Wellbeing and Mental Health

Explainer: What is neurodivergence? Here’s what you need to know

A model of a brain. Many public figures have identified as neurodivergent and highlight neurodiversity’s role in their success.

Many public figures have identified as neurodivergent and highlight neurodiversity’s role in their success. Image: Unsplash/Robina Weermeijer

Kelly McCain
Head, Healthcare Initiatives, World Economic Forum Geneva
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • Neurodiversity is a non-medical umbrella term that includes the conditions autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and ADHD.
  • Teams with neurodivergent professionals can be 30% more productive than those without them. But there is a greater incidence of mental health difficulties like anxiety and depression among neurodiverse individuals.
  • On World Mental Health Day 2022, we look at how employers can be more inclusive and supportive of neurodivergence.

Everyone is different. There is no single "right" way when it comes to how we think, learn and behave. Neurodiversity is a concept that describes these differences, their strengths and their challenges. It is also a social movement working to reduce stigmas around the conditions associated with them.

So what does it mean to be neurodivergent?

What is neurodivergence?

Neurodivergence is a term originally attributed to the 1990s sociologist Judy Singer. It is a non-medical umbrella description of people with variation in their mental functions. Neurodiverse conditions include autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia and ADHD, among others.

In her thesis Neurodiversity: the birth of an idea Singer, who has been diagnosed with autism, proposed that, “Just as the postmodern era sees every once too-solid belief melt into air, even our most taken-for granted assumptions: that we all more or less see, feel, touch, hear, smell, and sort information, in more or less the same way, (unless visibly disabled) – are being dissolved.”

Between 10% and 20% of the global population is considered neurodivergent, according to research from consultancy and auditing firm Deloitte. The term recognizes the fact that certain developmental disorders are normal variations in the brain. And while neurodivergent people may have difficulties, they also have certain strengths.

Teams with neurodivergent professionals in some roles can be 30% more productive than those without them. Inclusion and integration of neurodivergent professionals can also boost team morale, Deloitte reports.

Writing on neurodiversity and workplace opportunity for the World Economic Forum, Nahia Orduña, explains that:

  • Autistic brains are said to be highly creative with exceptional concentration, logic, imagination and visual thought. They also tend to be systematic, meticulous and detailed and share unique insights and perspectives in problem-solving.
  • People with ADHD have great imagination and score higher on creativity tests than non-ADHD people. ADHD people can hyperfocus, which means that while they generally have an attention deficit, they do have a high focus on their area of interest, reports CNN.
  • Dyslexic people have demonstrated the ability to think outside the box: 84% of dyslexic people are above average in reasoning, understanding patterns, evaluating possibilities and making decisions, according to the charity Made by Dyslexia.
A map of the challenges and strengths that come with neurodiversity.
Neurodiversity can be both a challenge and a strength. Image: LSE

Neurodiversity and mental health

While people with neurodiverse conditions have certain strengths, there is also evidence of greater rates of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety among people with autism, dyspraxia and ADHD.

Nearly three in 10 children in the US diagnosed with ADHD have an anxiety disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children with dyspraxia have higher rates of anxiety than children who do not have it, according to studies. While, seven out of 10 autistic people have a mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)s, according to the autism research charity Autistica.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

Neurodivergent individuals in society

Many public figures have identified as neurodivergent and highlight neurodiversity’s role in their success. The entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson said in a recent blog post that, “The world needs a neurodiverse workforce to help try and solve some of the big problems of our time.” He has been open about the benefits of his dyslexia diagnosis in terms of creative thinking and business skills, referring to the condition as his “superpower” in a recent interview with the Times.

Other prominent neurodivergent individuals include the Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins, who has Asperger’s syndrome, and described the condition as a “great gift”, according to the Washington Post. Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, said autism gives her a commitment to truth. “I don’t usually follow social coding and so therefore, I go my own way,” she told PBS NewsHour in 2019.

How can employers integrate neurodiverse employees into the workplace

While many companies are recognizing the benefits of hiring neurodivergent employees in the US, the majority of people with autism (85%) are unemployed, according to Deloitte, compared with 4.2% of the overall population. According to Harvard Medical School, employers can make their workplaces more neurodiverse-friendly by:

  • Using a clear communication style.
  • Informing people about workplace/social etiquette.
  • Trying to give advance notice if plans are changing, and providing a reason for the change.
  • Asking a person’s individual preferences, needs, and goals, without making assumptions.
  • Being kind and patient.
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