Neurodiversity is not a superpower

Neurodiversity is not a superpower. Although well-meaning, the tendency to romanticise neurodiversity as a collection of extraordinary abilities overlooks the very real struggles neurodiverse people face in their personal and professional lives.

Like anyone else, people with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia have a wide range of strengths and challenges. What is different for neurodiverse people, is that most operate in an environment that is not designed to meet their specific needs. They live in a world built mostly by and for neurotypical people. 

As someone who has navigated late-stage autism diagnosis, worked in tech startups and co-founded the neurodiversity AI-powered startup COGS AI, I've seen firsthand how fostering a neurodiverse-friendly environment can drive innovation and success. I’ve also seen how harmful framing neurodiversity as this superhuman ability can be. Inadvertently perpetuating harmful stereotypes and unrealistic expectations, placing unnecessary pressure on neurodiverse individuals to perform at a level that may not be sustainable or realistic for them leading to burnout, while also marginalising those who don't fit the stereotype of the "genius savant" or "tech wizard."

A common misconception is that all neurodiverse individuals have exceptional skills in areas like pattern recognition, logical thinking or creativity. While many do excel in these areas, they may also face difficulties related to areas like communication, sensory processing or executive function. Furthermore, every person and their personal development is different and can be influenced by a multitude of factors, from socioeconomic background and ethnicity to gender and sexuality. For a neurodiverse person to flourish, an inclusive, empathetic and understanding environment must be established.

Neurodiverse traits can manifest both positively and negatively

There are many different traits associated with neurodiversity, each with its unique strengths and challenges in the workplace. 

Lots of tech and consulting firms have invested in highlighting the strengths of neurodiverse employees and in programmes specifically designed to support neurodiverse talent. For example, in 2019 Ernst and Young published “the value of dyslexia” report. Meanwhile, the likes of Microsoft, SAP, Hewlett-Packard and Salesforce all have specific programmes designed to hire and support neurodiverse candidates. 

Although it's important to highlight positive behaviours and celebrate successes, it's equally important to discuss how neurodivergent traits can make working life more difficult, so that individuals can understand themselves better and organisations can build supportive environments. 

The duality of neurodiversity

One way of understanding neurodiversity is by appreciating its duality - the fact that the same characteristic may present as both a strength and a challenge. Below are just a few examples of how this might show up in traits typically associated with neurodiversity:

  • Attention to detail, while very valuable for precision and accuracy, can sometimes spiral into perfectionism, hinder progress and lead to burnout.
  • Hyperfocus, a trait that boosts productivity by giving the person the ability to intensely hone in on a specific task, may lead to neglect of other essential tasks or personal care if not managed carefully. 
  • Pattern recognition, which allows some neurodiverse people to make sense of complex problems, could also lead to someone seeing a pattern when there isn’t one.
  • Logical thinking is an essential trait for problem-solving, but it may lead to strongly held but incorrect conclusions if based on little or inaccurate information. 
  • Creativity and lateral thinking, while a catalyst for innovation, may clash with standardised frameworks and procedures or expected ways of working.
  • High levels of empathy may also be accompanied by rejection-sensitive dysphoria, which can result in people being hyper-sensitive to feedback and affect self-esteem. 
  • Sensory sensitivity may lead to intense joy and appreciation for aesthetic experiences, like art, music and natural beauty, but also intense negative reactions to unpleasant environmental stimuli, like harsh lighting or noise.

6 ways to build a neurodiverse-friendly startup culture:

As COGS AI is a team of mostly neurologically diverse coders, data analysers and strategists, we knew we needed to create an inclusive environment. Collectively, we've managed to embed inclusive principles into our culture from the ground up. From tailored work arrangements to ongoing support and education, we've created an intentional environment that supports our team to thrive. 

Here’s what we have learnt from our inclusivity journey:

Educate yourself about the spectrum of neurodiversity 

Before you hire any neurologically diverse talent or adapt your policies and practices, you need to educate yourself and understand the realities of neurodiversity and how it impacts people differently. This will involve appreciating the wide spectrum of neurodiversity and acknowledging that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.

Champion inclusivity through your hiring practices 

Actively welcome neurodiverse people by simplifying the application process and avoiding biases in recruitment. Provide accommodations such as flexible scheduling and virtual options to offer equal opportunities during the recruitment process. Offer interview questions in advance and focus on the candidate's skills and potential rather than how confidently they performed in conversation.

Offer tailored support and flexible working arrangements 

Recognise that one size doesn’t fit all. Offer personalised support and flexible work arrangements based on each person's individual preferences. Have regular check-ins to ensure the needs of your neurodivergent staff are being met and any changes to their needs are being accommodated. Educate neurotypical staff on why certain accommodations are being offered and make space for them to ask for their own flexible arrangements. 

Nurture a supportive environment: 

As burnout and chronic stress are more likely to affect neurodiverse people, be sure to foster open conversations about the relationship between neurodiversity and mental health. Encourage empathy, understanding and mutual respect among colleagues and create a psychologically safe environment where employees are empowered to say no, negotiate deadlines or workload and set healthy boundaries.

Lead by example: 

For inclusive behaviour to be embedded across an organisation, it needs to be modelled from the top. If you are a founder or in a management role, be sure to lead by example. If you are stressed or feeling overwhelmed, share your experience and delegate tasks when needed. Prioritise self-care and communicate this to your team. Demonstrate your commitment by allocating the budget to neurodiversity initiatives, including tools, training and awareness campaigns. 

Commit to continuous improvement: 

Regularly assess existing practices and seek feedback and input from neurodiverse employees, co-producing if possible. Adapt and refine strategies to ensure they remain effective and relevant, especially as your organisation and workforce grows. 

Understanding neurodiversity as a spectrum of strengths and challenges, rather than a superhuman ability or blanket disability, is crucial for creating inclusive environments where all individuals can thrive. By acknowledging the duality of neurodiversity and implementing practical strategies to support neurodiverse employees, startups can foster innovation, success and a culture of empathy and understanding.