We need to celebrate neurodiversity
“It’s time we all understand dyslexia properly as a different way of thinking, not a disadvantage” – Sir Richard Branson
I am dyslexic, a learning disability that often leads to the perception that I’m not as clever as everyone else. The fact is, I use my brain differently from others, and process things differently. In the past I tended to focus on what I couldn’t do as well as others but came to realise that there is much that I can do better, because of how I think, that my self-perception shifted. It is time that societal perceptions shifted similarly for all neurodiverse people.
Dyslexic people use the right side of their brain, which means we see everything, even words, as pictures. To me this is not a disability, it is a different way of seeing the world. I hate the term disability because it makes me feel like I’m at a disadvantage, and I feel judged by society in this way too. The fact is that I am just different.
Let’s first get the challenges out of the way. Reading is particularly difficult; it feels like the letters are moving around the page. My short-term memory is like a goldfish, so I’ll often have to reread things several times before I can fully take in what I’m reading and remember it. It is also hard to spot my own typos. I had to do a spelling test for a temp job after I graduated, and I went through some of the words letter by letter and still could not see the difference between the two words. It’s like one of the extra letters is almost invisible, or the missing letter is there when it isn’t. Remember that kids party game where your mum would put a selection of objects on a tray that you had to memorise, then she would cover them up, take one away, and you would guess which one was gone? Well, it’s like that; one item is taken away and everyone else can see its gone, but my brain still sees it.
All these things can make you feel like you are lesser than others and, if you get a job, that you are lucky to have been hired, that you’ll have to work harder than everyone else to be on the same level.
I am lucky with my years of experience that it is no longer considered an issue when interviewing, but it can have an impact on those starting out, as it did for me. A dyslexic person may take longer to write a press release than someone who isn’t, and may have more typos, although computers and spell check mean this is no longer such an issue.
We need to stop focusing on the weaknesses, because these can be helped with technology, training, proofreading, and allowing extra time. There are plenty of things that people with dyslexia can do quicker to make up for that extra time investment, and here is a selection of attributes the make us well suited to this industry.
1. We’re creative
Because we use the visual side of our brain, and see things in pictures, ideas come to life the second we think them, like the film adaptation of novel. It comes as no surprise to me that there are many dyslexic people working in creative industries, like directors Steven Spielberg and Steve McQueen.
2. We think outside the box
Because our brains are wired differently, we naturally think ‘outside the box’ and are good in a brainstorm. Stuck for ideas on a brief, tired of the same old ideas in brainstorms? Throw the ideas at your neurodivergent colleagues and see what they produce! I guarantee you they will have a fresh approach.
3. We can see the bigger picture
Because we think visually, our minds tend to race through the story, so we immediately think about the beginning, middle and end. It also means we can easily spot patterns and see trends in data.
I remember being in a brainstorm for a TV brand where two of us came up with the same idea, to create a formula for the perfect TV episode. I was asked how the idea would work because others didn’t quite understand. I walked everyone through the stages straight away; from how we would create the list, who we would get to analyse the TV episodes, how we would calculate the results, how we would structure the press release and pitch it to media, and the kind of coverage we would land, based on what I had seen in the papers over the last few weeks. The other person who had the same idea said I had quickly outlined everything they would have, had they had more time to digest, research and plan.
While I might not have been the best person to articulate that story on paper (or calculate and check the statistics), but the other person was a great writer, so when you put us together, that idea was written up quickly. The client loved it, and so did the media, with multiple full-page features.
4. We’re quick problem solvers
Whilst most are sat scratching their heads trying to figure out how something is going to be resolved, we’ve probably already solved and resolved it. It’s because we are more apt at trying new approaches that may help us to discover connections that others might have missed. I once had a client who didn’t think I was paying enough attention to detail because I was “too efficient”, although she soon realised that I could deliver certain tasks quickly and to a high standard.
5. We have a strong memory
Whilst my short-term memory is shocking, I can conjure memories from my childhood like reading a book or tell you about a campaign I worked on 15 years ago like I’m reading you the press release. I might not remember someone’s name, but I never forget a face. I will be able to tell you exactly where I met or saw someone, and probably what they were wearing. I remember spotting an actor in a restaurant who I knew had appeared in The Bill, although I never watched the show, because I remember seeing his face on my TV dressed in a police uniform for a trailer with the show’s logo on it. I repeatedly won celebrity spotter of the year in one job.
6. We’re great conversationalists
This one is very handing working in communications. Put us in a room of strangers, and we’ll have made several new connections by the end of the session. I have always thrived in presenting because I know for me it’s where I can pitch an idea far better than I can sell it on a slide.
7. We are critical thinkers and analysers
We think logically. We spot differences between topics and use critical thinking to problem solve. We take things in easily in story format, especially if read to us or assisted by technology, and then we can easily analyse the story. It also means that I can’t simply read a book or watch a film without analysing it afterwards. It is probably why I wrote my dissertation at university on The Matrix and often find myself wondering if the government could wipe our memories like Men in Black, what could they be hiding from us? Perhaps some of those reading this blog are, in fact, aliens from another planet!?
It is worth bearing in mind that no two dyslexics are the same, the above relates to my own experience, and this is true of all neurodiverse people. There are some similarities between dyslexia and ADHD, and I also see some similarities between myself and the way my autistic sister thinks.
There are some industries that are starting to acknowledge the strengths neurodiverse brains have and actively recruit people. Microsoft is one that understands the strengths in autism and have a bias in recruiting people on the spectrum. Two of the most successful business owners are neurodiverse, Elon Musk has Asperger’s syndrome, and Richard Branson is dyslexic; in fact, many people say his dyslexia is his biggest strength.
So, instead of trying to fit everyone into the same box let’s work to people’s strengths and build teams with diverse and complementary skills. Let’s celebrate the future Bransons and Musks!
By Samantha Henry