Meet the invisible minority: Why my autism and neurodiversity are gifts to the industry

Wayne Deakin, former executive creative director of AKQA, on the positive power of neurodiversity.

Everyone is talking diversity. Amazing people are redressing the imbalances, which is fantastic. But I have a worry for a small invisible minority.

I am talking about neurodiverse people. 

I should know. I am one. 

I’ve been "wired differently" all my life. Of course, I am lucky, as being sociable or doing keynote speaking isn’t an issue. Even those I’ve worked with for years don’t know I have autism. 

However, I don’t feel I can be open about it. People are harshly judgemental or will put you in a "box" because they have no clue. Fear and uncertainty cloud people’s view of the benefits that neurodiversity brings. It’s disappointing really that even someone like me, with a successful track record, feels worried about coming out with this.

Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone on the spectrum. However, being autistic has helped me create award-winning work and disruptive innovations that brought crazy financial returns for clients. It has helped me be good at my craft and look sideways at problem-solving.

Others have called them "super powers". I am not one for superhero outfits – I have a wardrobe full of navy and black T-shirts in a strict order, so Spandex isn’t for me – but they do have a point about this "super powers" thing.

"Do we want a battery-chicken mentality or a free-range one, with all the benefits that would bring?"

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve experienced many challenges. I’ve had people try to bully me or twist it to their advantage if it slipped out. I grew up in a pretty tough place, so small-minded fools don’t worry me and I’ve made it a point to stand up to them or stand up for others, but I am aware that I am incredibly privileged. Many aren’t as lucky, or as able. Many don’t have the means to talk about it.

The shame is that adland is a very superficial place. We need to ditch preconceptions and stereotypes and look at the untapped potential that neurodiversity offers. 

Corporatisation makes it hard to accept different people because being uniform is just more comfortable and easier to manage on a spreadsheet.

It might appear more productive on paper, but is it more profitable? Do we want a battery-chicken mentality or a free-range one, with all the benefits that would bring? 

Not surprisingly, there are neurodiverse people who have had to hide it away, but are now starting to talk about it or are having loved ones speak out. There have been, and are, many neurodiverse people more talented than me, such as Tim Burton, Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, Daryl Hannah, Bill Gates, Lewis Carroll, Mozart and Stanley Kubrick, to name a few.

But we need more than a few celebrity voices to change things. We need understanding and workplace accommodations, such as headphones to prevent overstimulation and  break-out spaces to get away from co-workers and wind down. In most cases, such accommodations are totally manageable. It’s brilliant that Creative Equals’ Creative Equality Standard asks people to "hand raise" and identify that they are neurodiverse so that offices can understand the challenges some can face.  

"What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socialising and not getting anything done."
 Dr Temple Grandin, behavioural expert

There is also now economic proof that it’s good for business; Harvard and others are talking about its benefits. Have a read of "Neurodiversity as a competitive advantage" in the Harvard Business Review.

It is also obvious when you dig into the various skills that businesses can benefit from:

• Autism spectrum: people have a gift for detail, enhanced perceptual functioning, high levels of concentration, reliability and technical ability. 

• Dyslexia: individuals often have strong spatial intelligence, many are 3D and holistic thinkers, with mechanical aptitude and entrepreneurial proclivities. 

• ADHD: hyper-focused, creative, inventive, spontaneous and energetic

It’s why leading tech companies such as Apple, SAP, HP, EY, Microsoft and Google are all benefiting from the untapped potential that neurodiverse talent offers. It’s obvious, in my opinion, because real innovation comes from the edges of society and not from the centre, after all.

As acclaimed behavioural expert Dr Temple Grandin said: "What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socialising and not getting anything done." 

But what of adland?

I hope we can start speaking up, because it affects all genders, races and sexual identities. Let’s challenge the current climate, so we can help the next generation, or our kids, inherit a world of more understanding and kindness.

Can we get chief executives and chief financial officers to start embracing different minds now that there are proven returns? 

Maybe we should turn to tech companies to see how beneficial the hiring of different people can be to a creative industry such as ours. But we will also need to examine our interviewing processes to progress beyond the superficial. To steal a line from the Apple ads by the brilliant Lee Clow – "Here’s to the crazy ones… the ones who see things differently", and all the benefits they can bring. 

And here’s to hoping that my speaking out about it will start to help this untapped pool of talent find its voice.


#DiverseMinds (the neurodiversity conference), presented by Creative Equals and The Hobbs Consultancy, takes place on 1 March

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