What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity definitions have varied through cultures and over time, but at its heart, it is really about “difference.” Harvard Health Publishing defines neurodiversity as "the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one 'right' way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits."
Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dyspraxia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or traumatic brain injury are all examples of neurodiverse conditions, or neuro-differences. Neuro-differences can be appreciated as a social category similar to differences in ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or ability.
As neurodivergence is becoming better understood, the nuances of the neurodivergence spectrum and the number of people who are impacted by neurodivergent traits are becoming much more apparent. Research by the National Library of Medicine and featured in a 2022 report by Forbes found that 15%-20% of the global population have been diagnosed as neurodivergent (ND). The remaining majority are neurotypical.
Neurodiversity & neurotypicality
Neurodiverse individuals process information, perceive the world and may interact in a way that differs from the majority of their peers. By promoting acceptance, understanding, and support for individuals with diverse neurological profiles, people's strengths can be amplified and challenges can be minimized, leading to workplaces that work better for all of us.
The term "neurotypical" refers to individuals whose neurological development and functioning fall within the expected range of variation, without any significant neurodevelopmental differences. Neurotypical individuals typically engage in communication and interaction patterns considered more common or typical in society.
Recognizing the significance of both neurodiverse and neurotypical individuals ultimately contributes to stronger teams and more rewarding working lives for all of us. Focusing on an individual's unique abilities and strengths, regardless of their differences, allows us to create organizations that are more inclusive and effective.
Why does neurodiversity support better cybersecurity?
In the field of cybersecurity, as well as many other industries, a neurodiverse workforce can provide considerable advantages. A Deloitte report found that companies with inclusive cultures were six times more likely to be innovative and agile. Further, neurodivergent people bring unique skills and talents with them into the workplace:
- Creative problem solving - A notable feature of any high-performing team is that the members of these teams tend to think creatively about the challenges they face and will often be diverse in make-up and mindset. Neurodivergent people tend to excel at thinking outside the box and seeing things from different angles, which can be invaluable in spotting potential security vulnerabilities or malicious activity.
- Diverse perspectives - A broader range of perspectives and skillsets will help identify and mitigate security threats. When unified around a difficult business challenge, strong teams tend toward collaborative competition and innovation, focused clearly upon solutions and the overall result. Making your workplace more neurodivergent-friendly can provide a massive competitive advantage in the technology space, as you are instantly maximizing the potential of all your people to thrive/perform, and creating a workplace that will draw in new talent that thinks differently.
- Pattern matching and meticulous attention to detail – Some subsets of neurodivergent thinkers often have an extraordinary ability to recognize patterns in data and information that might not be immediately obvious to others. Pattern recognition can be used to make sense of complex problems and uncover insights that can lead to solutions.
- Unswerving focus - Neurodivergent individuals tend to have exceptionally high stamina when working on the tasks that they enjoy. They also tend to work well under pressure, in a crisis.
These are some beneficial qualities you will find in abundance in the neurodiverse community. Such capabilities can make these individuals gold dust for incident response teams or software development teams.
What are the security benefits of neurodiversity?
Accommodating for neurodiversity can also lead to significant benefits for the security posture of an organization, including the creation of better security policies, tools, technologies, and products:
Better security technologies
Tools and products can end up being poorly built if accessibility is not considered during the initial design phase of a project. As Angela Duggan, Director of User Experience at BeyondTrust, points out: “Security needs to be seamless, just a part of the normal flow. It shouldn’t stop a user in their tracks. For security to stick, it needs to be designed effectively, or else you'll inadvertently introduce even more risk.”
Neurodivergent individuals will often spot bad design more quickly than others, as they may struggle more on a personal level. Fixing bugs and creating more intuitive features that can accommodate a more neurodiverse (ND) user group, can therefore improve products and prevent others being excluded from using them in the first place.
Better security policies
Good security policies are grounded in making it straight-forward / easy for people to do the “right things” and make the right choices (otherwise you get noncompliance through stealth/ignorance as people take short cuts just to “get the job” done - this can often also lead to the rise in Shadow IT as folks maintain their own little local systems that bypass intended controls). Often, neurodivergent colleagues will excel at spotting certain types of errors and inconsistencies that may otherwise go unnoticed by more neurotypical workers. This can complement the strengths of neurotypical colleagues and help ensure that, with a diverse workforce, issues can be more rapidly uncovered and mitigated, or prevented in the first place.
“In order to be successful in protecting our clients from Cybersecurity threats, we have to be bold and creative in implementing intelligent identity security solutions. A core way to achieve this is to use the strength that a diverse group of employees working together, can provide. This is not only diversity of background and experiences, but of how people think – our neurodiversity. Our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts, which leverage these differences, is what makes BeyondTrust different—and is a cornerstone of our success.”
--Mark Rankin, Chief Human Resources Officer, BeyondTrust
How do you foster neurodivergent advocacy and acceptance in the workplace?
Embracing neurodiversity involves recognizing that we all see the world from different perspectives. But what can we do about these differences? Whether it is at a personal level as someone who has a recognized neuro-difference, or at an organizational level as an employer who wants to get the best out of their employees, difference can be challenging—but it isn’t impossible. As recent research from Neurodiversity in Business (NIB) shows, there is a lot organizations can do to support neurodiverse colleagues:
- Make wellbeing and inclusion for everyone, including ND workers, a pillar of corporate strategy to harness diverse talent.
- Objectively evaluate and promote the effectiveness of adjustments to find out what works for whom, and how quality of provision can be benchmarked and shared.
- Focus on relationships, in particular psychological safety and line manager confidence, to foster joint responsibility.
- Consider how policies and practices can develop careers and ambitions, beyond surviving, to thriving.
Build flexibility into the office environment
Neurodiverse individuals may face challenges in the workplace that neurotypical individuals may not naturally appreciate or recognize until these areas are highlighted. While neurotypical individuals may be unfazed by certain external stimuli, neurodiverse individuals may experience a stress response.
For instance, some neurodiverse individuals may have particular sensitivities to noise, light levels, smells, or even excessive social interaction or interruptions. Stress responses in neurotypical individuals may manifest differently and can be extremely draining for them, too. When workplaces have colleagues who are aware and mindful of their needs, it is far less likely that neurodiverse people will become overwhelmed.
The following are a few examples of low-cost workplace accommodations that can make a big difference:
- Lighting changes
- Access to private and quiet workspaces
- Flexible schedules
- Pre-meeting agendas and meeting notes
- Distraction-free stretches of work (e.g., minimizing marginal functions and required meetings)
- Clear performance expectations
- Mentorship programs
Bring neurodiversity awareness into your hiring practices
Adjust your hiring practices so you can attract and retain a talent pool of neurodiverse employees. As Pete Wharmby states when talking about autism “Right from the start of the recruitment process, the odds are stacked against us... there’s the interview when you have to shake hands and make small talk....” Some simple strategies you can follow to create a neurodiversity-friendly interview include:
- Simplify your interview questions
- Simplify your job postings
- Eliminate uncertainty by providing a clear agenda with clear instructions ahead of time.
This level of clarity won’t just benefit neurodivergent applicants, but ALL candidates.
Create a strong dialogue of compassion and acceptance
A strong security culture is always fostered by transparent conversation/dialogue. As with so much in life, balanced and considered communication is the key to getting it right for everyone.
Heidi Mavir recently highlighted how a prevalent view of the neurodivergent as being somehow “broken” has held back many people for years. Thankfully, this can change if people choose to become more compassionate. Taking steps to foster inclusion and support among employees can help break down the damaging misconception that neurodivergent individuals and those with health conditions are frail or incompetent.
Neurotypical and neurodivergent people alike share the characteristic that we are all individuals, we all have strengths and weaknesses, and we all want to be heard. If there is genuine care and curiosity shown to people to establish what helps and what hinders them in the workplace, the entire work culture can benefit.
By promoting acceptance, you sow the seeds of personal growth in all of your employees, so that they can be more effective and maximize their contribution to achieving the business goals of your organizations.
At a personal level, I have found being kinder to myself about the multiple things I have struggled with for years has helped me accept my own difference and, in turn, be more compassionate to those different from me.
Build a psychologically safe environment—one built on allyship and C.A.R.E.
A psychologically safe environment is one in which people feel it’s OK to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences (Gallo 2023). To foster this type of working environment means leaving judgement at the door when dealing with colleagues, becoming a true Ally, and “Being there for people”. Being an ally to your neurodiverse individuals is particularly important, as these individuals may struggle with self-advocacy due to fear of prejudice and discrimination that is developed through years of the hard experience of people not “getting them”.
Being a true ally will allow people the space to feel safe to open up about issues of concern should they wish to, and this is where selective vulnerability comes into play. Rather than falling into the trap of over- or under-sharing with colleagues and forcing issues, choosing selective vulnerability means being approachable, sincere, and gentle without being overbearing. Selective vulnerability as a supportive style of communication is hugely helpful in approaching everyone—and particularly neurodivergent folks—who may find traditional workplaces and management styles additionally challenging.
If this all sounds rather convoluted, my personal mnemonic for dealing with this complexity is a simple and straight forward one to remember, and that is always to apply C.A.R.E. The beauty of C.A.R.E is that even if you forget what the individual letters refer, to you approach every interaction with the memory that it is important to care:
- Champion acceptance of difference
- Allow people to bring their whole selves to work
- Respect selective vulnerability
- Embrace psychological safety
We should all know what it feels like to care about something or someone, and we should look to build this into the approach we take to everyone we meet and interact with as a platinum rule that means we “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” When we C.A.R.E. for others they feel valued and can achieve their true potential.
How BeyondTrust is creating a workplace where neurodiverse and neurotypical individuals can thrive together
The BeyondTrust difference is that we C.A.R.E. We are proud to be a neurodiverse-friendly organization, and we believe that our approach has helped us unlock the full potential of all employees so we can achieve greater success as a team. Here are a few of the ways we support our neurodiverse colleagues at BeyondTrust:
No Meeting Wednesdays
BeyondTrust strives to provide distraction-free stretches of work for all of its employees each week by coordinating no-meeting Wednesdays. As much as possible, BeyondTrust employees, including the management and leadership teams, strive to avoid scheduling meetings on Wednesdays.
Support for remote work
BeyondTrust supported remote work for many positions well before it became trendy (or mandated by a pandemic). Further, our secure remote access products—Remote Support and Privileged Remote Access—help us enable other organizations to securely support employees who benefit from working remotely.
BeyondTrust supports focused, staff-led resource groups that allow the whole organization to grow and learn more about diversity and difference. I am privileged to be the first lead of the Neurodiversity resource group, which is made up of neurodiverse employees and allies who are dedicated to promoting understanding and inclusivity in the workplace. We offer peer-to-peer support and mentorship to neurodiverse employees, as well as resources and tools to help them succeed in their roles.
In our first six months, we’ve:
- Generated an internal online community space to promote neurodiversity
- Celebrated Neurodiversity week together in March
- Established a company-wide Body Doubling Productivity Power Hour that helps folks focus to complete tasks
- Planned upcoming events centered on neurodiversity techniques, such as Pomodoro.
Our resource group has been instrumental in promoting greater empathy and understanding of neurodiversity in the workplace. We have helped to break down barriers and promote greater collaboration and teamwork among all employees. We have also worked to raise awareness of the unique challenges that neurodiverse individuals may face and provide guidance and support to help overcome these challenges.
Together, we have created a work environment that promotes greater understanding and inclusivity of neurodiversity in the workplace, and that supports and includes the needs of all employees. Our neurodiverse employees are valued members of our team, and we recognize the vital role they play in our success.
We continue to champion a working environment and organizational culture in which individual difference is recognized, embraced, and valued. Success is a journey not a destination. There is always more that can be done in any organization. BeyondTrust is an organization that is on that journey, and most importantly, we are on it together.
Click here to learn more about the employee experience at BeyondTrust.
Matt Treadwell, Customer Trust Analyst
Matt Treadwell is a Customer Trust Analyst at BeyondTrust, where he communicates the security and compliance controls that ensure BeyondTrust's solutions/products continue to secure thousands of customers around the globe. His background in information science and risk governance across a number of sectors has allowed him to develop a passion for delivering first class customer service. He is also proud to lead the Neurodiversity@BT Resource Group, established to support colleagues, share knowledge, and champion inclusion for all.