The reality of Neurodiversity

Thought Leadership

Strategist Tyla Grant discusses the reality of neurodiversity within everyday life and the workplace, highlighting the importance of viewing everyone as an individual.

I probably shouldn’t admit this but I wish we could go back to the slower, emptier and quieter stores of lockdown one. Okay, so the long queues and scarily empty shelves weren’t a vibe and neither was the ongoing threat of a global health crisis, but for the first time ever, almost overnight, my accessibility dreams had come true. 

Some Autistic people find shopping in stores challenging and I’m one of them. The weekly grocery shop is an expedition that I prepare for meticulously. My kit list includes noise-cancelling headphones to help with stimulation, a shopping list so I don’t end up impulsively buying foods that I don’t eat “because they’re on offer”, and I use chewing gum to stim as I potter around the shop. One week I was struggling to accept the fact that I am Autistic and can’t just ‘pop to the shop’, so I tested if this routine is even necessary. The panic attack I had at self check out confirmed that yes, it is. Along with processing sensory information differently, my Autistic brain craves predictability and in environments I have no control over the more I can do to limit sensory overload, reduce anxiety and minimise the reliance on executive function, the better.

There are stores trying to make the shopping experience more comfortable for Autistic people by introducing something known as a ‘Quiet Hour’.

Quiet Hour gives all customers the opportunity to shop in an environment that is less stimulating. This means lowering or turning off music, switching off LED screens, controlling the number of people in store, reducing the choices and having space to take a moment to regroup. 

However, the bar for neuro-inclusion is so low that brands are being praised for actions that are more performative than affective. Some brands have advertised a Quiet Hour taking place midweek at 10-11am. When was the last time you booked an hour off work to go shopping in the middle of the week? Flexible working is on the rise, sure, but I’m sure most Autistic people aren’t popping to Oxford Street before a client call. Rooted in the assumption that making a quiet off-peak time quieter is a great idea is the ableist idea that the needs of Autistic people can’t come at the cost of an allistic consumer’s experience. Making this all the more ironic is that accommodating the needs of Autistic people meets the wants and needs of plenty other consumers.

Brands can do better. Placing your Quiet Hour in peak times demonstrates that you value your neurodivergent customer. The same goes for traditional advertising. Including neurodivergent individuals and storytelling within your marketing not only makes us feel seen, but does a lot to educate others about neurodiversity as a whole. Accessibility is nothing new, but we’re still seeing very little brands actually using tools like closed captions and alt-text on a regular basis. Sure, social platforms are slowly making these more prominent and easier to use, but the pace needs to be picked up. These are incredibly quick fixes to helping a neurodiverse audience feel that they’re being considered within the marketing process.

The same applies for inclusion in the advertising industry. The inclusive hiring processes and the desire to have a diverse workforce have two completely different consequences for an Autistic employee depending on whether it’s driven by industry peer pressure or baked into an agency’s culture. 

At work, just like in life, ‘the way things are done’ doesn’t always work for Autistic people. Hiring a neurodivergent employee may come with changing company policy or processes to bring back the business practices of yesteryear, agenda’s in advance of meetings, summary notes after them, written requests with expectations and deadlines. These may sound obvious and like something you’d do for any brief and client meeting but for a smaller adhoc job we rely heavily on common sense. This is risky because common sense relies on a shared understanding, which on a neurological level isn’t always present when neurotypical and neurodivergent people interact.

To be hired for our uniqueness and our difference and then be expected to work like all the existing employees is completely unfeasible and truly ironic. The most helpful thing that can be done to make the workplace experience easier for neurodiverse people is to view everyone as an individual. 

Tyla is the founder of Black and Neurodiverse, a community funded project focused on creating space for Black neurominority youth to access support through grants and its podcast.