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Neurodiversity in defence and a chaotic world

Defence has a reputation for recruiting from the same groups of people to achieve the same missions and has a blanket prohibition on the recruitment of autistic individuals.  This article aims to address why this policy is no longer sustainable and to provoke conversation on what changes should be considered in order to allow us to unlock the war winning advantages that neurodivergent individuals could bring to Defence.

Defence in the 21st Century is increasingly data driven, with large quantities of Big Data requiring analysis and significant investment into the processes, including artificial intelligence using systems such as Project Nelson or Foundry.  Experience has taught us that these systems are not sufficiently mature enough to understand the nuance of the data and how the inclusion of a human in the analysis phase could provide significant benefits.  The analysis of large datasets, or production of the tools that make it possible, are not skills that Defence has traditionally been searching for.  There has been a lot of discussion on the floorplates of Command Headquarters about a change to the policy regarding the recruitment of neurodivergent people to try and seek the advantages that they can bring.  This change will necessitate changes in attitude and management styles, although research indicates that the inclusion of diverse thought processes is likely to be beneficial to the organisation that adapts most effectively.

The Royal Navy has recently followed the lead of DSTL and the Metropolitan Police in establishing a network to support and advocate for neurodivergent personnel.  Effectively admitting that we have a few such people in Defence and that they possess skills that are very valuable.  This is in contrast to the “don’t ask; don’t tell” approach that Defence has historically taken; that it isn’t possible to be recruited with any form of diagnosis of autism, and that we simply aren’t that interested in neurodiversity unless it is a Specific Learning Disorder (SpLD) such as dyslexia or dyspraxia where we have processes in place to support learning.

What is Neurodivergence?

At this point it’s worth taking a quick side-track into neurodivergence and what that means, because it’s not particularly well understood.  The NHS more often talks about Neurodevelopmental Conditions (NDCs) which are typically defined as being conditions that can lead to a person’s mind developing differently to the norm.

This doesn’t mean that there is a “normal” for the human brain, because there are as many different “normal” brains as there are humans and every one of us has our own unique normal.  However, more usually we define neurodiversity by associating it with specific conditions that are diagnosable.  Such as someone who requires additional tools to be able to make sense of the day to day world; a place that has most definitely not developed as being fully accessible or friendly to everyone.

This means that more often than not, as a society, we associate neurodiversity with conditions such as Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Dyslexia. Sometimes people associate it with mental illnesses such as depression.  , But this doesn’t capture the full picture that these illnesses are more often linked with the pressures of coping with NDCs, especially if they are undiagnosed, rather than being NDCs themselves.

As someone who has no formal diagnosis of any form of neurodivergence, I have had to make numerous small adjustments to be able to maintain a stable quality of life, whether this being learning how to fulfil my need for patterns as well as having the ability to break them.  In my experience the second is a necessity to be able to be neurodivergent in the military.  Other coping mechanisms that are often developed include dealing with high proximity to people an inevitable part of life in the military.  I don’t like it, but I can live with it, so long as I have the ability to exercise a bit of my self-control in some part of the day, even a few seconds is enough.

I’ve also had to accept that I will constantly be compared to a certain tall, rather socially challenged character from one of the most popular comedy series of the 21st Century (Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory); in some ways it’s flattering, in others, not so much.

But part of the issue when it comes to addressing neurodiversity is that Defence doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what they think it is.  A lot of people seem to think that it’s either Sheldon Cooper or Raymond Babbitt.  If it’s neither of these then it’s that kid you knew at school who couldn’t sit still for an entire class and who failed their exams because they couldn’t stay in their seat.  Autism specifically is a spectrum, it’s more commonly referred to as the Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and as with any spectrum people exist at all points along it.  It’s also worth considering that those individuals that are commonly referred to as functionally autistic, or low-level autistic, feel their condition as strongly as any others but their needs for management have less of an impact on those they work with.  Society defines the level of their autism by how much their needs for reasonable adaptation impact on the non-autistic people around them.

The Information Age

In this age, data analysis and understanding of increasingly complex systems is becoming a core component of what Defence needs to have in order to deliver success with our latest technology.  People who can make sense of complex data and systems will be essential to our ability to operate effectively in the Information Age, and those who do it intuitively will prove their value time and again in much the same way Bletchley Park did in the Second World War.

But, a number of these people will be neurodiverse in some way, it’s inevitable, the very skills that we are searching for are often associated with NDCs.  If we’re going to be searching for individuals who may be neurodiverse, then Defence needs to have a plan for how we’re going to give them a valuable and rewarding career.  We will need to find a way to recruit them, followed by considering how do we retain them because not everyone measures success in promotion, or selection for that “plum job”.  Equally, we shouldn’t reduce the excellent standard of assessment that exists for determining someone’s suitability for a career in Defence and neurodiverse applicants will need to pass these in order to be credible candidates.  Rather these assessments should be reviewed to determine if reasonable adjustments to account for neurodiversity can be made without compromising those standards.

The Benefits to Defence

Defence has historically struggled to deal with people who don’t fit inside the box, because it’s a lot easier to manage people who act in the way that we expect them to.  Disbarring people who are diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder from joining the military doesn’t allow us to consider that there is a potentially rewarding career for the individual and significant benefits for Defence.

The Chilcot inquiry highlighted that Defence needs to continue to find ways to challenge groupthink and to introduce diversity of thought into the decision-making processes.  The inclusion of neurodiverse individuals would allow this cycle to be broken as well as the inclusion of any other diverse groups such as different backgrounds.

The world is a chaotic system, with complex interactions between individuals, cultures and societal constructs.  The military that is able to make sense of this chaos in the quickest and most effective way will gain tangible advantage, in the tactical scale for certain, and potentially in the operational or even strategic.

If we are interested in recruiting and retaining individuals who take pride in their ability to find common threads and imposing order on these complex systems, then Defence needs to consider how we want to find these individuals and how we make a career more attractive to them.

Personnel Management

This will necessitate some significant changes in the way that we manage our personnel, because in much the same way as Defence has had to adjust to honestly and compassionately managing personnel’s mental health as we’ve come to understand it more, we’ll have to find different strategies to managing neurodiversity.  In the same way that we accept that different items of equipment don’t have the same maintenance schedule, why do we insist that all our personnel have the same management process?

The reason that we will need these strategies is because the very same capabilities that make neurodivergent personnel so potentially valuable make them a challenge to managers.  Consider an individual with ASD, who is unable to differentiate the term “do what you can”. What the manager means is almost certainly “do what is reasonable within the time that you have and don’t burn yourself out.”  However, for someone who takes instructions literally this is likely to be taken as “do everything that you can”.  In this case, certain ASD conditions would mean that this individual would work on the project constantly, ignoring their own needs in order to produce a result that is of the highest possible standard.  For some people with NDCs any form of criticism feels like a grievous wound so they would continuously proof read until they’re content it’s perfect.  Then they would submit it, probably inside the deadline and in an exemplary format.  To the manager this appears to be an ideal employee, they are hard-working, with an excellent work ethic, perhaps they become that individual for whom the wages of success are more work.  In this case you could give them more projects, and they would continue to do everything that they can, sacrificing more and more of their own time, working longer and longer hours.

It’s not well known, but people with ASD can function on less sleep than most for longer, which is fortunate because insomnia is more common, but the pressures on them are just as apparent when time finally catches up on them.  It’s very easy to keep loading our successful performers as much as they can apparently take, but if we don’t do this compassionately with due consideration to any neurodivergent conditions they may possess, then we run the risk of burning them out.

What this worker needed was compassionate management and an explanation from their manager that “do what you can” means do a reasonable amount.  The short term gains are at the expense of damage to (and possibly the loss of) the individual.

Defence is looking for these individuals, people who are self-starters, highly motivated and who produce usually high-quality work on the first attempt.  But it will require a significant change in our thought process in order to get the most value from them.  The ongoing crisis associated with Covid-19 has demonstrated Defence’s ability to adapt at speed to a new way of working, and the shift to personnel working from home has proven very successful.


I’m not arguing that we should have a blanket change in policy and should stop neurodiversity being a block to an individual joining the military, for some people this will never be a suitable career choice.  But we are missing out on some extremely talented individuals by the current policy and that means it’s probably time to have another look.  How can we potentially open the doors to the right people, with the right skills and managed by people who understand how to get the most from them without taking too much?

This article has described some of the potential benefits that Defence could unlock through the acceptance of neurodivergent individuals into uniform.  Additionally, it has discussed some of the reasonable alterations that would be required in order to better manage these individuals and has described the risks and opportunities that neurodivergent individuals could bring to Defence.

Gordon J

Gordon is a serving member of the Armed Services working in Command Headquarters in policy making, specifically in inclusivity. He has worked in teaching, equality and diversity for over 10 years and has experience working, teaching and living with Neurodivergent people.

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