Holding Space for the Neurodiverse

As public administrators, public servants, scholars and practitioners we continue to work toward building bridges, networking and collaborating to achieve innovative solutions. At our roots we recognize that people are the driving force behind our core values: accountability and performance, professionalism, ethics and social equity.

However, in thinking about the unrelenting demand to lean forward and cultivate innovation to solve the challenges of governance, I am reminded of a valuable lesson. A short time ago, one of my students “Raina” taught me about neurodiversity and the importance of holding space. During her explanation of what she needed, she proudly proclaimed “I am neurodiverse.” I had not heard of this term—yet I quickly caught on as Raina politely and thoroughly explained the information that she needed to better understand the assignment.

As a point of self-reflection after conducting research, I realized that we all (public administrators, public servants, practitioners, academics, leaders, co-workers and mentors) could benefit from increased awareness of neurodiversity initiatives and resources. Increased awareness can directly improve our ability to achieve innovative solutions to complex challenges.

What is Neurodiversity?

Judy Singer coined the term “neurodiversity” to promote equality and the inclusion of “neurological minorities.” The neurodiversity movement emerged in the 1990s to increase acceptance and inclusion of all people, while embracing neurological differences. “Neurodiverse” and “neurodiversity” refer to the infinite variation in cognitive functioning that can lead to differences in thinking, attention and memory.

“Neurodiverse” is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Asperger syndrome, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and other neurological conditions. However, a uniform definition for “neurodiverse” or “neurodiversity” does not exist. Nevertheless, agents, allies, scholars, scientists and clinicians of the neurodiversity movement agree that no two brains work the same and that those differences are not viewed as deficits.

Neurodiversity Initiatives

The neurodiversity movement utilizes a strengths-based model to promote what neurodiverse individuals can do versus what they cannot. Many neurodivergent people have specific and significant strengths that are sometimes referred to as ‘superpowers.’ For example, some neurodivergent people pay great attention to detail, can identify complex patterns and they are creative and innovative.

Awareness: If You’ve Met One

I believe this point is widely understood among people that have neurodiverse family and friends. However, for those of us that do not, I cannot overstate this point. The first step in increasing awareness is not making “cookie cutter” assumptions about a person that is neurodiverse. If you have met one person that is neurodiverse, then you have only met one person because the spectrum of neurodiversity is unique to the person.

Holding Space in Education & Employment

Holding space means to be inclusive of an individual or group. Among other things, the neurodiversity movement has made efforts to hold space by increasing advocacy in education and calling for equitable and inclusive hiring practices.

ASPA demographics indicate that 54 percent of ASPA members are broadly defined as academics, while 40 percent are broadly defined as practitioners. Here are some ways that academics and practitioners can hold space for a neurodiverse student or employee.

Academics. Educators play an important role in empowering students to share their perspectives and demonstrate their talents. Here are some ways to hold space for a neurodiverse learner:

Practitioners. Several organizations have conducted research and facilitated programs to promote neurodiversity at work. Stigma, a lack of awareness and the lack of appropriate infrastructure (such as office setup or staffing structures) can inadvertently exclude people that are neurodiverse. Here are some considerations when determining how to hold space for a neurodiverse employee:

Cultivate. Establish classroom norms that cultivate a psychologically and emotionally safe environment. Some students may not disclose they are neurodiverse—it’s equally important to respect their discretion.

Explain. Let students know what to expect in your classroom and then be consistent.

Ask. When engaging with students, especially adult learners, ask them “how best do you learn?”

Wait. During class discussion, give students time to process the question, contemplate words, plan a response and share their thoughts.

Engage. Incorporate the use of multimedia and utilize various active learning techniques.

Modify. Vary learning strategies to teach the same material to students with different learning styles.

Plan. Identify multiple ways for students to achieve a learning objective.

Well-being and Inclusion. Make well-being and inclusion for everyone part of the corporate strategy to harness diverse talent, foster an innovative climate and promote career satisfaction.

Awareness. Provide neurodiversity awareness training. Leverage resources that are provided during the Neurodiversity Celebration Week in March and National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October.

Organizational Support. Reinforce messaging and ensure leaders and managers have the knowledge and skills to provide support or resources if needed.

Celebrate Contributions & Superpowers. Promote career satisfaction by focusing on employees’ skills and their impacts on the organization’s mission.

Disclaimer: I am an advocate and ally for all persons, but I am not an expert on neurodiversity.  If you have an additional perspective, then please leave a comment below; we can learn from one another.

Read other articles by Dr. Craft on PA Times