Where Neurodiversity and Tech Meet

MACKENZIE HILL: All right. I see some people trickling in. So thank you so much for joining this Global Inclusion Week Session, everybody. We're so glad to have you. Today, we're going to be learning about where neurodiversity and technology meet. The session was organized by the Women in Technology ERG, which we are both proud members of in collaboration with Pearson Able. Our speaker today is Kevin Lyons, a senior HR manager here at Pearson, as well as a co-chair for the Pearson Able UK ERG. He is also the lead for Pearson Able on neurodiversity.

Kevin is a commentator on HR trends and topics and is a very strong proponent for evidence-based management. His passion is talent and what he sees to be the pillars of inclusive [INAUDIBLE] management-- diversity, equity, inclusion, learning, and development, as well as well-being. He's also fascinated by the impact of technology on HR organizations and the wider society. So over to you, Kevin, to begin learning about neurodiversity and how it intersects with technology.

KEVIN LYONS: Thank you so much, Mackenzie. Thanks for your support with regard to this session. And thanks also to [INAUDIBLE] for her support and her ever present at every session on GIWs this week. So thank you, everyone that's attending this session on neurodiversity. What I'm going to do first is I'm going to talk about what is neurodiversity. I'm going to explain the developmental conditions. I'll talk about those acquired conditions as well so that you have a much better understanding of what neurodiversity is and neurodivergent in terms.

And also we will then explore a little bit about the intersection with technology. The session today is not going to be about adjustments, although we will touch on that. We could run a whole session on adjustments for neurodiversity, but we'll do that another day. So that is something to watch. Watch this space for that. OK, so Mackenzie is going to drive the slides for me, and I'm going to do the classic "next slide, please" stuff.

What do we mean by neurodiversity? The term was coined in the late century last century by sociologist Judy Singer. She was talking with regard to the autism spectrum. She said, "the key significance of the autism spectrum lies in its call for and anticipation of a politics of Neurological Diversity or Neuro diversity." I've heard it described as "neuraldiversity." That is wrong; it is "neurodiversity."

The neurologically different represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class, gender, race, and will augment the insights of the social model of disability. So we heard it there first. Other definitions-- the Oxford English Dictionary defines neurodiversity as "a range of variation in mental or neurological functioning in a group." That's a 2019 definition.

And then I think the US National Symposium's definition of neurodiversity is super helpful as well, "a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation." And then we've got the link there to the Neurodiversity Symposium, which [INAUDIBLE] say it was super helpful. So what is neurodivergent? That is where somebody has an atypical neurological configuration.

So a person may have a developmental condition or a mental condition; the word "neurodiverse" referring therefore to a group of people. So look at "neurodivergent" as an individual term, "neurodiverse" as being a group term or referring to a particular group of conditions. "A neurodivergent person is defined as one
whose neurological development and their state are atypical." So we refer to neurotypical people as people who are not neurodivergent.

And so the previous the term was sometimes applied to individuals [INAUDIBLE] think of neurodivergent as more as individual term and neurodiverse as a group term. And then we have the concept of those that aren't neurotypical. The next slide is what is neurotypical? So it's the opposite of neurodivergent. "Neurotypical means 'neurologically typical'-- within the typical average range for human neurology." We reckon that one in seven people are neurodiverse. One in seven. Could be more. Could be that the neurotypical are not so typical. Could be we're all neurodiverse. Who knows? But we say one in seven, one in seven people are neurodiverse. This is why it's such an important area. It's so important that society and organizations recognize neurodiversity. And yet, indeed. Susie just said, it could be neurotypical is not typical. Yeah, indeed. Could be, couldn't it?

But it's so important that we understand neurodiversity. And in Pearson, we're undertaking a major campaign to raise awareness about neurodiversity. And that's been the focus of Pearson Able this year, amongst other things. And it's been brilliant that we've been able to run this session and a previous earlier session on neurodiversity in collaboration with [INAUDIBLE], so we can also look at the intersection with technology.

There's so many intersections. And we're talking about a lot of employees, for example, in Pearson, if we're saying one in seven are neurodivergent. So where did the term originate? It "originated in the autistic community as a way to refer to non-autistic people"-- that's neurotypical, non-autistic people-- and "describe a person whose neurological development and state are typical, conforming to what people would perceive as normal."

So there we go. So people whose neurological development is atypical are referred to as-- we're back again-- neurodivergent. Right, so what are the conditions? Common neurodiverse classifications-- ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, and then the acquired brain injuries. Let's focus on ADHD first. So this stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It's a developmental condition, and it can cause-- well, people that are ADHD may have difficulty concentrating, so the inattentiveness as I say on the slide. They may seem disorganized. They can be easily bored. Hyperactivity can be a feature-- energetic and very talkative. Articulate, actually; quite a lot of ADHD people very articulate because they're very talkative.

And impulsive, maybe inclined to follow those impulses and be impatient at the pace or the lack of pace. It can also be seen in neurotypical people in the eyes of those that are ADHD. And can seem emotional, and can be emotional, actually, about the areas that are really gripping the person in that particular time. What are the strengths?

The strengths of ADHD-- spatial and visual reasoning skills, hyper-focus. This is very much a feature, the ability to focus intently for long periods of time. Problem solving-- seeing the big picture. And seeing that big picture can often be a feature of ADHD people. In a group of neurotypical people, the ADHD person can see the bigger picture. And very passionate and enthusiastic.

Now, in a spirit of self-disclosure, I am ADHD. I have a mild intersection with autism. So I have a tendency-- I can fidget a bit. I've done really well so far. I've not patted my hair once, I've not tapped my glasses-- well, only a couple of times. And so-- and other features. But one thing I do do because I have an intersection with autism and I touch my glasses is this. It's called stimming.

It's a regulation of enthusiasm. Those of you know me, and I've been talking about some of these ADHD features, have you seen that in me? Anyway, moving on. I think we're going into autism now. Another developmental condition, and this can affect social and learning skills. It includes a spectrum of conditions that includes Asperger's.

Now, I mention Asperger's because some people talk about Asperger's being a high-performing autism. And so there are low-performing autism. I don't like those terms. As we explore this session, I talk about neurodiversity as a strength, neurodiversity as a talent, that hiring managers should be looking to recruit neurodiverse people. And I'll continue to tell you why that's the case.

So what are barriers in terms of autism? Maybe a difficulty understanding figurative language, difficulty in communicating verbally, a sensitivity to sensory information. Now, for example, I talked about a mild intersection with autism I have. I'm not massively keen on electric light. I find it a bit discomforting. So that would be a sensory information overload there. And also certain noises.

And I've got better coping with those, but sometimes I hear [INAUDIBLE] you know, that's, wow. Where did that-- what's that? So that can be-- I can find that unsettling. "Discomfort with unfamiliar situations or unexpected breaks with routine." And this can often manifest. Yeah. What are people with autism very good at? Details, seeing patterns and inconsistencies that others might miss.

I'll give you an example of this. I had a friend who worked for a software company. And they just could not get anyone to do a very difficult job of bug fixing. Those of you who know about tech will know that bug fixing, a lot of neurotypical people go oh, bug fixing. They all want to do the glam stuff like the software development and the coding and the developing the systems to solve world peace and climate change, et cetera.

But they don't want to do the bug fixing of all the bugs that are created by the very people that develop the code, but recruited somebody who was autistic for a bug fixing role, to go into very detailed lines of code to find patterns and inconsistency-- the best employer ever had in that job. Memory and processing certain types of information.

Dyslexia, another developmental condition. This affects reading, spelling, and writing words, and it can also affect memory, time management, and organization. And if one is dyslexic, then that can be a challenge in learning concept. There's so much about learning is about reading and writing and spelling. So what can people with dyslexia excel at?

Their visual memory. Because they're less keen on the written stuff, the visual memory is very strong. Spatial reasoning and long-term memory, but also problem solving. And usually very good at verbal communication. The strengths are in verbal communication not in writing.

Dyscalculia. This is a developmental condition, a difficulty with numbers and numerical concepts. So typical characteristics may be a difficulty in remembering numbers like phone numbers or pin numbers, that kind of thing. Counting backwards can be a challenge. Using certain mathematical processes, such as budgeting, and putting numbers in the right place.

Again, people with dyscalculia are likely to be better at skills such as creative thinking, about problem solving, using words and language, and thinking strategically. Can you see as well where neurodivergent people are already-- you can see where there's a common theme in terms of skills that very often organizations are looking for. They're looking for the ability to look at the bigger picture, the ability to cut through the weeds, and be able to be creative as well.

And so this is why it's good to get some neurodivergent people into your team if you're a manager. Dyspraxia, properly called Developmental Coordination Disorder, another developmental condition. And this affects movement and coordination.

So difficulties may be learning new skills and remembering information, those kind of tasks in life that require coordination. A really good example is driving. And time management and some of the daily living skills stuff, such as dressing and preparing meals.

But what are people with dyspraxia really good at? Verbal comprehension and communication, problem solving, creative thinking, and seeing the big picture. There's more. So not all neurodiversity is developmental, as I said earlier. So people can experience changes the way they think and perceive the world because of things like a stroke, for example.

So this might affect processes such as memory, communication. Somebody may have to relearn communication skills, concentration, organization, and time management. Other neurodiverse classifications-- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, OCD, where intrusive negative thoughts can disrupt life, to be candid. However, there's also unhelpful stuff in society, like people say, oh, you're so OCD. And? So what if somebody organized? What if they are? Where it can be a problem is, for example, where it becomes too intrusive in someone's life. So an example might be the soccer player, Paul Gascoigne, who reached a very high level, of course, in the sport, was so affected by his OCD that he would actually get to the stadium and be coming out to play the game, and he would need to get back home because he needed to check that he had turned the tap off.

Tourette's syndrome. Well, contrary to the media and social obsession with Tourette's, which is with swearing, it isn't actually about swearing. It's about the irresistible urge to express tics. So these tics can be verbal or they can be physical. They can be things like blinking or head tipping, and they rarely involve verbalizations or swearing. There are some people with Tourette's that say words that they shouldn't say in public situations.

This is to the great amusement of people that make programs about Tourette's, but not helpful really. It's better to try to understand it as a syndrome that expresses tics. And as we're saying on the chat here, too often the emphasis is on the negative, where, in fact, we can see there are so many positives about neurodivergent people. And they can offer so much to organizations. In fact, they're needed by organizations.

As we know from all the research into team development and team roles, the focus for any manager is to create a wide range of skills and abilities in a team, and have different types of people who are able to do different things. So there we go. Get some neurodivergent people into your team. And we'll come on to talking about how that can be a feature of hiring.

So some useful links here. So we've put some useful links on the slide here. The ADHD Foundation are absolutely brilliant-- so much knowledge and content and resources. And the same with the National Autistic Society, links that are well worth checking out. The British Dyslexia Association are brilliant, and so are the Dyspraxia Foundation.

I mentioned the US Symposium earlier as well, which is well worth checking out. I've also got some links which were suggested to me by a US colleague, Cole. And he came up with these great links. Neuroclastic, Embracing Autism, Autistic Advocacy, and there's Special Books by Special Kids, and then I loved the How to ADHD about link. And that was great fun.