Myths about neurodivergent people and leadership

By Ludmila N. Praslova 7 minute Read

People don’t often attend voluntary coaching classes on neurodiversity inclusion with the intention to ask ableist questions. They come as a result of they wish to be allies. And but, even amongst would-be allies, the standard query is, “how can I/others be a better leader to autistic people.” Why not “how can I be a better colleague, direct report, or ally?” This considering can’t be defined by a behavior of being excessive in organizational hierarchy – the query is commonly requested by people who by no means had managerial duties.

This seemingly innocuous query displays one of the vital persistent stereotypes related to implicit ableism. Many consider that autistic and, extra broadly, neurodivergent people (e.g., these with ADHD or studying variations) can’t be leaders. Prominent examples akin to Richard Branson, Charles Schwab (dyslexic) or Elon Musk (autism spectrum) are defined away as uncommon exceptions. Other fashions of autistic leadership in business, politics, or the Navy, in addition to the many examples of small business owners, are sensationalized and ignored on the identical time. Overall, neurominorities are nonetheless seen as solely “fit” for subordinate positions or choose (often technical) particular person contributor roles.


Tellingly, one other well-liked query is “which jobs are suitable for autistic (or other neurodivergent) people?” It reveals the identical underlying ableist assumption: that the total vary of jobs isn’t appropriate. In actuality, there’s a great vary of abilities and talents amongst neurodivergent people, matching the total vary of jobs obtainable—plus some jobs that by no means existed till neurodivergent people created them.

Much of the job creation comes out of necessity. Elon Musk mentioned that he solely turned an entrepreneur identified for Tesla and SpaceX as a result of he could not get a job—and so did many others. Bias in opposition to neurominorities within the office is staggering, with 50% of UK managers stating that they’d not hire neurodivergent expertise. According to The Economist, “autism is a condition that defies simple generalizations. Except one: The potential of far too many autistic people is being squandered.” Workplace entry and success boundaries end result within the unemployment fee of autistic school graduates within the U.S. as excessive as 85%, whereas 46% of employed autistic adults are over-educated or overqualified for his or her roles.

Unemployment information appears shockingly incongruous with the findings that autistic professionals will be as much as 140% more productive than the typical worker, and that neurodivergent traits are related to much-needed originality of concepts. 

However, dwelling on the “business case” for range has many limitations. Without the need to help the dignity and thriving of all people, the enterprise rationale for range will not be efficient—and it may possibly even promote commodifying expertise, whereas concurrently dehumanizing people and perpetuating bias. First, the shortage of inclusion is a significant injustice to neurodivergent people, genius-level expertise or not. Second, it is a chance loss for organizations and our bigger society.


Some may say that the unemployment information signifies the necessity to give attention to essentially the most fast situation—neurominority hiring. Organizations can handle the leadership situation afterward. However, inclusion is really efficient solely whether it is systemic. The lack of neurominority perspective in leadership is a vital hyperlink within the vicious cycle of prejudice and exclusion. Without addressing all phases of the expertise pipeline concurrently, we’re unlikely to see a lot progress in inclusion.

Tackling long-standing biases requires an understanding of how these biases perform. Specifically, how do people who contemplate themselves ethical and simply proceed to deny opportunities to others? And why do organizations shun neurodivergent expertise whereas combating a talent shortage?

Myths about neurodiversity

Bias, together with ableism, is persistent as a result of a number of psychological mechanisms help it. Here are three necessary methods through which prejudice in opposition to neurominorities is maintained:

1. Successful careers of neurodivergent people are seen as an exception, through subtyping 

Subtyping is a mechanism that helps persistence of stereotypes by clustering group members who defy the stereotype into subgroups, akin to “educated immigrants” or “prominent autistics.” Separating out people like Anthony Hopkins, Daryl Hannah, or Greta Thunberg can help the concept that others are “really autistic,” leaving the stereotype intact. The perception that success is barely doable for a couple of, distinctive neurodivergent people persists regardless of the numerous examples and information. For occasion, one UK research of self-made millionaires revealed that about 40% of the 300 studied had been dyslexic (vs. 10% of dyslexic people within the normal inhabitants). 


2. Pathologizing of positives and strengths

Because of the general detrimental stereotypes of neurodivergence, even constructive behaviors or attributes will be interpreted as detrimental. In a current research of ethical habits in autistic vs. non-autistic people, autistic members acted ethically no matter whether or not they had been noticed, whereas “healthy controls” (which means, the non-autistic people) had been much less moral when not noticed. The authors interpreted the consistently moral habits of autistic members as an ethical deficit—a pathology. After outrage from the autistic neighborhood, the report wording was barely modified, however a lot of the pathologizing language stays.

 3. Perpetuating misinformation

Another query usually requested within the context of autism inclusion is  “how can organizations work with someone who lacks empathy?” An brazenly autistic enterprise chief Charlotte Valeur was even requested “how do you deal with empathy” in a board place interview.  The assumption underlying this query is that autistic people lack empathy. However, the connection between empathy and autism is complicated. Overall, autistic people range in empathy (similar to neurotypicals); desire relationships simply as a lot; and many report very excessive ranges of caring. The key situation in interactions with neurotypical people will not be an “autistic deficit” however a dual empathy drawback, with neurotypical people missing empathy towards autistic people and exhibiting important computerized bias and exclusionary behaviors.

Similarly, there’s a persistent stereotype that “all people with Tourette’s use obscene words and have anger and cognitive issues.” In reality, coprolalia, the involuntary and repetitive use of obscene language, is a rare symptom, and most people with Tourette’s have regular emotional regulation and intelligence.

Myths about leadership

The present fast-changing surroundings of reinventing work presents alternatives to enhance the inclusion of neurodivergent people on all ranges of organizations. However, along with debunking myths about neurodivergence, this could require debunking leadership myths.

The notion of neurodivergence as an impediment to development is supported by outdated concepts about leadership. These concepts embrace: 

1. A Fascination with confidence and charisma

This can result in the rise of conceited incompetent people, and in the end hurt a crew’s productiveness and morale. With extra consideration to substance over fashion, organizations may gain advantage from the experience and dedication of humble, succesful, and honest leaders—together with neurodivergent ones. Over time, this might additionally assist break organizational cycles of discrimination and make workplaces extra inclusive. 

2. The give attention to command and management administration

According to Ron Carucci, writer of Rising to Power and To be Honest, leaders who “micromanage and exercise every bit of authority that comes with the role, no matter how trivial,” and insist on “making most of the decisions and having most of the answers” create inefficiencies and frustrations. The “command” mannequin doesn’t work within the data and creativity financial system and with self-motivated people and groups. Leaders who bring out the best in motivated groups are sometimes introverted and humble.

In the context of distributed and distant work “command and control” ways turn into more and more counterproductive. Instead of exerting positional energy, the way forward for work requires main by means of affect—and that requires specializing in goal and authenticity slightly than management. Purpose-focused affect is a superb match for neurodivergent strengths, as demonstrated by activists like Greta Thunberg or Daryl Hannah. So is believed leadership derived from creativity and innovation. 

Moreover, one of the vital promising fashions of leadership for creativity is shared leadership. Effective use of shared leadership requires group range, which is commonly impeded by the third leadership fantasy. 

3. The tyranny of “fit” 

Excessive give attention to group cohesion leads to groupthink in leadership groups. A recommended solution to restrict the hazards of groupthink is to nominate “devil’s advocates.” Neurodivergent people, historically labeled as “poor fit,” are more likely to convey unique considering and honesty to assist leadership groups assume extra rigorously, objectively, and creatively, enhancing the aggressive benefit. An idealistic teen local weather activist Greta Thunberg and the tech innovation billionaire Elon Musk couldn’t have been extra completely different from the “average”—and from one another. Yet, it is perhaps our want to interrupt from the tyranny of match that made these two neurodivergent people Time journal individuals of the yr 2019 and 2021, respectively.

Making the world of labor extra inclusive of neurodivergent leadership would require important effort to let go of biases and embed inclusion deep inside organizational processes. However, the stakes are extraordinarily excessive, as implicit ableism is perhaps impeding the rise of the very leadership we have to survive. According to Caroline Stokes, writer of “Elephants Before Unicorns,” and a thought chief on organizational emotional intelligence and government coach powered by ADHD, “survival of the organization in the 21st century will depend on creating high integrity product and people-first culture, to positively impact high-stakes human and planetary needs.” Leaders who observe their moral ideas no matter whether or not they’re noticed or not are more likely to play a significant position in guaranteeing this survival.

 Ludmila N. Praslova, PhD, SHRM-SCP, makes use of her in depth expertise with international, cultural, capability, and neurodiversity to assist create inclusive and equitable workplaces. She is a professor and director of Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California.

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