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Neurodiversity & Unconscious Bias: Opening the door to changing hidden minds.

Thriving in the workplace as a neurodiverse person or someone with Executive Functions Skills challenges can be very tough. Many of us can feel misunderstood, overlooked, undervalued, and at times, discriminated against. A huge proportion of neurodiverse people struggle with mental and physical ill-health as a result of years of being told we are lazy, rude and inconsiderate. Life can become isolating, lonely and overwhelming, and that is only exacerbated in workplaces where our colleagues don’t understand, place unmanageable expectations on us, or assume the worst about us. At work, we often do not disclose our diagnosis, or request support, for fear that we might be discriminated against, dismissed or passed over for a promotion.

It’s not surprising that we feel this way; a 2020 report by the Institute of Leadership & Management revealed that half of managers (50%) admit they would be uncomfortable hiring a neurodivergent individual. The highest level of bias was against employees with Tourette’s syndrome and ADHD – 32% of businesses saying they would be uncomfortable employing or managing someone with either of those conditions. Figures were 26% for dyscalculia and autism, 19% for dyspraxia, 10% for dyslexia. The report, which polled 1,156 managers, warned “many people who have neurodivergent conditions experience exclusion, discrimination and damaging stereotyping within the workplace”. And stated that “it is a common misconception that people having one of these conditions, such as dyslexia or autism, are less intelligent and less able, whereas in fact there is no association between intelligence and neurodiversity.”

That misconception is borne of unconscious bias, a phenomenon that can impact us all, neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, but when the bias that remains unconscious is about neurodiversity it can have devastating effects.

As humans we are wired to detect and reject Difference. Even those of us who work towards encouraging diversity can fall prey to our own brains’ natural unconscious biases in favour of what we already know and like, over that which is different.

Unconscious Bias is “prejudice or unsupported judgments in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair” (Vanderbilt University). It refers to biases that happen automatically, without us being aware of our bias. SOmetimes these things are considered outside of our control, however, the more aware we become of unconscious bias, the more we can work to mitigate them.

You may recognise some of the ways that unconscious bias manifests:

Affinity Bias – We tend to prefer those who are similar to us, and we naturally like to fit in as part of a similar group; Peter simply doesn’t get how we do things here – he just won’t do things the way we do them

Bandwagon Effect – We believe something, or we do something because other people believe or do the same; Lucy is lazy because she always gets distracted

Confirmation Bias – We view things in the way we expect to, so if we expect to see and hear something, we seek out information which confirms this and disregard that which does not; Jamie can’t be trusted to get things done because she always does thing at the last minute 

Status Quo Bias – We try not to make a fuss or ‘rock the boat’, or we tend to avoid change; John can’t do a higher level job because of his dyslexia

What this can mean is that despite best intentions, bosses, colleagues and teams may experience an almost unconscious aversion to or problem with a new neurotypical staff member – sometimes even from the first time they meet!  Many of us have felt that – the feeling of being placed on the “outside” of the group through no fault of our own, by a manager or team that isn’t even aware of their internal unconscious bias. And, because it’s hard to define, there’s nothing they can put their finger on or name, no clear feedback they can give, and so there’s nothing that the neurodiverse person can do to change their “outsider” status. The only way to begin to change this is to talk about it openly. To talk about unconscious bias and to include neurodiversity in the conversation. People can’t guard themselves against their own biases until they are aware of them and have the language to discuss them with. 

The added challenge here, is that we can, and do, have unconscious bias against ourselves. And research shows that neurodiverse people often perceive themselves very negatively, without any concrete evidence – so how can we address our own unconscious bias AND help those around us address theirs?

At Connections in Mind, it is our mission to change all this, to inform the wider population about ADHD and its associated executive functioning challenges; you can read more about my personal mission here. I also invite you to join me and my colleague Dr Soracha Cashman on Thursday 7th April at 1pm as we discuss this important and often neglected topic.  The webinar is free and open to anyone who would like to join us.  All you need to do is register for your place on our website.  A recording will be available for all who register, but we do recommend joining us live in order to get the most out of the event. 


7th March, 12:30pm

Zoom (recording available)


¹Institute of Leadership & Management (2020). Workplace neurodiversity: The power Of difference

Barber, C.F. (2021). Neurodiversity and mental health. British Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 10(1).  

Brouwers, E.P.M., Joosen, M.C.W., van Zelst, C. & van Weeghel, J. (2020). To disclose or not to disclose: A multi-stakeholder focus group study on mental health issues in the work environment. J Occup Rehabil 30(1): 84–92.

Jiang, Y. & Johnston, C. (2012). The relationship between ADHD symptoms and competence as reported by both self and others. Journal of Attention Disorders,16(5): 418-426.

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