Different Brains®: Respecting Neurodiversity

By Emmi Deckard

Advocates of the neurodiversity movement argue that neurodiversity is a valuable and natural form of human diversity that should be considered similar to other forms of diversity such as race and sexuality. Since society has often been built around neurotypical brains, neurodiverse individuals can sometimes be excluded. Despite estimates that one in seven people are neurodiverse, little is currently being done to increase the inclusion of neurodiverse individuals in society.

Neurodiversity refers to differences in brain function and behavioral traits. ADHD, dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, and more are included under the umbrella of neurodiversity. 

One place where some progress is being made is in the workplace. Neurodiverse people often have skills such as pattern recognition, memory, creative thinking, problem solving, or mathematical skills that can be of value to the workplace. These skills, as well as a number of other skills that are attributable to different neurodiverse conditions, make neurodiverse people positive contributors in the workplace. 

At NASA, for example, 50% of employees are dyslexic likely because of the spatial awareness and mechanical aptitude associated with dyslexia. Numerous companies like Microsoft and Ford have begun to recognize the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace and are actively taking steps to be more inclusive. As a result, these companies have seen an increase in productivity, innovation and employee engagement. 

Yet, statistics for differences included under the umbrella of neurodiversity show a high risk for unemployment for neurodivergent individuals. This is because other companies choose to focus on how neurodiverse individuals can fail to meet the typical profile that is sought out by employers rather than their valuable skills. Without typical skills such as communication, teamwork, and networking abilities, other capabilities and qualifications may be ignored by employers. 

Hackie Reitman, father to a neurodiverse daughter, founded Different Brains with some of these ideas about the workplace in mind.Different Brains strives to mentor neurodiverse adults to maximize their potential for employment while also fostering the next generation of neurodivergent self-advocates. Different Brains is meant to fill a gap in service to neurodivergent adults, Reitman said. 

“What we do is try to empower our neurodivergent interns, and train [them]… to get exposed to all different skill sets [such as]being in front of a camera, behind the camera, video editing, creative writing, writing, you name it,” Reitman said. 

With the mentorship of Different Brains, interns have gone on to college, to medical school, to become authors, and more.

In a typical workplace, an individual’s differences – such as differences in education, experience, and perspective – might be leveraged for the benefit of the team. Neurodiversity can be leveraged in the same way. Even neurotypical people possess some traits of neurodivergent brains meaning we aren’t so different, Reitman said. 

“It’s not just about Asperger’s and autism – all of our brains are different,” Reitman said. 

Inclusivity in the workplace means the hiring and retaining of neurodiverse individuals. One thing workplaces can do to become more inclusive and accessible is reforming human resource processes to be less biased against neurodiverse individuals. Accommodations – that have easily been made for the masses in light of the pandemic – including flexible hours and remote working could benefit neurodiverse people in the workplace. New technologies also allow for better accommodations.  

Increasing awareness of neurodiversity has also aided this transition in the workplace. 

Different Brains is also working to increase the awareness of neurodiversity through its media and is the world’s leading producer of neurodiversity, advocacy multimedia, with videos, podcasts, articles from all over the world. However, one thing that sets Different Brains apart is its inclusion of neurodiverse self-advocates in the creation of this media. Self-advocates are the best people to increase education and exposure to neurodiversity, Reitman said. 

Different Brains currently has podcasts, videos, and other kinds of multimedia created that highlight different aspects of being neurodiverse and how neurodiversity can intersect with other identities to spread awareness worldwide. The lack of awareness of neurodiversity among working professionals contributes to the lack of inclusivity towards neurodiverse people and is a disservice to them.

Reitman was working as an orthopedic surgeon when his daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as an adult. He was shocked at his own ignorance about neurodiversity even as an M.D, he said. 

“There’s a lot going on with mental health, with neurological disorders, and with things like ADHD and autism. And, unfortunately, M.D.s get no training in this. Dentists and doctors get zero training in neurodiversity,” Reitman said.

The experience caused Reitman to switch career paths. An orthopedic surgeon turned professional heavyweight boxer, Reitman became dedicated to learning about neurodivergence – writing a book and making a film about it – and eventually founding Different Brains. 

Without appropriate training, professionals including psychologists and police cannot do their job correctly when working with a neurodivergent person, Reitman said. 

To combat this, Reitman travels to speak about neurodiversity. Recently, Different Brains has adopted a research pillar – initiated by neurodiverse interns – to further address the lack of education and information about neurodivergence. Interns are currently researching the impact of COVID-19 on various groups of neurodiverse people. 

“Disabled people of all kinds, not just cognitive impairment or differences, get the short end of the stick in our society in many different ways. So, this is something we have to change, and you do it just by education,” Reitman said.

Making the workplace more inclusive will change the way neurodiverse individuals are viewed in society so that their needs and abilities are more appreciated. In this way, neurodiverse people will be recognized for their capabilities rather than the ways in which they diverge from neurotypical people. Different Brains is proud to be a part of the movement that is making neurodiversity mainstream, Reitman said. 

“I think that we have a bright future, based on advocacy, and based on educating others,” Reitman said.

Emmi Deckard wrote this article while she was a third year student at UCLA and an intern with Spectrum Institute. She majored in bioengineering with a minor in disability studies.