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Neurodiversity and the world of work – Part 1: A differing operating system, not a deficit condition


Illustration depicting different forms of neurodiversity

Deep dive by Bridget Killoury

Despite the growing societal and commercial conversation regarding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); long-held stereotyped perceptions toward neurodivergent conditions such as autism spectrum condition (ASC) fail to recognise the unique thought processes, skill sets and traits that individuals can bring to the commercial sector, whilst also preventing any improvement in understanding the barriers to employment they may face.


This three-part series into neurodiversity in the world of work aims to challenge the stigma, understanding, attitudes, and barriers that individuals on the neurodivergent spectrum face when seeking to enter commercial employment. Due to the term neurodivergence encompassing such a vast range of differing cognitive functioning, conditions and characteristics deemed ‘atypical’ from the norm, these articles will focus on the example and experiences of people with ASC.


‘’I have to constantly fight the feeling of inadequacy. Everyone seems to have life figured out - I’m just wobbling around but all I know is that I want to help people.’


The above answer from a volunteer at my local community gym to the question of what he had found most difficult about his experience with ASC captures perfectly the theme of this three-part series. After pausing his explanation of how to make the most out of the particular machine I was using at the time to turn down the motivational music blasting in the background, I laughed and asked, "do you have the same feeling of being overwhelmed when there's too much noise?". The next hour was then filled with over-excited deep conversations, from his experience prior to and following his ASC diagnosis, to our shared passion topic of psychology and the world of neurodivergence.


What I found most interesting however, was the concept of self-education that he and my other autistic friends all described in the period following their diagnosis. They had found limited help from medical professionals – bar a generalised description of autism and a leaflet – leaving them to seek out more in-depth information about how ASC manifests differently in each individual.


What is autism spectrum condition (ASC)?


Autism is often misunderstood amongst the general public due to a variety of factors, including a lack of information and education, inaccurate media representations and resulting stereotypes, and having no direct experience with people with autism. The medical model assesses autism based on behavioural traits deemed ‘’abnormal’’ and uses the diagnostic term "autism spectrum disorder (ASD)". There has been a recent movement amongst autistic people in challenging the use of the phrase ‘’disorder’’, which they argue is derogatory and positions them as inferior and defective. For this reason, the term "autism spectrum condition" (ASC) is a preferred expression for the wide and varied ways that different individuals experience their symptoms.


ASC is a neurological condition and we are not yet at the point where a diagnosis can be made by looking at brain scans. Additionally the medical model cannot define what autism is a 'disorder' of. In comparison, diagnoses such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is viewed as a disorder of attention, depression as a disorder of sadness, and Alzheimer's as a disorder of memory. Instead ASC covers a constellation of symptoms that can cause difficulties in communication, social interactions, physical behaviours, sensory processing, and perception, resulting in different experiences of the world unique to each individual.


In the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the description of autism and how it manifests is often entirely different from people's own experience of the condition. It defines the diagnosis of "autism spectrum disorder (ASD)" as a neurological and developmental disorder that affects social communication, learning, sensory processing and behaviour. Below is a list of the latest DSM-V checklist of symptoms used in diagnosing individuals.



The latest DSM-V checklist for an ASC diagnosis clusters ‘’persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction’’ as including:

  1. Deficits in social–emotional reciprocity

  2. Deficits in non-verbal communicative behaviours used for social interaction

  3. Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships

It also clusters “restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities” as manifested in:

  1. Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech

  2. Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualised patterns of verbal or nonverbal behaviour

  3. Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus

  4. Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment


Levels of autism spectrum condition


The DSM-V lists three levels of ASC based on the severity of their symptoms and the amount of support needed in their daily lives. Individuals classified as having level 1 ASC are perceived to have the ‘’highest functioning’’ capacity and abilities in daily life (formerly diagnosed as Asperger's syndrome until 2013), thus requiring the least amount of support.



The manifestation of symptoms of those diagnosed with ASC can vary significantly. For example, some individuals may be non-verbal and have complex needs that require full-time care and support. In comparison, others may possess advanced and unique skills, such as logical and analytical thinking, ability to spot patterns and repetition through sustained focus, attention to detail and methodological approaches, innovative thought processes, and problem solving. It is important to note that common terminology distinguishing ‘’high-functioning’’ vs ‘’low-functioning’’ autism have been deemed harmful, both by those who challenge an inability to speak as meaning their other abilities go unrecognised, and by those deemed ‘’high-functioning’’ who still struggle with everyday tasks and navigating social norms due to difficulties such as sensory processing.


However, for people with either diagnosed or undiagnosed ASC who have an appetite to enter the world of work, there is much to be done to improve understanding, remove barriers and create reasonable adjustments that allow their unique strengths to shine.


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Variability in autism spectrum condition traits


Cognitive abilities and strengths that people with ASC possess are varied and unique to each individual, with some finding one type of task extremely easy and another extremely difficult. In comparison, people deemed ‘neurotypical’ are likely to follow a more stable continuum in ease of task ability. The extremity to which those with ASC have strengths and ease with particular tasks (depicted in the large peaks and troughs graph line below) puts them at an advantageous position when they are in the right environment where their talents and cognitive abilities are able to shine.




Terminology such as a multidimensional spectrum in which the ways that people experience their autism is defined as fluid and unique to each person captures more accurately the vast range of abilities and traits associated with the condition. For example, the spiky profile scale below allows each individual to rate how different symptoms affect them from 0–10 (with 0 being the centre of the diagram and 10 being on the circumference). It is interesting to note here that as autism is considered a spectrum diagnosis, it is expected that every individual will have some degree of autistic traits. However it is individuals who surpass a certain threshold that will be given a clinical diagnosis of autism as a condition of disorder.



Unique skillsets, traits and strengths associated with autism spectrum condition


People with ASC experience symptoms that cover every single domain of human behaviour, from sensation to thought to action. These differences in how individuals sense and perceive the world around them give rise to various unique perspectives, sensory abilities, and behavioural manifestations that can benefit any workplace. Here are some examples of strengths among people with ASC, and how employers can benefit:

Cognitive strengths:

  • A correlation with giftedness – a greater prevalence of individuals who score over 140 on IQ tests (genius level) have been found to have autism

  • Powerful memory system

  • Encyclopaedic knowledge

  • Hyperfocus

  • Superior problem solving, pattern recognition, and lateral thinking

Example of benefit to the workplace:

  • An ability to identify patterns or solutions that a standardised approach might miss


 

Sensory strengths:

  • Visual hypersensitivity – processing a greater amount of sensory information helps with pattern recognition and enhanced attention to detail

  • Tunnel vision – the ability to take in a lot of information at once but to hyperfocus on the centre can produce faster response times and faster detection of a target, as well as an efficient perception of details

  • Acute hearing – including superior auditory discrimination and heightened pitch detection

Example of benefit to the workplace:

  • Processing a greater amount of sensory information can result in a detail-oriented approach to tasks, more likely to consider a range of data points and possibilities without making assumptions. This can lead to well-informed decision making and output.

 

Behavioural strengths:

  • Increased motivation to pursue non-social stimuli and reduced motivation to seek social interaction – one study identified a disregulated reward-based effort in ASC individuals, with results showing that participants with ASC chose the hard task more frequently than the control group and were less influenced by variations in reward value. In the context of the DSM-V’s description of ‘’restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests’’, this trait can be regarded as positive and invaluable in self-directed and self-determined learning in specialist interest areas, leading toward in-depth knowledge and understanding

Example of benefit to the workplace:

  • A person with a sustained focus and attention to job responsibilities who is less distracted by social dynamics


Considering all of the above, it is unsurprising that some of the main traits associated with autism have led people to achieve such great heights of success and fame within their field. A hyper-focus on special interest areas and a lack of interest or participation in ‘’social norms’’ allows for more time, dedication, energy, motivation, and unique perspectives and approaches in pursuing goals.


Challenging the medical model terminology of "deficits", "disordered", and "restrictive" traits

Whilst the DSM-V paints a picture of deficiency, and impaired or lack of capacity of an autistic person to navigate the world, it misses the beauty, necessity and value of diversity and difference in the world of work and in society at large.


For example, the categorisation of "persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction’’ and "restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities" deemed atypical from the "norm" perfectly describes the character and experience of Elon Musk. During Musk's viral disclosure of his Asperger's syndrome diagnosis (now diagnosed as level 1 ASC) on Saturday Night Live, he stated: "Sometimes after I say something, I have to say I mean that. That's because I don't always have a lot of variation in the way I speak. I'm actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger's to host SNL. Or at least the first to admit it."


When later quizzed on his experience, he pointed first to each individual experience as different. For him, he said at first that social cues were never intuitive. Instead he was very bookish and that he would take words spoken as very literal of what the words themselves said. He talked of the fact that he was bullied a lot and instead gained an understanding of people through books and films, which took him a while to figure out what others intuitively understood in social interactions and norms. The interviewer posed the question of whether this was in fact a gift as, for most people, they can spend so much time and mental energy obsessing over the external world and social cues. Whereas in Elon’s experience of his Asperger's, being cut off from the norms of the external world provided an opportunity to understand inwardly the world at a much deeper level than most people do:


‘’I found it rewarding to spend all night programming computers just by myself,’’ said Elon. ‘’One aspect of whatever condition I had was that I was just absolutely obsessed with truth. So the obsession with truth is why I studied physics, which attempts to understand the provable truths of the universe and truths that have predictable power."


Other famous individuals with either confirmed or suspected Asperger's syndrome (now level 1 ASC) who have revolutionised their field and driven society toward a forward momentum of development include Greta Thurnberg (environmental activist), Bill Gates (software developer), Sir Issac Newton (mathematician), Albert Einstein (physicist), Mozart (composer), Andy Warhol (artist), Carl Sagan (astronomer), and Tim Burton (film director).


 

With the unique and varied strengths associated with ASC in mind, it is of benefit and value to the commercial sector and employers to work on tackling barriers that people with ASC face when seeking to enter the workplace. The second part of this deep dive series will look at the challenges and difficulties that the traditional hiring process and workplace environments create for individuals with ASC.

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