Celebrating diverse minds

Celebrating diverse minds

Happy Neurodiversity Awareness Week! This week (18-24 March 2024) is when we celebrate neurodiversity.

Everyone is unique, has a different set of strengths and weaknesses, and works best on their own, has a and works best in their own but because sufficiently many people are Neurodiversity, also sometimes known as neurodivergence, describes a range of ways in which some people think and process sensory stimuli differently from most people. It is a besetting limitation of most people, myself included, that we struggle to appreciate just how different the world often looks to others and this colours judgements of people’s abilities. If I sit in an office that I find comfortable, I assume it is a comfortable office for everyone. Yet, someone else in the room might be tormented by background noise, disturbed by overly bright illumination, and startled by people rushing past their desks. It would be little surprise if the cumulative impact of these things harmed their performance over time. This video introduces neurodiversity.

Adding to this complexity is that people neurologically process information differently. Some people are born to be more emotional and analytical and process different information more or less effectively and efficiently than others. Psychologists now talk about different types of intelligence, including emotional intelligence – the ability to empathise and work socially with others – to emphasize some of these differences. We are all on a broad, multi-dimensional cognitive spectrum, but following the Industrial Revolution, there has been an increasing desire to create large, efficient organisations.

People all ended up being recruited and typecast into specific roles. This has resulted in the artificial selection of a combination of analytical, emotional management and interpersonal capacities to become and remain employed. Just as narrow spaces and steps disable those with physical mobility impairments, the requirements to manage emotions in complex and frequently overstimulating situations socially disable anyone with cognitive differences; that means the level of sensory stimulation, and demands on emotional self-regulation favours a very small section of the population who “thrive under pressure” at the expense of everyone else. Very few autistic people are employed and the situation is not improving. The demographic statistics bear witness to the systematic oppression ingrained in our national and workplace cultures.

You don’t have to be like us to work here, but it helps

Oppression is a strong word to choose but appropriate when we consider that only 22% of autistic people are employed, the lowest employment rate of any disability category, and only 16% of autistic people work full-time. Simple reasonable adjustments would enable many autistic people to work effectively but despite the Equality Act 2010 requiring employers to make reasonable adjustments, widespread stereotyping of neurodiverse people, ignorance of what reasonable adjustments are effective, and an unwillingness among already overworked line managers to do the extra work required to support autistic employees mean that employment largely compels most people for force themselves into the same employee-shaped mould.

Ironically, equality is often cited as the reason for this. Long ago, treating everyone the same was conjectured to be fair. We have since realised that since everyone is unique and has diverse abilities and needs, this unwavering approach works well for only a lucky few, who then rose to lead organisations and, consciously or not, recruited and promoted people who thrived in the existing system and who were therefore like themselves. We should not overlook the attractiveness of people who remind us of ourselves. And so, with all the best intentions and a rulebook dedicated to being fair, we have created a national workplace culture that systematically excludes people who don’t think the same as those already employed. Where autistic people are employed, they are restricted to roles that align with stereotypes, such as coding or other technical roles, despite many autistic people being highly sociable and capable of offering great customer service.

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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