Your organization is “all about” creativity and innovation. You believe that diversity enhances creativity. But does your definition of diversity include embracing neurodiversity? Neurodiversity describes the idea that characteristics associated with developmental differences such as autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, or Tourette’s are not deficits, but differences that benefit larger human systems.
In many workplaces, neurodiversity is still overlooked and misunderstood. Maybe you’ve heard something about hiring autistic programmers or that people with ADHD are less stressed by interruptions, but this view on neurodiversity is incredibly limited. Throughout history, neurodivergent people have been a driving force of creativity and innovation in all fields of thought, from literature to technology.
Stories that stick
Most people familiar with western culture easily understand the metaphor of the ugly duckling. We regularly use it to refer to someone or something whose potential is not valued or appreciated. Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Ugly Duckling, has given us one of the “stickiest” metaphors in human history. But did you know that some researchers argue that Andersen used this story to describe his (and others’) autistic experiences? It reflects the struggle of being socially “different,” bullied, gaslighted, misunderstood, and stuck in an environment hostile to everything you are.
Andersen’s genre-defining stories and characters represent common social dynamics and the uniqueness and importance of neurodiversity. The Emperor’s New Clothes illustrates how groups self-destruct when people fawn over incompetent and self-centered bosses. It takes an inconvenient, often marginalized, underappreciated, or child-like truth teller (another autistic trait) to point out that the Emperor has no clothes on. The Princess and the Pea shows that most people fail to sense potentially important things—a new problem, a faint smell of smoke in the air, or an emerging competitor. All groups need members with more acute perception—and, again, honesty. Truth tellers, people with extremely sharp senses, and people with exceptional potential are often mistreated, Andersen tells us, but they are essential to a functioning society. Without them, teams suffer from groupthink, excessive conformity, and mediocrity.
Andersen’s talent was extraordinary, and diagnosing individuals based on historical records and writings requires caution. Nevertheless, research demonstrates that, contrary to stereotypes, autistic populations have a significant aptitude for creating original metaphors. In experiments, both autistic adults and autistic children outperformed allistic (non-autistic) participants on creative metaphor generation and verbal creativity. When businesses compete for customer attention in a distracted world, metaphors and stories that stick are a priceless avantage.
Driving the discovery
Trailblazing inventor Nikola Tesla is another example of a historical figure who was likely autistic. His innovative thinking shaped our modern lives. When we plug in our gadgets, use remote control, or rely on other types of wireless technology, we benefit from Tesla’s inventions. The alternating electric current (AC) powers our homes and workplaces, and the Tesla coil is the forerunner of wireless transmission. His demonstration of remote control in 1898 was so ahead of its time, many believed it was magic.
Tesla thought in pictures. He visualized and tested his inventions in his mind and did not need drawings or models. (Temple Grandin also describes this autistic characteristic.) He displayed many other textbook autistic traits, including complaining about the “deafening” sound of a train 30 miles away—an example of sensory sensitivity. Centering his life around his inventions and learning illustrates special interests. Tesla also kept an elaborate daily routine that demonstrates repetitive behaviors.
In another example, those who knew the inventor of modern computing, Alan Turing, described him as having multiple neurodivergent characteristics. Turing, the leading figure in breaking the Nazis’ “Enigma Code” during World War II, demonstrated extreme focus, avoided eye contact, and only had one friend at school—all common autistic traits. (Some claim that he was also dyslexic, but the evidence is not conclusive.)
Research supports linkages between neurodiversity and creativity well beyond specific examples. Dyslexic adults, though not children, demonstrate enhanced nonverbal creativity and often select creative careers, such as art. College students with ADHD demonstrate higher levels of divergent thinking, meaning they are good at “thinking outside the box.”
Autistic individuals’ immersion in work may expedite learning, while independent thinking may facilitate creative breakthroughs and the levels of originality that are hard to find in other groups. Of course, it is important to avoid stereotyping individuals based on group-level findings. Creativity and other abilities in neurodivergent populations vary widely, and each individual has unique struggles and strengths.
The travails of talent
The life stories of Andersen, Tesla, and Turing were also characterized by strife, lack of support, and downright mistreatment and cruelty from others. Tesla’s employers cheated him out of his pay and, for a time, he dug ditches to support himself. It’s an honest way to survive, but what would the world look like if he could have spent more time doing the work most aligned with his talents? Would there have been cell phones and the internet—both envisioned by Tesla in 1926—much earlier?
It’s tempting to say that now the times are gentler and more inclusive. But it is likely that today Tesla would not have passed the “culture fit” interviews even to dig ditches. Autistic people are still exploited, cheated out of their pay, excluded from employment, and experience high levels of workplace discrimination.
The problem is not just that there are some “bad bosses.” Many talent systems present systemic barriers for neurodivergent thinkers. Solutions must also be systemic.
It is ironic that while creativity and innovation are in demand, many talent management systems are not welcoming to creative, unique, or exceptional talent. They are designed to favor the familiar, the average, those who can do many things reasonably well, rather than some things exceptionally well.
The focus on the average disadvantages neurodivergent talent, who tend to have “spiky” profiles of ability—outstanding in some areas, below average in others. For example, overreliance on interviews in selection is based on the assumption that charming conversationalists with a gift of selling themselves will also be captivating writers or brilliant engineers. This is a barrier for people who are better at doing the work than at selling themselves. “Spiky” profiles mean that differences between areas of challenge and areas of giftedness might be more pronounced. When an area of challenge that might be irrelevant to the job is used as a selection requirement (e.g., being charming in an interview, rather than providing a work sample, for a technical or writing position), outstanding neurodivergent talent might be missed.
While hiring barriers hold many potential great contributors back, overcoming these often means facing more hurdles. The lack of flexibility in how, when, and where to work interferes with the ability to deliver the best possible performance. And if the best performance is delivered and is outstanding, the performer risks envy-based bullying. Overall, autistic employees experience a high level of workplace mistreatment and a lack of support. In the UK, 50% of all managers do not wish to hire and work with neurodivergent individuals. Hiring agents in the US support their refusal to hire autistic employees using extremely negative stereotypes and even vulgar language.
While the situation appears grim, redesigning talent management systems to welcome neurodivergent talent and creativity might be easier than some may believe. Organizations committed to neurodiversity and intersectional inclusion can embed systemic mechanisms to support all talent on every step of talent management systems, from job design and selection to professional development and advancement. Interestingly, even the hiring agents who blatantly discriminate against autistic job seekers support the need for systemic regulations to ensure inclusive hiring.
Embedded inclusion relies on fair and just processes rather than on the whims of individual managers. Moreover, applying the key principles of inclusive systems—broad employee participation in designing work, focusing on outcomes, flexibility, organizational justice, transparency, and using valid tools in decision-making—creates healthier work environments for all. It also helps build a more creative world.