To Meet the Challenges of Our Time, “Neuro-Diversity” Must Be Re-Imagined

On the face of it, “neuro-diversity” sounds like it could be a potential silver bullet when it comes to solving complex global problems like climate change.  Defined as natural variation in the human brain as far as it pertains to sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions, neuro-diversity is a relatively recent concept in the popular imagination.  Advocates argue that so-called “neuro-minorities,” including ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and ADHD individuals, dyslexics and others should not be pathologized.  Rather, these groups should be provided with vital social services which will allow them to thrive.  That is to say, neuro-minorities should not be stigmatized as having a disability, but instead contribute to society under the assumption that different people have varied strengths and weaknesses, as well as diverse ways of approaching the world.

            Given that human evolution reflects the contributions of not only the so-called “neuro-typical” majority, but also neuro-minorities, who may have their own unique and creative ways of addressing problems, it makes sense to re-organize society through “neuro-diverse” teams.  Take, for example, autists who display an incredible focus on detail and grasp of complex systems.  Unlike neuro-typicals, ASD individuals may channel their empathy into wider societal concerns such as fairness, justice and scientific progress, and in this sense, they may have fulfilled an important evolutionary role over time.  Indeed, the notion that autists develop valuable insights “not in spite of their autism but because of it is gaining ground as part of a global movement to honor neurodiversity.”  Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen has gone so far as to speculate that scientists on the autism spectrum may have played a significant role in the dissident opposition movement to Soviet rule.

            Other neuro-minorities may approach complex problems in similarly innovative ways.  Dyslexics, for example, possess unusual visual-spatial abilities and can process peripheral information as well as low-definition or blurred visual scenes.  Some dyslexics even claim they can envision things other people don’t, literally by fast-forwarding and rewinding scenarios in their own minds.  Despite these special abilities, dyslexics often fall through the cracks, and for every self-made millionaire like Richard Branson, others who fail to receive assistance and encouragement may wind up dropping out of high school or languishing in jail.  If only society would focus on dyslexics’ great potential by reforming the educational system to reflect special needs, it has been argued, then we could vastly improve the “innovation pipeline.” 

Big Business and Autism

To be sure, encouraging or harnessing neuro-minorities special abilities should be applauded, but to what end?  Unfortunately, much of the focus and debate around neuro-diversity has been relegated to the business world and securing innovative “competitive advantage,” as opposed to promoting neuro-diverse teams in other, more progressive walks of life.  The changing complexion of industry, which faces gaps in key areas ranging from IT to artificial intelligence to coding and data analytics, has encouraged a move towards neuro-diverse hiring.  Indeed, some firms have recently pushed “neuro-diversity inclusion programs” geared towards recruiting individuals on the autism spectrum, and corporations have turned to new organizations such as Neuro-Diversity in the Workplace in order to boost employment.

            On the surface at least, recruiting a neuro-diverse workforce seems to go against conventional ideas of what makes a good employee, that is to say qualities like solid communication skills, being a good “team player,” emotional intelligence, the ability to network, etc.  Traditionally, such criteria screened out neuro-diverse individuals, and though such people may excel in certain respects, they do not interview well.  Autists, for example, don’t make good eye contact and tend to go off on conversational tangents.  In light of these challenges, Forbes recommends that employers pose more tightly framed, closed questions when interviewing neuro-diverse individuals.

            Despite these disadvantages, the World Economic Forum remarks that autists can be an asset to the corporate world, since “they are all logical thinkers, curious, evidence-based decision makers, tenacious, persistent at solving problems and focused.  They offer different perspectives and don’t succumb to the sort of groupthink…that lands many companies in trouble.”  While ASD individuals can be direct and honest in social situations, which can frequently land them in “hot water,” these same qualities prevent autists from “getting bogged down in office politics.” 

Neuro-Diversity and Cybersecurity

Research has shown that when autists are placed in teams with fellow autists, they communicate more effectively than in mixed groups of neuro-typicals and ASD people.  Although neuro-diversity programs are still in their early days, managers have reported productivity gains, quality improvement and boosts towards innovation.  A growing list of companies have reformed their HR hiring processes with an eye towards recruiting neuro-diverse talent, including software firm SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Microsoft and Ford. 

            At HPE, neuro-diverse employees are placed in “pods” of approximately 15 people, where they work in tandem with neuro-typical workers in a roughly 4:1 ratio, with two managers and a consultant assigned to handle neuro-diversity related issues.  HPE’s restructuring has resulted in tangible benefits, with neuro-diverse testing teams proving to be 30% more productive than other similar teams. 

            Software companies aren’t the only ones getting into the act.  Bank of America, for instance, has recruited neuro-diverse individuals for the company’s cyber-security program, since the latter display highly adept pattern recognition skills which come in handy when it comes to cryptography and malware reverse engineering.  One manager summed it up by remarking, “if you're thinking about how to be able to solve a hard problem, like defending an organization like Bank of America from different threats, you have to anticipate what those threat actors are going to do.  And people who think differently are going to be able to help you do that.”  Neuro-diverse “hunt teams,” meanwhile, are more efficient when it comes to processing and picking out information contained in cyber-security alerts, which in turn allows companies to react faster.

U.S., British and Australian Intelligence Services

Not to be outdone, the U.S. national security state has also been tapping into neuro-diverse talent.  For some time, in fact, autists have been working at the Central Intelligence Agency, and experts in the field believe ASD individuals can be an asset when it comes to cyber-security.  Similarly, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency launched a pilot program late last year geared towards recruitment of neurodiverse personnel, including ASD individuals. 

            Across the Atlantic, British intelligence has tapped other distinct neuro-minorities: GCHQ (or General Communications Headquarters), which works alongside MI5, MI6 and law enforcement to protect the UK from cyber-attacks and terrorism, seeks to hire dyslexics.  The agency has a long history of recruiting quirky people: during the Second World War, analyst Alan Turing, who may have been neuro-diverse himself, decrypted German messages by breaking Enigma communications.  Today, GCHQ has reportedly three times the national average of dyslexic people working in its apprenticeship programs, since these individuals are regarded as being skilled at “joining the dots,” simplification and “seeing the bigger picture.”

            Australia’s Defense Department, meanwhile, has teamed up with HPE to develop a neuro-diversity program in cyber-security, and reportedly job candidates’ relevant abilities have been assessed as “off the charts.”  Called “Dandelion@Defence,” the initiative seeks to “turn the traits of autism into a competitive advantage,” such as “a remarkable eye for detail; accuracy and consistency; a logical and analytical approach to detecting irregularities; pattern-matching skills; and a high tolerance for repetitive mental tasks.”  The program’s name is derived from the French term dent de lion, irregular margins of lance-shaped leaves hinting at “non-traditional talent sources.”

Israel’s Unit 9900

            Israel is another key country which has pioneered the recruitment of ASD individuals.  The IDF, or Israeli Defense Forces, has set up Intelligence Division Unit 9900 which processes visual information provided by surveillance satellites.  Within Unit 9900, the “Roim Rachok” (or “Beyond Horizons”) team is comprised entirely of autistic teens.  According to the IDF, such individuals are selected because they are “gifted with an incredible ability to analyze, interpret, and understand satellite images and maps.” 

            Researchers commissioned by Israel’s Defense Ministry report that ASD individuals frequently possess “different” forms of visual perception, and tend to focus on “raw data” by approaching images “objectively,” rather than being weighed down with “concepts of how things are supposed to be.”  This stands in stark contrast to neuro-typicals, who may interpret visual information based on pre-existing narratives.  Think of it this way: some chess aficionados, for example, may focus on strategy and plotting moves, as well as the ramifications of those moves, but then wind up getting “blinded” to details on the board.  On the other hand, those who are more objective can pick up on changes in the alignment of pieces.

Founded in 2012 by former Mossad agents, Roim Rachok combs the country in search of capable volunteers, and then trains them for three months before integrating recruits into Unit 9900 (which for good measure also includes soldiers who aren’t on the autism spectrum).  Once ensconced in the unit, recruits are trained to analyze satellite images, the kind of mind-numbing, detailed work which leaves neuro-typical people with “dry eyes and wandering minds, if they manage to persist at all.”  Autists, however, may enjoy repetitive assignments, and Roim Rachok has excelled at its work by earning a special commendation from the IDF. 

            With such a high premium being placed on information warfare these days, recruits have also been tasked with gathering intelligence online, which requires analysts to scour the web and process all manner of information, ranging from fake news to propaganda videos.  This type of work is perfect “for those in the program, who are able to spend several hours in front of a computer assimilating a flood of data while maintaining intense concentration.”  Once they fulfill their service, recruits enter the workforce and are highly sought after by companies such as Intel.  Impressed by Roim Rachok, other nations such as Singapore are looking to emulate the program.  In the Netherlands, meanwhile, a police detective agency decided to hire autists to help crack a cold case after consulting with Roim Rachok.  Pouring over hundreds of hours of surveillance footage in the hope of identifying a suspected murderer, the team found the criminal, who was later brought to justice.

Greta Thunberg and Environmentalism

            It is ironic that so much attention has been focused on promoting neuro-diverse teams within hyper-competitive and aggressive walks of life, including business and the military, whereas such notions have seemingly failed to make much of an impression on more progressive and environmental circles.  What makes this all the more perplexing is that activists have as their role model Greta Thunberg, a young climate change campaigner who has publicly come out as being on the autism spectrum.  Thunberg has argued that ASD is hardly a liability, since it has allowed her to hyper-focus on the environment. 

            “I see the world a bit different, from another perspective,” she has explained, adding “it’s very common that people on the autism spectrum have a special interest. … I can do the same thing for hours.”  Notes Vox, “the idea that people like Greta Thunberg have valuable insights not in spite of their autism but because of it is gaining ground as part of a global movement to honor neurodiversity, a word based on the concept of biodiversity — the notion that in communities of living things, diversity and difference means strength and resilience.  It’s not surprising that people who feel an intuitive love for nature and an instinctive disdain for dishonesty are now taking leadership positions in the global fight against climate change.”

            What is puzzling is that it is business, and not environmentalists, which has seized on Thunberg as a means of advancing neuro-diverse teams.  Take, for example, the World Economic Forum, which proclaims “greater awareness of neurodiversity is needed and will hopefully lead to similar changes for people who think differently to the majority.  We need all kinds of people – women, different races, cultures, sexual orientations and neurodiversity – at all levels of our organizations to create our future. Whether that’s activist Greta Thunberg daring to confront political leaders on climate change, an academic challenging practice and policy through evidence, or an employee finding an innovative solution to a problem.”

Chiming in for good measure, The Institute of Leadership and Management asks the question, “to what extent could Thunberg’s presence on the world stage help to boost the number of neurodiversity programs in operation – and what should leaders learn from the breakthroughs that Thunberg has achieved as a public figure?”  Kate Cooper, who heads up the organization’s research, policy and standards, remarks “what a terrific role model Thunberg represents for other neurodiverse individuals.  What a potent reminder for companies to look at the scope and effectiveness of their inclusivity policies.  And what a powerful demonstration of the fact that difference brings organizations so many benefits.  Not only does it galvanize innovation – it also enables us to be more representative of the customers we’re eager to engage, via the staff we should be aiming to attract and retain.”

Re-framing Neuro-Diversity

            Since when has Thunberg become a business icon, and where is the leftist counter-response which seeks to re-frame the entire debate around neuro-diverse teams and the potential benefits to society?  Save for a few Facebook groups and a stray YouTube video here or there, it does not seem these debates have made much headway.  That is not to say, however, that the neuro-diversity movement hasn’t made important strides as a whole by pushing for civil rights, equality and respect.   “Neurodiversity Celebration Week,” meanwhile, has taken off internationally, with many schools encouraged to recognize the strengths and talents of neuro-diverse students. 

            All of this should be absolutely applauded and encouraged, and neuro-typical society should certainly be made more aware of neuro-diverse people at every level.  There is a fine line, however, between making society more aware of neuro-diversity, on the one hand, and promoting yet more identity politics by breaking people up into balkanized groups, on the other.  Hopefully, progressive elements won’t get too bogged down by such debates, and rather start thinking about how neuro-diverse teams can tackle important political and environmental problems at a practical level.