Neurodiversity: A societal challenge - RSA

Neurodiversity: A societal challenge

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  • Picture of Thom Kirkwood FRSA
    Thom Kirkwood FRSA
  • Behaviour change
  • Social brain
  • Public Services & Communities
  • Science

Neurodiversity is a difficult topic; many people do not understand it, the world of mental health and/or many feel uncomfortable with the labels it applies. Thom Kirkwood FRSA asks whether in a modern complex world obsessed with labelling, it is time to have a meaningful grown up societal discussion on what this all means.

The United Nations (UN) agenda for autism, inclusion and neurodiversity, includes the introduction, in 2016, of World Autism Day. The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, – which most, if not all countries have signed up to – includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets that promise to “leave no one behind”But does neurodiversity directly correlate in the modern world to a neurodevelopment condition?  Does diagnostic context genuinely mirror societal context?

There has been an exponential increase in recent years in the use of a range of terms in this area. Neurotypical is the newest of these words and is used to describe individuals of typical development, intellectual and cognitive abilities. Neurodivergent (or neurodivergence) is used to describe the experience of having neurological variations that are seen as outside the cognitive norm. Both these labels have for far too long, been positioned as opposites, as opposed to, being complimentary to one another, which in a modern world within society and business, we know they can be. 

Neurodevelopment conditions are not disorders. Conditions, for example autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disability, that are not in a societal context a mental health disorder. Yet currently – in diagnostic and clinical terms – they are. Neurodiversity takes the viewpoint that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits. People are wired differently, and for that reason, have different experiences of the world they inhabit, and their relationships with others.

As an advocating parent, professional and strategist the language of neurodiversity matters; it helps to define whether and how individuals experience inclusion and opportunities equal to their abilities, capabilities and their peers. There is however one big caveat. As a society we must not use ‘umbrella labelling’ for the sake of short-termism in either a policy or political sense, nor for the sake of the variances within neurodevelopment conditions, that require both diagnostic and supportive specialisms and associated knowledge and understanding.

For example, autism, in a Scottish context according to Microsegmentation Project has an economic annual cost of £2.2 billion, of which 42% is lost productivity; a key component of this is the lack of neurodiversity inclusion. Extrapolated globally for discussion and emphasis purposes this would come at an estimated global societal cost of $463 trillion.

Neurodiversity in the workplace

Within the last decade or so a lot of attention has been given to diversity and inclusion within the workplace; whether this is gender balance and equal pay or respect for religious and cultural differences. Sadly very little attention has been given to neurodiversity.  Likewise, while research from McKinsey, Catalyst, and Deloitte (Australia) has found very clear evidence that diversity and inclusion does not only matter, but has significant impact on performance, it does not highlight the ‘neuro’ component.

This needs to change. As well as expanding the research, we must lose the stigma; the perception of neurodevelopmental differences is a lack of ability or capability. Rather, we need to understand the opportunity that neurodiversity brings, especially when it comes to opportunity and employment and the associated social inclusion, enhancement and performance it brings.

I have had the pleasure of engaging with many neurodivergent individuals some of whom are in employment in social media, IT, finance and manufacturing. Many of these people have shown a significant aptitude for the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) sector, which brings huge opportunity and potential as the global business environment changes. The US EY’s (formerly Ernst and Young) collaboration with Microsoft, SAP, AT&T, Ford, Hewlett-Packard and JP Morgan Chase, shows what can be done. Through sharing best practice and challenges, this work has been able to create a pool of appropriate candidates and has helped bridge the gap. As Karyn Twaronite, EY’s Global Vice-Chair, Diversity and Inclusiveness said in May 2019, neurodiversity is driving innovation from unexpected places.

Behaviour changes

This requires a progressive much needed societal discussion focussed on improving asset based skillsets of individuals of all abilities; we know early identification for earlier interventions brings mutual benefits for individual and society.  In so doing, however, we must not lose, reduce or merge specialism in practice, for example autism, ADHD, within the neurodivsity label, but we must include within the neurodiversity world, after all are we not all neurodiverse?

This is a summary of a more complex paper, I have with colleagues started a three-pronged approach with a) private sector and key public partners, b) psychology about psychometric testing and c) with partners for earlier identification in a Scottish context about the use of the Development and Wellbeing Assessment.

In exploring this collective challenge, we could identify innovative inclusion and opportunity beneficial for individuals, business, the public purse and society as a whole. We are all different; we think differently, we process differently and it is those differentials that make up society.


Thom Kirkwood, PhD, MAPM, FIntAPA, AIEP, FRSA is a parent and strategist currently employed within Autism Network Scotland, based at the University of Strathclyde. Thom’s specialist areas of interest include Advocacy, Employment, Inclusion, Mitigation and Opportunity.

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