This year I’ve been contacted by several large organisations wanting to know whether we (The Positivity Institute) offer solutions to help tap the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace, as well as coaching services for neurodivergent individuals. After a quick call-out to our Associates, I discovered that several had been coaching professionals who: 1) self-identified as neurodiverse; or 2) displayed neurodivergent traits that were noticeably influencing their performance and/or wellbeing.
I realised then that despite having a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, I knew very little about the specifics of supporting neurodivergent individuals or nurturing the benefits of neurodiversity in organisations. I had worked with young children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in my clinical training; however, adult ADHD was not part of the curriculum at the time. Our studies on autism were limited to a narrow sliver of the spectrum, which excluded autistic professionals. Dyslexia was something that you only studied if you went into Educational Psychology, not Clinical psychology. The general message was that neurodivergence was a disorder to be fixed rather than a natural variation in the human mind that we could support to help people thrive. Given that ‘thriving’ sits at the heart of my work in positive psychology, I resolved to update my knowledge in this rapidly emerging and evolving field.
Leveraging my “signature strengths” of curiosity and love of learning (viacharacter.org), I advised our Associate Team that our next Journal Club (which we hold bi-monthly) would be on the topic of neurodiversity and coaching. After a brief literature review, I discovered that there was little published on the topic when using the search terms “coaching” and “neurodiversity”. At the recommendation of one of my Senior Coaching Psychology colleagues (Stephen Palmer) I sought out the work of Prof. Nancy Doyle from the UK, who is considered a leading expert in the neurodiversity space. I downloaded Nancy’s article “Neurodiversity at Work” (published in 2020), which then became the article of choice for our upcoming Journal Club.
After sharing Nancy’s article in our monthly e-newsletter I was contacted by a current University of Sydney Coaching Masters Student Rebecca Kornmehl, who offered insights into coaching for neurodiversity, based on her experience of coaching neurodivergent professionals as well as her own lived experience. Since then, Rebecca and I have been contemplating how coaching psychology can take a neuroaffirmative stance to help individuals, teams and organisations thrive. We decided to co-author a brief blog on the topic as an introduction for others seeking to make a positive difference in this space. But first up some questions that I put to Rebecca to help me learn more…
Suzy: What exactly is Neurodiversity?
Rebecca: Neurodiversity simply refers to natural variations in the human brain that are an integral part of biodiversity. Just as we understand ecological diversity to be important to the earth’s wellbeing, neurodiversity advocates argue that neurological diversity helps our species to flourish.
We can thank Australian Sociologist Judith Singer for coining the term ‘neurodiversity’ in her 1998 undergraduate thesis as a call to recast complex disabilities as minority identities instead of pathologies (Singer J., 1999 in Chapman & Botha, 2022, p.2) and Harvey Blume for popularising the term in his 1998 Atlantic article ‘Neurodiversity’. Blume advocated for a movement “away from notions of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ cognition” and towards acceptance of neurocognitive variation (Chapman & Botha, 2022, p. 2). Today, you’ll typically see the term neurodiversity used in the context of this social justice movement towards acceptance of all neurotypes.
Suzy: Neurodiverse vs Neurodivergent vs Neurominority: How do we distinguish between these look-alike terms?
Rebecca: These are great distinctions to explore! To pre-empt confusion, it’s worth noting that the terminology in the neurodiversity space is still evolving but for the time being the adjective ‘neurodiverse’ has two meanings. It’s most commonly used to describe the fact that we are a neurodiverse species, i.e., there is neurocognitive variation between individual humans. However, the term ‘neurodiverse’ can also be used to describe diversity within an individual. This alternative use of the term ‘neurodiverse’ is intended to capture the statistically significant variation between neurocognitive strengths (or peaks) and executive function difficulties (or troughs) that sets neurominorities apart from the predominant neurotype (Doyle, 2020). This characteristic is known as the ‘spiky profile’ of a neurodivergent individual.
The terms ‘neurodivergent individual’ and ‘neurominority’ both refer to someone whose cognition deviates from a given society’s norm. They can therefore be used interchangeably; however, neurominority is a more “neutral and statistically accurate” term (Doyle, 2020, p. 110).
Suzy: What is a successful outcome when coaching for neurodiversity? How is success defined?
Rebecca: I love this question. You’re challenging my assumption that we would answer this the same way! In my view, ‘success’ is both an individualised and collective concept. It is less about concrete outcomes (though one might use these to track progress) and more about freedom to pursue one’s potential with care for the broader implications of one’s choices, regardless of neuro-status. Dallman, Williams and Villa (2022) touch on this concept obliquely in their paper, Nerodiversity-Affirming Practices are a Moral Imperative for Occupational Therapy.
Suzy: Why is this so relevant now?
Rebecca: As our society becomes increasingly aware of the issues facing minority and marginalised groups, there is a groundswell of support for equal rights, dignity and opportunity. At the same time, organisations are realising the benefits of diversity and inclusion for the performance and wellbeing of their workforces. This dually motivated movement means that it’s now highly relevant to consider the benefits of including and accommodating individuals who “participate, think, and experience in vastly and beautifully different ways” (Dallman et al., 2022, p. 1).
Suzy: What do Evidence-Based Coaches & Workplace L&D Professionals need to know?
Rebecca: Context accounted for, it is my view that neurominorities face a range of challenges that are similar in nature to people with the predominant neurotype; however, dissimilar in extremity. As such, the skills, theories and models from coaching psychology should be equally applicable provided the coach applies them with extra sensitivity to the coachee’s heightened (or dulled) experience with themselves, others and the world. Nevertheless, there are some nuances to coaching neurominorities, as follows. Those who are keen to work in the neurodiversity space would do well to:
- question our own assumptions around neuro-normative goals, i.e., goals deemed worthwhile by people with the predominant neurotype (Dallman et al., 2022)
- cultivate epistemic humility out of respect for the first-hand knowledge of our neurodivergent clients (Chapman & Botha, 2022)
- seek to understand neurodiversity as relational and political as well as biological (Chapman & Botha, 2022)
- learn to recognise common neurodivergent traits and challenges, and adapt our coaching micro-skills to accommodate our client’s unique communication preferences
- hone our judgements around when a neurodivergent client would most benefit from coaching vs clinical psychology, occupational therapy or psychiatric support.
Rebecca and I have intentionally crafted this article as an introduction to coaching for neurodiversity as we’re conscious that this is a brand-new space for many of us. We plan to follow it up in the new year with targeted tips for coaches and organisations alike. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your comments or questions below and/or you may like to message us directly.
Chapman, R., & Botha, M. (2022). Neurodivergence‐informed therapy. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology.
Dallman, A. R., Williams, K. L., & Villa, L. (2022). Neurodiversity-Affirming Practices are a Moral Imperative for Occupational Therapy. The Open Journal of Occupational Therapy, 10(2), 1-9.
Doyle, N. (2020). Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. British Medical Bulletin, 135(1), 108.