If you’re honest with yourself, how do you really feel about hiring employees who identify as neurodiverse? You may be well informed about the benefits of having a diverse team, yet 50% of people ‘would not employ someone from one of the neurominorities’ such as people with ADHD and ADD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Autistic people, and people with Tourette’s (Neurodiversity Summary Report 2020).
Active discrimination persists. According to the same report (2020), a survey respondent from the education sector indicates that ‘disabled employees are a burden and drain on the rest of the staff’ and are deliberately excluded from the workplace. Discrimination like this signals, among many things, lack of understanding. Lack of understanding signals anxiety that forecloses opportunity. This anxiety that I am thinking about has to do with how we other what and who we do not think of as ‘like us’ – so we refuse relationship with them. The relationship refusal comes from a place of power where anxiety hides and I want to briefly address this.
First, is to recognise that a certain kind of normativity is being enforced by employers not hiring or by employers not supporting, once hired, neurodiverse people. Anne Waldschmidt (2015, 195) describes two strategies for enforcing normativity and ensuring category conformity: protonormalism and flexible normalism. Protonormalism prescribes ‘strict separation between the normal’ and abnormal, for example, removing disabled people from communities of normal people via isolating institutionalisation.
This strategy is effective for keeping clear boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and can be seen in strategies like refusing to hire anyone who identifies as disabled and thus maintaining a business that is exclusively neurotypical.
The other normative enforcing strategy that Waldschmidt articulates is flexible normalism, which ‘allows people to leave boundary areas of abnormality and return to the centre of society’ (Ibid.), for example, disabled people living in supported housing integrated with non-disabled residents or, for our purposes here, employers hiring diverse thinkers.
Flexible normalism is, as it says on the tin, flexible: the spectrum of normativity can expand its boundaries and presupposes that those on the borders of its boundaries occupy those spaces by chance rather than by, say, forced ejection to said location like masses of unemployed neurodiverse people. That said, ‘normalizing society is tolerant and accepts many escapades’ but its acceptance is not unbounded, for if the sense of security around the centre of what is deemed normal should be breached too quickly or heedlessly, the risk is ‘backlash’ in the form of ‘a return to strategies that emphasise narrow normality zones and fixed boundaries’ (Waldschmidt 2015, 195).
What Waldschmidt does not say is that in what I imagine to be a fear-based return to strict protonormalism is the remarkable power in the position of being one who tolerates and the violence that can be and is enacted with said power as one who tolerates, one who accepts, and thus, one who rejects; this makes for a precarious position for neurodiverse people who risk transgressing by asking for more than is their perceived right to access.
It seems important then that one knows where one stands. Are you inside or are you outside the lines? Do you draw the lines and want to stay inside them? Now, what I want to focus on is the importance of recognising the anxiety present in the above descriptions of normalism and the boundaries that include and exclude.
There is no simple, one-strand approach to ‘fixing’ what ails here. Anxiety is just one way of reading a strand of the problem. But I like to think that employers can reduce their anxiety. To reduce anxiety around hiring and working alongside people who identify as neurodiverse requires acknowledging and accepting difference rather than focusing on difference as a problem, a deficit, something that emerges from the ’the other’; and this leads into thinking relationally.
When someone is different from an identified norm, the so-called different person or ‘not normal’ or ‘atypical’ person, will experience marginalisation across their lives in personal, professional, and academic settings. Marginalisation doesn’t happen in a vacuum; marginalisation emerges out of cultural values that enact, for example, protonarmalism.
And those cultural values from which emerge the boundaries that define us and them are designed by all of us – the people who came before us such as our parents and their parents and their parents and so on. Then we unwittingly uphold cultural values, blind to the boundaries that thread through relationships, relationships like those at work, that reflect who gets employment opportunities and who doesn’t.
Ask yourself: do you fit inside the culturally drawn lines and if so, do you help uncritically, unthinkingly draw the lines that include and exclude? What would happen if we could see that we are all in relationship with these lines we draw pretty much all the time?
If we put our chalk down for a moment and stepped back from the lines we have traced around work life, personal life, wherever, we might be able to take in more of the view rather than seeing small slices of the world we each inhabit.
Perhaps, stepping back, we can begin to better identify how we get uncomfortable, who makes us uncomfortable and why – what makes our fingers itch with anxiety to grab the chalk and get back to those lines we like to draw.
I sometimes notice my fingers twitch and work to still myself; I try to stay with the discomfort long enough to get curious, to be open to my role in drawing lines and the power I have or don’t have to redraw them. I do have power and so do you.
I think people too often deny the power they have because changing a known system in which I am, for example, quite comfortable, means I will wonder if I’ll remain comfortable or, terrifyingly, if I face unknowns regarding my comfort, my role, my identity. If unthought about, anxiety enters, tensions cannot be tolerated but must be dissolved by dissolution into reductive, disparate categories and thus strict boundaries are enforced.
Ultimately, this at-a-glance article is nudging readers to pause and think and to nudge their employers and colleagues, friends and associates to pause and think rather than to unwittingly maintain protonormative boundaries; to encourage ourselves and others to not reductively and fearfully collapse neurodiverse people into the ‘other’ who we then think we are not in relationship with. People with the power to hire or influence hiring are responsible for reflecting on their roles in perpetuating boundaries that marginalise many rather ordinary and some gifted and talented people. Those of us who do not hire or influence hiring, such as myself, have the same responsibility and need to speak up and about these uncritically maintained boundaries that are cultural relics, antiquated ways of unthinking that require, as part of the antidote, relational thinking and the courage to do so.
Neurodiversity Summary Report. 2020. The Institute of Leadership & Management. From https://www.institutelm.com/resourceLibrary/workplace-neurodiversity-the-power-of-difference.html. Accessed on 20 February 2023.
Waldschmidt, Anne. 2015. “Who is Normal? Who is Deviant? ‘Normality’ and ‘Risk’ in Genetic Diagnostics and Counseling.” In Foucault and the Government of Disability, edited by Shelley Tremain, 191-207.
Mia consults on and provides training in the areas of inclusion, neurodiversity, and wellbeing for This is Milk, informing policies and procedures, employer culture, accessible training, employee relations, and employee mental health concerns.
Mia is a qualified, accredited therapist with a private practice in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is trained in group analysis and is a tutor with the post-graduate counselling diploma at the University of Edinburgh. She has lived experience and academic expertise in disability, neurodiversity, and mental health issues.