Intersectionality and neurodiversity 

22 September, 2023, 14:43 pm GMT

Chloe Mumford

By Chloe Mumford

Human head made up of purple puzzle pieces on a yellow background, symbolizing neurodiversity

Organisations often view diversity as distinct groups of people within the workforce, rather than individuals that so often bridge several diversity groups. But, could seeing them as separate put organisations and workers within them at a disadvantage?

In this article, we look to explain what ‘intersectionality’ is, how neurodiversity fits within it, and why it’s an important concept for organisational leaders to understand and build into their DE&I efforts.

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single issue lives.”

– Audre Lorde

What is intersectionality

Intersectionality is a framework established by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, which started off being used to analyse the correlation between gender and race in creating overlapping systems of disadvantage, more specifically for black women. Since then, it has developed to include a much wider spectrum of social and political categories, such as sexual orientation, class and disability.

Intersectionality is about understanding that inequalities are experienced simultaneously, not individually. Talking about intersectionality, Wendy Smooth, author and scholar of intersectionality and American politics, said that it is “at its core concerned with questions of power and inequities” and that it is premised upon five tenets:

– an understanding that social identity categories and power systems shift over time and space

– a recognition that privilege and marginalization can coexist within individuals and groups

– a commitment to social justice

– a dedication to anti-essentialism and the variation within categories

– an investment in the multiplicative nature of identity(ies)

Intersectionality and neurodiversity

Around 15-20% of the general population is estimated to be neurodiverse, but despite this, until very recently, it has been widely misunderstood and overlooked by employers and HR departments. Many people with neurodiverse conditions, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and various mental health and neurological conditions, struggle in a world that’s not taking their needs into account. Gradually, organisations are beginning to take neurodiversity more seriously, and are trying to find effective ways to support their neurodivergent workers.

One of the main struggles neurodivergent people face is obtaining a diagnosis. While it may not seem like a necessity, there are organisations that may require a diagnosis before neurodivergent employees receive support. However, a common stereotype of a neurodivergent individual persists as a white, middle-class male, similar to Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory.

But, as we all know, neurodiversity is found across the social stratum. No two neurodivergent people are alike; and with that, they have different characteristics, strengths and challenges. This is where intersectionality comes in.

“We need to bring this topic of intersectionality to the forefront – what does it
mean to be black and neurodiverse? What does it mean to be black, gay, AND
neurodiverse?” – Megan Abman 

How neurodiversity intersects with other systems of disadvantage

Neurodiversity and race

Research by Am J Public Health shows that it is harder for non-white people to receive an autism diagnosis. While things may have changed since this 2009 when this study was done, research published in 2016 confirms that white children are twice as likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis than black children. Additionally, research from 2019 identified that Asian pupils in the UK are half as likely to be diagnosed with autism.

Race and neurodiversity should be acknowledged and considered by organisations through an intersectional lens, because if neurodivergent employees cannot receive a diagnosis, they may not be able to receive support from their workplace.

Arguably, there should not be a requirement for a diagnosis. But as it is, this could put neurodivergent people of different races at a disadvantage.

Neurodiversity and age 

The term ‘neurodiversity’ was first coined in the 1990s, a decade in which autism was just starting to be more widely recognised and understood, particularly in adults. For these and other reasons, many people from older generations didn’t know about or understand these concepts up to very recently.

In fact, as social stigma against mental conditions has lessened over the years, more people are getting diagnosed much later in life, with women receiving diagnoses much later than men. But getting a diagnosis is itself a barrier, with waiting lists at UK hospitals stretching up to two years.

Additionally, to receive an ADHD/autism diagnosis, individuals are required to talk about how it impacted them as a child. However, it may be harder for older generations to identify how their neurodiversity affected them as a child, because the culture in which they were raised was vastly different. Cultural norms and societal attitudes toward neurodiversity have seen significant change over time. In previous generations, there may have been greater pressure to conform to social norms and expectations, which could have led to masking or suppressing ADHD/autistic traits.

Neurodiversity and gender

Much of the early research and criteria for diagnosis of various neurodiverse conditions, particularly autism, was created around men. It is still much harder for women to receive a diagnosis, as the symptoms most understood and looked for are stereotypically male traits.

In women, neurodiverse traits may appear more subtle as they are more likely to mask their traits; imitate social behaviors and norms more effectively than autistic men. This can make their condition less apparent to specialists and delay diagnosis. In fact, is has been reported that of the people who receive an autism diagnosis, there is 1 female to every 4-5 males. Furthermore, females with autism are more likely to have co-occurring conditions such as anxiety, depression, or eating disorders which often take precedence for clinical attention.

Why it’s vital for organisations to understand intersectionality

Organisations invested or publicly driving inclusion in their workforces tend to throw about the term ‘bring your whole self to work’. But, to truly allow workers to feel like they belong, businesses need to embrace the individual for all their differences, and not require them to subscribe to a single identity. It’s crucial for leaders to understand the importance of viewing inclusion through an intersectional lens, in order to create a sense of belonging for all. Here’s a great article about the ROI of creating inclusive work cultures.

Ultimately, research shows that allowing employees to bring their whole self to work brings a host of benefits to their employers, including boosted innovation, revenue and job satisfaction. Intersectionality isn’t just a buzzword thrown around in HR circles, it’s a powerful concept. When leaders grasp it and act on it with empathy, it brings about positive change for businesses and the people within them.