Is Neurodiversity the next paradigm shift in Inclusion and Diversity?

Thursday 28 January 2021

Picture of stylized brain - a neurodiversity

Author: Marilyn Swinney, CFA and Alicja Nocon

  • 1 in 7 (15%) people are neurologically different to most of the population. Thinking and seeing the world differently can be a super-power, as is the case for example for Greta Thunberg and Richard Branson
  • Having communication and learning style differences can be disadvantageous, with only 16% of autistic individuals in full-time paid employment. To move the dial, we need an increased awareness and understanding of neurodiversity and community building at an industry level
  • Collaboration and community building through allyship from all stakeholders and minds, has the potential to bring about industry-wide, socially responsible change, where seeing and thinking differently not only enhances value but enables more effective engagement by corporates with their customers

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Different thinking
Business leaders worldwide are currently confronted with challenges of agility, adaptability and connectivity both at the individual level and within the wider workforce, in order to progress or survive in an accelerating digital and transformative environment. On the other hand, McKinsey & Company July 2020 interview discusses activation of the psychophysiological state of the negative emotional attractor, where once stress is aroused, even mildly, it can cause disorientation and cognitive and perceptual impairment. It is no surprise then that mental wellbeing has come into acute focus for a lot of organisations during this pandemic. 

The world is changing, greater uncertainty requires different thinking. To reduce stress and ensure wellbeing we need a better understanding of how different thinkers operate and add value.  Could now be the time for the next paradigm shift in needing to embrace infinite variations in cognitive functioning – individuals with a neurological strength to really think, see and respond differently?


Harnessing diverse talent
Neurodiversity, the diversity of human brains and minds, is a concept and a social movement. Much like biodiversity, it recognises that there is no one ‘correct’ way of experiencing the world. It is estimated that 1 in 7 (15%) people are neurologically different to most of the population. These differences include conditions such as the autism spectrum which includes Asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, and more. 

Thinking and seeing the world differently can be a super-power. For Greta Thunberg, having Asperger’s syndrome helped her in life by being able to see things differently than most people. Similarly, Richard Branson attributes many of the skills he required to become a successful entrepreneur to dyslexia. Employers in the technology and asset management sector have started to harness the power of different thinking. Companies such as SAP and JP Morgan have a special Autism at work hiring programme whilst Auticon, an IT consultancy firm, recruits solely autistic talent. 


The workplace challenge
Despite progress by some companies in recognising the value of cognitive diversity, moving the dial from only 16% of autistic individuals in full-time paid employment requires more collaboration across companies and building community through allyship.

Alicja Nocon, a qualified Actuary turned Neurodiversity and Wellbeing Consultant, shares her story which highlights the need for increased awareness of neurodiversity and community building at an industry-level:

“I spent a decade working in the insurance sector, unaware of my own space on the autism spectrum. Being neurodivergent worked to my advantage in the early stages of my career. For me, making sense of detailed information and seeing patterns in data was both effortless and rewarding. However, whilst I was able to make sense of systems and processes easily, I found it harder to navigate the dynamics of people, with their varied motivations and goals. My communications skills came across as strong, but what others could not see was the energy drain from masking my preferred ways of working to fit in with the majority. Having to navigate a stressful sensory environment and use other people’s preferred communication style was taking its toll on my mental health and wellbeing.

Learning, through the discovery of my neurodivergence, that there was a reason for my difficulties in the workplace and that there were others who process the world differently was transformational. Receiving a formal diagnosis in 2020 enabled me to no longer feel ashamed when asking for adjustments or seeking extra help. I have found that when I explain the adjustments that I need to be productive, for example working in a quiet and uninterrupted space for a couple of hours in the morning, more often than not people are willing to adapt. The three major things that made a great difference when it comes to my wellbeing and performance at work were: Having a buddy to help navigate people dynamics, more frequent check-ins with my manager to help prioritise my workload, and access to a specialist mentor.

One thing I wish I had been able to do was to be able to connect with others in the sector who were experiencing similar challenges, as my journey at times could feel lonely. Having worked through and accepted my uncovered identity as an autistic person, I now want to change this. No one should have to struggle on their own.”     


Community building through allyship
Allyship is the supportive association of individuals that actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive and conscious efforts that benefits community and society. 

Marilyn Swinney, CFA, Head of Institutional Sales, UK & Ireland, at Principal Global Investors, describes her experience of navigating the world with a difference and how having allies helped them all thrive:

"I learnt as chair of a Disability & Neuroability Alliance Network that our collective strength is not in our knowledge or understanding of our differences but in how we share similar experiences and challenges, our intersectionality. Having a non-visible disability – being severely visually impaired myself – I share in challenges with some neurodivergent individuals like not being able to see emotional cues. Equally, I share seeing things differently too. 

I would certainly not be where I am today without the help of allies who emphatically shared in my journey.  Growing up in a developing nation, the solution for my disability adjustment at my large state school was to incrementally move my desk closer to the blackboard as my eyesight deteriorated.  By the age of 13, my desk was about five inches away from the blackboard in a classroom size of 45+. Not only did I feel humiliated and isolated, I struggled daily to capture information from my lessons. 

However, the actions of one courageous individual literally changed my life.  A classmate asked the teacher if I could sit next to her and if she could read everything on the blackboard out to me.  Her selfless commitment to help and be an advocate for me caused more people including teachers to became allies for a more inclusive community at school. Allies who simply had a heart to help, sowed seeds of change in me that moved the ordinary into the territory of the extraordinary – we both won scholarships to UK universities!    

I believe if you start seeing each other as a community, you begin to share in and relate to common experiences.  The ‘#I am’ campaign alongside #BlackLivesMatter last year was a powerful example of intersectionality and how allyship builds community.  For me? #I am a mother; #I am a woman of colour; #I am an ally for Neurodiversity and Divers-ability”.


Collaboration brings change
The current COVID pandemic has brought unique challenges for all of us, but it also highlighted how collaboration can bring about change. One initiative that has emerged during this time is Group for Autism, Insurance and Neurodiversity ‘GAIN’, which Alicja and Marilyn have co-created with a group of insurance and related financial services figures, professional bodies and charities to form a community interest company. GAIN’s vision is to promote and increase neurodiversity within the insurance industry to benefit individuals, employers and society, with allyship at the heart of the initiative. GAIN plans to bring all the relevant stakeholders together in a ‘hub’ to create industry-wide awareness, collaboratively share best practice and resources to build neurodiversity community and confidence throughout the sector. 

Consider the opportunity - across all aspects of the value chain within an organisation that can inhabit a supportive eco-system where inclusion of neurodivergent perspectives becomes an almost importunate cultural demand to progress? Surely this is our collective responsibility too, as investment professionals, as fiduciaries and socially responsible stewards of assets to focus not just on performance outcomes but to also be allies in our work, team, company and industry to build a Financial Services sector that truly sees and thinks differently and engage more effectively with all its customers?  


picture of Alicja NoconAlicja (‘Aleetsya’) Nocon, FIA CERA, has worked as an Actuary in the insurance sector for just under a decade. During this time, she worked across consulting, insurance and reinsurance in a variety of roles. Nowadays, Alicja facilitates greater understanding and acceptance of cognitive diversity through Expand the Circle and GAIN (Group for Autism, Neurodiversity and Insurance) whilst studying towards a Master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology at UEL.







Picture of Marilyn Swinney, a member of CFA

Marilyn Swinney, CFA, has more than 20 years international experience within asset management, across different leadership roles including investment risk and distribution. She is also an ambassador and member of the Disability stream of the Diversity Project, a Business Ambassador for Ambitious about Autism, and a steering committee member of GAIN (Group for Autism, Neurodiversity and Insurance).






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