Different not defective: allow people to be who they are, not who you are

Diversity is only useful when it is inextricably linked to equality. For companies to creatively flourish they must create a culture which embraces difference, writes James Hilton, chief creative officer at Native.

First things first: what is neurodiversity? Simply put, it’s a descriptor for a broad range of what are traditionally known as "neurological conditions", including dyspraxia, dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, dyscalculia, Autistic Spectrum, Tourette Syndrome, and others. Neurodiversity is, however, a surprisingly divisive term.

There are those residing on the autistic spectrum who think it’s a well overdue rethink of what it means to be autistic. They hold the view that it demonstrates clearly that there is no us-and-them conflict with neurotypicals (that’s "normal" to neurotypicals), and believe it elevates all ways of thinking to the same level, "de-pathologising" anything outside the traditional understanding of what is "normal". 

When a problem is given to a group consisting of 99% neurologically identical people, the solution is more often than not provided by the 1% neurological outlier

At the heart of the neurodiversity concept is the belief that people with neurological differences do not need to be cured; they may simply require assistance or a little accommodation and understanding. It proposes that a neurologically diverse humanity can be seen as a pond of ability: in the middle of this pond, within a three-dimensional volume of difference, exists the layers of varied thinking that have made possible our species’ progress in science and the creative arts. At the extreme edges of the pond live those individuals who are so diverse they are, in essense, functionally crippled by it. Or not.

It’s been shown time and again that when a problem is given to a group consisting of 99% neurologically identical people, the solution is more often than not provided by the 1% neurological outlier. That outlier may well be considered disabled or disadvantaged most or all of the time. But to supporters of neurodiversity, people are perceived as disabled because they are at the extreme edge of the ability pond; not because they are damaged.

To many neurodiversity proponents, the idea that they in some way need to be "fixed" is as abhorrent as the concept that homosexuality or gender diversity can be "cured". They believe their difference to the neurological majority is an intrinsic part of their being and therefore should not be manipulated or coerced into something else more fitting to some imagined societal ideal.

Neurodiversity opponents, on the other hand, believe that while neurological differences can functionally disable a person, this is not true of other diversity-related issues such as race or sexual orientation. This, of course, opens the biggest fucking can of worms you’ve ever seen.

A more useful criticism of neurodiversity is that it is skewed toward "high-functioning" individuals – the people closer to the middle of the pond. Controversy exists as to who represents the interests of those with "low-functioning" autism, as they are often significantly impaired in their everyday abilities and are therefore unable to communicate their opinions and wishes effectively. Neurodiversity opponents look at those who are disabled by difference and say it’s wrong to simply attribute that to normal neurological variation.

My OS is not your OS

I find the label "neurodiverse" to be well-meaning but, when applied to an individual, slightly ridiculous – after all, I can’t be diverse on my own. I do recognise, though, that I belong to a neurominority. More on that in a bit. 

Just because the PlayStation won’t accept an Xbox game, doesn’t mean it’s broken

As an adult with autism, I find the suggestion than I need to be "repaired" frankly offensive. I didn’t learn about my own autism until I reached 40, and let me tell you, it would’ve been really bloody helpful to have known 20 or so years earlier. It certainly would’ve saved me a lot of time worrying about why I didn’t "get" much of what others took for granted, or pretending to be "normal". Accepting through learning that I am different – not defective – is a far healthier place to be.

I’ve always found the best way to explain the differences between me and you (or maybe not, I don’t know, we’ve only just met, so I’m going on statistical probability) is by using the term Operating System. We all know the difference between Mac and Windows, or PlayStation and Xbox. We know they look vaguely similar and can do many of the same things. On their own they make sense, but, as anyone will know who has tried, when you try to get them to talk to each other, or to interact in the simplest of ways, things can get tricky. This is because they assume that each thinks (works) like the other.

Just because the PlayStation won’t accept an Xbox game, doesn’t mean it’s broken. Not all features of atypical human operating systems are bugs. In fact, we owe many of the wonders of modern life to the innovators who were brilliant in non-neurotypical ways. The computer pioneer Herman Hollerith, for instance, invented the machine to tabulate and sort punch cards, but also leapt out of a school window to escape spelling lessons because he was dyslexic.

One reason why the vast majority of autistic adults are chronically unemployed or underemployed, consigned to dull-as-shit jobs, is because companies are hesitant to hire workers who look, act, or communicate in non-neurotypical ways – say, by using a keyboard and text-to-speech software to express themselves, rather than by indulging in small talk in the kitchen.

But they do this at their peril. Autistic people, for instance, generally have incredible memories for facts, are often highly intelligent in ways that don’t register on verbal IQ tests, and are capable of focusing for long periods on tasks that take advantage of their natural gift for detecting flaws in visual patterns. By autistic standards, the "normal" human brain is easily distractible, obsessively social, and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail.

Neurominority Vs Neurodiversity

Right, remember that bit about "neurominorities"? The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a "neurodiverse individual", simply because the concept of neurodiversity encompasses all people of every neurological status – so everyone is neurodiverse. "Neurominority" is a more accurate, non-pathologising word for referring to people who aren't neurotypical – this being the dominant neurological culture. So really, the problem isn’t that neurominorities are difficult to employ, but that they are seen as problematic as they are pathologised, and so are marginalised and poorly accommodated, solely due to their deviance from the neurotypical majority. 

Companies must accept that hiring someone with extreme intelligence in one area sometimes means that same person will display an almost total absence of understanding in another

The solution is simple: just allow people to be who they are, not who you are. Provide people with a safe, non-judgmental environment in which they can be open about their OS, which accepts all "platforms" and has the tools to enable smooth interface between them. Diversity, with equality.

Diversity is only useful when it is inextricably linked to equality. For companies to creatively flourish, to become beacons of problem-solving, to be places that capitalise on a creative advantage, they must realise that using any metric other than contribution to measure people is meaningless. This can only come from environments where a diverse, polymathic population of genders, races, orientations, political opinions and neurologies respect each other and see themselves as equals.

Companies must accept that hiring someone with extreme intelligence in one area sometimes means that same person will display an almost total absence of understanding in another, so the systems must be in place to accommodate that. In short: if the insanely gifted technologist never fills out their timesheet, they’re not a twat, they simply might not have any concept of time or have the cognitive organisational skills required for such a task.

Neurodiversity, being a healthy mixture of neurominorities and neurotypicals, is every bit as crucial for humanity as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what OS will prove best at any given moment? In fact, there are some industries that may favour an autistic mind. In forests, as in ponds, the value of biological diversity is its resilience, and in a world changing faster than ever, honouring and nurturing diversity – neuro or otherwise – is our best chance to create a world in which we can all be proud of.

That’s what I think anyway. You may think differently.

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