The wind is blustering outside. It's 7:00 am and I'm struggling to string words together for my first interview piece for The Lovepost. How's it going? Not so good. Social anxiety, sleep in my eyes, racing thoughts and serious imposter syndrome are somewhat limiting my writing abilities.
Luckily, the interview I completed for this story was with the right person about the right topic: Ed Thompson, the founder of Uptimize, a group based in the US that “helps organisations hire and retain people who think in different ways.”
If you aren’t yet familiar with the term 'neurodiverse', it's time to add it to your vocabulary. In 1998, sociologist Judy Singer coined the term. With it came a recategorisation. Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for the whole range of differences in brain functions—neurodivergences—that come with autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, dyslexia, dyscalculia, Tourette Syndrome and more. The terminology highlights the idea that neurodiverse people are, as autism researcher and author Temple Grandin puts it so concisely, “different, not less.”
Neurodiverse individuals have often been othered and made to feel less by a society that hasn’t made a sufficient effort to understand. As a result of this othering, neurodiverse individuals are over-represented in a lot of worrisome statistics including homelessness, suicide, and addiction. It’s easy for us to slip through the cracks of current society.
Uptimize is about salvaging and utilising that wasted talent by educating people about neurodiversity and neuro-inclusion. Thompson established Uptimize when he got involved in people-related work at a tech company in London which was struggling to find the right people. Thompson himself had had a traumatic brain injury, and he had a relative who was a lifelong advocate for people with autism. These experiences convinced him that recruitment was failing because companies were unable to communicate with some of their prospective employees. Companies were missing out on talented individuals because standard workplaces lacked the education and flexibility to retain them, and talented neurodiverse individuals were missing out on employment for the same reasons.
The following interview with Thompson has been presented a little differently. It highlights the questions I asked Thompson, his responses and my own reflections while writing this piece.
From your experience, why is it so difficult for employers—for everyone—to become sensitive to neurodiversity in particular?
"I think what we realised was unique with neurodiversity was the incredibly low level of cultural familiarity and understanding.
"When we compare that to other diversity topics, a man is never going to understand what it's like to be a woman at work. A White person is never going to have true empathy for what it's like to be an African American, whatever it is . . . With neurodiversity, we felt quite quickly that there's really very little functional understanding.
“In fact it's almost below zero, in that what people think they know is wrong. We found when we've done surveys [that] 60-plus percent of people will say, '[I] don't know much about that.' And the people who do say they know something, the danger is, it's 'I know all about dyslexia, because my nephew's dyslexic.' Which means probably [that you] know a lot about your nephew. Does that mean you're ready to support a colleague who's dyslexic but has completely different needs, strengths, preferences, and so on? Not sure. So it was pretty obvious that that needed to change."
Unbeknownst to Thompson, I was proving his point. I came into my interview with a set of questions which, when I started talking to Thompson, quickly proved themselves useless. To put it simply, they were based on generalisations. Even I, with my lived experience, still made sweeping assumptions that didn’t reach beneath the surface.
Do you think the 9:00-5:00 working week is beneficial for neurodiverse people?
“My response to, 'Does x suit neurodivergent people?' is always to take a step back, really, and to remember that we're talking about a very significant demographic. As we're increasing our understanding, [we're finding] demographics that overlap, demographics that are incredibly varied in reality. And we know that from doing our focus groups and really engaging with the community.
“And we know, also, that somebody's neurodivergence in the sense of their brain wiring is an incredibly important part of how they experience the world on a day-to-day basis. And consequently, it can be a huge part of their identity. But equally, there are all sorts of other factors that go into somebody's life experience. Gender, culture, family situation—you name it. I'm labouring the point here, and it's probably not the answer you want. But when people ask me, as it were, 'Should neurodivergent people like working from home?' The answer is, 'Some, sure. Some not.'”
No, it’s not the answer I was looking for, but it’s the reality. I wanted specifics, answers, tangible actions to go off and change the world. It’s human nature to want answers and actions, but that’s where we so often fall down. Life is not a one-size-fits-all method, as we’ve learnt time and time again through history. If you put people into a box and tell them that this is the only way to live, it’s not going to work. When writing my questions and doing my research for this interview, in theory I knew all that. I just failed to see how restrictive my questions were—how much I was missing the ‘divergent’ part of neurodivergent. It occurs to me now, through the process of writing this, that we, ourselves, can only begin to enact change when we let go of our desire for simple categories that make for simple answers.
Much of our Western society and present-day standards have been influenced by the Industrial Revolution, our primary historical model for workplace standardisation or uniformity. It was a before-and-after event that I saw as having huge relevance to this conversation about diversity.
What role do you think the Industrial Revolution has played in this obsession with uniformity?
"Treating people as if they are the same because they're all the same age—and therefore, they should all be in the same class at school, whatever it is. [And] they [should] all have the same job size . . . [and] they should all arrive at the same time and leave at the same time. We know that that's not how people work because of the multifaceted reality of being human."
So, uhh, do you agree with the idea that the world is wired against neurodiversity?
“The problem isn't that anybody has decided that the world should be tailored for so-called 'neuro-typicals'. The problem is, nobody talks about neurodiversity or acknowledges it. And because we don't talk about it and acknowledge it, things default to norms—and norms come from the preferences of majorities versus the preference of minorities. So in the end you face, as a neurodivergent person, a world of norms that don't necessarily suit you. Norms that become accepted ways of, say, doing business, interviews or open-plan offices. They become just the way things are. But they're norms that result from the preferences of the majority. And those norms create barriers for people in practice.
“So there's no conspiracy. But, because of a lack of conversation and awareness, you could argue that there is an architecture here that we need to challenge, we need to debate, and we need to make more flexible so it is [working for] the 100 percent and not the 80 percent.
“The answer here is flexibility in supporting all employees. Recognising that for all sorts of reasons—one being the fact that they all think differently—they're going to, by definition, have their own preferences for when they work and where. And if we can have that flexibility baked into what we do, so as much as possible, it's simply part of how we do things. [That's] number one.
"And then number two: if individual managers, colleagues, teams can show that flexibility where somebody says, 'Look, I know everybody else starts at 8:00, but actually can I start at 9:00? Because it helps me with my commute, and it's a lot less stressful for me. I don't mind staying later.' [We can help by] practising that flexibility at a team level as well."
Neurodivergent people struggle in so many workplaces, while others stand out as self-directed entrepreneurs. Is there a pattern? Are they people who walked out and made a better workplace?
"No neurodivergent entrepreneur that I've ever heard of will say that their neurodivergence in itself wasn't a strength and a reason for their success. But they'll obviously talk about barriers that they faced as well . . . You find quite a lot of stories of neurodivergent entrepreneurs who quite deliberately pursue a path outside of conventional employment so that they are able to call the shots—and calling the shots not just for the sake of it but because they know if they're not calling the shots, that they're going to face those norms and those barriers that exist elsewhere."
There’s a lesson to be learnt in the way I approached this interview. Even as a neurodivergent person myself, I was hoping to uncover that magical recipe for neuro-inclusion. But in truth, we won’t be able to find it because no neurodivergent person is quite the same as another, just as no neurotypical person is the same as the rest. The only thing we can do is provide education and flexibility for individuals.
Far too often, neurodivergent people are being excluded from inflexible workplaces or othered within society. There are alarming rates of neurodiversity within the homeless community. Inclusion isn’t just something that would be nice to have; it’s a necessity.
We’re lucky to be in an era where these sorts of conversations are beginning to be had, and people are beginning to be heard. COVID turned things upside-down, and we found brilliant technological flexibility because we were challenged to find it. Now we need to challenge ourselves and our employers to find similar flexibility for neurodivergence in the workplace.
In all honesty, I think this interview could have gone a lot better. But in an interesting way, my generalisations, my search for that simple silver bullet also strengthened it. I was looking for answers in the wrong places (or perhaps where there weren’t any). Even as a neurodiverse person myself, I came into this interview and this issue from a place of presumption, and I’ve come out of it understanding just how much more work I need to do—and at the same time, knowing that the work will never be finished.
I'm still learning, and I want you to join me. Talk about neurodiversity openly and often. Give up the scripted assumptions and in return, let workplaces benefit from everything that neurodiverse people are presently prevented from contributing. We need to learn to prioritise understanding and empathy before output—because one isn’t possible without the other. And most of all, we each need to try to unmarry ourselves from a generalised way of thinking, let go of the fear of getting it wrong, and just have an open mind.