The case for Neurodiversity

It’s no secret that there is a link between autism and tech. Far from being a ‘disability’, neurodiversity offers so many benefits to our organisations, teams and products – but only if we can learn how to support and embrace it.

In 2014 my eldest son was diagnosed with autism. As I found out more about autism and learned about the correlation between autism and the Tech world, I thought about myself and others I have had the honour of working with. I realized just how many of those traits were personally very familiar to me and exhibited even (or perhaps especially) in the most brilliant minds I had encountered:

People who wore peaked caps or sunglasses all day to cope with the glare of the fluorescent lighting. People who obsessed about the problem they were solving, drawing in the rest of the team and ‘acting out’ the different components of the system and how they worked together. People that never stopped talking. People who hardly said a word all day and then their carefully thought out and delivered sentence completely blew everyone’s minds. People who worked better verbally, ‘sounding out’ their ideas to help them feel more complete. People who worked better spatially, drawing diagrams of how things fitted together or where boundaries were. People who worked better straight into the code, textually. People that needed time alone. People who thrived on working almost exclusively with others. People who worked better early in the morning, or late at night. People who paced about. People who talked to themselves. People who needed to step away from the problem for a solution to incubate. People who worked obsessively on the same thing until all the evidence feel in to place. All of these fabulous and very different thinking styles.

I also thought about the struggles I have had and have seen others having when working in a team or organization with a very narrow, rigid view of how things should be done – from stuck-in-the-mud waterfall managers to over-zealous evangelical agilsts. Forcing everyone to work alone own in silent cubicles. Forcing everyone to work in loud, exclusively open plan offices. Confusing “looking busy” with being effective. Creating large textual reports as the only means of sharing information. Making everyone “think on their feet” in spur-of-the-moment loud, collaborative meetings.

Over time I have come to realize that these approaches are not only detrimental to the team as a whole and the success of the product they are creating, but can even be harmful to the physical and mental health of the people we work with. I have seen transformation programs where key, knowledgable and valuable employees have left because the organization is moving from one, all-encompassing paradigm (which just happened to work well for that person) to another (that didn’t).

“Be under no illusions – statistically you have neurodiversity in your organisation whether you are aware of it or not”

 

The Neurodiversity movement has grown out of a rising awareness that rather than seeing different kinds of thinkers as people who are “broken” and need to be “mended” we would do better to consider everyone part of a normal spectrum of genetic diversity. That rather than looking for cures for things like autism, we should be looking to provide an environment in which everyone can thrive (be under no illusions, statistically you have neurodiversity in your organization whether you are aware of it or not). So everyone needs to allow people to focus on their special interests, capitalize on their abilities and not be judged about or forced to participate in things that align badly with their cognitive styles or aptitudes. Through doing so you will not only be helping your employees to be healthier and happier, you will be embracing the diversity that your organization and your products desperately need.

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6 Comments

  1. Recent work has shown an all-male team works better when you add a woman. I think it’s the diversity that does it. If it is, then adding an autist to your neurotypical team will help it work better. Anthropologists have told us forever that the success of the human race is down to adaptability. Diversity enables and strengthens adaptability….

  2. I wonder if Agile itself might be sometimes detrimental for the neurodiversity in particular and diversity in general (including age and gender)?
    For example, some companies insisting on mandatory pair programming. Interestingly often these is some correlation between companies that mandate pair programming and companies that do “cultural fit” interviews. Don’t you think that this practice especially damages diversity?

    1. Pairing has many benefits but might not be for everyone and at very least requires breaks to be taken. No-one really pairs exclusively during the whole day.

      I think finding flexibility and balance is the key rather than mandating a single approach.

      Thanks for the comment,

      Sal

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