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The Next Step for Neurodiversity

Building a world where everyone has a place, and we all contribute to society.

The neurodiversity movement seeks to reframe the conversation about autism and other neurological differences in a more balanced and less stigmatizing way. Individuals who embrace the neurodiversity paradigm generally feel diminished by medical characterizations of themselves or those around them. They seek a more positive counterpoint and, in some cases, an identity.

Not every autistic person accepts this view; there is an amorphous point on the continuum of function where one goes from feeling "different" to "disordered," and a person who holds the latter view is not likely to embrace neurodiversity. Still, there is mounting evidence that neurodiversity is the model of choice for a great many people with neurological differences.

The word "neurodiversity" was coined by Judy Singer, an autistic person who felt she was more than a package of disabilities. From there, it grew into an identity for thousands of people who grew up following the DSM IV expansion of cognitive disability diagnoses. Like Judy, those people believed they were more than disabled, and they sought a positive framework to understand themselves.

The diagnostic explosion of the 90s drove the 2000s-era creation of "autism therapy" industries while schools raced to develop autism programs. By 2010, many colleges had followed suit, and employers joined in with the programs that became known as Autism at Work. Autism was seen as the most serious of the neurological differences, so it was the primary focus of these programs.

ADHD is far more common, but the prevailing thought in the psychiatric community was that kids outgrow disability from ADHD, whereas autism is disabling for life. Also, ADHD was treatable with medicine, while autism was not. Both those assumptions are challenged today, but they nonetheless laid the foundation for where we are now.

With hundreds of colleges and workplaces claiming some kind of autism program, members of the autism community now want to change those programs to neurodiversity initiatives. Individuals may be motivated by a desire to reduce stigma, but there is an important institutional point that goes beyond that. When schools and workplaces move from autism programs to neurodiversity programs, they include every person with a cognitive difference, not just autistic people. The tent gets bigger, and it has room for all.

Over the past decade, hundreds of workplaces have started Autism at Work programs, and they've been around long enough to tout many positive results. Often, the stated goal is to gain a competitive advantage by employing people with different cognitive skills. Managers recognize that traits like exceptional focus might be gifts in adult work situations, even if they were disabling for schoolchildren.

Programs from SAP, Ernst and Young, and Microsoft typify this approach. Their initiatives are well received by the public and the autism community, but they remain limited in size for a variety of reasons, one being that they are only a fit for a small percentage of the autistic population.

Other Autism at Work programs employ people with autism and other developmental disabilities as groundskeepers, car wash attendants, and facilities maintenance people. These programs don't seek a competitive advantage so much as they seek to help a disadvantaged portion of the population. Their activities may yield an advantage when the public supports the businesses, but they are not founded on people with exceptional skills.

Employers in this space tend to be nonprofits, like Project Search, or private companies, like Rising Tide Car Wash, where a non-autistic family member capitalized the business, and the concept took off.

The first group of Autism at Work companies tend to garner most of the headlines because companies like SAP and Microsoft have powerful PR engines, but it is possible there are more autistic people employed in family businesses like Rising Tide. Small businesses are the "silent majority" of American employers.

Over the past few years, thought leaders in this space have argued that it's time to evolve to a neurodiversity model. If a company wants to gain a competitive advantage by employing people with different cognitive gifts, it stands to reason their search should not be limited to autistic people. All forms of cognitive differences that have the potential to present exceptionality with or without a disability should be considered.

That was the genesis of Neurodiversity at Work, and for the first group of companies, it absolutely makes sense. However, Neurodiversity at Work makes sense for the second group, too, for a different reason.

Many entrepreneurs shape businesses to accommodate family members with special needs. That has happened in various forms since time immemorial. In years past, the accommodation might be for someone who was "slow" or "different," where now we have dozens of psychiatric labels to take the place of those archaic labels.

The modern labels do not change the situation. A workplace designed to accommodate an autistic person with cognitive disabilities is likely to be more comfortable for everyone else too. Once you expand the employee base beyond family, if your motive is helping people, you should be able to help a broad neurodiverse group, not just an autistic group.

Whether your goal is a competitive advantage or human service, you should be able to meet your goals better under a Neurodiversity at Work banner, as opposed to an Autism at Work one. In both cases, the supports needed are similar, but the neurodivergent population is substantially larger than the "only-autistic" population, so your chances of success are magnified.

In many workplaces, the Autism at Work model included a support partnership with a state disability service agency. If your goal is helping people with disabilities, this makes sense. It's not legal to discriminate among job applicants with one exception: an employer can create a job that is only open to people receiving disability services. This fits the human service neurodiversity model fine, since state disability support is based on impairment rather than diagnostic labels, and state support now keeps people off welfare when it leads to jobs.

If the employer's goal is to gain a competitive advantage from cognitive exceptionality, it's increasingly clear that state disability support is not the path to success because most exceptional people do not want to present themselves as needing state supports. That is not just a workplace issue; it emerges in college when freshmen decline to disclose special needs because they want to leave the special ed stigma behind.

While labels like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, or PDD-NOS may be useful for therapists and childhood educators, the community-sourced alternative "neurodivergent" is probably better suited for colleges and workplaces. In those spaces, medical labels carry a stigma that leads to conscious and unconscious marginalization. Expectations are always lower for people with disability diagnoses.

Yet schools and workplaces are not founded on "overcoming disability" or being successful "despite disability." People who succeed at school or at work do so for one reason: they are good at what they do. SAP is successful because it provides some of the best enterprise software in the industry. Rising Tide Car Wash is successful because they do a good job cleaning cars. Helping people who are different or disabled is a secondary benefit, but not the foundation of their success.

Neurodiversity is a new concept, but the underlying reality has been part of human society forever. In the modern era, work and school programs designed for the average person have excluded those whose cognitive styles fall outside that narrow midrange. Despite that, workplaces—including colleges—already contain plenty of neurodiversity, so a primary program goal should be the better support of those people. Neurodiversity at School and at Work is not just about bringing new people into the fold.

The newest neurodiversity initiatives recognize this fact.

By embracing the neurodiversity model instead of autism, employers can move toward a more inclusive, welcoming environment. What's the next step beyond neurodiversity at work? I don't know if there is one. If we have schools and workplaces that welcome and support people with all kinds of minds and physical differences, subject to the basic requirements to get their schoolwork or jobs done, what more do we need?

It seems like a simple and noble goal, but I suspect it will take more than my lifetime to get there.