Podcast: What is Neurodiversity?

Podcast: What is Neurodiversity?

What is neurodiversity?

In this episode, David talks with Jannett Morgan (a member of the OR) about Neurodiversity, what it is, and why it matters.

Listen to Jannett Morgan and David talk about Neurodiversity, what it is and why it matters

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Jannett Morgan

Jannett is a teacher, trainer, consultant and coach specialising in leadership development. Inspired by her personal as well as professional experiences, Jannett has supported students and employees with ‘hidden disabilities’, mainly the neurodivergent learning differences of dyslexia and dyspraxia, since 1998. During this time, she has delivered over 10,000 hours of support, working part-time as a neurodiversity tutor at several universities and as an independent consultant in the workplace.


Neurodiversity, what it is, and why it matters with Jannett Morgan

[00:00:00] David: So welcome back. We’re just starting a new series of podcasts around the whole idea and issues to do with neurodiversity. And with me, I’ve got Jannett Morgan. Now Jannett’s one of our members. She’s also a teacher, trainer and a consultant and a coach. She’s got a lot of experience over the years in both higher and further education and, doing a lot of kind of leadership management training in the private sector. And her main focus has been around employees with hidden disabilities things like neuro divergent learning differences, dyslexia, dyspraxia, which I’ve got both of, and a whole series of other things. So welcome, Jannett.

[00:00:39] Jannett: Thank you, David. Great to be here.

[00:00:40] David: Do you want to just, fill us in a little bit about yourself, your history. What’s kind of got you to where you are, right.

[00:00:46] Jannett: Well, you did a great job setting the scene, actually. So you are right, in terms of neurodiversity, I have been in this field, I guess, for around about 20 years now, and it came about through curiosity, I guess, I [00:01:00] trained as a teacher in an FE college, and I was doing some what they called additional learning support for vocational students who were struggling with literacy and numeracy. And some of those students with what we might call the typical teaching and learning responses or interventions, still were struggling, that wasn’t working for them. And we had a small dyslexia team in the college at the time, and I got involved with them, and that’s really where my training took off, in that college, because where do a lot of dyslexic students arrive often in an FE college because school hasn’t worked for them. So that’s where it really began, and it progressed from there into higher education. Perhaps we’ll pick up on some of these things as we go on. And in around 2008, I set up my own consultancy, and it was to do a number of things around leadership and management, as you said, but I’d also been approached to actually do some work in the dyslexia space in the workplace. It wasn’t called neurodiversity back then, and I’m sure we’ll get onto that. So, my interest in the [00:02:00] workplace was really peaked because we stepped outta that sort of educational model into what happened in workplaces, and then we had a different type of relationship, the relationship between an employee, the line manager, the employer, the organisation, and that work really fascinated me.

[00:02:17] Jannett: So my business has continued to grow around that. I am a specialist coach, I go into workplaces to support employees, work with employers. I’m very interested in the systemic ways that organisations do or do not make people feel included. So that’s where I put the focus of my work and it’s very intersectional. So I’m also interested in, discrimination on the grounds of hidden difference and discrimination on the grounds of visible difference, which is race in this case. So there’s sort of a few tentacles in terms of the work, and I guess the final thing that I should say it’s important in terms of positionality is I am not what we would call neuro divergent diverse. We’ll get into the language in a second, but I [00:03:00] have a son, one of my children who is. So my interest was personal as well as professional as a parent, I struggled to wrap my head around what was going on and I had my own experiences working with the various services. So, 20 years on, I’m still fascinated by all I have learned so much myself. There is so much to learn and neurodiversity is this kind of new area that now organisations are thinking about. Although the history has been around for some time. So that’s really where I’m sort of positioning myself at the moment.

[00:03:30] David: That’s really interesting. And particularly this whole idea about it being the intersection between the kind of idea, the diversity, equality and inclusion area, and the whole idea about I don’t like calling them learning disabilities but issues that cause problems with people to learn in ways that are kind of formal ways of learning, they tend to learn better in different ways and say hey I’m one of those, and interestingly, that’s how I entered into the educational system, again, was through further education. I did a course at an FE [00:04:00] college while I was a police officer largely because my levels were a washout and I didn’t carry on to a levels because I certainly wasn’t going to get anything within the formal.

[00:04:08] Jannett: Yeah, it’s a common story and the language I know you said you were hesitant to talk about learning disabilities and I think language is not precise enough for us to really describe what we are talking about. That’s the challenge here that, you know, we need a linguistic scalpel and probably what we’ve got is a butter knife, but it’s important to try and unpack that, and those of us who have trained as tutors and coaches, we wouldn’t use the term learning disability. And we would, there’s a lot more talk now in terms of difference, as opposed to disability, because of all of the connotations that I guess we’ve already started alluding.

[00:04:44] David: Yes, certainly. And just as an aside, I’m interested like how many, and I’m not expecting a precise figure or anything, but just in your experience, how people kind of go undiagnosed with an issue, do you think.

[00:04:56] Jannett: I’m not sure that the data is precise about [00:05:00] that. We talk about now it varies that, you know, if you look at people like the British dyslexia association, they will talk about anything between four and 10% of the population with dyslexia, when it comes to neurodiversity, which is the wider umbrella term that includes lots of neuro cognitive developmental conditions like dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, autism, and so on. We then talk about one in seven and if you look in particular sectors, then there may be an even greater representation. So if we look at sort of arts based sect, then you see a higher representation. So when I worked in arts and drama schools, it was a question of if you weren’t dyslexic, then it was like, well, what’s wrong with me then? So it was complete reversal, it was interesting, and then if we think about things, perhaps like the police, if it’s there, it’s not spoken about, so I think I’m not clear on what the data says about that, but you could easily add probably another third on top I would say of what you were talking about because of the issues [00:06:00] around people’s reluctance to disclose or people’s decision not to disclose it may well be that what they’re not experiencing is an environment that disables them, and so therefore it’s not necessary or relevant for them to be talking about having a condition as it were. We may need the air quotes a lot when we have our conversation today.

[00:06:19] David: Yes, yeah, and that’s another term that I’m kind of as somebody with dyslexia and dyspraxia, I’m kind of uncomfortable with it being a condition or anything because actually I’m not sure it’s done me any harm, so, but anyway, it causes issues in certain circumstances, certain informal learning circumstances.

[00:06:34] Jannett: Yes.

[00:06:34] David: So we, you know, we’ve kind of started this conversation about neurodiversity. So what are we actually talking about here?

[00:06:40] Jannett: So again, this is where our scalpel, our linguistic scalpel, isn’t there to help us, and I always revert to a quote by a colleague of mine called Atif Choudhury, who runs a couple of excellent organisations, one of which is called diversity and ability. And it’s about people with disabilities, including, neurodiversity. And [00:07:00] he talks about the fact that we are all neuro, it’s just that we’re not all marginalised by it. The it that he’s referring to is, the environment, the work environment, the social environment. So what we are talking about when we are talking about neurodiversity is this recognition and this appreciation for the fact that as human beings, we all learn process information differently and that that is not about deficit, whereas historically we have come to think of people who think and learn differently because those mental processes, those cognition, that allow us to learn, that there are norm, and there are then the opposite of that is abnormality. So there is some deficit in people who don’t think the way that most of us do or learn the way that most of us do, neurodiversity disrupted and challenged that thinking, and if you, I know you are probably going to refer to some of the history of that, and there’s been a lot of recognition now for [00:08:00] someone called Judy Singer, who is the Australian sociologist who first introduced this term. The conversation was really about what was happening in the autistic community, and it has spread out now to cover things like as we have dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, but also things like tourettes, and also things like epilepsy, for example. So it’s this umbrella term that covers those various profiles that I just listed there. And it’s a recognition that that is not about deficit, it’s about difference. So those people who may be familiar with terms like specific learning difficulties and I’m a teacher, so my focus has come through the teaching and learning route. And there are other ways to actually be looking at neurodiversity, but from a learning perspective and workplace learning is what I’m interested in, we would’ve in our training being taught about specific learning difficulty, so specific areas in the brain, if you like that, contribute to the way that we think and learn and [00:09:00] process information, and they’re sort of a cluster of cognition that are identifiable, but it’s vague, they overlap, you know, where do we separate if we can dyslexia from dyspraxia. So co-occurrence, as they say, is the rule and not the exception. So you will often find that there is one or more learning differences that, you know, someone may find themselves categorised into if you like, let me just stop there cause I already feel again, once you start to unpack these things, it’s like I can feel the mind field going off in my own head.

[00:09:32] Jannett: I think the key things to hold onto are, that we are all on a spectrum of neurodiversity acknowledges that, then we have some of the derivatives. What we are talking about with neuro divergence, are those people typically and I’m also mindful of using the term those people, but people who tend to learn differently to the way that most of us learn. So let’s take an example, you talked about formal learning situations, so if, we are in school or college [00:10:00] or university and the way that you assess, whether someone has achieved is by a three hour exam that might work for people who have got very good short term working memory, it’s not gonna work for someone who has got difficulties with their working memory, but might have excellent long term memory. So that’s why practical exams, practical assessments can be really good for people and allow them to work to their best. Neurodiversity just recognises this, but actually says that the environment discriminates so that people who learn in the way that the majority of people learn are if you like the neuro majority and then people with using this example, dyslexia, for example, would fall into the neuro minority because they would be neuro divergent.

[00:10:42] David: So we’re really talking here about, I suppose statistical point of view, this idea of a normal distribution where the vast majority of the populations sit within and you would expect it, you know, the kind of school system was built up for the majority of people and then you had some people that were really excellent in [00:11:00] those kinds of circumstances, but when they kind of get out, they may struggle in different areas and then people who kind of struggle in those more formal or certain learning environments, they’re not kind of activated in that way, so you get this idea of a normal distribution, I suppose.

[00:11:15] Jannett: Yeah.

[00:11:15] David: Which is where these ideas come from?

[00:11:17] Jannett: Absolutely, right. And then layered on top of that are obviously the sociological aspects that sit around that when you’re in a learning environment. So how do you interact with people? How do we see relationships forming when we’re in the workplace? So not just the learning, but also the environment that people are in and how we are social to see things like intelligence and achievement and ability. So these things sort of compound some of the barriers that people will encounter in education and in the workplace.

[00:11:45] David: Yeah, I’ve got very un fond memories of being told just to sit at the back and be quiet and especially in maths, which is interesting cause I’m doing a degree in Maths at the moment… , yeah. So we’ll come onto that probably at some other stage, I’ve done a little bit of digging around the idea [00:12:00] of neurodiversity and that the term is kind of considered to be a, well, the term is a relatively new term, but the actual thing that it represents isn’t that new, it’s kind of an age old question, which is around kind of, who am I, you know, the sense of self that seems to, I suppose, constitute my essence. And we’ve all got our kind of, our subjective selves, we ascribe different meanings to things, we have different perceptions, different feelings, we experience things differently, you know, so for example, we all experience art and music differently, you know, for some barks, B minor mass and for others, it’s the guns ‘N’ roses or Olivia Rodrigo or Pusty who I didn’t know of until I talked to my daughter, that gets them going. So this idea of that is behind neurodiversity or difference in experience is actually nothing new. And it’s interesting that out of the same basic materials and processes, in other words the brain, comes this tremendous diversity [00:13:00] which is kind of a question to do with complexity and emergence, but it was an issue that goes back some time and the philosophers, you know, Descartes and people like that were starting to separate out this difference between the brain and the mind, and they realised that they’re connected, but they produce very different experiences of things like consciousness and stuff, and I suppose, in terms of history, the base idea of neurodiversity really came from some work that was done in the late eighties, early nineties, around a guy called Daniel Dennett, now Daniel Dennett is a professor and, a philosopher, a writer and a cognitive scientist, he’s the co-director of the center of cognitive studies at Tufts university, Massachusetts in the US, and Dennett was interested in what consciousness and what our different experience of his consciousness were. And his book, consciousness explains very readable for anybody, and it’s kind of a seminal book and what he started to do and he used this horrendous term called hetero phenomenology, basically what he was [00:14:00] saying we need to bring together the science of the brain and also the experiences that we have in order to try to explain what’s going on, and I suppose one way of putting this is, you know, as an individual, I’m from a subjective point of view, I may be saying, you know, why do I experience this X? Whereas the scientists are going, yeah, but why does this person say that they experience X and what they’re trying to do and what’s occurring more and more now is they’re bringing together the experience of the mind and neurology. And what is it in the brain that kind of helps to explain the experience of the mind and the idea of neurodiversity, difference of experience, thinking patterns, perceptions, and so on is kind of a, an emergent property, I suppose, of the neural makeup of the brain. And the problem is from a kind of cognitive science point of view is these connections are kind of part of a complex system and one of the properties of complex system is that they’re emergent, you can’t actually predict what’s likely to come out, so you can’t just look at the [00:15:00] brain and say, okay, this person’s going to be dyslexic or whatever it happens to be. And so what I found interesting when I started kind of doing some homework for this series, was this connection between neurology and the subjective experience of individuals in terms of the way they perceive things and things like that. I just wondered before we kind of get into other terms like dyslexia, dyspraxia and what they actually are and what they mean, from a practitioner point of view, what is it that, what are you drawing from, in terms of the neurology and from the individual experiences? If that makes sense?

[00:15:35] Jannett: I think so. I think my own reflections around that having done my training a long time ago is how that training is evolving. So we talk a lot more about neuroscience in a way that we didn’t when I was first doing my own training. And in fact, a couple of years ago, I went and did a neuroscience course at Kings, because I felt there were gaps [00:16:00] missing in terms of my own understanding, and it was just fascinating to see the development that had taken place in some of the research that’s coming out. And that often, I guess from a practitioner point of view is, it informs what you are doing, but you are also dealing with very practical things of being in the workplace and people’s ability to go about doing their daily tasks. So the training that people would’ve had, you know, my peers and I would’ve had is actually how things have evolved from a medical model looking at things like dyslexia, et cetera, which was about impairment in person deficits all the way through to thinking about difference. As I said, an educational model, which is better, but still says that the majority of people sit down and do a three hour exam and that’s how we assess whether people are able or intelligent or not and the fusing together of this new learning, like you said around perhaps philosophy but also neuroscience, [00:17:00] and as I say, I’m not doing my training now, so it may well be that that’s taking more shape in those of us who want to become practitioners. I wonder about that now. I wonder about that. I think it’s fascinating, and it’s certainly something that’s of great interest to me, from a practitioner’s point of view what we are dealing with and you talked about social identity, and I guess what we are dealing with is what is our understanding of this thing called neurodiversity as it presents in workplace cultures, or as it presents in our colleges, our universities, in our schools, and still at the moment in our workplaces, if we’re focusing on that, there is still this feeling that it is about deficit, it’s about things that people don’t have, whatever the kind of neurosciences that’s behind that it’s about, oh, well, we’re gonna have to change the way that we do things to accommodate people, and that’s what the, you know, as a political movement, is what neurodiversity activists are pushing back against, that actually there isn’t anything wrong with us and if you stopped talking about what was wrong with us and [00:18:00] started looking how the environment could be truly inclusive because we all have these values about being fair and inclusive, you actually will get to the point where you see people thrive and show up as their best selves, and we hear that in various kind of social identity groups, we hear that in race, we hear that in gender, et cetera, et cetera. The hidden aspect therein lies the rub, and as you said, some of the complexities in terms of how we even identify someone as dyslexic or dyspraxia add to, okay, well, how do we make sense of that in the workplace? So I guess what I’m saying is from a practical point of view, as a workplace coach, things have often already gone wrong by the time you get into the organisation and whether that is intentional or not, you’re often brought in to try and fix a person as opposed to the organisation being more anticipatory and say, well, if one in seven, people are neuro divergent now and perhaps, you know, people who are in very senior positions, how can we look at this from a place of appreciation? How can we hold the mirror up to ourselves? [00:19:00] How can we see the value in that? How can we not get too caught up in these sort of superhero stories that we see now, the superpower, all of those things are of use to some people, but they can distort the narrative of the everyday person who is going to work, who doesn’t feel that they can disclose if they do they feel they have a target on their back, are overwhelmed with emails, perhaps are struggling on zoom calls, for example, it’s those practical every day things that people take for granted in those workplace cultures, COVID shifted things slightly, for a moment, we paused and thought, okay, we’re all discombobulated, maybe we got a bit more empathy for people now but I see that seeping away. So I don’t think that, you know, that really interesting, grounding in, you know, the philosophical aspects and, thinking about the neuroscience, and neurobiology, I don’t think that’s quite made its way across, I’m not seeing that, I don’t necessarily experience it myself, and I think that would be welcome but it doesn’t [00:20:00] stop us from focusing in on the here and now in organisations and actually flipping the script in terms of our own prejudices around what intelligence smartness in what creativity looks like. You know, if we can start to challenge those assumptions and dismantle them immediately, we could make a huge difference in our workplaces.

[00:20:20] David: What does that do for the organisation?

[00:20:22] Jannett: Goodness, me, well, the business case, I think for being neuro inclusive has been made. So, I know that, British dyslexia association have done reports about this, Professor Amanda Kirby writes about this, as do many others, but if we think about the fact that, you know, recruitment, if we think about the cost of recruitment, if we think about the time that it takes to onboard someone, actually, you know, you are saving yourself money, if you make it possible for people, well, first of all, you’re anticipatory you just accept that, you know, as I said, there are going to be, if we want the greatest pool of talent, some of those people are going to be neuro divergent, and what we want to do is make that [00:21:00] recruitment and selection process as inclusive as possible. We want them to play to their best strengths, we don’t want to have huge amount of psychometric tests that aren’t really gonna tell us anything, so you know, we want to give them the opportunity to engage in dialogue with them. We want to make the material, as accessible as possible not verbose, not a thesis. We don’t want application forms that time out when you are in the middle of them. So the savings that you make in terms of your recruitment and selection are there, the benefits that you get just from people who are going to think differently, they’re often seen as the awkward squad because you might get a bit of group think and then suddenly someone drops a span in the works and says, well, what about this? And they may not be able to explain their whole thought process because they may be holistic thinkers, they may just have experienced so many barriers. I heard someone liking it to having a set of keys, being dyslexic in this case, and so therefore having to use these keys to open locks meant that they [00:22:00] just had a better understanding of how keys and locks work to unlock things, that is of huge value in terms of problem solving.

[00:22:07] Jannett: So once you start to see the difference that more difference can make, then you actually can see the tangible benefits of that, organisations have been benefiting but they’ve not necessarily been given due credit, so you have got creative thinkers, you’ve got problem solvers, you’ve got people who may just be nicer because they have empathy, they have experienced bullying, they want to be in workplaces where that doesn’t happen. You have people who are far more loyal, they tend to be stayers in jobs, because once you’ve established a routine and a practice, change can be quite disrupting for you. So you may tend to stay, you have huge leadership potential that is untapped. So all of these things come together in terms of a huge amount of value to organisations that they’re either not seeing, or they’re not recognising and rewarding in the right.

[00:22:56] David: Brilliant. Great. I think there’s excellent introduction into the series, [00:23:00] in the next episode, what we’re going to have a look at is a little bit more detail about this, and particularly what kind of occurs within the workplace but we also are going to start defining some of the terms that we’ve been using, like things like, you know, what is dyslexia? What is dyspraxia? What are we talking about when we’re talking about autism? Because we tend to get these kind of stereotype views in our mind about what they are, and the reality is it’s probably a wider range than we realise.

[00:23:25] Jannett: Yes, indeed. Absolutely.

[00:23:27] David: And we’ll see you in the next episode.


Disclaimer: This is a research review, expert interpretation and briefing. As such it contains other studies, expert comment and practitioner advice. It is not a copy of the original study – which is referenced. The original study should be consulted and referenced in all cases. This research briefing is for informational and educational purposes only. We do not accept any liability for the use to which this review and briefing is put or for it or the research accuracy, reliability or validity. This briefing as an original work in its own right and is copyright © Oxcognita LLC 2024. Any use made of this briefing is entirely at your own risk.

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