was always there in the right way”. The problem, according to this logic, is simply one of recognition and allocation of a more equal share of voice.

Once recognising that “we have always [really] been neurodiverse”, the race is on to reassure those who fit the definition (aren’t we all now neurodiverse?) that they now sit at the top table of minds. Weighty platitudes, announcing that “we are embracing different ways of thinking”, are built and disseminated. Our difference is our strength. We are all different, really. And so the story goes.

The Emperor’s new clothes

Behind the manifestos of intent and commitment, things can be a little different. In more unguarded moments, there are palpable sighs of relief and admissions that neurodiversity has come at the right time. “It” is allowing some companies, hopefully a minority, to swear allegiance to the D&I cause without really doing anything of any real substance. Except, of course, shouting the equivalent of “every mind matters”.

One of the problems with crafting an expedient role for neurodiversity is that it’s a little like the Emperor’s new clothes – its nakedness is never really far from the surface. As we have seen from a number of polls recently, the majority of employees want to see their employers taking D&I seriously. Expediency is never a substitute for long-term commitment. Employees will look around and say to themselves (and each other) “what has really changed?”

Time to resist

Neurodiversity is an immensely important subject and experience, one that is filled with injustices and misunderstanding. Let’s not allow its fashionable status to empower a narrative that undermines what it should represent in hearts, minds and corporate policy. Let’s resist expediency in favour of real recognition and change. It is time to stand up and be clear about what neurodiversity really means and what change is really required.