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

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.

Choosing A Career

Now is the time when a lot of students will be starting to think about higher education choices, which ties in nicely with a realisation I had this week.

A few years ago I was at a conference where a mother who was sat next to her visibly terrified teenage daughter asked what jobs might be suitable for the daughter, given that she is autistic. I had almost forgotten about this, until I happened to be Googling something this week and noticed a related search: “best jobs for neurodivergent”. Immediately the Mum and daughter sprang to mind and I realised this isn’t an uncommon question.

The responses the Mum received that day were particularly focussed on creativity, working alone and self-employment. So out of interest, I clicked on the related search and found an equally limited range of suggestions geared around structure and maths: accountancy, IT and engineering.

But I don’t think it’s that simple…

As someone neurodivergent who has been working continuously since the age of 19 in a broad range of jobs, I want to offer 5 tips for forging a successful career if you are neurodivergent.

1. Forget the neurodivergent stereotypes

Sure, our diagnoses are helpful for understanding ourselves and identifying like-minded people, but they are just a framework and we shouldn’t limit ourselves because of them.

Why couldn’t you be, say, an outgoing and personable TV presenter if you’re autistic? Melanie Sykes has a very successful presenting career and was previously a model. And Anne Hegarty is well known from The Chase and did a stint on I’m A Celeb. Accounting, coding and engineering are not the only career paths available.

Equally if you have ADHD, a lot of famous role models tend to be actors or athletes. But let’s face it, how many budding actors or athletes are going to be successful if we channel everyone with ADHD to those two careers? The same is true for other neurodivergences. Absolutely go for it if it’s your passion, but don’t feel pressured if the stereotype roles aren’t your bag.

This is also a great article on the bias against neurodivergent people in leadership positions, and well worth a read.

There are a number of corporate programs out there to attract and retain neurodivergent talent, but again these tend to be in the financial and technology sectors. By all means, check them out and apply for their programs if IT or finance are your thing, but you don’t have to limit yourself to companies with dedicated programs like these. The stereotypes are just that, and your options really are endless.

2. It’s ok to change your mind

I knew about one month into my law degree that that was not the career for me. I thought I’d be able to apply myself to interesting intellectual challenges. Then I realised you are limited to the cases your clients bring. Another petty theft, anyone? Not for me, thanks.

So, I started working in the entertainment industry, and after 10 years I switched industry again and took a very different job in the financial sector. In fact, I’ve never done the same job twice. And that’s ok. There is no such thing as a career ladder anymore – do whatever piques your interest and pays the bills.

I’ve also never done a “typical” job – you know, the ones you learn about in school like doctor, teacher, lawyer, historian… There are loads of jobs out there that you don’t know exist – in compliance, governance, fundraising, audit, HR, diversity & inclusion and many, many more. You only really start to find out about these jobs once you’re in the workplace, and then the world is your oyster.

3. Think about your personal preferences

I don’t mean medicine over history, or sports over music. Think more broadly:

Do you feel energised by being outside? Then maybe consider landscape gardening or nature conservation?

Do you need to do physical exercise every day else you go stir crazy? How about farming or personal training?

Does the idea of having to think on your feet fill you with excitement? Perhaps barrister or fire fighter is right for you?

Would you benefit from flexible hours (consultant?), shift work (healthcare?) or do you need routine (teaching?)?

Do you find strong smells offputting? Perhaps avoid farming, medicine or packing coffee (take that one from me!)

The answers to these sorts of questions will help to give a view of the type of job you might enjoy – and as a result, succeed at. This tends to be a cycle – we enjoy things we are good at, and we are good at things we enjoy.

Once you have an idea of the aspects that are important to you, you can start to build a picture of what you do and don’t want from a job.

4. Hone those customer service skills

For many of us, social anxiety or reading social cues from neurotypicals can be a challenge. I am a firm advocate of recent research showing that autistic people are not “deficient” in communication skills, and equally I’m aware that other Neurotypes can have social challenges too – ADHD, dyspraxia, etc. can come with their own social challenges. So my take on this is that social anxiety spans the neurodiverse categories and is something that neurotypicals should understand and accommodate.

There is an army of people fighting for recognition and change in this regard (see my early blog on the Double Empathy Problem) but the reality is that change does not happen overnight, and you will likely be working with neurotypicals – or even other neurodivergent people – where good communication will require give and take on both sides.

On top of that, any job requires you to do the tasks that your boss (or client if you are self-employed) is paying you to do. This means you just can’t escape the fact that you are going to have to engage and communicate with other people in your day-to-day job.

If this is really something that you struggle with, it should be a key factor for you to consider when thinking about your working preferences. And again, try to think outside the box – it is possible, for example, to work for a company with thousands of employees, but to be part of a small team where you only liaise with a handful of people on a regular basis. Or perhaps a role that is largely scripted might be appealing?

If you can, I recommend everyone taking a customer service role early in your career. This will help you to forge your work persona (everyone has one of these, neurodivergent or not) in an environment where you can practise defining social scripts for yourself and honing teamwork skills. Let’s face it, a raft of people you’ll only ever talk to once are the best people to practice scripting with, because you’ll never see them again so it doesn’t matter if some conversations go better than others. Best of all, these sorts of (often part-time and/or temporary) roles can provide scenarios to answer interview questions for future jobs like “tell me about a time you overcame a challenge” or “how do you perform under pressure?”

And customer service doesn’t have to mean working with lots of people… you might be able to take a job at a veterinary centre, stables or rehoming shelter if you like working with animals, or in a library or independent bookshop if you’re the literary sort. Anything that will build your confidence to communicate will help set you up for success.

5. It is easier to get a job if you already have a job

I know, this is inherently unfair, more so for us neurodivergent folks who can struggle with executive function and spoons. This article from Forbes gives a couple of reasons why this is the case, and what to do if you’re not in education or employment and are looking for a job.

The reason I call this out is that I know how hard it is to save the spoons for work when you’re in education. While I did my GCSEs and A Levels I was exhausted. Mentally and physically exhausted. I probably wasn’t getting enough sleep, but was undiagnosed at the time so didn’t realise I was neurodivergent and more tired than my friends.

When I finished my A Levels I was told by my parents that I wasn’t going to be allowed to sit at home all day for the three months between finishing my exams and starting university. I was expected to go out and work.

So that’s what I did. I signed up with a local temping agency, and after a call at 8am one morning asking if I could be up the road for a cleaning shift at 10am (which I accepted, even though the short notice was a massive challenge for me), I received a week at the coffee packing factory (and came home stinking of the stuff!) and then a much happier 6 weeks printing off invoices for an estate agent.

This experience helped me to land a part-time job while I was at university, where there is much greater flexibility in terms of when you get your study hours in and when you can work, eat and sleep. The experience I gained in that part-time job then helped me to get my first full-time job. Any work experience you can get is going to help you in forging your own successful career.

Advice for neurodivergent career planners

So, what’s the overall message from these 5 tips? In short, you don’t need a career plan at the age of 18 – give things a go, study subjects you enjoy, build up your work experience, and use those experiences to figure out what you do and don’t want to do as your next step. Unless you want to go into a specific career, any course you enjoy will stand you in good stead. This advice is just as relevant for neurotypicals as it is for us neurodivergents, and the added extra for us is: don’t let the stereotypes limit your choices; think about your personal preferences when looking for a good job match and don’t worry if your career path twists and turns.

Good luck, and most of all have fun! You can do this!!

Hannah

New Year’s Resolutions

Well, hello 2022! Will this be the year we see the last of the lockdowns, I wonder? I’ve quite enjoyed them, actually. I mean, I’m glad we’ve been able to get out and see friends and family, but working from home has been a massive liberation for me: it’s given me back 3 hours a day when I no longer have to commute, that means I now get enough sleep, and having greater control of my environment means I’m no longer running on empty just to get from one end of the day to the other.

Happy New Year!

So, that got me thinking about how we can make the most of these changes and really make this a “happier” new year.

Ironically, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is to actually connect with people. Specifically, other neurodivergent people.

The more we listen to the experiences of other neurodivergent people and share our own, the more we normalise our experiences and feel less isolated. So I will be doing three things this year:

1. Engaging more on social media

Social media is a great place for listening to the neurodivergent community, finding like-minded people and being able to collectively problem solve. It’s your real-time neurodivergent support group!

If you’re looking to engage more with the online community, I recommend checking out Neurodivergent Rebel, The Holderness Family and comedian Rick Green as a starter for ten. And you should 100% watch Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas on Netflix!

2. Forging stronger links with my neurodivergent friends

Social media is great, but there are times when you can’t beat a phone call or a coffee catch up with someone who just “gets it”.

If you’re thinking, “I’d love to do that, but I don’t know anyone neurodivergent”… Well, current estimates are that somewhere between 1 in 5 and 1 in 7 of us are neurodivergent. Don’t worry so much about the labels – join in-person groups related to your hobbies and interests, be kind, and enjoy yourself. Friendships will follow.

3. Seeking out neurodivergent spaces

I know, I know – social media can provide neurodivergent spaces. But here I mean physical spaces.

I went to a conference shortly after I was diagnosed and am really glad that I opted into a social event for autistic people that took place the night before. It was the first time in my life I’ve walked into a room and felt like I fit in. I actually text my husband and said, “Everyone’s dressed like me!” I finally felt like I got the memo… I found my tribe.

And that’s what we’re all looking for, isn’t it? A sense of belonging. Well, I’m making 2022 the year I belong and I hope you do too. Happy New Year!

Hannah

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.


Adult Diagnoses

I went to a secondary school that had the motto “know thyself”. It never struck me as odd – as a teenager I interpreted it as “be true to yourself”. It was only later in life when I realised how little some of us actually do know ourselves.

Our understanding of neurodivergent conditions is increasing, and as a result many adults are facing earth shattering realisations that they have spent their whole lives being neurodivergent. This isn’t like realising you’ve got a cold; it smashes apart everything you thought you knew about yourself for you to pick up the pieces and put them all back with a different lens. Like starting with a Picasso and refitting the pieces into a Rembrandt.

Why is it important to talk about adult diagnosis?

Well, 2 reasons that I’d like to focus on – though there are many more.

Firstly, inclusion only works when it is top down. Senior leaders across all industries including the public sector need to be aware of diversity issues and promote inclusive practices for their staff and their customers. But there is a remarkable lack of senior leaders who are open about their neurodivergence.

In the UK, Vice Admiral Nick Hines, one of the most senior members of the Royal Navy, recently went public about his Autism diagnosis. Nick had been diagnosed at the age of 45, but waited 10 years before coming out, saying that he did so in order to make the Navy a better place to work.

You can read about Nick’s story here.

Adrian Chiles (yes, him off the One Show) also opened up last year about his recent ADD diagnosis, which he talks about here.

And Eastenders actress Luisa Bradshaw White revealed just last week that she is Bipolar, saying, “ [I] am shocked I didn’t get diagnosed earlier as I see patterns of it throughout my whole life”

But these individuals are in the minority. Every person in a position of influence or responsibility who is open about their neurodivergence is demonstrating that success is not reserved for neurotypicals, and is helping to breakdown the stereotypes and stigma associated with Neurodiversity.

An great example of leadership in practice comes from GCHQ. When they realised they needed staff with a skill set that matched the dyslexia profile, it was their Director of Strategy, Policy and Engagement along with two dyslexic employees who fronted the campaign.

Undiagnosed neurodivergent adults

And the second point I want to touch on is, what about all those adults out there who haven’t yet had their Eureka moment? The adults who might seek a diagnosis (or self diagnose) in 5, 10, 20 years time? At the moment, they are in the workplace, or meeting up with us for coffees, perhaps they are family members, and they aren’t any less neurodivergent than they will be when they get that piece of paper to make it official.

This means that our inclusive practices need to be wider that a strategy just aimed at neurodivergent people who have been diagnosed. We need accessible and inclusive practices that allow everyone to flourish, regardless of how and whether we label ourselves.

Neurodiversity Myths: Busted

Do you wonder what the truth is behind stereotypes of neurodiverse conditions? Here are 5 neurodiversity myths: busted!

Myth 1: Neurodivergent conditions only affect boys

Stereotypes of a number of neurodivergent conditions tend to be more closely aligned with presentations in boys. But did you know that there are growing numbers of adult women being diagnosed? This often happens when a child is diagnosed and their parents say “but he’s just like me….” And given time the penny drops.

Disclaimer: this also happens for Dads, and for adults without children. But engage with any neurodivergent group of adults and you will almost without fail find that at least one has been diagnosed as described above. This is helping to increase our understanding of these conditions and their different manifestations.

You can read more about this here:

Or you can read about autism in women and girls here.

Myth 2: Neurodivergent conditions are becoming more prevalent

See above. Numbers are not necessarily increasing. Diagnosis is getting better.

Myth 3: Adopt a growth mindset and think your way out of Neurodiversity

Surely there are strategies that neurodivergent people can learn to help them fit in better, right? Well, yes and no. Neurodivergent people have been learning strategies to navigate the world around them since the day they were born. It’s exhausting, and this viewpoint assumes that neurodivergent people are “deficient”, that they do things “wrong” that neurotypical people do “right”. We tore that assumption up in this blog.

Think of it this way: my natural hair colour is brown. I could invest time, energy and money in bleaching my hair to make me look blonde, but I can’t change the fact that my hair comes out of the follicles brown. In a situation where I absolutely had to appear blonde, I would always be on the lookout for a bit of growth coming through that might give the game away. Was I blonde enough today? Do you think that person who looked at me funny realised I’m brunette? What product can I buy to make me blonder for longer? Maybe I’ll turn down that invitation to meet in the park because the sun’s out and if the light hits my head a particular way the hairs look darker.

No wonder neurodivergent people have high levels of anxiety.

Myth 4: Neurodivergent people are trailblazers

We’ve talked a lot recently about the positives associated with Neurodiversity: focus, attention to detail, creativity… But neurodivergent people aren’t always shouting about their strengths or proposing ground breaking solutions to problems.

Why not? Well, firstly we are – on the whole – just your average Joe. We don’t have Mensa-level IQs. We don’t have egos the size of houses. We don’t necessarily think our ideas are better than anyone else’s.

Then layer on top of that Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. Yes, the flip side of Neurodiversity is that despite having good ideas, we might not want to share them because rejection or criticism from our colleagues causes a very real and physical pain. If you are a line manager who thinks you’ve got to grips with Neurodiversity, I urge you to read about RSD because understanding this might help you to really get the best from your staff. And if you’re a friend of someone neurodivergent, please go easy on them!

Myth 5: Autistic people have no sense of humour

April is autism awareness / acceptance month, so I had to close with this one. To give a bit of background, Autism Awareness month was launched by a charity that Autistic people actually don’t support. For a whole host of reasons that you don’t have time to read about right now. Anyway, this charity suggests “lighting it up blue” in April as a way of identifying autistic children. Call to mind significant events in modern history or think about the friends of yours who don’t post images of their kids on social media, and you’ll get the jist of why this is a problem.

So, in response, and bearing in mind that autism often goes hand in hand with sensory sensitivities, the autistic community tongue-in-cheek recommend that during April we should #toneitdowntaupe.

No sense of humour, eh…?

Image (c) Christina-Marie GonzaMama Wright

Bonus laughs:

(c) jja
(c) SMBC Comics – NB This is a play on the fallacy that vaccines cause autism

Contrasting Stereotypes of Autism in Recent Media

Image (c) Don Arnold/Getty Images

I’ve wanted to write about Sia’s new film, Music, for some time. I’d even planned the title: The Trouble with Sia’s “Music”. Love a bit of wordplay, me. The thing is, I was terrified of putting pen to paper in fear of just brain dumping all the things that are wrong with the film and its production, and I wanted to do more than just giving the film a good bashing. I wanted to write something that would be insightful.

Music is Sia’s first foray into film production, and centres around a former addict becoming the sole guardian for her autistic half-sister. The film has received a lot of criticism, even back when the trailer was released ( this is a great example from Time Magazine). The criticism was wide ranging, covering topics such as casting a neurotypical actor (who Sia had already worked with more than once) to play an autistic character, having a scene depicting forcible restraint, and consulting with an autism charity that promotes “cures” proven to cause PTSD. Plus, well, reviews show that the film just isn’t that good (see this 1 star review from the Guardian).

And so, surprisingly, I was grateful to Sir Simon Baron Cohen. You probably haven’t heard of him but I know what you’re thinking, and yes, he is the lesser known cousin of Sacha. He is a professor specialising in autism who has recently been promoting his new book called “The Pattern Seekers”.

What does this unlikely duo have in common? Well, both have been in the media recently, perpetuating stereotypes of autism. The stereotypes they are reinforcing are polar opposites, but both are equally damaging.

Sia was nominated for a Golden Globe last weekend for the film she reckons is a “love letter” to the autistic community. (Here is another article from the Independent outlining why that isn’t the case.) Focussing just on the stereotyping issue, those of you who read my last blog will know that a lot of “stereotypically autistic” people have other diagnoses too. And yet here is another portrayal of an autistic character who is non-verbal, holds themselves awkwardly, and is not given a voice (and by the way, none of those things appear in the strict diagnostic criteria).

Why is this damaging for autistic people?

Because a lot of autistic people are muddling through life, holding down a job, a marriage, raising kids. You might not even know they are autistic. You certainly wouldn’t be able to tell by the way they walk. Sia had an opportunity to give the autistic community a voice, and that community feels she let them down.

At the other end of the scale is Sir Simon. Oh, Sir Simon. He’s one of the leading academics specialising in autism and yet… he also misses the mark. His heart is in the right place, but Baron Cohen has recently released a book suggesting that “Autistic people have really contributed to human progress”; that “the genes for autism drove the evolution of human invention” (article here)… No pressure, then!

So which is it? Are autistic people non-verbal, ear defender-wearers who have to use computers to communicate? Or are they geniuses who are single handedly responsible for human progression?

The answer is neither… and both.

There are two points here. The first is that “when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person” – there is no blue print. And secondly, things like being non-verbal or having a stroke of genius can be transient or subjective. We’ve all been speechless before. Some autistic people have a similar sensation when they are overwhelmed and physically can’t get words out. But they can still hold a conversation 99% of the time. Equally, a different way of thinking might mean an autistic person sheds light on a problem your team is trying to solve. Does it make them a genius? Probably not.

So I want to appeal to you. Please, read about autism. Watch Hannah Gadsby’s “Douglas” on Netflix. Listen to the BBC’s “1800 Seconds on Autism” podcast. But whichever medium you are consuming, think about what you are reading or hearing and critique it. What is the author trying to achieve? Because I can tell you with certainty that no-one is going to win a Golden Globe or earn a knighthood by suggesting that autistic people are just like you and me.

What does Neurodiversity Look Like?

I’m sorry – I’m teasing you with the title of this one, and you’re getting three different answers to this question!

And for that reason, let’s jump straight in:

Answer 1

You can’t tell whether someone is neurodivergent just by looking at them

Never a good idea to tell someone they “don’t look autistic” or that they “cover it well”. You might get very short shrift. These preconceptions are based on an outdated stereotype.

Did you know?

A lot of stereotypes of autistic people are based on individuals who are autistic but also have other diagnoses. For example, Kim Peek – who inspired Raymond Babbitt in Rainman – wasn’t only autistic. He had learning difficulties and possibly also a condition called FG Syndrome. Yet the film suggests that all of Babbitt’s traits are down to autism. Why let the truth ruin a good story, eh?

Answer 2

One person’s neurodivergent traits might not be the same as another’s

If you’ve met one neurodivergent person, you’ve met one neurodivergent person. Our challenges, strengths, coping mechanisms, sensory sensitivities all vary from person to person, even when we share a diagnosis. This means that just because one neurodivergent friend didn’t need a particular accommodation, that doesn’t mean that other neurodivergent friends won’t. So take the time to understand what makes your friends and family tick.

Answer 3

Some real world examples of what Neurodiversity “looks” like

When reading this list please ask yourself: If I had the opportunity to talk to this person, would it matter to me that I might need to accommodate their foibles? Because giving your neurodivergent friends time, space and understanding can be a huge help in social situations.

Richard Branson

Virgin Tycoon Richard Branson knew he was dyslexic from school age, saying “I was seen as the dumbest person in school”. You can read more from Richard Branson here: Dyslexia helped me to become successful

Simone Biles

Multi Olympic gold medal winner Simone Biles had to speak publicly about her ADHD when hackers revealed that she takes a commonly prescribed ADHD medication. See a 3 minute discussion of the topic on Good Morning America here.

Cara Delevigne

Model, actress and author Cara spoke candidly about her dyspraxia in this interview with Vogue. She has since written a book to help teenagers navigate their mental health.

David Beckham

Footballer and Spice-husband Beckham has been talking openly about both anxiety and OCD for over 10 years.

Billie Eilish

In 2020 singer-songwriter Billie Eilish joined the likes of Shirley Bassey, Adele and Paul McCartney in recording the theme tune for the latest James Bond film. You can hear her talking about Tourette’s with Ellen Degeneres here (2 minute video). She touches on two very important topics: not being defined by our neurotype, and masking (which we’ll talk about in a later blog).

Anthony Hopkins

In this 2017 interview Oscar winner Sir Anthony Hopkins talked about his autism diagnosis (referred to here as “Aspergers”) and said, “I don’t go to parties, I don’t have many friends… But I do like people.” The paradox of autism in a nutshell!

Sensory Processing in Neurodiversity

Have you ever wondered, well I have,

About how when I say, say red, for example,

There’s no way of knowing if red

Means the same thing in your head

As red means in my head when someone says red.”

Lyrics of Quiet by Tim Minchin, from Matilda the Musical

This is an interesting one, isn’t it? I remember having conversations about this when I was about 9 or 10: how do we know that we all perceive the world in the same way?

Because we already know that we don’t, don’t we?

We all understand that some people perceive the world differently. Colour vision deficiency (“colour blindness”) is widely understood. Pregnant women can have an increased sensitivity to smell. As we age, we lose the ability to hear very high and very low sound frequencies. And men and women often experience the same ambient temperature slightly differently.

Similarly, some neurodivergent people experience sensory inputs differently to the majority, too. 

Sensory differences are required as part of the criteria for an autism diagnosis. And although not required for an ADD/ADHD diagnosis, they are commonly seen as part of that profile too. The same is true of dyslexia, Tourette Syndrome and OCD among others.

What is it like to experience the world in this way?

Well, there are a range of ways we can experience sensory inputs. While some people might be hypersensitive, others might be hyposensitive. This means that while one person might be reaching for their jumper when the temperature’s 100 degrees, someone else might be out in the snow in shorts and t-shirt. And while for some the biggest differences might be in auditory or visual perception, others might find touch or taste their biggest challenge.

I guess everyone experiences the world differently if there’s that much variation?

Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a society that normalised different sensory experiences. But in reality, that doesn’t happen. Sensory differences might be the reason your friend declines an invitation for a drink after work, especially if they know you’re going to a noisy bar. It might be the reason they wear the same jumper day in, day out (the one that doesn’t have scratchy tags, perhaps). It might be the reason they eat the same lunch every day; not because they particularly like the texture or taste of that specific BLT, but because the sandwich bar is the closest shop to the office and the BLT is stocked next to the till, so choosing that each day limits exposure to the echoing chatter of other customers, the clink of tea spoons on saucers, the fluorescent lighting…

Someone who is hypersensitive might describe this as everything coming in at 100% volume. You know when you take a photo in portrait mode and it blurs out the background so that just the subject is in focus? Some brains don’t do that. All the sliders on the mixing desk are up to max. This is what can give some people a brilliant eye for detail or memory for specifics, but in some circumstances that same person might not be able to “see the wood for the trees”.

What does this mean for neurodivergent people?

It’s really important to acknowledge that different people have different sensory experiences, because the challenges these bring and the solutions they require might not seem particularly logical to a neurotypical person.

Ultimately, we want to make sure we are working on as level a playing field as possible, and maybe that means letting your friend sit in the seat with their back to the busy bar. Maybe it means understanding that they’ve put their headphones in on the bus to avoid overwhelm. Or perhaps avoiding incidents like the one my ex-colleagues and I still refer to, 10 years on, as “sardine-gate”. I’ll leave that one to your imagination, but suffice to say it’s still vivid memory for many of us!!