Neurodiversity Supercharges Innovation
“I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower,” – Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg has been getting her share of headlines lately as she storms the world crusading to help arrest climate change. As she so aptly points out, it is her generation that will pay the price for the catastrophic impact that humans have had on the planet. Her determination, passion, and sometimes welcome bluntness have shone a light on an issue that all of us had better start caring about.
However, while I strongly support her efforts, it is not that issue that I wish to discuss. As she has received more and more negative attention from those that would deny both the existence of climate change and her right and ability to speak about it, it has surfaced that Ms. Thunberg has Aspergers, something these critics have mocked her for. The above quote is in part her response to these critics and it is her assertion that she has a superpower that has inspired me and that dovetails with our mission at Sliding Doors.
Her response is not only a sign of her self-confidence and maturity but also highlights an important topic in both education and the workforce – that of neurodiversity. As defined by Wikipedia, “Neurodiversity is a neologism popularized in the late 1990s by Australian sociologist Judy Singer and American journalist Harvey Blume to refer to variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions in a non-pathological sense. Neurodiversity advocates denounce the framing of autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurodevelopmental disorders as requiring medical intervention to "cure" or "fix" them and instead promote support systems, such as inclusion-focused services, accommodations, communication and assistive technologies, occupational training, and independent living support.” In other words, advocates work to have these individuals recognized, not as having a disability, but rather a different way of approaching the world that has both strengths and weaknesses.
I don’t think many would argue against neurodiverse individuals receiving the same rights as neurotypical people, especially when it comes to education. However, I am not sure how many people understand that this crusade goes beyond just advocating for individual rights. As Ms. Thunberg points out, “being different is a superpower.” It is a superpower that can help drive innovation and solve the world’s problems. Sadly though, our educational system and by consequence our workforce is not harnessing the power of these individuals.
I should point out before I go any further – this article is meant as a jumping off point, not a deep dive into the history of education and the need for neurodiversity. That would require a book! Hmmm…
Anyway, at the time of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of our current public education system, our goal was to create workers to populate factories and offices. We had an “assembly line” mentality with little emphasis placed on critical thinking and problem solving in our schools. Many might challenge that assertion, pointing to the space race as an example of how our education system did in fact promote innovation. I would argue though that much of that innovation came from immigrants such as Albert Einstein, who is rumored to have been a poor student and dyslexic, and Werner von Braun, who was said to have not been good in physics and math in school.
To achieve this, schools were, and still are, designed for the masses, rewarding those who can master a broad range of topics, perform well on standardized timed tests, and master the art of class participation, not to mention those who were born into the right race, gender, and socioeconomic level. This is mostly assessed through the written word, something that the human brain is not evolutionarily wired to learn (we are only prewired to understand spoken language). In other words, schools produce students with a wide, shallow base of knowledge, who can understand the written word with ease, and have the ability to memorize, rather than synthesize, facts. This has only gotten worse with No Child Left Behind and the increased attention on standardized testing. This has resulted in the weeding out of neurodiverse students who, despite their intelligence, don’t perform well in this model.
Now, while the schools continue to operate this way and we continue to see these neurodiverse students fall out of the pipeline, the needs of industry have rapidly changed from needing workers to innovators. As our factories become more automated and more companies begin to turn to artificial intelligence, the cry from human resource departments is that they need innovators and subject matter experts and that they struggle to find them.
Many would argue that a huge effort is underway to fill the so-called STEM pipeline, citing hackathons, robotics competitions, STEM scholarship programs, etc. I would argue that those will not solve the problem. Why? Because the majority of students who would fill the pipeline and who represent the future innovators, those who are neurodiverse, never get to participate because of a system that does not recognize their strengths. To quote Ms. Thunberg again, “given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower.”
Let’s take dyslexia for example…affecting 15-20% of the population, dyslexia results in the difficulty to learn to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but does not affect general intelligence. Its strengths include seeing the bigger picture, improved pattern recognition, good spatial knowledge, picture thinking, and creativity. So then, how does having dyslexia impact a student’s performance in school? Because students spend approximately double the time on reading as they do on other subjects in their early elementary years, they learn what they can’t do rather than what they can. This leads to a loss of confidence as well as oftentimes being mislabeled as “stupid.” Those that get the help they need often become highly successful while those that don’t face a much dimmer future than their neurotypical counterparts. This results in people with dyslexia falling on a barbell, rather than a bell, curve, with 40% of self-made millionaires, 35% of entrepreneurs, and the myriad of examples of successful people with dyslexia – Richard Branson, Steven Speilberg, and Walt Disney falling on one side and the 33% of high school drop outs and the 48% of the prison population with dyslexia on the other. Can you imagine what would happen to the innovation pipeline if we could shift those on the negative side of the curve over to the other by creating an educational system that played on their strengths?
So how can we do that? I would propose that we need to think of workforce development as a seamless, multi lane highway beginning as early as Kindergarten and created through partnership between after-school programs, universities, and industries. While the school system catches up with the needs of industry, we need to support innovative after-school programing that provides not only the instruction to overcome the weaknesses but also focuses on students’ strengths that then leads into opportunities for scholarships and internships. If we can create and then illuminate these pathways, we will not just guarantee a brighter future for these students but also one for all of us as their neurodiversity supercharges innovation and solves not just climate change but all our challenges in the 21st century and beyond.