Senior Head's Blog: The Value of Neurodiversity

Although it has been a slow process, the world of employment is beginning to recognise the value of a neurodiverse team within the workforce.  This article from 'Business Chief' identifies some of the companies that have been particularly direct in looking to recruit from a much broader pool.  It seems inevitable that over the coming years, as we come to understand the working of the brain better, there will be more companies following this pathway.

Although the world of work is becoming more open, the truth is that life as a whole can be challenging for people with neurodiverse profiles, and even though we might be starting to see things improve, traditional biases and prejudices continue to exist leading to possible stigma and discrimination.  The traditional curriculum (and methods) of schools was not designed with any thought about neurodiversity, and this does mean that there can be a lack of accommodation and misunderstanding within schools.  Things are improving, but even with 'reasonable adjustments' in exams, an equal approach is not always an equitable one.

Young people can be brilliant at supporting one another, but they can also get it wrong at times, leading to greater social isolation.  Understanding and education can help, and learning to be more empathetic towards those who find things more difficult on a daily basis can be highly rewarding (for everyone).

I went on a Round Square conference to Aiglon a few years ago, and the keynote speaker was Sir Jackie Stewart, who happened to have had children at Aiglon.  Stewart was a three time Formula One World Champion, having previously competed for the Scottish shooting team, winning the Coupe de Nations European championship twice.  He finished third in qualifying for the 1960 Summer Olympics in trap shooting, just missing out on his chance to compete in Rome, but puts part of his driving success down to the absolute mental calm required when shooting, and the advantage that this gave him on the start line when the pressure was at its highest.

Stewart was at school in the 1950s, and his experience was dreadful.  He was dismissed as 'thick', and left school to become an apprentice mechanic before the age of 16.  He described how the teachers would separate the large class into those who could and those who couldn't, and expectations of the second group were next to nil.  Even now, he struggles to read (when he spoke, he had one piece of paper, with five words written in large green letters on it, to prompt his talk - which went on for the best part of an hour), and was finally diagnosed with dyslexia in 1980, when his son was also diagnosed.  

Stewart said of his dyslexia: 'When you've got dyslexia and you find something you're good at, you put more into it than anyone else; you can't think the way of the clever folk, so you're always thinking out of the box.'  Stewart's life would almost certainly not have seen him enjoy the experiences that he did if he had followed a more ordinary path through school.  His teachers would not have believed that he was capable of achieving what he has done throughout his extraordinary life.  He is currently driving the charity Race Against Dementia, which he set up in 2018.

Sometimes what seems to hold us back is really our own superpower.  With national figures now suggesting that more than 17% of all children have some special educational need (SEN), this is an area that we should all learn more about, to ensure that neurodivergent young people can fully flourish in schools and elsewhere.

Chris Townsend
Head, Felsted School