The power of Neurodiversity: How we can free diversity of thought
When you think of what it means to be smart, what comes to mind?
For me, this image started to form early on in life. It meant getting high grades, going to Russell group universities, reading lots of books and being politically engaged. All things that I was not.
As a society, our perception of intelligence is framed through a biased, homogenised lens. We see reading books as intellectually superior to audio books, and engaging with The Economist as time better spent than watching documentaries. The way we moralise thinking and learning breeds a culture of shame for many, but it is particularly acute for the near 15% of the population who have ‘learning difficulties’ (of which diagnoses include ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia and Dyscalculia).
I’m Dyslexic, and I’ve carried a weight of shame around the way my brain works for most of my life. Yet over the past few years I’ve learnt that what I’ve achieved isn’t in spite of my Dyslexia, it’s because of it. I’ve learnt that I’m not dumb, I’m different.
This belief is the cornerstone of neurodiversity – a frontier of the diversity and inclusion conversation – which seeks to open our minds to the diverse ways people think. Reframing learning difficulties from a source of shame, into a source of power – for all of society.
Dyslexia is a language processing difficulty that is often seen in reading, writing and spelling. A common struggle for people with dyslexia is messing up ‘their, there and they’re’, which people seem to be dumbfounded that anyone ‘educated’ could possibly do. Less understood is how Dyslexia changes how you process the entire world around you, often affecting things like memory and organisation.
As for many people with learning difficulties, school was a traumatic experience. In a system where your worth is ranked by grading and creativity is seen as a hobby, as quickly as I was taught what it meant to be smart, I learnt I was not. People say that if you were to design a system to remove someone’s self confidence, you’d come up with school – as a long term member of set 7/7, I wholeheartedly agree.
I’ve learnt that when society writes a narrative about you, it’s hard for it not to become your story. Believing I was stupid, I stopped engaging in and avoided conversations I felt were above me. I thought, maybe I can be funny instead? Or perhaps, creative? So I leaned into my creativity and went to uni to study Fashion. This is where my perspective on myself first began to shift. I received the highest 1st in my course for the past 3 years, it was a far cry from set 7. To be seen as talented was incredible, but it was a creative course, so by society’s standards, I still felt unintelligent.
“I’ve learnt that when society writes a narrative about you, it’s hard for it not to become your story.”
It was my journey that began at Revolt that really started to unpick this narrative. I joined as an activist and was never asked for a CV or about my grades. As my role developed, I found my feet as a strategist, long before I could even work out what that meant. My colleagues at Revolt were the first people who called me intelligent (other than my mum), and after an incredible line manager and a workplace that believed in potential over credentials, I started to believe it.
Then I read a book about neurodiversity, and everything changed. I learnt that neurotypical people have what they call ‘flat profiles’, which means that their cognitive skills dance around the same level. Whereas neurodiverse people have ‘spiky profiles’ which means they often have very high scores in things like verbal comprehension and perceptual reasoning, but much lower than average scores in processing speeds and working memory.
This rings true to the experience of many neurodiverse people. For example, people with ADHD may struggle to concentrate for seemingly average lengths of time but can complete urgent and demanding tasks in ways others can’t. People with Autism may struggle with a meeting environment but can deliver rule observant and punctual tasks in a phenomenal way (yet only 16% of Adults with Autism in the UK are in full time employment).
A U.K. study of self-made millionaires found that 40 percent were dyslexic. Who cares if you’re mocked for mixing up ‘there’ and ‘their’, when you’re a millionaire? Neurodiversity shows us that these people think differently, and that difference is powerful.
Neurodiversity can be a secret weapon for businesses who embrace it and companies like P&G, Microsoft and Google are waking up to its power. After all, in our fast paced, ever changing world, a little difference can go a long way. The challenge is that our current education system, our recruitment procedures and our lack of understanding make it difficult to seek out and nurture these talents.
Right now there are neurodiverse people out there that have the ability to flood the world with unique and groundbreaking ideas, but they’re shut out, weighed down by shame. Let them in, help them grow, watch them thrive. We will all be better for it.