The double-bind of discrimination: how stereotypes limit creative opportunities for the neurodiverse community 

Many neurologically diverse workers can feel excluded from certain career paths due to stereotypes that place people into particular boxes. “People who are dyslexic are creative, but may struggle with writing so shouldn’t be a copywriter or journalist”, “autism means you’ll be a great computer scientist, but shouldn’t go into people facing jobs”, “ADHD means you’ll struggle with jobs that require long periods of concentration”. 

There is absolutely something to be said about playing to someone’s inherent strengths to help drive innovation and creativity (read reports like “The Value of Dyslexia” by EY and Google’s Google Cloud’s Autism Career Program) but shoehorning people into particular roles removes an individual’s autonomy to choose the role they would like to take on – which, on top of the frustration of having your aspirations and job prospects narrowed, can lead to job dissatisfaction and low productivity. 

Stereotypes and “othering” can be incredibly harmful as it creates a double-bind of discrimination: it shapes how people are perceived by others and also how that group perceives themselves. Stereotypes don’t reflect the diverse passions, desires and strengths of the neurodiverse community. 

“Feeling excluded and invisible is typical for neurodivergent people. Pop culture narratives make this worse. We are often infantilised or portrayed as unemotional (almost robotic) people who love tech or who struggle to triumphantly overcome everyday woes. Reducing us to stereotypes and “othering” us shapes how we are perceived by others and by ourselves. The result is an overwhelming number of autistic people who feel isolated, misunderstood, and discriminated against in life and at work,” wrote Ludmila Praslova in their article “Autism Doesn’t Hold People Back at Work. Discrimination Does” for the Harvard Business Review.

The negative impact of internalising stereotypes 

As someone who is dyslexic, Praslova’s statement massively resonated with me. As a child, I internalised certain harmful stereotypes like being a “bad writer”, being “slow” or “stupid”. But despite learning a range of coping strategies and doing a lot of work to understand what works best for me, these gremlins stayed with me for a long time and would rear their head at work as panic attacks and anxiety. 

As a journalist, I would feel sick if an editor pointed out a spelling mistake. When I spotted a typo in an email to a client I would panic that I might come across as incompetent. I would beat myself up because I felt like an article would take me so much longer to plan, write and fact-check. I would dread transcribing interviews or just relying on my messy notes if a meeting or session had not been recorded. Phrases like “not trying hard enough”, “lazy”, “bad at my job” would reverberate around my head for hours, despite the fact that I was performing well.

No one should ever feel shame about making a spelling mistake. No one should ever feel shame for having a slower writing or reading speed. No one should be made to feel like they’re not enough, just because their brain functions, learns and processes information differently. Instead, workplace environments and management styles need to be adapted to accommodate different ways of thinking. 

“It was only when I found a neurodivergent community that I discovered just how nuanced and diverse we are. We are creative, funny, sensitive, empathetic, accomplished people who help one another work through lifetimes of self-blame and self-hate. Through these relationships, I’ve realized that we are not the problem. Rather, it is miseducation surrounding what it means to be autistic and neurodivergent — especially in the workplace,” Praslova wrote.

Over my 8-year career in communication and the media, I have learnt that there is also so much more to working in storytelling than perfect grammar, spelling or sentence structures. It’s about emotions, making the reader feel, it’s about empathy, it’s about persistence, it’s about lateral thinking, it’s about listening, it’s about seeing things from a different point of view, it’s about expressing complex ideas in an accessible way, it’s about learning, it’s about data analysis and many, many other things.

We need to do more to show the breadth of skills required for different jobs, while also creating diverse teams that support each other and don’t all think in the same way. After all, no one is good at everything and that’s okay. 

How to remove barriers: 

Despite the fact that 1 in 7 people in the UK are neurodivergent, our workplaces and hiring processes have been designed in favour of neurotypical people. A recent study by the Institute of Leadership and Management, found that half of leaders and managers would not employ a neurodiverse person.

We need to break down barriers to entry for many roles that may intimidate or discriminate against neurodiverse talent. One of the many ways we can do this is to build up the skillset, knowledge and confidence of neurologically diverse people looking to enter the workforce. This is where the social enterprise, inclusive consultancy and training platform Bua comes in. 

“Following the social model of disability, we believe that organisations need even more education and knowledge in order to be positively inclusive to neurodiverse people. However, the reality of our world is that there’s so many barriers to entry for neurodiverse people before employment: education through school and into uni, job applications etc.” said Caitriona Snell, founder of Bua.

“Bua offers free online training to support even more neurodiverse people into creative industries. The creative industries, like many, are sorely lacking in inclusion and diversity and desperate to improve. By working in an accessible way to upskill neurodiverse people with previously unrecognised creative potential, we can support more people into sustainable employment,” she added.

Over the past 2 months, More Diverse Voices has been helping Bua build an accessible “PR and Communication”. The course provides a foundational overview of the public relations industry, core skills such as writing a press release, pitching to journalists and creating a communication strategy. 

I love that Bua is breaking down the barriers to entry into creative careers that many neurologically diverse workers may have been excluded from due to stereotypes that place people into particular boxes and overlook creative potential.  There are many studies that show the link between neurodiversity and creativity. For example, this study found that although autistic people may come up with less ideas in total, those ideas are much more creative. Studies linking creativity to ADHDdyslexia and other commonly overlooked neurodiversities (dyspraxia, Tourettes and many more) are also extremely common.

Three suggestions from Bua to make your workplace more inclusive to neurodiverse talent 

1. The recruitment process

Today’s recruitment processes are stuck in the dark ages: send a list of your formal qualifications and write about your experiences, maybe send some examples of work through. Attend an interview or assessment day for a job you may not get. Just from these few examples, a number of underrepresented characteristic people would be at a disadvantage. For example, formal qualifications rely on formal education, which is typically set up to support neurotypicals and therefore may not be listed on a neurodiverse application. 

How to tackle this? One way is to look beyond formal education and use task-based assessment to recruit your future employees. Ethical & predictive recruitment platform BeApplied have a wealth of research about why you should ditch the CV and suggestions on better replacements. 

2. Inclusive cultures

In some parts of the creative industries, there is a high number of neurodiverse people. Maybe it’s the same for other underrepresented characteristics. But diversity does not equal inclusion. 

Working with your organisation to assess inclusion is imperative to maximising the full potential of all of your creativity. 

How to tackle this? Start with assessing where your employees feel the organisation is in terms of inclusion and make adjustments from there. There are many tools that can help facilitate this such as CultureAmp, Platypus, HiBob etc.

3. Reasonable adjustments

In the UK, all employers have access to the government’s Access To Work scheme. This supports ‘reasonable accommodations’ for anyone with a diagnosed disability and/or neurodiversity at work. 

How to tackle this? While ‘invisibly disabled’ people may not seem to need adjustments, simple things can be helpful: a subscription to an accurate transcribing tool online, noise-cancelling headphones, a static desk space with different lighting. All of these are reasonable and within reach for employers through the Access To Work scheme. 

Bua also offers consulting for organisations to be more inclusive to disabled and neurodiverse people. Get in touch to find out more.