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Do you consider neurodiversity in your people management strategies?


How neurodiverse is your organisation? Have you thought about strategies to ensure everyone feels included? In this blog post, Vicky Rowan looks at the importance of understanding neurodiversity within the workplace and how it can impact learning.

Understanding neurodiversity

According to recent research from CIPD, only one in ten HR professionals say their organisation is now focusing on neurodiversity at work. And it notes that around 10% of the population is neurodivergent in some way.

We understand neurodiversity to be based on differences in brain wiring, processing and thinking styles. It includes Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia. But there are more ways our brains are wired differently, but often not recognised.

Like this...

Can you picture a vase?

If you were asked to picture a vase, could you describe what it looks like? What it’s made of? What room it’s in? On a scale of 1-5, how vividly can you see it? 

The Laughology team did this recently and the varied responses were interesting. From glass to pewter, filled with a bright coloured bouquet, or blooming white lilies placed in a bedroom or a conservatory, the responses were diverse.

And even more intriguing? My colleague and I could not see any images at all.

But why?

Aphantasia – the inability to visualise or form mental images in your mind

I only realised I might have Aphantasia a couple of months ago. A BBC documentary had highlighted to a colleague that she could not picture objects in her mind.

And that’s when I realised, neither could I.

I struggle to see pictures, scenes, objects or even imagine my husband’s face - which is not such a bad thing these days. Instead, I just see a blank canvas. Probably one of the reasons I could never count sheep to get to sleep.

Aphantasia is thought to be experienced by 2-5% of the population. It was first described by Francis Galton in 1880 but has remained unstudied until recently. 

In 2005, a man who seemed to have lost the ability to visualise after undergoing surgery approached Professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter. In 2010, after Zeman published a paper, a number of people approached him reporting a lifelong inability to visualise. 

How does Aphantasia affect memory and learning?

The research is still pretty much in its infancy, but apparently, Aphantasia also affects auditory, emotional and kinesthetic processes.

From my personal experience, I really struggle to learn, remember and understand instructions. As a result, others can become frustrated when they try to explain things to me. Because I just don’t get it. This can make me feel stupid, which affects my self-belief and motivation. It can also make me feel a little agitated and so I switch off. 

After sharing this with my manager, who is extremely visual, it made her realise I can’t see things as she does. I need lots of detail, context and to understand the ‘why’ behind everything. Sometimes things need to be worded in different ways. I need to be questioned to check my level of understanding. Sometimes she needs to draw pictures to help me understand.

Initially, I was shocked and disappointed I had Aphantasia, as I felt I’d been cheated. But I now see this condition as my superpower. It helps me think very differently from the average person but just takes me a little bit longer to process information.

When I do, however, I see it in much more detail, picking up on things others may miss. I think that’s why I love a process and an Excel spreadsheet - did I just admit that out loud?

Besides, ex-Pixar chief at Walt Disney Animation Studios, Ed Catmull, has Aphantasia. And in a survey of his former employees, so do some of the world’s best animators.

Seems I’m in good company then!

How should leaders and HR professionals approach this new world of thinking?

We need to reduce the stigma around learning and thinking differences and celebrate them instead. This means understanding the people in front of you and potential neurodiversity. 

Doing this will have a massive impact on communication, motivation and relationships.

Without it, you may find conflict, disengagement and procrastination.

We need to celebrate how people look at things in different ways and challenge the ‘normal’ way of thinking.

When differences in cognitive functioning are understood and celebrated, including the way one thinks, processes, functions and behaves, it can help people perform to their potential and be more creative and innovative.

Which is good for business, yes, but it also creates a happier workplace.

If you think you might have Aphantasia, why not take this test and see?

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