Why neurodivergence is also an LGBTQ+ topic
As part of Out Leadership US Summit 2020, I hosted a groundbreaking panel on neurodivergence and the LGBTQ+ business community.

As part of Out Leadership US Summit 2020, I had the opportunity to host a fascinating and groundbreaking panel on Thursday November 12th on neurodivergence (see replay here) and the LGBTQ+ business community. The panelists included Lydia X. Z. Brown, a disabled and queer policy advocate, attorney, and expert, Wesley Strickland, Principal, Business & Product Compliance at E*TRADE by Morgan Stanley, a gay neurodivergent individual and John Marble, also gay and diagnosed with autism, Founder of Pivot Neurodiversity – a consulting firm on neurodivergence inclusion in the workplace – and a former Obama appointee.

The objective of our discussion was to explore the intersection of LGBTQ+ and neurodivergence and what more can be done to address the topic in corporate culture with voices that identify as neurodivergent. Neurodivergence remains a taboo topic often clouded by stereotypes and prejudice, based upon past and current stigmatization (we discussed whether the 1988 movie Rain Man provided a bad image of autism or not).

In addition, neurodivergent people experience discrimination and harassment in and out of the workplace because of these prejudices. There are also higher incarceration rate of those who are neurodivergent (see this recent article in Psychology Today). As most people who do not fit into the “norm”, neurodivergent people are often bullied, shunned, treated as outcasts, or are otherwise looked down upon as not equal with other human beings.

Lydia started this conversation by defining neurodivergence indicating that it casts a rather large net from people with ADHD to individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Neurodivergence refers to a vast array of experiences, identities, conditions – learning disabilities, cognitive disabilities, intellectual and developmental disabilities, psychosocial disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, etc

Lydia also highlighted that gender identities which differ from biological sex (non-cisgender identities) appear to be more common among neurodivergent people and laid out possible reasons. On explanation is that if you are positioned to question “norms” than you are automatically more willing to embrace a non-conforming gender identity. Similarly, an international study published in 2018 this year revealed that nearly 70 percent of autistic respondents identify as non-heterosexual — more than double the rate in the general population. There is growing evidence that there are more neurodivergent people in the LGBTQ+ community making it an important topic for our community which often has a tendency to focus on the needs of the mainstream.

Wes discussed how autism, which he himself was diagnosed with, has evolved from a medical condition to just another element of diversity. This strength-based approach with a growth mindset is partially attributed to the increasing focus on neurodiversity. Neurodiversity refer to the biological and neurological reality that people’s minds are not identical; and the philosophy or movement that there is no such thing as a wrong or broken mind, and that all kinds of minds are OK. The older professionals working on autism were taught identity first from a deficit model and are now taught strength-based models with a “person first focus”. Rain Man (an autistic character named Raymond played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 movie), as an example, was largely non-verbal and a savant which is only one possible configuration in a multitude which are under the autism umbrella.

As a consequence of this new focus on individuals rather than finding a “cure”, Businesses are beginning to realize that autistic individuals are actually contributing to organizations in ways that are aiding in innovation and changing the status quo.

An aspect which was really interesting in our discussion with Lydia, Wes and John was to observe the parallels with the LGBTQ+ struggle whether it is socialization through television and media, early adopters, court cases affirming neurodivergent clients, and organizations who are commoditizing the strengths of those on the spectrum. Perhaps more strikingly was the fact that both Wes and John described their “coming out” as autistic people in the workplace.

Turning to the relevance for business, Wes and John went over some of the major obstacles neurodivergent people – with a focus on autism which they know best – meet when in hiring, retention and promotion in the workplace and the steps companies can take to align their procedures and practices with neurodivergent needs such as:

  1. Interviewing: Between artificial-intelligence based hiring and “gut-checks” a lot of neurodivergent individuals are weeded out of the candidate pool when they actually have the skills needed for the job. A candidate who does not make eye contact during an interview, something common with autistic candidates – is mistakenly interpreted as being “shifty” making it impossible to get to the next round of interviews. Inclusive hiring begins with making interviews more neurodivergent friendly. Companies should be mindful of who they are interviewing;
  2. Career progression. Wes shared that he was often criticized for struggling so much with public speaking and with “tailoring communications to the right audience”. This came up in his performance review for several years. Once he was diagnosed with autism, expectations started changing with a renewed focus on his achievements rather than his perceived “shortcomings”;
  3. Feedback. The 360-degree feedback process as an example is based upon feedback from neurotypical peers who may or may not know neurodivergent may have a different way of looking at things. Someone with ADHD might be able to take calculated risks, someone with autism might pay close attention to detail, important traits but their lack of awareness of politics, or unwritten rules plague their 360 feedbacks hiding their performance;
  4. Retention: Most autistic people switch jobs often because they do not feel included or they don’t see pathways for advancement. This is a clear need to educate people on neurodiversity because it is often the elephant in the room when it comes to teams, and all sort of other relevant factors for employee engagement and retention.

The panel also discussed the need to bring in neurodivergent people rather than “experts” to remove the structural barriers to inclusion in the workplace. Wes and John shared their experiences in rolling out trainings on neurodiversity, neurodivergent hiring practices, neurodivergent inclusivity and laying out some scaffolding for organizations to support the neurodivergent community.

The panel concluded by noting that what is good for neurodivergent employees is often good for all the other employees like most universal design concepts which creates another incentive for companies to look at how they accommodate their neurodivergent employees. In the same way that Out Leadership always mentions how LGBTQ+-inclusive companies perform better, it is imperative to celebrate each other’s differences to avoid groupthink, promote innovation and ultimately remain competitive.

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