For a high-functioning society we must learn to embrace neurodiversity

Author

Galina Limorenkohttps://lashuel-lab.epfl.ch/
Galina Limorenko is a doctoral candidate in Neuroscience with a focus on biochemistry and molecular biology of neurodegenerative diseases at EPFL in Switzerland. She actively advocates and implements solutions for equality, neurodiversity and inclusion in sciences. That is when not consumed by reading, or building wooden furniture and toys for her guinea pigs Rick and Morty.

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Do you know that one colleague who always wears a Futurama t-shit under their suit jacket, organises their Sharpies by colours of the rainbow, can add up seven-digit numbers in their mind, doesn’t laugh at your jokes, constantly over-delivers on their work output expectations, and somehow is still not an arrogant dick about it? Well, they may be neuroatypical. However, this comically-stereotyped example fails to even come close to the diversity of ways that the neuroatypical people manifest themselves that may be seen as odd or unusual.

The neurodiversity spectrum includes neuroatypical developmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), dyslexia and dyspraxia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and can also include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorder and others. Individuals with these conditions, as well as those scoring highly on the neuroatypical traits associated with conditions such as ASD and ADHD, can be highly creative, analytical and rational, have sharp focus, excellent recall, and can excel in bottom-up thinking, pattern recognition and attention to detail. On the other hand, modulation and moderation may require special training and effort, both in work task management, as well as in social settings and interpersonal relationships.

Science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) fields are widely known to attract individuals with high neuroatypical traits. In sciences, this may be due to exact nature of the fields, as well as there being less of a social component than in the humanities. It is likely that many start-ups, successful tech businesses, academic research groups have individuals scoring high on neuroatypical traits; undiagnosed with these conditions; or with diagnoses non-disclosed due to multiple reasons, including the still prevalent stigma around neuroatypical community.

Somewhat well-adjusted (often referred to as high-functioning) neuroatypicals are among us (dum-dum-dum!). It is time for society to widely acknowledge it, and extend our welcome beyond empty slogans of inclusivity, virtue signalling and hand-waving. This can be achieved by, firstly, understanding the specific needs these individuals may have to maintain their health and productivity, and, secondly, providing that support without the discrimination or penalty.

Who is neuroatypical?

The peculiarities of neuroatypical thinking – the way the brain generates and processes information, as well as emotions – can profoundly differ from what we understand to be the conventional way of thought. For example; as our lives were – oh so rudely – interrupted by the global pandemic, both our infrastructures, and ourselves came under unscheduled resilience testing.

In some cases, the neuroatypical community found it easier to adapt to the global pandemic measures, such as the physical distancing, self-isolation and the shift to online conferences (no need for scouting the venue for hideaway secluded loos, or mapping the fire exits the day before). Strict adherence to the health authority guidelines could readily be adopted and followed with strict discipline. Those Bluetooth receivers went into the masks right-away to eliminate the muffled fpeetf not recognized by voice-to-text apps. Robotic air purifiers hacked into the alcohol vaporisers were timed to five seconds after door opening, to bathe the entrant head to toe in the antiseptic. Those same robots were later repositioned down from eye level…

On the other hand, this also means that neuroatypical individuals need different approaches to managing their wellbeing and maintaining high levels of performance and productivity, both in normal circumstances and during the times of change.

Everyone is neurodiverse to some degree; we all fall somewhere, high or low, on the neuroatypical trait spectra. But possessing these traits in useful and manageable quantities differs profoundly from being significantly impacted by them in every part of daily life. In fact, neurodiverse individuals can have the advantage of having developed a wide range of coping strategies. Nevertheless, challenges still arise that were not accounted for, and this could be the time for a neuroatypical individual to call (or email) the proverbial 0118 999 881 999 119 725 3, knowing that they will be listened to and given the help they need.

A stereotypical male computer geek in a hat holds a laptop. The stereotype is far from reality, and is often applied only to male individuals. 

Image from https://pixabay.com/photos/laptop-computer-internet-people-3091427/
The stereotypical image of secluded unsocial computer geek is also far from reality, and is often applied only to male individuals. 

There are several common misunderstandings surrounding the neuroatypical community. Neurodiverse conditions are generally not regarded as mental illnesses. One can be neuroatypical and have excellent mental health. However, neuroatypicals can of course develop the mental and physical health conditions, that may be of higher prevalence compared to neurotypicals, and are often misdiagnosed. The stereotypical image of secluded unsocial computer geek is also far from reality, and is often applied only to male individuals. They may be seen as rude, unpleasant, consumed with their often narrow interests, and just seen as aloof. However, many neuroatypical individuals enjoy and want social inclusion, and are making much effort to fit in, only asking for their neurotypical counterparts to meet them half-way by creating the suitable environment. And neuroatypicals are generally not rude or insulting on purpose, often they may have difficulty to make a judgement of other peoples’ feelings and responses. Direct explanation of the improper language or response that was used is usually a great way to both come to a genuine understanding of the situation and clarify the social rules of conduct agreed on by all. And then everyone can move on to happy-hour drinks, or group Minecraft get-together, whatever makes everyone happy.

Staying healthy and productive

A few specific examples will help illustrate some of the differences and difficulties that neuroatypicals may face day-to-day in their working life, as well as some solutions and strategies that can be employed to counteract them.

1. Over-routinizing

The adherence to strict day layout, routines and rituals are important for many neuroatypical individuals, they may help to reduce the unpredictable aspects of life. At work, routines help to maintain focus, and what is described as a “flow” state when completing a task. However, settling into a good routine is crucial, as well as recognizing when the routine is not optimal, or includes unnecessary items on the list. Is it vital to brush your teeth before every online meeting? Is it necessary to count exactly 1024 paving stones before entering Tesco? Cumulatively, the small tasks take up a lot of time and energy that could be better diverted to higher value undertakings.

One of the strategies to counteract over-routinizing is to simplify. The Moebius strip of the time-space continuum (or however you visualize your 24 hours) should not be partitioned into more activity sections that one can count on both hands. One solution includes going through your daily routine item by item, discarding anything that does not require daily attention. That also includes spotting the “hidden rituals”, like re-ordering the socks in the drawer, or relocating the cat’s bed to the sunny spot in the room multiple times per day. She’s fine where she is, leave her alone.

2. Out-of-hyperfocus

Being engulfed in often-mundane tasks for long periods of time can feel like an advantage that may be well-utilized by neuroatypicals in a wide range of activities. However, without external cues, hyperfocus can spiral beyond healthy and productive levels of attention to detail. Analysis of raw genomic sequencing data or 3D printing and painting the superhero figurines can easily turn into flat-out 12-hour marathons.

An effective way to keep hyperfocus in check is to set prompts and meaningful reminders. Importantly, these must have equivalent value, to have authority to effectively snap one out of the hyperfocused state. Furthermore, for a neuroatypical individual, the power and value of their friend or mentor saying “That is good enough. Just stop.” cannot be overestimated. Reaching out to neuroatypical individuals in your social circle at defined time intervals to check in on where their attention is currently captured can be beneficial, especially in a working-from-home setting.

3. Reaching the goal at the end of the rainbow

Capturing the end of the rainbow. Double rainbow over the church of St Ethelbert in Larling, by Evelyn Simak 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Capturing_the_end_of_the_rainbow_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1709792.jpg

The conventional advice for assignment completion is to break it down to smaller chunks. However, this may not work for many neuroatypical individuals, who may apply they skills to solving problems via paths never travelled before. This is a pillar of human invention and innovation, and is especially salient for creatives, techies or academics. For neuroatypical individuals, breaking down major goals into predetermined linearly-positioned items collapses the wavefunction of possibilities for any other alternate – novel – approach to data analysis, information synthesis, or experimentation. Protocols are the enemy didn’t somebody say that? Okay maybe not, but they are more like guidelines than gospel.

While conventional wisdom suggests that breaking assignments into smaller tasks improves goal achievement and helps reduce anxiety, for many neuroatypicals it can be a hindrance, as well as a major cause of distress. This is especially important during remote work settings, where micromanaging of tasks may creep in unexpectedly, taking away the freedom to explore. For each individual it is essential to define the work deliverables as complete manageable assignments within a certain period of time. For some this may mean not breaking assignments up too much, for others the opposite may be more suitable – the key is to find the way that suits them best.

Why all the fuss?

Everyone is different, as is how we handle our daily activities, relationships, and how we respond to adversity and change. This includes the previously overlooked, but now progressively acknowledged and accepted neuroatypical people within our communities. The crucial thing to realise is that there is no single set of rules on how to support each neuroatypical individual in our society or workplace. However, neuroatypical people are the ones who have this knowledge, and we, as a society, must ensure they are comfortable showing their true self, rather than camouflaging to fit in. We need to create an environment where they can voice their concerns and ask for support without fear of retaliation or social exclusion.

Listening to the voices of diverse communities helps us foster a truly inclusive society, and teaches us to treat everyone with same respect and, most importantly, humanity. Atypical does not mean bad, a threat or a nuisance. It’s enriching, exciting, and just, well, different.

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