By Catherine Gater, Equality Diversity and Inclusion Programme Manager, Wellcome Sanger Institute
In February, we welcomed Sara Rankin, Professor of Leukocyte and Stem Cell Biology at the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London, to speak to us about neurodiversity in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) workplace.
What is neurodiversity?
The term ‘neurodiversity’ refers to neurological, rather than psychological differences. These differences are classed as the result of natural variation similar to biodiversity. It covers specific learning differences (spLD) such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as well as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Often, these differences occur together – 60 per cent of those with one condition will have another as well. It is likely that there is some genetic component to having an spLD or being autistic as it often runs in families, but importantly it is independent of intelligence.
Sara herself identifies as being neurodiverse. Her own early experiences of primary school were very frustrating. “I remember being called ‘slow’ and ‘stupid’,” explained Sara. “I only became aware of my own dyslexia and dyspraxia as an adult. I am now qualified to support others and I work hard to raise awareness in this area. You could say that I am on a mission!”
For neurodiverse people, frustration with the difficulties experienced at school, university or in the workplace can lead to low self-esteem. Sometimes this frustration can lead to anxiety and depression if the right support is not in place, especially for teenagers.
Strengths and challenges
There are well-documented challenges associated with dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and autism but it is also true that many scientists are neurodiverse, including Einstein, Edison, Temple Grandin and others. “There are also many regular scientists like myself who are neurodiverse, but most don’t advertise the fact,” said Sara.
Clearly, there can also be strengths associated with neurodiversity, such as creativity, non-linear thinking, hyper-focus and alternative approaches to problem-solving. Everyone experiences their neurodiversity differently. “There’s a saying that if you have met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” Sara reminded us.
“I like to refer to individuals with high IQ and a learning difference as ‘twice exceptional’,” said Sara. Many mask their neurodiversity and may remain undiagnosed until as late as Higher Education or after years at work. “At Imperial, we see a spike in diagnosis in our fourth year students, due to the fact that in year 4 they have to work in a different way (doing a lot of research and writing extended essays) and some don’t have the strategies to enable them to do this. Neurodiversity is not something you grow out of,” warned Sara.
Neurodiversity in science
Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workplaces are particularly welcoming to non-linear thinkers. Many tech businesses in the grip of the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ are actively recruiting neurodiverse staff. Around 37 per cent of entrepreneurs are estimated to be dyslexic. Nevertheless, while the Royal College of Arts reports that 29 per cent of its students are dyslexic, only 8 per cent of students at Imperial College have declared a spLD of any kind. Is this discrepancy between the two institutions due to STEM students being less confident to disclose, or is neurodiversity a particular disadvantage in school, leading to a leaky pipeline in science education?
There is a reported attainment gap in the grades achieved at GCSE by STEM students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and 40 per cent of pupils with SEN have a learning difference. “Diagnosis typically costs hundreds of pounds and is coupled with long waiting lists. As a result, we are seeing a SEN crisis in schools,” asserted Sara. “We need to see earlier diagnosis and the right support in place. It’s also important that neurodiverse STEM role models step forward to inspire the current generation of students.”
To help stem this leaky pipeline, Sara has teamed up with colleagues specialising in SEN and STEM education to set up 2eMPower. They aim to inspire, nurture and support twice exceptional secondary students to explore careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine. They run workshops with high ability students and their parents, providing high teacher ratios and adapted environments to help the students to fulfil their considerable potential.
“For parents, the workshops represent an opportunity for networking, as many of the students are home educated,” explained Sara.
With networking and peer-to-peer support in mind, Sara is now partnering with the Royal College of Arts, Royal College of Music and the V&A Museum to set up ‘ND in Albertopolis’, a staff and student network for all those who identify as neurodiverse. She has also inspired companies like GSK to establish their own networks and hopes that the Sanger will follow suit. She has also been awarded funding from Imperials ‘excellence fund for learning and teaching innovation’ to raise staff awareness, provide assistive technologies and make teaching more accessible for students with spLDs.” Adaptions include replacing exams and extended essays with grant writing and data analysis for example.
In the workplace, Sara reminded us that spLDs and ASD are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, which means it is illegal to discriminate on these grounds. For Sara, if you know or think you might be neurodiverse, your success will depend on your self-awareness of your personal strengths and weaknesses and your ability to self-advocate. Employers should raise awareness among managers and staff and encourage disclosure, so that line managers can offer support. There are also low cost on-line assessment tools available, such as the Do It Profiler.
“It is important to accept and value the person for their difference,” she explained. “Often when neurodiverse staff are appraised, their challenges will be noted but their strengths are missed. We should be careful to utilise strengths and support challenges instead. When it comes to recruitment, we also need to think carefully that our recruitment methods are not disadvantaging neurodiverse people. Individuals who are neurodiverse process information more slowly, so an interview where you are expected to answer quickly is stressful, providing questions just 30mins ahead of the interview gives that important thinking time, this is something you could do for all interviewees, such that everyone can give their best answers.
Employers can find advice online on workplace adjustments but materials are not always well adapted in the area of STEM techniques, such as learning a new lab process.
“For me personally, my greatest challenges are writing, time management, going to new places and public speaking. However, I’m good at outlining the big picture, being creative, linking disparate ideas and writing concisely and in plain English,” said Sara. When asked how to remove the stigma that might discourage parents and adults to be more open to early diagnosis, she points to the self knowledge and support she has gained by being transparent about her own diagnosis. “Publicising the stories of role models and celebrating strengths are key. I like to tell parents, I think your child is twice exceptional!”