Neurodiversity in research: Rethinking rules and expectations

Elliott Spaeth is a Lecturer in Academic and Digital Development at the University of Glasgow. He is trans, disabled, and neurodivergent.

What is neurodiversity and why do I need to know about it?

In 2015, an image of a dress went viral because people saw its colours differently – some saw blue and black, others saw white and gold, and I personally saw something else entirely. A few years later, an audio clip experienced similar fame because people disagreed about which word was being spoken, ‘Yanny’ or ‘Laurel’. In both cases, people were stunned that others were perceiving seemingly unambiguous information differently to them.

These contrasting perceptions of the same object are illustrations of neurodiversity – the concept that human brains are naturally different from each other and therefore function in different ways. The widespread surprise experienced in relation to these examples makes sense – after all, the dominant narrative is that there’s one definition of ‘normal’ (and therefore acceptable) brain functioning and those of us with brains that differ from this are deficient in some way.

The umbrella term ‘neurodivergent’ gives those of us in the latter category a way of referring ourselves that conveys that we are not deficient, but merely different from what society expects, and includes conditions such as Autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and Tourette Syndrome. Conversely, the word ‘neurotypical’ is used to describe brain functioning that aligns with societal expectations.

Although Higher Education, like society more broadly, has generally been designed to suit people who are neurotypical, some neurodivergent traits are highly desirable for research, such as intense passion and curiosity for areas of interest, ability to focus and be incredibly productive when engaged, and “different” ways of thinking that enable someone to identify patterns and solutions that others might miss.

As such, there are many neurodivergent researchers (although they may not talk about this part of their identity, or even be aware of it themselves) working in an environment that likely wasn’t designed for people like them. In this post, I’m aiming to help you think about how you can create a supportive environment for the neurodivergent people you work with. I’m focusing on situations where you are in a position of power – for example supervising or leading a research group  – but many of the points are relevant to working with colleagues more generally.

Creating a neurodiversity-friendly environment

Neurodivergent people don’t have worse brains, or ways of working, they’re just different. See, for example, Catherine Crompton’s work on autistic communication styles (spoiler: they’re different, not worse). What this means is that we need to think about whether the current environment we facilitate (this can include physical or online spaces, ways in which we interact with people, or the rules/expectations you have in place) is flexible enough to allow for people to work in different ways.

In the context of learning and teaching, this approach is known as Universal Design for Learning, and refers to the idea of proactively creating inclusive learning environments and activities, rather than only making reasonable adjustments when they’re requested.

Rethinking rules and expectations

Considering rules and expectations is a good starting point for creating a more inclusive environment for neurodivergent people. In a position of authority, for example as a PGR supervisor, we often have the power to set rules and expectations based on our own understanding, experience, and expertise. However, these may come from assumptions that don’t necessarily hold true for everyone (and they’re particularly likely not to be accurate for  neurodivergent people, see this article from me and my colleague Amy  for more), and this can result in rules and expectations that unfairly disadvantage those people.

There are a lot of rules about how we should behave in a ‘neuronormative’ society (that is, one built to suit neurotypical people), and words like ‘polite’, ‘appropriate’, or, if at work, ‘professional’ are used for behaviours that comply with those rules. But it’s not always clear why certain behaviours are assumed to be ‘appropriate’ and others are not. Quite often, there doesn’t seem to even be a reason beyond ‘it just is’ or ‘that’s just not how we do it’.

When we examine these reasons further, it often comes down to “because that’s how I would prefer to do it”; “because that’s what I was told as a student, and I’ve internalised it without actually considering it further”; or “because the people in power benefit from ensuring things are done this way” (see Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed for a lot of very important thoughts about the latter idea).

In this way, one person’s (or a group of people’s) preferences are presented as universal standards for acceptable behaviour, portraying those who don’t have the same preferences or assumptions as ‘inappropriate’, ‘unprofessional’, and generally unacceptable, which could be very hurtful for the person in question.

As such, it’s vital to think about the rules we set and what we are aiming to achieve with them, to determine whether they are truly necessary or whether they are just reinforcing societal norms for the sake of it.

How do we decide what is necessary?

Some rules, such as safety in a lab or of referencing others’ work, have clear rationales. Safety regulations exist to minimise the possibility of accidents. The act of referencing (although not the way in which it is done) serves to make sure that other people are credited for their work and ideas. The impact of not doing those things is that people can get hurt. Not hurting people is a strong rationale for a rule, and therefore these rules seem necessary to me.

Personal preference is absolutely valid. How we prefer to work, communicate, etc, is useful knowledge to have about oneself, and for our researchers to have about us. But these preferences don’t equate to ‘appropriate’ or ‘professional’ behaviour, and it’s important that PGRs, colleagues, etc are able to develop and share their preferred ways of working, too, rather than a certain approach being mandated.

A task to do…

Part 1: Think, for example, about what behaviours you would consider ‘good’ or ‘bad’ from people you work with, e.g. PGRs. Take a moment and write them down, either on paper or online – have one behaviour per line and leave space to the right for part 2.

Part 2: Now think about why that behaviour is important to you. There are lots of different possible reasons – just note down your thoughts.

Part 3: If you can – and if you feel comfortable – discuss your answers with peers and think about how you can achieve the outcomes you want in a way that doesn’t disadvantage neurodivergent researchers.

One response to “Neurodiversity in research: Rethinking rules and expectations”

  1. […] ill at any time. You can be born with a condition, and you can also acquire illness or disability. Neurodivergences, such as ADHD, Autism, Epilepsy, and Dyslexia, can be considered disabilities (although not everyone who is neurodivergent identifies as […]

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