“In a world changing faster than ever, honoring and nurturing neurodiversity is civilization’s best chance to thrive in an uncertain future.”
Steve Silberman, 2013
This quote is from “The Geek Syndrome”, an article published in Wired magazine that created quite a stir. Silberman, a California-based journalist who specialises in writing about technology, noticed that many of those he wrote about had children with autism and recognised many similar characteristics in themselves. Silberman’s curiosity about the Autistic Spectrum led to his recent book “Neurotribes” (Allen and Unwin, 2015) where he turns thinking about autism from a disability into a difference or strength. Many of those strengths can be hugely valuable to business.
Silberman writes about people who are technically brilliant but not always people savvy and at times challenging to manage. I call them “supergeeks”. Their unique minds have many qualities similar to those who have Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) or High Functioning Autism.
Thinking about autism in this way presents opportunities for business to learn about how supergeeks experience working life and what they need to perform, flourish and succeed in their working lives. Over the last 20 years, much has been learned about ways of understanding and responding to people with autism. This knowledge can be used in the workplace without the need to pathologise, label or diagnose anyone. And there can be unexpected benefits because providing an “autism friendly” environment works very well for everyone else too.
Here I outline seven general principles, based on evidence from AS, that help create an environment where supergeeks can be their best.
1. Mindset and culture.
An essential starting point a willingness to learn about neurodiversity and what different minds need to succeed. Small things can make a big difference and rocket science is not required. Accept people as they are rather than expect them to do the fitting in. Have those with influence model the required behaviours.
Make the immediate environment more predictable. Tell your supergeeks what is going to happen and exactly what is expected of them.
Manage with sensitivity and persistence. Be calm, predictable and interested. Make expectations high, clear and realistic. Recognise strengths and make the most of them. Build and use what people are good at. Find out what is important to them and make use of it.
See working life and the world from their point of view. Find out how your supergeeks receive and process information, what motivates them and what creates stress. Pay particular attention to how they understand the social world.
WARNING: Be prepared to be amazed!!
Help those around supergeeks to understand them better rather than jump to conclusions about observed behaviours. This is particularly important where supergeeks are in leadership or management positions. Use this understanding to establish and maintain good working relationships.
Different minds have different sensitivities to noise, light, touch, taste and smell. Are your supergeeks expected to hot desk in an open plan office? Are interruptions frequent? Are there opportunities to withdraw? Can change be managed in a planned and sensitive way?
Many of the challenges in any working environment come down to poor communication. This applies even more so with supergeeks. Avoid jargon, use plain language and allow time to process. Just because a supergeek hasn’t responded in the time they should doesn’t mean they’re not trying!
How could you use insights from neurodiversity in your own working life? What would be the benefits of doing so for you, for the supergeeks you work with and for business?
For many more insights come to this Masterclass: Coaching Supergeeks, London, November 9th
Find out more and book your place here.