Strengths Not Disorders – Neurodiversity At Work

Strengths Not Disorders – Neurodiversity At Work

By Ian Pettigrew (Director and Coach, Kingfisher Coaching)

Strengths-based approaches are at the heart of my work and my research interests, and a focus on strengths is something that has always resonated with me; I’ve never totally understood the excessive focus on what is wrong with us (or other people), and I much prefer to start with a focus on what is right with us (and others). Each day, I’m working to help people see their strengths (as many people aren’t aware of them or don’t see them as strengths) and to help people value the diversity of strengths that other people bring.

Having seen the CIPD’ Neurodiversity at work’ guide launched, I was delighted to be invited to blog about my reflections from a strengths perspective. The CIPD ‘Neurodiversity at work’ guide is well worth reading, and reading properly.

Let me start with a confession: I read the report on a train, expecting to skim-read and make sense of it on a 22-minute journey as I thought I knew what to expect. However, I then used a 2-hour train journey the following day to properly read the report, and I now have an annotated and highlighted copy, having explored some of the further reading and endnotes. The report made me think, challenged me, and I learned things so I would recommend giving the guide a proper read.

The guide really resonated with me on a number of key points:

Words matter

I worry when I hear people describe others as ‘on the spectrum’ (often using air quotes) as it feels like a convenient way of labelling and – often – dismissing others. Words matter. I’m pleased to see the guide offering a suggested terminology, and using the term neurodivergent (having cognitive functioning different from what is seen as ‘normal’), whilst being clear that ‘human neurodiversity is a highly complex spectrum on which everyone sits’ so there isn’t a simple binary between neurotypical and neurodivergent.

Difference isn’t weakness

It is all too easy to like people who are like us; I see it in teams where ‘birds of a feather flock together’ and it can feel easier to get along with like-minded people. I also see teams and organisations where they have diversity, having recruited people who are ‘different’, but they don’t have inclusion as they are not truly valuing that diversity. Many a time in a deep dive into strengths, team members will say to a colleague “It must be really hard to be you!” before then realising that it isn’t, it is simply that other people are different to us. In order to get over this, we need to see the strengths that other people have, not just compare them to us. In the words of the guide, people who are neurodivergent ‘…may experience individual challenges uncommon to neurotypicals – but they can also possess unique abilities akin to human ‘superpowers’ – abilities that can contribute to a competitive advantage when properly appreciated and leveraged by neurodiversity smart employers’. We sometimes see people not as they are, but through the filter of who we are, and we should work to get over that; We really need to appreciate the strengths and superpowers that other people bring.

You are the expert in you

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, other people are the expert in them and we need to be wary of jumping to conclusions about other people. Labels can sometimes help aid understanding, but they can be damaging in putting people into seemingly-convenient boxes. The report cites Stephen Shore who says “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. I do believe a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and I’d encourage all of us to learn more about neurodiversity but to do some with some humility and don’t make assumptions about what other people are good at, or what their needs are.

Let’s talk about strengths

With a caveat about labelling, the guide explores a number of common neurodivergent thinking styles, and I loved the perspective the guide takes, for instance ‘Autism … may be more constructively viewed not as a ‘disorder’ but as a neuroprocessing style that results in a fundamentally different experience of the world.’ If we appreciate this, then the conversation should focus on the strengths that autistic people bring and the guide does a great job exploring strengths associated with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and tic disorders. Often, simple adjustments will have a significant impact in unleashing these strengths; for instance, dyspraxic people might prefer a roller ball mouse to other types.

Let’s focus on strengths, not so-called ‘disorders’; please give the neurodiversity at work guide a proper read as it will help us all to focus on what is right with people.


About Ian

Photo©John Cassidy

Ian Pettigrew runs Kingfisher Coaching, helping leaders to develop their true strength so they can get the best of themselves & others. He does this through designing and delivering leadership development programmes, coaching, writing, blogging, keynote speaking, and publishing a podcast. Ian’s areas of deep expertise are strengths-based leadership (he is a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach) and personal resilience. He wholeheartedly believes that everyone has talent and can shine, given the right lighting.

Follow Ian on Twitter @KingfisherCoach


Support our campaign

The CIPD Manchester Branch campaign will include Twitter chats, some podcasts, and an Ignite presentation from DisruptHR York, as well as this blog series. The blogs have been written by a range of people, from within the HR and L&D world as well as outside. Some are from a personal perspective of being neurodivergent and others from neurotypical people. We are very grateful for people’s contributions in helping us explore how we can support neurodivergence in our organisations, and help us to step-up the pace of change and inclusion. 

Neurodiversity At Work

  1. The case for neurodiversity at work
  2. Open up your mind
  3. How to create a neurodiversity-friendly workplace
  4. Understanding the benefits of neurodiversity
  5. How can we support neurodiversity in the workplace?
  6. Strengths not disorders 
  7. How inclusive is your organisation? | Ignite Talk
  8. Responding to neurodiversity amongst customers and employees

If you would like to contribute a blog and share your personal experience or that of your organisation, please get in touch. 

If you’d like to enhance your understanding of the issues, follow the hashtag #NeurodiversityAtWork and I would also thoroughly recommend CIPD’s Neurodiversity at Work report. 

We look forward to your reading, listening and contributing to this campaign. Leave us your comments below and don’t hesitate to share this article with your networks. Together we can make a difference by raising awareness.