Directions: Neurodiversity—Flipping the Narrative

Dawn Cassidy, M.Ed., CFLE, Director of Family Life Education
/ CFLE Network, Summer 2019

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Inclusion is a moral, social, and economic imperative. We all lose when human potential is squandered.
Dr. Nancy Doyle

Have you ever heard of the word neurodiversity? I hadn’t until I heard Nancy Doyle, Ph.D., a British psychologist and neurodiversity expert, give a talk titled “Coaching as a Disability Accommodation for Neurodiverse Adults” at the Family Life Coaching Association conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her keynote presentation introduced me to a whole new way of thinking about how we as a society view and treat people diagnosed with autism, ADHD, Tourette syndrome, and other neurodiverse conditions. Dr. Doyle commented on the need to “flip the narrative” and consider the ways we view and talk about people with neurodiversity. Her goal is to “work towards a future where all people with neurodiversity will be able to maximize their potential and work to their strengths.”

In her presentation Dr. Doyle explained that within one person there usually is not too much diversity in cognitive ability. Most people are “neurotypical” in that their verbal and visual skills and memory capacity are relatively equal. About two-thirds will score in the average range on all abilities, a minority will score above, and a minority will score below. Their scores, if plotted on a graph, will form a reasonably flat line.

However, those with conditions such as autism, ADHD, and Tourette syndrome tend to vary enormously in their cognitive ability. Their line on a graph will reflect peaks and valleys. They may have exceptional memory but poor processing skills, or competent visual skills but weaker memory. Dr. Doyle referred to this as “within-person” diversity; and the diversity between an individual’s strengths and weaknesses is statistically significant. Most diagnostic tools focus on identifying the valleys, or low points, and give less or little attention to identifying or recognizing peaks or strengths. And as a society, we have a tendency to view neurodiverse people relative to the valleys as well. Yet the areas in which they excel represent true gifts and exceptional abilities that offer tremendous value to society.

As an occupational and organizational psychologist, Dr. Doyle works with both neurodiverse people and employers to identify opportunities for successful collaboration. Her organization, Genius Within, supports clients to improve productivity at work through diagnosis and coaching of neurodiverse conditions. She applies a “carrot versus stick” approach to improving the employment rate of neurodiverse people by enabling employers to see the benefit and value a person with neurodiversity can bring to the workplace rather than viewing hiring as an issue of compliance. I encourage you to check out her website at geniuswithin.co.uk.

Dr. Doyle helped create the A&E series The Employables. The series follows job seekers with conditions such as autism or Tourette syndrome as they work to overcome obstacles and find fulfilling, long-term employment that capitalizes on their strengths.

Episodes of The Employables also include the families of these neurodiverse job seekers and the impact their conditions have on their family life. They are clearly loving and committed parents but struggle with the reality of having children in their early 30s who are still somewhat dependent on them, and often still living at home. They provide tremendous support by going with them to job fairs, practicing phone calls and interviewing, and comforting them through disappointments and frustrations. The systemic impact of their children’s neurodiverse conditions is clearly portrayed.

One particular episode of The Employables follows Nathan, who has high-functioning autism, as he works to find employment. Nathan has an unusual interest and aptitude for road maps and traffic lights. After an awkward face-to-face interview, Nathan is given a test: read through a large stack of papers, including a narrative and multiple tables, graphs, and photos, and determine what could be done to improve the safety and efficiency of an intersection.

After what appears to be a few hours of review, Nathan makes some recommendations, most notably, the installation of a roundabout. The employer smiles and shares that the company recently paid a consulting firm several thousand dollars to provide the exact same recommendation, adding that they had to wait several weeks for the report. As a result of the test, Nathan is offered a job and accommodations are made for his workspace, such as lighting. Nathan is given an opportunity to use his strengths and contribute to society, and the employer has found an employee who can efficiently and uniquely support the work of the organization.

Viewing this show and listening to the information shared by Dr. Doyle in her presentation was inspiring. Her approach resonated with me because of the focus on strengths, a focus that is shared with the practice of Family Life Education. A foundational principle of Family Life Education is that it is strengths-based and recognizes and embraces the capacity and abilities within people.

The National Council on Family Relations has published research relevant to families and disability, most notably, a February 2014 special issue of Family Relations: Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies titled “Special Issue on Families and Disabilities.”

There are many Certified Family Life Educators (CFLE) who work with individuals and families struggling with various conditions and disabilities, and we will highlight some of that work in the fall issue of the newsletter CFLE Network, on the theme “Families and Disabilities.” I had planned this issue before hearing Dr. Doyle, and now I am further motivated to consider other ways to focus on the strengths of individuals with disabilities and neurological conditions within Family Life Education programming. I plan to reach out to CFLEs and NCFR members in hopes of identify more positive, strengths-based, and diversity-appreciative terminology. I welcome your input as well.