Posted 19 Jan 2020
Creative Differences – Universal Music Publish A Roadmap For Making Neurodiversity Work
Acknowledging the high prevalence of dyslexia, ADHD, autism and dyspraxia in the creative industries, the company worked for two years collating stories of lived experience and advice from professionals on how to be an inclusive employer. The foreward is written by the formidable Florence Welch, whose vocal and lyrical talents are no doubt a feature of her dyspraxic neurological profile.
The book was designed with diverse readers in mind. Graphics to balance the text, sans serif font, well-structured advice on including neurominorities and getting ahead if you are neurodivergent. I recommend a read, and not just because I contributed! It’s a useful summary of the essential best practice, and a great manual for people wanting to learn more about making neurodiversity work. I was interviewed on BBC News and I noted the quality of the questions I was asked, leading me to surmise that efforts like those of Universal Music are starting to filter further into public awareness.
One of the other contributors, Emma Case of Women Beyond The Box, mentioned to me after the event, “you know, even with all this, it’s sometimes very difficult to resolve relationships when there’s been a clash.” Emma works as a coach, and like me, she probably meets a lot of clients who have tried all the recommended accommodations and are doing their very best, but still coming unstuck.
Mistaking Inference for Evidence
I was reminded of one of my early clients, who was an autistic man working in IT. He had been with his company for 10 years, and had had 9 supervisors in that time! The latest was not an IT specialist, but a generalist trying to work out how to manage the team through some company changes. He and my client were regularly finding themselves in conflict and were both exasperated. I realized the coaching needed to include the supervisor as well. I wanted to get them together, and listen to their communication patterns to find the issues. I was following a hunch that both were well meaning, but were bucking up against opposing interpretations of ambiguous language (this is a typical issue that autistic people experience).
In our first session I asked both parties what they would like to have happen as a result of the coaching. What would let you know the coaching had been a success? What would be different? “Well,” the supervisor said, “I’d like him to be able to ‘play the game.’” I gulped. Is this the sort of language my client was up against? Autistic people are more likely to take things literally, metaphor and analogy don’t always make sense. My client was indeed wondering why his boss wanted him to play games at work. I tried to drill down. “If he was playing the game, what would you see or hear?” “He’d be more proactive.” ‘Proactive’ is still ambiguous and open to inference. We reflected on this. My client interpreted proactive to mean on time and asking lots of questions. His supervisor wanted him to come to a weekly meeting prepared with 2 sides of A4 paper upon which were written 2 lists—tasks completed the previous week and planned for the following.
Until our coaching, both client and supervisor had been assuming the worst of each other. My client assumed the supervisor was being deliberately awkward and trying to micro-manage him, when actually he was new in role, slightly intimidated and in need of understanding. The supervisor assumed my client was being deliberately evasive and workshy, and that he wasn’t “prepared” because he hadn’t been doing anything, yet he actually was confused and couldn’t understand why his efforts were not valued.
Permission To Speak Freely
So we fixed this episode. However, is there long term answer here? For sure, another clash was on the horizon with two people are so diametrically opposed in their thinking skills. The trick going forward was permission to communicate differently. I taught my client the questioning process I used to drill down from ambiguous management-speak to tangible instruction. I released him from the shame of believing that he should automatically understand, instead he now asks additional questions when the instruction isn’t clear. The supervisor agreed that additional questions would be met with curiosity, not contempt, until understanding had been reached. An agreement of this sort IS a “reasonable adjustment” in accordance with Disability legislation–it’s an example of an organization agreeing to do things differently to accommodate difference.
Universal Music’s new book provides a great starting point, picking up the most common ways in which neurominorities need flexibility in “the rules.” It will break down barriers of common misinterpretation about neurodiverse people “not trying” or “being awkward,” and communicates the essential knowledge about sensory overwhelm, assistive technology and social norms not being equal to task performance. I hope you read it! But don’t see the book as the end point. In this journey we are still starting the conversation.
My client’s experience will resonate with many–neurodiversity means thinking differently. By its very nature, it means we will have to communicate with people who don’t automatically understand what we mean. To make neurodiversity work, we need to slow down, take time, ask questions and park our assumptions. We need to assume the best of each other until we can get the best out of each other.