Spotlight: Neurodiversity: Yes, Advocate…But Also, Celebrate!

The attitude toward inclusion for people with neurodiverse brain function is changing, for the better. Slowly but surely the capabilities and talents of those considered neurodiverse are being recognized and sought after, rather than simply accommodated.  Championing this movement is the Stanford Neurodiversity Project (SNP) in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, led by Dr. Lawrence Fung:

“Neurodiversity is a concept that regards individuals with differences in brain function and behavioral traits as part of normal variation in the human population.”

This view reflects the Theory of Multiple Intelligences which suggests that grading intelligence only by IQ – mostly logical and linguistics skills – is too narrow, leaving out those with exquisite gifts in other categories including musical-rhythmic acumen, spatial intelligence, kinesthetic or bodily knowledge, interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, as well as naturalist or nature intelligence. This is neurodiversity. And it is to be celebrated.

Once referring only to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), neurodiversity now includes other conditions such as dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.  It is the mission of the SNP to promote these individuals and maximize the potential of neurodiversity in society, and specifically in educational settings and the workplace.

Corporations have documented that neurodiverse individuals’ unique skills, talents and ways of thinking have improved bottom lines through innovation and higher productivity. Attention to detail, out of the box thinking, and tendency to dwell deep in their topics of interest make up part of this potential, but perhaps the most impactful is the general increase in employee morale when neurodiverse workers are part of a team.

To promote neurodiversity through education, service, research, and advocacy, Dr. Fung and his team have designed three projects to put SNP’s mission into action:

  1. The Neurodiversity Awareness and Education Initiative,
  2. the Neurodiversity at Work and Wellness,
  3. and the Neurodiversity Independent Living Skills Initiative.

Raising awareness of neurodiversity within the Stanford community is the goal of the Neurodiversity Awareness and Education Initiative. Dr. Fung has engaged many departments of the university and other organizations locally, nationally and internationally to participate in discussions about neurodiversity. Hundreds of students, staff and faculty have been trained about best practices related to neurodiversity.  Classes, field trips, peer mentoring and related activities are designed to increase the acceptance of, and boost the positive impact for, neurodiverse students and employees at Stanford.  The Neurodiversity at Work and Wellness Initiative is drawing talented neurodiverse individuals to Stanford as prospective employees. The traditional interview process is set aside while candidates are selected based on skills and abilities.  Not only does this model bring Stanford needed talent, it prepares those on the spectrum for future careers while also training the next generation of professionals to serve the growing neurodiverse population.  Mental health care is offered through SNP’s Adult Neurodevelopment Clinic, also run by Dr. Fung. The Neurodiversity Independent Living Skills Initiative is the latest to be launched and just beginning its initial phase.  It’s a collaboration with Autism Speaks to develop a curriculum for training providers and families on ways to support adults on the spectrum in their goal of independence.

In the business world, rather than simply making room for a small number of special needs workers as a gesture of goodwill, more and more firms are starting to see the inclusion of neurodiverse team members as a competitive advantage. Yet, the unemployment and underemployment rate for those on the spectrum remains incredibly high, with estimates in some categories topping eighty percent.

However, a new undertaking by the SNP is designed to address that gap. The SNP has been awarded three quarters of a million dollars in Adult Transition Research Grant funds from Autism Speaks.  Over a period of three years, through SNP’s Neurodiversity at Work program, Dr. Fung and his team will facilitate the hiring of eighty individuals with autism, providing support not only for the neurodiverse employees, but their employers as well, and throughout the entire hiring and employment cycle. This new study fits perfectly into the mission of the SNP. Of course, quality employment which matches skills and abilities, and with fair market rate compensation, is a cornerstone of financial independence and quality of life for everyone.  Toward this goal the SNP, through the Neurodiversity at Work program, offers resources for success in every component of neurodiverse employment from guidelines for co-workers, mentors and managers, to how a workspace and a workday can be readied for neurodiverse employees.  Utilizing the Stanford Neurodiverse Candidate Registry and the Stanford Neurodiversity Job Bank, the Neurodiversity at Work program facilitates good matches, offers interview and job prep assistance, as well as help in onboarding to a new position. The program also provides support to both neurodiverse employees and their employers and co-workers.

This model of full employment-cycle support for both job seeker and employer will also be implemented in the new SNP study funded by Autism Speaks, which is expected to produce valuable information for replicating best practices in the successful employment of neurodiverse individuals.  As the study unfolds over the next three years, it’s also expected to increase greater understanding, acceptance and, yes…celebration of neurodiversity by neurotypical co-workers and supervisors. 

In the near future, we can all learn more at the Stanford Neurodiversity Summit on March 14th, 2020 and the Neurodiversity Celebration Week, March 14th through the 20th, 2020, with the Stanford Neurodiversity Project (more information).