Neurodivergent people

Neurodivergence, ASD, “on the spectrum”, ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome… who exactly are we talking about? 

The terms “neurodivergent” or “neuroatypical” refer to people whose neurological development or condition is outside the traditional norms. They highlight a number of conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some people may prefer terms related to neurodivergence to avoid seeing these conditions simply as a disorder or disease. “Asperger’s” or “Aspie” are used by many in the autism community, but the origins of the term may be off-putting (Asperger was a researcher who conducted some of his experiments during the time of Nazi Germany).

Specific diagnoses such as dyslexia and ADHD are already well recognized and accommodated in schools. In contrast, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) does not yet enjoy the same recognition in our workplaces. ASD encompasses a wide variety of neurological and character traits that will be experienced with varying degrees of complexity depending on the individual and the context. It is sometimes difficult for neuroatypical adults to obtain a diagnosis and accommodations. Medical names (ADHD, ASD) can be useful when dealing with HR departments.

Some activists invite us to become aware of the neuronormative nature of our organizations. These organizations have seldom been designed with accessibility in mind and, despite often laudable intentions, do not have the resources to respond to all requests. Fortunately, several organizations led by people with autism have thought about solutions and are making it possible to consider accommodations that will help the often remarkable talents of these people to flourish.

At first glance, people with a neuroatypical condition don’t really seem any different from the majority of my colleagues. Why not just treat them like everyone else? After all, aren’t we all a little autistic? 

Some characteristics of neuroatypical people are considered a form of invisible disability because they are not easily recognized by their peers, which can make life quite difficult for these individuals. Moreover, the full range of neurodiversity is not completely mapped out and understood. Two people on the autism spectrum will not necessarily share the same traits. Adult ADHD is still relatively unknown compared to the management of this problem at a younger age.

Many people will try to get an official diagnosis in order to have their condition recognized and benefit from certain accommodations, but this is often a long and costly process: few professionals in the public sector can evaluate all situations. We also know that women have a harder time getting their neurodivergent condition validated. Recognition is easier for certain categories of autistic people (level 2 and level 3, to refer to the current medical vocabulary) in whom the traits are more obvious and who cannot function independently in a world made for neurotypical people.

Adults with ADHD have to deal with executive dysfunction, that is, cognitive issues that make it more difficult to perform certain tasks. They cannot always function at the same pace as their neurotypical peers, although most eventually develop tricks to perform better (for example, breaking down tasks into very specific lists).

People with autism at level 1 have to deal with a large number of problematic situations but often manage to remain invisible. As experts in camouflage and coping, they eventually develop a kind of mask to navigate the “minefield” of interpersonal and professional relationships. This process unfolds as the person notices uneasy situations in their social interactions, more or less obvious discomforts that eventually accumulate and weigh heavily. Indeed, many autistic people have difficulty deciphering the intentions, emotions and other states of mind of their interlocutors (which, let’s face it, are not always perfectly clear or rational). A bit like intergalactic visitors who have just discovered planet Earth, these people must constantly decipher situations and individuals in order to understand all the implicit social codes required to communicate and socialize. 

Another invisible and widespread trait among people with autism contributes to the burden of daily life: sensory hypersensitivity, or sensory modulation disorder. Imagine that perceptions that are usual for a neurotypical person, such as noise on a subway train, neon lights, or scents in a store, never become  habitual but take over your senses a in a stressful manner at every moment. This condition can affect several senses unevenly.

Social anxiety, camouflage, sensory overload… all of this requires additional coping energy for people with autism. It is important to emphasize that these people are working hard to fit in. By burning the candle at both ends, they risk collapsing from fatigue. Any adaptation requires resources, and constant adaptation inevitably leads to exhaustion (a dynamic that the majority of neurotypical folks have personally observed during the pandemic).

In light of this cognitive and sensory burden of everyday life, it is virtually impossible to adequately integrate these individuals into an educational or office setting? 

For a workplace that has never been aware of this type of condition, the first steps may indeed seem very high. Considering the relatively trivial nature of the most common requests (offering more flexibility in scheduling, adapting lighting and soundproofing), we can also take a step back and see that our workplaces can be particularly inflexible in dealing with these issues. 

If the physical constraints of the company do not allow for a workstation adapted to the person (for example, in an open-plan office), teleworking may become an interesting solution. For a neuroatypical individual who suffers from hypersensitivity, having to go to the office in a rigid format (e.g. 9 to 5), on the road or in public transport, will inevitably cause sensory overload. In this context, two or three days of teleworking per week could make a big difference in your colleague’s “weekly sensory balance” and allow him or her to better tolerate the irritants in the workplace.

Balance can be difficult to achieve. Your colleagues with autism may not have appropriate housing, and teleworking platforms are not always hypersensitivity friendly. A good portion of the population may have experienced “Zoom Fatigue” at various times during the pandemic. Imagine dealing with noise interference, jerky conversations with your colleagues’ faces strangely cut off in front of a virtual background, and all of the technical discomforts that we are now very familiar with, while suffering from hypersensoriality!

Despite all these difficulties, neurodivergent people often excel at their jobs. Adults with ADHD can go into a period of “hyperfocus” that will allow them to catch up and often exceed expectations. Overall, people with neuroatypical disorders have developed many coping strategies in order to succeed in professional settings. It therefore seems logical for these environments to demonstrate some flexibility in return in order to accommodate this diversity.

Neuroatypical realities seem to vary greatly from person to person. How can we accommodate all these divergent realities? 

Considering the extent and disparity of the problems, it is important to understand that there is no magic solution that works for everyone. Offering a “normal” work environment, identical for everyone, and being inflexible when faced with requests for accommodation, is not particularly adapted to the diversity of human realities. In a context where skilled labour is increasingly scarce, a company or an educational institution should be agile enough to adapt to the needs of its employees. In the case of people with disabilities, this requirement to adapt is even enshrined in the labour codes of several countries, for example the United Kingdom and Canada. 

The ideal is always to open a dialogue with each individual to try to find the most suitable solutions. In fact, why not simply discuss with the neuroatypical person to better understand the specific disadvantages that prevent him or her from concentrating on his or her tasks or from feeling fulfilled at work? 

In an ideal world, we could take the time to listen to everyone in order to create winning conditions for the benefit of all. Educational or work environments face constraints that sometimes make it difficult to manage these realities on a “case by case” basis. If your organization is not yet agile enough to accommodate these individual realities, we recommend that you adopt more general policies on two aspects that can make a huge difference in facilitating the inclusion of neurodiversity: sensory accommodations, and flexibility in scheduling and attendance in the workplace. This won’t solve all the social issues related to autism, of course. But organizations that have been agile in dealing with neuroatypical realities have seen the great potential of these individuals.

I notice a colleague behaving compulsively, being less communicative than usual and being rigid. What is going on? What can I do about it? 

When faced with overload, stress and fatigue, neuroatypical people, like any human being, adopt compensation strategies. Often, these strategies consist of refocusing on oneself or finding a familiar and comforting universe. These behaviours are sometimes exacerbated in individuals who are on the autism spectrum, to the point where rigidity, withdrawal, or a focus on a specific activity (the so-called “special interest”) are associated with the diagnosis. Similar traits can be found in adults with ADHD. 

If your colleague stops communicating, seems particularly inflexible in her attitude and assertions, or engages in compulsive behavior, it may be a sign of overload and burnout. Why not address the issue with the person, pointing out the behaviour in a supportive manner, or ask if he or she would like to take a break? In some workplaces, allowing the person to momentarily indulge his or her special interest could go a long way toward well-being and productivity. 

Sometimes rigidity and withdrawal are directly related to a rigid work environment. Dialogue can give way to conflict between the employer and the worker. The parties involved will start to infer bad intentions, test their limits and may even feel persecuted. Ideally, staff working in HR departments should be familiar with neurodivergent realities in order to defuse potential tense situations. If the organization is faced with constraints that cannot be changed quickly, a rational explanation will be much more appreciated than a simple refusal. 

Overall, the inclusion of neuroatypical people depends on aeareness: it is a matter of accepting this difference, of not stubbornly trying to fit it into the neuronormative mold, in short, of respecting these specific realities and learning to interact on a case by case basis.

Pour en apprendre plus:

-En quelques minutes

-Pour le plaisir (fictions, films TV, jeu etc.) 

  • Adam, un film écrit et réalisé par Max Mayer, 2009
  • Adora and the Distance, une bande dessiné de Marc Bernardin illustré par Ariela Kristantina et Bryan Valenza, 2022
  • An Aspie Life, un jeu vidéo indépendant de Bradley Hennessey et Joe Watson, 2018, disponible gratuitement sur Steam
  • Atypique, une série télé de Robia Rashid, 2017, disponible sur Netflix
  • La différence invisible, un roman graphique de Julie Dachez et Mademoiselle Caroline, 2016

-Lectures suggérées

  • L’autisme, une autre intelligence: diagnostic, cognition et support des personnes autistes sans déficience intellectuelle, de Laurent Mottron, 2004, Éditions Mardaga, 238 p.
  • L’autisme expliqué aux non autistes, de Brigitte Harrisson et Lise St-Charles, 2017, Éditions Trécarré
  • The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome de Tony Attwood, 2008, Éditions Jessica Kingsley, 400 p.
  • Dans ta bulle! Les autistes ont la parole, écoutons-les!, de Julie Dachez, Éditions Marabout, 252 p.
  • Questions sensorielles et perceptives dans l’autisme et le syndrome d’Asperger, de Olga Bodgashina, 2012, 371 p.