Nancy Doyle PhD has been working with social exclusion and disabilities since she was 18 years old. In an interview with Johanna Hamilton AMBCS, she explains why neurodiversity is a boon in the workplace and why mental health isn’t necessarily a work-issue.

Nancy Doyle is an organisational psychologist and the CEO of Genius Within CIC - a social enterprise providing advice, guidance, consultancy and solutions for neurodiversity inclusion in the workplace. In short, Nancy has spent her career making the workplace a better environment for people who think differently.

Can you tell me what makes a person neurodiverse?

Neurodiversity is a broad concept referring to the diversity in thinking styles and neurological profiles that exist between all humans. In the same way that we have bio-diversity or personality diversity, we also have diversity in thought. Some people have conditions that make their thinking style quite unusual, it is very easy to think of such people as anomalies but when we add all the neurodiverse conditions together we're looking at roughly 15% of the population, so really not that unusual at all.

What neurotypical people have in common is that when we look at their intellectual capacity their skills tend to be pitched at the same level. Their verbal skills are around the same level as their memory skills, as their processing skills, and their visual skills, whereas people with neurodiverse conditions tend to have areas of thinking in which they excel and areas of thinking in which they struggle. We call this a spiky profile because if you plot their abilities on a graph it will be a big spiky line going up and down. This tells us that neurotypical people are largely generalist thinkers and neurodiverse people are specialist thinkers.

Historically we've focused on the deficits rather than the strengths of these conditions and that's what we're really starting to do differently at the moment, that's the paradigm shift that we're in, that the strengths are becoming the focus as well as the struggles.

There has been a move by the neurodiverse community to re-label ‘disability’ and to actually think of it as something, very positive, a ‘superpower’. Is this quite a new thing?

It's newly gaining ground but no, it's not a new thing. The idea of this has been building since the '90s. The social model of disability is really where a lot of this advocacy came from and it extends beyond neurodiversity.

It’s important to realise that we're very selective in the way that we define human worth. We have an education system that is predicated on four essential skills, which are literacy, numeracy, sitting still and concentrating, as well as small talk and making eye contact. If we limit our definition of skilled, capable people to just this then of course neurodiverse people will appear disabled. If however we broaden our definition to include skills like long term memory, visual spatial thinking, empathy, story-telling etc. then it becomes clear that neurodiversity is in fact a positive and that neurodiverse people have many talents.

The four skills that we encourage in schools are actually fairly contrived and strongly related to the socio-historical context in which we live. We have mass normative education and workplaces that are heavily focused on the same skills. If you think about an evolutionary state and humans as a species maybe 5,000 years ago, 10,000 years ago, those four skills weren't the most important thing and it's perfectly possible that in another 100 years, they won't be the most important thing again. So, we're living in a very specific era in which people who can't do the four things that we've decided are normal are marginalised.

Marginalisation is based on our sociology rather than our inherent biology. So that's really the argument of the neurodiversity movement and the social model of disability.

So, how do you feel neurodiversity is a good thing for organisations?

It is a good thing in organisations because it creates, special skills, special interests, detail focused thinking, creativity, entrepreneurial flare, innovation, these are all things that are associated with unusual thinking styles. The trick is to find ways to capitalise on the benefits and not be too compromised by the deficits.

The main drive of our work is around supporting businesses to be more inclusive so rather than starting with a rigid job description and trying to bend a person to fit it, thinking about the person they've already got and how to help them make a role work for them. Talent creation within an organisation can be as simple as making disability adjustments and accommodations within job roles that already exist.

In terms of deficits, we do know what they are most likely to be and I argue quite regularly that the more work is changing, and with the direction that work places seems to be moving in, we're reliant less and less on those deficits. If we take ADHD as a case study, the main problem with ADHD is that you can't sit still for eight hours in one place and do one thing. But modern workplaces have changed. I answer calls whilst I'm on a train, answer emails in a cab. It is possible that in 20 years’ time anybody that needs to sit still in one place in order to think straight is going to find themselves marginalised instead of the person that likes to move around constantly.

Likewise, reading and writing are increasingly augmented by assistive technology and speech-to-text. The same software that we're bringing in for visual impairment is making a massive difference to people with dyslexia. So to answer your question neurodiversity can bring a lot of needed skills into an organisation and the accommodations required are very simple and becoming less as the way we work is changing.

How can we promote better mental health for both the neurodiverse or neurotypical in our workplaces?

I would ask the critical question, is it our job to do that in workplaces? I actually feel slightly concerned about things like mental health first aid because we've empowered people to deal with things that they may not have the skills to really deal with. Are we doing that instead of signposting to services that are important because we know those services are depleted? Should we be asking workplaces to step in and take over something that should actually be clinical? There's something very positive about having a transparent debate around mental health and the impact of mental health. But equally, a business is not a family. A business is not the State. A business is not the National Health Service and I think we need to watch our remit.

Do you think that we'll eventually phase out the labels or that the labels will just have a different significance?

Labels for neurodiverse conditions exist because a person can't do something that society has said is valuable. It's not the same as a physical disability. Having a hearing impairment or a visual impairment is different to being dyslexic. It's only at this point in history that being dyslexic is a disability. Whereas having a visual impairment will have been a disadvantage at any point in history.

The label is a symptom, not a condition in and of itself. What we're finding out more and more is that there is a lot of overlap in individual discreet labels. It's more unusual to just have dyslexia than it is to have dyslexia and dyspraxia, or ADHD and autism. We used to think these things were discreet, different diagnoses but actually they're symptoms within a general profile of having a kind of spiky profile of abilities. However, they served a very useful purpose.

The word neurodiverse itself is a big win because it is a neutral label that has a purpose yet doesn’t focus on a negative. It suggests that whilst labels may still be needed sometimes they can have a positive impact and create a sense of community rather than bringing shame.

So, when you go into a business, do you assess the workforce or the set up?

Both. Level one is making adjustments for individual workers that we know work because we've tried them in different scenarios. These are the things that people report are helpful and managers report as improving performance, they could be coaching interventions to find workarounds for specific functional problems (e.g. time management of organisational skills) or they could be environment changes. But what we won't do is say, ‘For ADHD do this. For autism do this. For dyslexia do this.’

By targeting it at the functional level we get around the idea of needing to have accurate diagnoses and we can be more general. Also, that's compliant with Equality Act legislation. The Equality Act doesn't name conditions, it names functional difficulties that are chronic and persist. The legislative obligation isn’t for the employer to know what the condition is. The employer isn't a medic. The employer is trying to negotiate between individual capability and the demands of that environment.

Is investing in environmental adjustments a good tool to retain employees over time?

Absolutely. 90% of the people we coach keep their jobs. 10% of them move to different organisations, which is a good thing because they were just in the wrong job, while another 25% are promoted. Adjustments do work and can be even more cost effective by not waiting for people to make mistakes and then applying something retroactively. You lose quite a lot of goodwill when that happens because by the time they get to actually getting the help they need they've probably been through performance management, a few rounds of capability assessment or dodgy appraisals that have created a self-esteem issue or might have created a frustration within their team or their supervisor.

So, the onus is very much on how the team works. Are there problems with fitting neurodiverse people in with more general teams?

Sometimes neurodiverse patterns clash. To be very stereotypical, autistic people may want to follow rules, people with ADHD like to break rules. Some people think visually, some people think verbally so you can find that the patterns are conflicting within a team and that you need to negotiate compromises that don't have a very clear right and wrong. That's what I'm calling the second level neurodiversity. We're doing more and more consultancy around that at the moment for businesses looking at what do you do in those circumstances. We can’t give you an answer for each clash, but we can train a process that allows fair assessment of reasonable compromise.

Is seeking people out with neurodiversity, progressive or exploitative?

You’re talking about deliberate inclusion. Where the world is at right now is deliberate inclusion where tech companies hire autistic coders or GCHQ hire dyslexic analysts because they think creatively, or AT&T having call centres staffed exclusively with people who are visually impaired because they can listen better. Is it exploitative? In some situations, yes, and there are some circles that cynically refer to that as ‘marketing inclusion’ because it's something we do to tick our corporate social responsibility box and it makes us look good. I'm less cynical about that.

We don't want to get to a place of tokenism as we have sometimes seen with the deliberate inclusion of people of colour where someone may feel that they are the token diversity hire. We've got to be doing it with purpose as a means of feeding skilled individuals throughout an organisation as opposed to an end point in itself.

I think that's what makes it non-exploitative. And it’s exciting to me, because for two decades I’ve campaigned for inclusion and we’re finally doing it because of what people can do, not because it’s a public service project. The talent pool aim of deliberate inclusion projects is a real step change that I’m delighted to see happen. From these programs we can really branch out into systemic inclusion, where we find a blend of generalist and diverse specialist thinkers a normal part of organisational culture.