I have been thinking about writing this blog post for a while. I’ve been in a quandary about whether to write it or not… but I’ve decided that it’s too important a topic not to comment on. I should therefore start out by stating that the contents of this piece are opinion only…
Recently, I have heard a lot of people use the phrase ‘We are all Neurodiverse’ and it has been bothering me.
Now please don’t get me wrong, it is usually used by people who have the best of intentions. It is often used by neurotypical people when talking about workplace design and strategy to demonstrate that inclusive design benefits a whole workforce (which it does). It’s used as an attempt to address the stigma that can be attached to a neurodiverse condition by trying to explain that every individual is different (which they are). It’s used to try to make predominantly neurotypical organizations and line managers feel more comfortable in addressing the topic of Neurodiversity… and it does need addressing.
So why, knowing all this, knowing that the people using this phrase are trying to demonstrate allyship, and knowing that the issues being addressed do indeed need to be addressed, do I find this phrase so problematic?
There are a number of reasons.
The first is the potential impact on achieving equitable outcomes for people with Neurodiversity. If you take the phrase ‘We are all Neurodiverse’ and in your mind replace ‘Neurodiverse’ with any other protected characteristic, you will immediately see the problem – race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or even a visible disability would sound idiotic at the end of that sentence. If you went around openly using the phrase with another protected characteristic in everyday conversation or when giving professional talks, there would be uproar. Rightly so. Because to claim that everyone experiences the challenges and barriers throughout their entire lives that any other under-represented group faces, is insulting. It undermines and minimizes the cumulative impact over a person’s life on their outcomes, ability to achieve their potential, their mental health, self-esteem, and well-being, of being continually held back and ‘othered’. It therefore inadvertently removes the need for a change in attitude, approach, and support levels to establish a level playing field for people with Neurodiversity. And no matter how well intended, it doesn’t become acceptable just because you cannot see the characteristic you are attempting to describe...
I also find it problematic because it somehow implies that everyone experiences the challenges and barriers faced by Neurodiverse people to some degree. They don’t. Neurodiverse conditions are medically diagnosed, they have diagnostic thresholds that must be met for a diagnosis to be given. Neurodiverse conditions like ADHD and Autism are classified as a disability. They are protected characteristics for which employers are obliged to make appropriate accommodations and support. Let us not forget that the definition of a disability under the Equality Act 2010 is “a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.
The phrase ‘We are all Neurodiverse’, somehow gives the impression that Neurodiversity is something that every person needs to deal with in some way in their lives, that we are all good at some things and not so good at other things, and that therefore, Neurodiversity is simply something that an individual must learn to manage or moderate to fit in and adapt to standard expectations. Often coaching for Neurodiverse people focuses not on developing their strengths and managing their condition, but on how to make themselves appear to be like everyone else. I do this with varying levels of success every day of my life without coaching. It’s called Masking and it’s exhausting.
‘We are all Neurodiverse’ is a phrase being used to convey that we all think differently. And we do. Every single human being on this planet has different lived experiences that form the basis of the way we think and react. But this isn’t what a ‘Neurodiverse Condition’ is.
Neurodiversity can also be called a ‘Neurodevelopmental Condition’. This is a group of conditions that arise from the way that the brain grows and develops. It doesn’t just mean that we ‘think’ differently, it means our brains have developed differently, with different connectivity, different proportions in structure, and different chemical balances. They are lifelong conditions. It doesn’t mean we haven’t had our coffee, or we slept badly, or we just forgot something… If you scan my brain, and a neurotypical person’s brain, you can see that some areas of my brain are smaller and some larger than the standard or ‘typical’ brain. And that will never change. I will never grow out of it. I cannot simply learn to be like you or to communicate like you… And therefore adjustments, accommodations, and support are needed, or I will forever be held to an unfair standard I can’t achieve, regardless of my actual intelligence or capability. The standard of ‘fitting in’.
So, whether you are neurotypical or Neurodiverse, please, please, please delete the phrase ‘We are all Neurodiverse’ from your vocabulary. We aren’t. And I’m comfortable with that.