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Diversity Day lunch lecture provided insight into neurodiversity

'We need to be more open and understanding about neurodiversity on the work floor'

In the context of Diversity Day on 3 October 2023, the online lunchtime lecture 'Neurodiversity at the Workplace and the Lived Experiences of Neurodivergent Researchers in STEM' took place. Prof. Amanda Kirby, Prof. Sarah Rankin and NWO Executive Board member Arfan Ikram were the speakers.

Why a lunchtime lecture on neurodiversity?

NWO strives for an inclusive, diverse, open, sustainable and safe work environment in science, but also for itself on the work floor at both NWO and the NWO Institutes. It is possible to learn from each other in such a work environment. And with a diverse group of employees, with different perspectives and skills, you can achieve a better considered and therefore stronger result. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that companies with a more diverse workforce and people with different skills perform better. However, that only applies if the organisation has an inclusive culture. Therefore, knowing and understanding each other is vital.

Besides differences in gender, ethnicity, age and socioeconomic position, attention for neurodiversity is also important. This lunchtime lecture therefore provided an introduction to neurodiversity terminology, why it is essential for organisations to take neurodiversity into account and which steps they can take to become neuroinclusive.

The significance of neurodiversity

Neurodiversity concerns our brains and how these differ from person to person. That is part of human variation. We all think, move, act, process information and communicate differently. In fact, twenty percent of us think differently than the average person. We call that neurodivergent. It is an umbrella term that covers all forms of differently structured brains. This includes forms of autism, ADHD and dyslexia but many other things too. Furthermore, our brains are not static and are continuously developing. You can, for example, develop dyslexia at a later age.

People who are neurodivergent are often still simply seen as people with a disorder or deficiency. Prof. Sara Rankin knows from personal experience that this often leads to uncertainty, a poor self-image and even depression. Prof. Amanda Kirby called for caution in using labels such as autism and ADHD and the term 'normal'. By stating that the functioning of the brains of most people is normal, you automatically say that other types of brain are not normal. That gives rise to stigmatisation. Instead, it is preferable to talk about people with a neurotypical or neurodivergent brain.

Kirby talked about the neurodiversity approach: we do not view differently structured brains as a disorder, but instead examine the possibilities of a person with a brain that works differently than the neurotypical brain. The neurodiversity approach invites us to examine the sum total of a person’s possibilities.

How can we be neuroinclusive on the work floor?

First of all, it is important to look at the person instead of the label. So; who is your employee and what are their capacities and needs? Recognise the differences. For example, people with the same diagnosis often have different symptoms. However, you often see an overlap too, such as three out of ten people with dyslexia also have ADHD (see figure 1).

In addition, it should be understood that no single way of working suits everyone. Everybody needs a different type of support. The advice to line managers is to make this discussable. Ask about preferences and needs. And regularly talk about how things are going. Finally, good support is needed in the organisation. Make sure that employees know where and from whom they can obtain support. And apply a neurodiversity approach to examine what somebody can do. ADHD, for instance, has disadvantages but also major advantages (see figure 2). Ultimately, it is about the person concerned and where their skills lie.

In the end, managers are responsible for creating conditions that enable neurodivergent people to function optimally at work. Or, as NWO Executive Board member Arfan Ikram put it: "Successful diversity and inclusion will only be achieved if those who have a managerial role make an active, visible and honest effort."
Together, we can ensure a more neuroinclusive organisation, even if it is by simply becoming aware that no two people have the same brain, everybody is different and so nobody is 'normal'.


To create more awareness about neurodiversity on the work floor and about how we can become neuroinclusive, Judith Kreukels (Project leader Diversity and Inclusion for NWO-I) and Anneke Bloemen (Project leader Diversity and Inclusion for NWO) are looking for input from colleagues who identify themselves as neurodivergent or have knowledge about neurodiversity.
Would you like to participate in this group? Then please send an email to Judith Kreukels 
The first meeting will be organised shortly.

Text: Judith Kreukels and Anneke Bloemen

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