Why Do We Need “Spiky” Profiles?

We humans love to categorise, categorise and sub-categorise, don’t we? We divide football fans into Spurs, United, Hornet supporters; once upon a time tweenage girls were peer-branded Sporty, Scary, Ginger, Baby or Posh; and anyone who has the faintest idea whether they are Gen X, Gen Z or a Millennial deserves colossal round of applause!

What is a Spiky Profile?

From an early age we encouraged to be average at everything: English, Maths, Sport, Music, Languages… We are taught to master the basics of all the academic disciplines; we are given a “rounded” education. If we show a natural aptitude for any of those subjects we might be encouraged to pursue them in more depth, but if we don’t, average is adequate.

But that’s not how the world works, because we are constantly categorising and comparing.

If you’re at the beach and a friend gets into difficulty in the water, you send the strongest swimmer to save them – your childhood Sporty Spice impersonator, perhaps. It doesn’t matter whether Sporty can do basic trigonometry, the strongest swimmer gets the gig.

Equally, pulling together a quiz team for your local fundraiser, you pick your brainiest friends or those with good memories, regardless of, say, their prowess with poetry. Though I do think a witty limerick contest would make a great tie-breaker!

The term “spiky profile” is the opposite of being a good all-rounder, it’s the idea that if you want an expert on your team, they might fall short of “average” in other skillsets.

The irony of the human condition is that you already know this is true. You already know that you can’t have a team comprised solely of leaders. Neither can you have a team comprised solely of analysts, or strategists. And yet we tend to shoal with people who resemble ourselves – people who support the same football team, come from the same area, or have the same interests or skill sets, and this means that we tend to forge groups and teams of people who are very, very similar.

What has this got to do with Neurodiversity?

The paradox of Neurodiversity is that, once we realise we are neurodivergent and start to understand our full potential, the rest of the world – in parallel – appears to curb it. As we realise that we aren’t stupid, lazy or rude:

We go from being “the geeky one” to “the autistic one”.

We go from being “the funny one” to “the one with ADHD”.

We go from being “the creative one” to “the dyslexic one”.

And with each of these labels the world limits us. “The autistic one will do embarrassing weird stuff with their hands and won’t be able to sit still.” “The one with ADHD won’t be able to concentrate and get the job done.” “The dyslexic one won’t be able to complete the paperwork correctly.”

Our “spiky profiles” are flipped on their heads, and we are pigeon-holed not by what we can do, but by what we (supposedly) can’t do.

What is the solution?

Firstly, neurodivergent people need the support of neurotypical people to break down the stereotypes. Sure, an autistic person might tap the table to help them concentrate, but don’t assume that they will. Some of the most focussed people I have had meetings with have ADHD. And spellcheck, dictation software and screen filters are a huge help for dyslexia.

We need your help to make sure that neurodivergent people are judged on their own individual personalities, strengths and skills rather than the preconceived ideas that come with our diagnostic labels. I have, in my time, been called “diligent”, “organised”, “a good leader”. We need to be careful not to spin these into “pedantic”, “rigid” and “bossy” when coupled with knowledge of a neurodivergent diagnosis, and the same is true of the many other positive traits that neurodistinct people may have.

But it is also important to remember that not all neurodivergent people will be remarkable. In Hannah Gadsby’s Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation she says, “It is a basic human right to have average abilities.” In the same way that we shouldn’t peg all neurodistinct people with stereotypical negative traits, we shouldn’t assume they have the perceived “positive” ones either: when you’ve met one neurodivergent person, you’ve met one neurodivergent person. We are all unique.

Secondly, we need to forge teams with complimentary skillsets – opposite “spiky profiles” – to enable everyone in that team to reach their potential. We take the best of someone’s particular skills, and plug any gaps with team members who excel in complimentary areas. Think 2011’s Moneyball, a story about using statistics to forge the strongest possible baseball team.

Ultimately, neurodivergent people just want to be afforded the same opportunities as everyone else.

And for the record, I was always Posh Spice due to my brunette bob and lack of facial expressions…!

Hannah

We’re Gonna Talk About Bruno

“We don’t talk about Bruno” the Madrigal family sing in Disney’s new film, Encanto. But online autistic communities seem to be talking about nothing but Bruno at the moment.

Why?

Autistic people are seeing several meaningful parallels between Bruno’s traits and experiences, and common autistic experiences, from masking to misinterpretation and lots more in between. There are several social media channels (Reddit, Facebook, TikTok) where autistic voices are outlining the similarities, or you can find a great blog on the topic here.

But what I find most interesting about Bruno is that the choice to include a character that resonates so closely with the autistic community follows closely on the heels of Disney subsidiary Pixar’s short films Float (2019) and Loop (2020) … with each having its own approach to autism (one is about the autistic experience and one is about the parent’s experience).

A conscious decision

Giving the benefit of the doubt, there are a few options for how Bruno might have come about:

1. Disney sought to create a character perceived as “different” and managed, by chance, to hit the nail on the head for those who are autistic and see themselves reflected in Bruno.

2. Research or knowledge gathered in developing Float and Loop unconsciously informed the character of Bruno.

3. Disney consciously created a character with distinctly autistic traits but didn’t label him as such, reflecting the lived experience of those of us who choose not to disclose, but at the same time normalising neurodivergent traits.

I can’t see a way that this happened by chance. With Pixar’s conscious decisions to represent lived experiences of Neurodiversity in 2019 and 2020 it can’t be a coincidence that Disney happen to represent an autistically coded character in Encanto in 2021. More so in a film where Disney supposedly responded to a fan who asked for a heroine in glasses and has been praised for its subtle details specific to Columbia, where the story is set.

And so we have to give even more kudos to Disney – they have created a character that resonates with the autistic community without labelling him as autistic…. He is no “Good Doctor”… no “Sheldon”… no “Rainman”…

Bruno is the ultimate figurehead for autistic people because he explains how we feel: well-intentioned but misunderstood; someone who backs away rather than risk hurting those close to him; who masks when he has an important task to complete…

Bruno, the Madrigals might not talk about you, but we do. And we thank you, Disney, because in Bruno neurodivergent people feel seen, more than ever before.

Hannah

Intersectionalities with Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity can be a tricky topic sometimes. We can’t see it, so it is easy to forget when addressing diversity in our organisations. And we only know our own experience of the world, so different lived experiences can be difficult to understand.

But the biggest difficulty is that we can’t view different diversities in silos. If we are talking gender diversity, we are also talking racial equality and Neurodiversity, for example. We can’t address these differences in isolation if we really want to make a difference.

Gender

Did you know that for every female diagnosed autistic, 4 males are diagnosed? For ADHD, the ratio is 1:3

It is believed that prevalence is similar in both genders, and that women and girls are better at camouflaging or masking.

This means that when we look at gender diversity in the workplace, for instance, if we don’t consider Neurodiversity in parallel, we risk decreasing the pool of women we are trying to support by 20% (based on 1 in 5 being Neurodivergent), which in turn will impact our success rate.

Race

This short piece from the Open University articulates, far more clearly than I could, some of the issues around varied diagnostic rates between races.

To take one of their points as an example, in some Asian cultures it is considered rude to give eye contact to an adult or someone in authority, and children are discouraged from doing so. And yet lack of eye contact is often considered one of the markers of autism. Unsurprisingly, diagnoses of autism among Asian people in the UK are half that of people classed as white British.

This is another group of people where Neurodiversity can be under recognised, and potentially impact our hiring, retention and job satisfaction.

Mental Health

Ok, you’ve seen where this is going…

This article from Psychology Today pulls together a number of sources, explaining that 3 in 10 children with ADHD also suffer from anxiety, and children with dyspraxia have been show to have higher levels of anxiety than their peers as young as 3-4 years old.

There is also research showing that the risk of suicide in individuals with “mild”* autism is 10 times higher than in the general population. It also found that autistic women are more likely than autistic men to commit suicide, despite suicide being more common in males in general.

The interesting thing here is that we know that conventional mental well-being practices do not work for neurodivergent people. Suggesting someone with ADHD take a meditation or yoga class is like telling a fish to take a long walk. Some might be able to do it, but it’s not the solution for everyone. DBT has been shown to be more effective than CBT for neurodivergent people, for example.

We need to extend our mental well-being offerings to ensure that everyone can benefit.

LGBT+

Possibly a result of being more likely to challenge social “norms”, it has been found that 70% of autistic people identify as non-heterosexual:

In fact, the intersection between autism and LGBT identities has its own Wikipedia entry.

Age

We know that there are higher rates of Neurodiversity diasgnoses in children, and high rates of research on children. But those children grow into adults, and those adults grow old. And yet there is very little research on the impact of Neurodiversity as we age.

This study found that only 0.4% of autism research focussed on older adults. But how does Neurodiversity impact the menopause, with its hormonal changes, sensory issues and emotional impact? What about the significant life change of moving from work to retirement and its impact on our routines, which in many cases keep us grounded? What about the emotional and executive function challenges of juggling work, children and grandchildren?

What can we do to make sure neurominorities are adequately represented?

There are two key things we need to keep in mind to ensure not only that we are driving inclusion for neurodiverse people, but also that we are maximising the impact of other diversity initiatives:

1. We need to treat everyone as an individual. Each person we engage with has a distinct “diversity profile”: everyone has a gender, a race, a sexual orientation, an age, etc. and we must treat each person as a whole rather than as a sum of those parts.

2. We must ensure that Neurodiversity is a strategic priority on our people agendas across organisations. This will help to drive other diversity metrics, plus creating the psychological safety for individuals to feel comfortable to disclose will increase the accuracy of any Neurodiversity metrics in place. Because until there is psychological safety, those metrics will measure rates of disclosure rather than true rates of diversity.

Hannah

*This article uses the term “mild autism”, which has been repeated verbatim here, but we do not subscribe to this idea. It can be harmful to describe autism as “mild” because it plays down the challenges that the person has.

Diversity of Thought in the Workplace

I know sport might be a bit of a sore topic for some this week, but despite football not quite making it home, it is still a huge achievement that the England team made it to their first major men’s final in 55 years.

While there are certainly a number of contributing factors that made this possible, I discovered last week that in 2016 Gareth Southgate created a Technical Advisory Board, and understanding more about it really explains the benefits fostering a neurodiverse workplace.

The article says, logic dictates that if Southgate (or in this example Redknapp) wants to understand more about football, he should ask football experts….

The curious thing about these arguments is that they are, on the surface, persuasive… But do you see the problem? Redknapp already knows what Pulis knows. They were each socialised into the assumptions of English football: a way of setting up tactically, diet, recovery, you name it. They are, if you like, intellectual “clones”.”

And so Southgate gathered a team of experts from other areas: an Olympic table tennis player, a military commander, a cycling coach, a technology expert and so on. This Board advised Southgate on a range of disciplines relevant to his field.

The thing is, the article makes two other key points, that really resonated with me.

Neurodiverse rebels

One is that this advisory board, people who think differently, are not rebels in the disruptive sense, but bring a fresh way of thinking to the table. This makes me think that the opposite of a neurodiverse environment is one that prizes a “cultural fit”. “Cultural fit” is shorthand for “we’re all the same” and while I appreciate that teams who can understand each other easily can maybe move more quickly or cut communication corners, they aren’t necessarily set up to find the best possible solutions. That’s because, as argued above, they are teams of intellectual clones, who will all approach a problem in the same way.

We need to be mindful in our hiring practices and with promotion and mobility that we steer clear of unconscious bias and really do choose the right person for the job, especially because not all neurodivergent adults are diagnosed and/or disclosed.

Embracing discomfort

And secondly, the article talks about echo chambers being comfortable but self limiting. I suppose this is an extension of the point above, but healthy challenge won’t always be comfortable. Comfortable is not going to result in innovation or creativity. And in a way, we select people like ourselves, those with “cultural fit” to avoid the discomfort that diverse teams should embrace.

But the prize on offer if we embrace this diversity is significant. This related article states that within economic forecasting, the average of the top 6 forecasters is 15% more accurate than the top forecaster’s estimate. That is because the top 6 forecasters each use different models that will take various factors into account.

Let’s all be a bit more rebellious, embrace the discomfort, and generate some innovative solutions!

Where can I read more on diversity of thought?

If you want to read more, Southgate’s Technical Advisory Board member Matthew Syed has written about this in his book Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking.