What do the following people have in common: Leonardo da Vinci, Saint Teresa, Napoleon, Winston Churchill, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Richard Branson, John Lennon, Steven Spielberg and Isaac Newton? The answer is that they are all considered to have been “neurodiverse,” a term was first coined in 1998 by sociologist Judy Singer, and covers a spectrum of disorders such as dyslexia, autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other conditions.

The last 15 years has seen our understanding of neuroscience reveal the underlying mechanisms of many unusual traits of human behavior. This is certainly the case when we examine the traits found in our employees’ skill profile regarding neurodiversity.

For example, if we wind the clock back to the previous century The interpretation was that there were centers in the brain for word recognition, word meaning and optical scanning, and that these centers were ineffective.

There is no doubt that dyslexia is one of the most contentious and divisive issues in prescribing remedies for children, and in the understanding of its cause. By comparison, historically much less attention was given to autism, which was first defined by Leo Kanner in 1952, as opposed to dyslexia which was defined by Rudolf Berlin in 1877. There are many differences in the symptoms of these two traits, but curiously there are also strong similarities in their underlying mechanisms.

What Causes Neurodiversity?

Most cases of neurodiversity are similarly caused because the brain has a different pattern of learning. It is not, as it used to be thought, because of intelligence. All humans have developed advanced learning mechanisms to be able to do things automatically. Reading is one such task, but so is playing sport, driving a car or riding a bike, and so on. This is termed procedural or implicit learning. It is to do with how human beings make things automatic. Each neurodiverse condition has a specific “failing” in respect to functions which should become linked automatically but those linkages are not fully established in some people.

As previously mentioned, all human brains have two learning systems, one is for procedural capabilities with which neurodiverse people find areas of difficulty, and the other, called declarative is for facts and logic, which they find relatively easy. Because neurodiverse people learn procedural capabilities more slowly than neurotypicals, they often overcompensate on the facts and logic side of learning. This is why they are over represented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) sector.

We can now explain why so many successful people are neurodiverse. Of course, this doesn’t mean that neuroscientists now understand neurodiversity. It is just one more step on the way from complete ignorance. It does however point the way to what we can do to our neurodiverse employees’ skills and competencies.

Supporting Your Neurodiverse Employees

The extent and degree conditions in the neurodiverse spectrum range from mild to extreme. Not all neurodiverse people are capable of deploying these strengths in a corporate environment, but many are, and to great success. Many neurodiverse people have mild or medium procedural deficits, which are magnified somewhat by the way that we teach and assess children at school. When they get to adulthood those with mild or medium conditions have both strengths and weaknesses in their skills profile.

The first thing is to get over the hang-up that neurodiversity is a disability. Rod Nicolson suggests, rather than ask, “How can we fix dyslexic minds so they work more like everyone else’s?”, we should ask, “What are dyslexic minds organized to do well?”

Consider the following steps to grow and support your neurodiverse employees:

  • Classify job roles according to a type classification such as O*Net, Holland or any other classification that separates neurodiverse skill attributes. This will identify the job roles which contain requirements for areas where neurodiverse candidates often outperform neurotypicals.
  • Assess your neurodiverse population, or new recruits, or perhaps the whole workforce, for their strengths and plan job roles accordingly. Neurodiverse people can often excel at visual-spatial skills, empathy, teamwork, resilience pattern recognition, complex memory and mathematics . They are therefore high performers in the realistic, artistic, social and enterprising Holland job skill types. When looking at our talent pool in the organization, there are many roles which are well suited to the positive talents of neurodiverse people. Seeking matches for these roles in the neurodiverse population will allow a double benefit, in providing high performing execution and in higher motivation for our neurodiverse employees.
  • It is also possible to assist neurodiverse people to improve some aspects that have resulted from a lack of confidence. The lack of automaticity is deeply rooted, and that’s why it is hard to fix the root cause. However, there are some peripheral issues which are simply a result of being disengaged. For example, those who have a lack of social automaticity, will when assessed for emotional intelligence (EQ), probably score on the low side. However, a significant part of this is lack of practice. Since they don’t find social and emotional engagement easy, they avoid it. The good news is that this means that some of the peripheral consequences are fixable by a little practical coaching. They will develop quickly with appropriate development for anything deficit that has arisen due to lack of confidence alone. This will enable them to fill simple gaps in their softer skills and improve their communication with others.

The talent pool of people on the neurodiverse spectrum is potentially one of the biggest assets that a company might have in its skill base. It may be that your neurodiverse talent is under-utilized today, and the predictions are that the future of work will require these skills even more. Follow the tips outlined in this article to begin growing and supporting your neurodiverse employees now and in the future.