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OpinionShort Read

Neurodiversity is…

Neurodiversity is a term that’s been around for a while. In a nutshell, it means that brain differences are just that: differences. So neuro-developmental conditions, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism aren’t ‘abnormal’, they’re simply variations of the human brain.

I’m passionate about creating an inclusive environment in Defence. I’m an advocate of being ‘you’. This means bringing your whole self to work and understanding how you interrelate with colleagues to form the best high performing inclusive teams. For me, inclusion is about diversity of thought, profession, culture and ways of working.

Neurodiversity is everywhere, whether you know it or not

With at least 15% of the UK population estimated to demonstrate an identified ‘difference’ – things like dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism, attention deficit disorders – some of us will be self-aware, have a diagnosis and support, and will have made adjustments, but many of us won’t. Some of these attributes present a distinct advantage to working in technology roles and digital professions attract those with ‘gifts’ and abilities to code. An ability to join dots not obvious to others, or enhanced analytical skills, are a few examples.

Understanding and meeting basic needs is essential for us to do our best work

It is really important to take account of the physical and psychological environments we work in. There are basic needs that have to be met for any of us to do our best work. For some, unless the needs are met, will not be able to function effectively, or, in extreme cases, at all.

In a secretary role, I supported a senior leader. During a meeting it was clear he was preoccupied as he couldn’t focus on the session. In conversation afterwards we discussed what had happened confidentially and I learned he had Asperger’s syndrome. The distraction was simply that someone had moved furniture and the impact it had was significant. We learned the physical environment was important and needed setting out in a standard way, or we needed to explain before making changes why they were needed and that the changes were temporary. The point of me telling you this, is the change was the openness, creating the space and psychological safety for the person to talk about neurodiversity is a great first step. For the team to be aware and make simple adjustments made things better for the individual and his performance rocketed as he felt increasingly safe to be ‘different’. The impact an environment can have on people can often be the difference between being ‘brilliant’ or ‘broken’.

Making things open makes things better

Creating the space to discuss the issue within your teams is a great step, learning more about yourself and your colleagues, the support we each need, and about our preferences and styles really matures a team. We broadcast a LOT of information within Defence, each of us has preferences and knows what sticks. One of my colleagues pointed out in the past when writing papers for example, we needed to make it work for everyone – for the visual, the data-driven, and those who prefer prose and emotion. In essence, we need to make the effort to be inclusive to get the best engagements and outcomes from our work. How many times have you heard things like ‘silence is consent’ as you’ve received a large amount of information in real-time? How might this impact someone who is reflective and needs time to absorb and analyse it before being able to deliver the absolute gem of an idea that can radically change its course for the better?

Defence Digital Service developed their ‘team charter’ after spending time explicitly figuring out each other’s working preferences to align with each other. It includes things like being forgiving of mistakes, not placing blame, and asking for help. This form of approach to a more open working environment can provide opportunities for neurodivergent people to thrive.

Our leaders are opening up.  How about you and yours?

Defence must be commended for its recent efforts on Diversity and in the last few months alone, Sir General Patrick Sanders published a brave account around his deeply personal experience of mental health. Second Sea Lord ‘coming out’ as being Autistic allowed him to share some of the advantages being on ‘the spectrum’ has to enable him to deliver a hugely complex role. So, our general commitment to Diversity is moving in the right direction as our leaders demonstrate leadership by opening up and discussing their experiences. We do, however, have a LONG way to go to create and sustain the inclusive psychologically safe environment that will enable us all to do our best work. Not everyone will be comfortable sharing their story or be supported in this way, many people with these attributes will have experienced discrimination, bullying, being ridiculed and therefore reticent to declare. There’s a host of support groups and networks in work and beyond that do great things to advise and support a variety of groups and individuals.

But my call to action is that it is on each of us to create and develop the environments within our teams, to look beyond the surface, and be curious about the impact of our interaction. Did everyone understand your point? Are people clear about the task? Is someone uncomfortable discussing numbers?

I hope this has helped provoke a little thought and start some conversations. My experience in these matters is: the cavalry isn’t coming to make our environments more inclusive for us, it requires our focus and effort and when we do that, the results are among the most rewarding. Let us each create a legacy of inclusion everyone can be proud of!

John Fitzpatrick

John Fitzpatrick is Director Digital Enablement within Defence Digital.

With a wealth of experience in Programme Management, Operations and Fraud Control, and having held key roles leading the development of Government's first Digital Academy, Digital and Transformation Strategies in DWP and implementing them in Justice, Food Standards Agency and the NHS, John has a wealth of knowledge and expertise to help him within Defence Digital, FLC’s and Cross Government.

John started work in the Civil Service as an Admin Assistant in a Benefits office in Manchester and has worked in central and local government around benefits, fraud, inspection, consulting, operations, policy and programme management.

John now leads The Digital Enablement Directorate in Defence Digital covering areas including Common Technical Architecture, Automation and Innovation and Cloud Hosting.  He also takes great pride in being a key advocate of the MOD Women’s Network.

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