We should do more to champion neurodiversity in the industry

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Growing research has established an unbreakable link between neurodiversity and one's propension to creative thinking. The creative industry itself has among the highest rates of neurodiversity representation in the whole business world, from dyslexia to adhd and beyond.

Then why don't we do more to champion it?

According to research, neurodiverse students often find school and study quite challenging, as the average teaching methods do not cater for the needs of those with any given form of neurodiversity. And according to dyslexia-friendly e-reading platform LEO, this begs an important question: for every neurodiverse creative that enters the industry, how many are left behind?

We reached out to a LEO representative to discuss the topic in more depth below.


Neurodiversity: this creative superpower needs better nurturing

In the United States of America 14.5% of the adult population stands at over 6ft tall. 

In the NBA, however, this figure jumps to over 95%.

This is a no brainer, right? 

Taller people can get closer to the net, which makes better basketball players. 

But not only are they taller, they have been trained at every step of their development process on how to make the most of this. By the time they hit the NBA, they’re well and truly harnessing the potential of what makes them different.

If you’re wondering what the point is, then consider this.

In the UK around 10-15% of the population can be defined as having a neurodiversity, a term which applies to conditions such as ADHD, Autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette’s Syndrome. 

Despite decades of stigmatisation, there is growing recognition that neurodiversity can be a creative ‘superpower’ - an inbuilt propensity for lateral thinking, problem solving, and a knack for producing brilliant ideas. 

So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that representation of neurodiversity in the creative industries is thought to be roughly double the national average. While it might not be at the NBA’s level of over 95%, it’s clear that advertising is a natural home for many neurodivergent people.

Of course, the issue of neurodiversity is infinitely more complex than the average height of basketballers in the NBA.

But it is worth pausing to think about the educational path that creative students take to reach our industry. Particularly, the way modern education is structured and the activities that are prioritised and valued.

Rote learning, long reading lists, memory-cramming and essay writing - all things that can throw up barriers for many neurodivergent students.

This issue becomes even more profound when taking into account socio-economic factors that can influence the chance of them making it to our industry at all. For neurodivergent students without the means to support them through the challenges of formal education, the game is truly stacked against them.

So given all the evidence around neurodiversity as a creative superpower, why isn’t the industry doing more to get these students to our door?

Why do so many neurodiverse creatives talk of their experience of ‘finding’ the industry, instead of the industry finding them? Particularly as once they get here, they thrive.

Creative leaders such as Kate Stanners (Global Chairwoman and CCO of Saatchi & Saatchi), and Aidan McClure (Founder and ECD of Wonderhood Studios) are two such examples. Both very open about their own experience with dyslexia, they are part of a growing network of champions of neurodiversity in the industry.

So, what more can we do?

The gap between education and vocation remains

What should be a super-highway bringing neurodiverse talent into the industry, is at best a slow and windy back lane - and one riven with potholes. 

Speaking with neurodiverse creative leaders in our industry, a common narrative emerges: difficulty focusing in school, disappointing report cards and struggles with reading/writing based educational orthodoxy.

Which throws up a terrifying question. For every neurodivergent creative that ultimately finds the path to the industry and thrive, how many are not? 

And while advertising courses are typically less formal than the majority of educational institutions, there’s no escaping that psychological and structural barriers remain. The problem starts here. 

Research taken by Commercial Break in 2020 showed that almost two thirds of students with dyslexia aren’t able to finish their reading lists. For a third of respondents, the challenges posed by reading lists are getting to the point that they are reconsidering further education altogether.

And while it’s not a challenge that is unique to advertising, other industries are starting to sit up and pay attention. In the past five years, companies such as Microsoft, IBM and UBS and EY have either reformed or are exploring alternative recruitment policies to gain an unfair share of talent. Sound like a familiar story?

At this point the problem becomes not just one of representation, but of economic survival: if we want to thrive as an industry of innovators and problem-solvers, we need to improve the pipeline of divergent thinkers amongst our ranks. 

To do that, we need to recognise the role the industry must play in nurturing prospective neurodivergent talent.


Artwork credit: Scott Balmer

If the problem starts with education, so too does the solution

We need to have a vested interest in student development long before they knock on the door looking for a placement. We can’t wait for neurodiverse students to come to us. We need to be doing more to help them get here.

This means more presence and visibility of the creative industries as a future home for neurodiverse students. 

This means fostering a workplace environment that both champions and normalises neurodiversity.

This means a more hands on approach to helping neurodiverse talent develop and learn in the years before they formally enter the industry.

There’s a lot to do, but there are reasons to be optimistic

More creatives than ever before are talking openly about their experiences living and working with neurodiversity, providing an important example for young creatives.

Organisations such as The Future is ND are plugging the gap between talent and companies, empowering neurodiverse creatives at the same time.

Since 2017 the DMA Talent’s Neurodiversity Initiative has worked to increase comprehension of neurodiversity within the industry, publishing extensive workplace guides on ADHD, Autism and Dyslexia. 

In 2020, Universal Music published Creative Differences, a handbook for embracing neurodiversity in the creative industries. 

And new technology is offering more ways for students to access information, resources and vocational experience than ever before. It has never been easier for industry leaders to connect with and nurture future talent; whether that be one to one, or to 100. In January of this year we launched LEO - a free online tool for students with dyslexia working towards a career in the creative industries. Everyone learns differently, so we’re committed to giving students the option to do exactly that: learn differently.

Over time, we hope to grow the platform into a fully accessible resource of the most insightful, brilliant thinking our industry has to offer. The level of support and offers of involvement we have received since launching LEO is a testament to the appetite for initiatives such as this in the industry. 

So, we should be optimistic. But we also need to make sure that our words translate into actions. 

By igniting our collective passion for reimagining ways of doing things, we can help change the educational landscape and better equip neurodivergent students for a career as creative professionals. 

Here are three things companies can do right now

  1. Make sure that neurodiversity is part of the wider diversity remit. 
  2. Work with experts such as The Future is ND or the DMA Talent Neurodiversity Initiative to understand what your workplace can do to ensure ND talent thrives.
  3. Heighten presence, visibility and conversation with schools and educational institutions to ensure ND students are aware of pathways into the industry.

LEO is a dyslexia friendly e-reading platform. Header image: Robin Rossi


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