Why Neurodiversity Is the next Stigma to Tackle

Lockdown has put renewed focus on the mental health of us all – Marie-Claire Chappet shares why she has finally learnt to embrace her brain

By Marie-Claire Chappet

3 March 2021

never think of myself as being neurodiverse. I should, but I don’t, and the sad fact is this is probably because society enables my neurodiversity. When my dyscalculia rages, I get to say “I’m just shit with maths” and people nod sagely, frequently agree, and that’s the end of it.

But what they don’t know is that when they asked me whatever question it was – about how to split a bill maybe, or something as simple as the timing of a casserole in the oven – and I have made a joke of it, been flippant and self-deprecating, I have been screaming inside.

Dyscalculia is commonly referred to as “number dyslexia” in reference to its more widely known linguistic cousin. It means that I struggle with counting, time, mental maths... all of it. A fog descends over my mind when faced with any level of numerical quandary. My chest tightens. I will be approximately 15 seconds away from tears. I say “approximately” because how would I know how many seconds? That’s maths.

I was unofficially diagnosed with dyscalculia when I was 15: frustratingly, a year before I was legally allowed to drop maths at school. A specialist who happens to be a family friend tested me, after becoming intrigued by the way I would treat numbers. I would cry in maths class. I would avoid homework entirely. By the time I was 16, I asked my maths teacher to leave me alone to do my own thing at the back of the class instead. I may have lacked mathematical know-how, but I ran high on sass.

While I was labelled a high-achiever in other subjects, maths produced a visceral reaction which my mother, a primary-school teacher, recognised from her own students who had learning difficulties. It’s this that marked it out to our family friend as dyscalculia which, like dyslexia, can often occur alongside high intelligence. Too often, people assume someone with a learning difficulty can’t be smart. It’s simply not true. Take me: I got into Cambridge and I still don’t know my seven times table.

‘For all the myriad benefits a neurodiverse colleague brings to the table, it seems workplaces are actually making working life harder for them’

I actively avoided any career that was even tangentially attached to numbers. Journalism seemed gloriously far away from maths – until one job had me in charge of the contributors’ budget and I would cry in the office toilets, too embarrassed to tell my editor I couldn’t work it all out. Whatever I did, it felt like I was repeatedly jamming a broken puzzle piece into a jigsaw. Not once did I think to tell anyone about this, least of all any boss I have ever had. But ever since everything changed with work (hi there, pandemic) I’ve been wondering more and more why I never did.

This past year has us rethinking everything, especially when it comes to two interlinked issues – inclusivity and the workplace. The way we work has been upended since Covid, and discussions about diversity have been pushed up the agenda ever since Black Lives Matter exploded in a wholly different way last summer. Companies across the board are holding unconscious bias training, opening up Zoom forums on inclusivity. These last few months, we've been living in an HR wake-up call. But, if we are finally talking about the different identities and experiences workplaces should be incorporating, shouldn’t we be including the different ways people think too? I probably shouldn’t have had to cry in the office toilets, now that I think about it. Because, to be a truly inclusive workplace, we should be neuroinclusive.

“Everyone should have a commitment to becoming neuroinclusive, but a lot of people don’t realise that something like dyslexia or dyscalculia is a disability,” says Donna Stevenson, commercial training and development executive of the British Dyslexia Association, one of many organisations fighting for the rights of the neurodiverse to be recognised among other disability rights: “That means that all organisations actually have an obligation under the Equality Act to deliver a neuroinclusive way of working.”

Dyslexia, autism, ADHD and dyscalculia are among the many invisible conditions in our society that are surprisingly prevalent but oddly not catered for. Recent stats show that roughly 1 in 100 people are on the autistic spectrum – meaning there are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK alone. There are 6.3 million people in the UK with dyslexia and an estimated 1.5 million with ADHD.

Yet the fact is that one out of every 100 people with autism might be able to read, create and respond to music in a way no one else could. The 6.3 million dyslexics in the UK are likely to be good at big-picture thinking for your business, or be able to solve problems in a way no one else had thought of. And those with ADHD are being actively recruited for their hyper-focus and quick thinking. Yet, for all the myriad benefits that a neurodiverse colleague brings to the table, it seems that workplaces, instead of championing this, are actually making working life harder for them.

A 2018 study by the Westminster AchieveAbility Commission found that 52 per cent of neurodivergent people faced discrimination in the recruitment process, and in a 2019 BIMA report on the digital and technology sector, neurodiverse people were found to have a much higher incidence of anxiety and depression, at 84 per cent compared with 49 per cent among the neurotypical. Topping off this accumulation of miserable statistics is the BIMA report’s findings that 39 per cent of neurodiverse people have not disclosed their condition at work. That’s a fairly chunky slice of us facing unnecessary obstacles at work, and most of us are suffering in silence. There’s an increasing openness around mental health over the last few years, and these similarly invisible conditions may finally be up for much-needed consideration.

“Neurodiverse people physically experience the workplace very differently,” explains Richmal Maybank at the National Autistic Society, who specialises in the intersection of neurodivergence and work. “Things like the temperature or the lighting can prove painful. A lot of autistic people also struggle to differentiate between foreground and background noise – it will just sound like one big noise, which really can really impact concentration.

“There are also these unwritten rules of social interaction,” she continues, “like asking about your weekend plans or even the assumption that you will offer to get someone a tea – these can all be a struggle. I worked with an autistic woman who told me that she didn't have a cup of tea at work for about ten years because there was a different tea routine in each place that she worked, and she just found it too stressful to navigate.”

Elisabeth Herbert is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology and Human Development at UCL Institute Of Education and runs master’s degrees on dyslexia in education and special and inclusive education. She tells me that research into these conditions is constantly ongoing – especially looking at how autism presents differently in women, or the fact that individuals from Black and Asian communities have historically been less likely to be diagnosed as neurodiverse.

“Neuroimaging and brain scans have helped us learn a lot about the brain differences of those with developmental learning conditions,” she explains, “We have learned that individuals with dyslexia, dyscalculia, developmental coordination disorder (DCD), developmental language disorder (DLD) and ADHD may all struggle to some extent with memory, personal organisation, planning, problem-solving and time management.”

I try to picture my brain moving differently to other people’s when presented with a number; my grey matter running scared and cowering in a corner. It’s fascinating – and oddly liberating – to describe this as being neurodiverse. Herbert tells me she also finds the increasing prevalence of this term does a lot to battle stigma. (She cautions, though, against the flippant use of phrases like “Oh, I’m a little autistic,” which trivialise the difficulties that come from this condition.) She thinks talking about neurodiversity is powerful precisely because it alludes to everyone being different in their own way.

“The term recognises that we are individuals with varied cognitive profiles and different brains, and these differences should be embraced, as opposed to submitting to societal pressure to think ‘typically’,” she says, pointing to the fact that neurodiversity also comes with many benefits, like attention to detail, deep focus, sharper peripheral vision or heightened creativity. “It would be very dull if we were all the same, so it would be great to think of a future which celebrates the positives of neurodiversity: encouraging different ways of thinking, fostering creativity and new ideas.”

Now we find ourselves working in silos, the individual nuance of how each worker best operates is hopefully being better understood. It seems a natural step to incorporate neurodiversity into this equation, and not just for the neurodiverse. Maybank confirms this; “Every time we advise workplaces about neuroinclusivity, we find it is actually just best practice in general, and makes work better for everyone.”

There are many ways workplaces can adapt. The National Autistic Society runs an Autism at Work programme and has just hosted a virtual Autism at Work summit. It advises on how best to communicate directly and effectively with autistic employees, and how to approach the recruitment process with an autistic candidate who may be flummoxed by sudden changes or may simply need longer to process questions.

The British Dyslexia Association also consults companies on how to become dyslexia-friendly, and trains employees to become workplace needs assessors, who can best understand and respond to neurodiverse colleagues. Many of this simply means changing the way we issue instructions, or exploring assistive technology. It may, of course, mean allowing some colleagues to work from home – something that has been made infinitely less taboo by the WFH revolution of Covid-19.

For me, though I rarely come across calculations in my extremely verbal career, working from home has certainly made the tearful panic of any numerical moment less embarrassing. There is no shame in counting out seemingly simple additions on my fingers when I’m on my own.

But, then again, I now realise there should be no shame in the office either.

Main image by: Science Photo Library

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