The Eccentric Genius: Neurodiversity and Design

Interview with Bradford Bucknum, Sustainable Business Network, Philadelphia

What is your “elevator” definition of neurodiversity?

Neurodiverse people have brains that differ from the majority, in the ways they organize and process information. This can include people on the autism spectrum, people with sensory sensitivities, and people with ADHD. There is a lot of overlap in these conditions, and the specific patterns of neurodiversity vary quite a bit.

Neurodiversity is entirely distinct from intelligence. There is as big an IQ bell curve on the autism spectrum as there is in the general population. Many neurodiverse people with high intelligence are treated as though they are stupid or lazy, because they struggle with things which seem simple to neurotypicals. That’s one of the many reasons we need better education and awareness about differences in brain function.

Besides the fact that workplaces are required by law to accommodate people with different physical abilities, it has become a common practice and consideration to incorporate these accommodations into the design of a workplace. Do you think it will become the new normal for the workplace of the future to make accommodations for people who are neurodiverse?

I certainly hope so!

As most physically disabled people can tell you, we still have a long way to go in terms of ADA workplace compliance. When it comes to neurodiversity, we are only beginning to acknowledge that things like sensory sensitivity and executive function difficulties are based in physiological differences that can’t be overcome by an act of willpower.

However, as we start to tailor some environments toward the neurodiverse, two things will happen. One, that a lot of people who don’t think of themselves as ‘sensitive’ will realize that they are a lot more comfortable and productive in spaces where they have control over their sensory input. Sensory environments skew heavily toward the ‘high-end spa’ aesthetic, and plenty of neurotypicals pay big bucks for that.

And second, neurodiverse people often have skills–such as intense focus, spatial visualization, and linear analysis–that are increasingly vital to our technological systems. Someday the world will be run by the neurodiverse, and they will re-make it to their own specifications.

Why would it be a loss for our society to not consider how to be more inclusive in the workplace to people who are neurodiverse?

Neurodiverse people have superpowers! They will literally save the planet!

Hyper-focus, systems design, programming, scientific analysis, creative insight—there’s a lot of overlap between the kinds of skills that built the tech economy, and the superpowers of the neurodiverse. There’s a reason that Silicon Valley and other tech-heavy areas have a higher rate of autism diagnoses among their children. Our species is evolving to become more neurodiverse, as a response to the ways we have changed the environment.

It’s my bet that neurodiverse people will be key players in solving the problems that threaten our existence, such as climate change, because unlike most neurotypicals, they can’t easily ignore uncomfortable circumstances. Most of us learn to compartmentalize the idea that, say, much of our coastline will be under water in 50 years, or that the Trump administration is killing small children and wrecking our democratic institutions.

Neurodiverse people, not so much. They don’t have those cognitive filters. They see a problem, and will not rest until they solve it.

How will the business of the future better compete because of their inclusion of people who are neurodiverse?

They’ll have someone on speed dial who can disable their competitor’s infrastructure with a few keystrokes.

Seriously, as the world becomes exponentially more complex, businesses need more people who don’t think in conventional hierarchies. Neurodiverse people are the ones who can solve the problems we don’t even see coming.

There is an argument that in the age of growing cybersecurity threats that a more neurodiverse workforce is the key to a safer country. Right?

Absolutely. I have a friend on the spectrum who was recruited as a counter-intelligence hacker, on the basis of a personality test. There’s a huge overlap between neurodiverse brain patterns and traits that make good hackers—self-directed curiosity, hyper-focus, disinterest in status, disinterest in profit, indifference to social norms. My friend broke the test; they paid her to create a better test, then to create a hacker training program, then to recruit more hackers.

The company that recruited my friend was founded by a man who noticed that our educational system isn’t training students to do the kinds of jobs that are needed in the current technological landscape. Most of the best hackers are college dropouts. Russian hackers are kicking our rear ends; it’s estimated that the U.S. needs a hundred thousand counter-intelligence hackers to guard our national security, yesterday.

How does thinking about sensory accessibility in the design of our workplaces benefit all workers and not just those who are neurodiverse?

When we make places sensory-friendly, we’re making them healthier and more comfortable for everyone. Things that bother sensitive people are often things that affect everyone negatively, on both mental and physical levels, like toxic odors, flickering lights, and distracting sounds. Just because neurotypical people can filter them out or push through doesn’t mean it isn’t taking a toll.

What are some of the barriers workplaces face that attempt to be more inclusive? How can they surpass these obstacles?

A lot of design trends during the last 20 years or so are decidedly counter-sensitivity, which means that a lot of work environments need mitigation on a structural level. Open office plans, minimalist design with terrible acoustical reverb, cubicles with noise bleed, can lights, fluorescent lights, noisy automated systems–these are just a few standard design elements which can cause acute discomfort and cognitive derailment in sensitive people.

Ignorance is also a problem. Things which feel effortless to a neurotypical person may be close to impossible for the neurodiverse, and this results in frustration all around. A neurodiverse person may be brilliant in some areas and incapable in others; understanding and support can go a long way.

As much as we try to educate the neurodiverse to ‘behave normally’ we need to educate neurotypicals as well. Basic awareness about sensory and cognitive processing differences, as well as an appreciation for everyone’s unique gifts, will enrich all of our lives.

The myth of individualism needs to die. Humans are interdependent. When we understand that on a societal level, we build the kind of social and physical infrastructure that allows all of us to thrive.

Who are the businesses who are leading this type of inclusion?

The STEM fields are way out ahead—software engineering, pharmaceutical testing, scientific research. What we’re suffering from now is a lack of interface between acceptance in these industries and everywhere else. A good software engineer can choose their own working conditions; a service worker is at the mercy of circumstance.

There’s also a big gender imbalance in how people are diagnosed and treated. Neurodiverse women are less likely to receive the support they need, and often struggle to be employable.

Tell me about the Eccentric Genius course and what people can gain from it.

I created an eight-day e-course, the Eccentric Genius Habitat Intervention, that helps you analyze the way your own nervous system interacts with your environment. It’s goofy, fun, and takes about 10 minutes a day. We go through each sense, with open-ended questions about what your experience is, what your preferences are, and what things affect you.

I find that most people assume that their own sensory experience is universal, and don’t always think about how they’re accommodating irritants in their surroundings until it’s brought to their attention.

Also, there’s often an overlap between sensory and executive function issues. Sensitive people may have trouble identifying what small changes might have the biggest impact on their overall quality of life, because each experience is processed as a discrete concern, not an overall pattern. This course will help you discover those patterns, and create a more congenial habitat.

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