Embracing neurodiverse thinking
Life has seldom been busier for ICAS Past President, Sandy Manson CA. As Chair of Edinburgh’s renowned Salvesen Mindroom Centre, he’s helping to give conversations about neurodivergence due prominence, while preparing for a headline conference later this month. Jane Renton hears all
From farmer’s son to Lord-Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire, Sandy Manson CA is an example of socio-economic diversity in action. Manson spent almost a decade with Arthur Andersen, then almost three with Johnston Carmichael, including 12 years as CEO. He was also the 2018-19 President of ICAS. With such a wealth of experience in managing and bringing the best out of people across multiple businesses and organisations, Manson found Salvesen Mindroom Centre’s (SMC) motto “It Takes All Kinds of Minds” to be a natural draw.
There are often systemic reasons why those who think differently are denied opportunity. The Edinburgh-based charity, of which Manson is Chairman, has been empowering young people with learning differences since the turn of the millennium. Founders Robin and Sophie Dow were inspired by their own experience with their daughter Annie, who has a unique neuro-developmental condition. As well as supporting young people, the charity also informs parents and professionals – and, through its sister research centre, collaborates with academia to shape future practice.
Manson describes this combination of practical and theoretical application as a unique “two-way feedback loop” where SMC’s hands-on support inspires the advances made in the academic arm – and vice versa. It is this blend of altruism and lateral thinking that appeals to someone with his sharp business sense.
Manson says the Salvesen premise is threefold: “First, how do you normalise neurodiversity, or rather talking about it? Second, what can we practically do to help neurodivergent people, especially young people, to empower, enable and encourage them? The third pillar is teaming up, uniquely in my experience, with our partners at the University of Edinburgh neuroscience department to work together to effect fundamental change.”
This desire to drive transformation informs much of Alan Thornburrow’s approach. Thornburrow, who led Business in the Community Scotland for almost five years, had particular incentive to join SMC last year as CEO. “I am neurodivergent,” he says. “And among my four children, we have dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD. So that was a big motivator for me to move into this role.”
With disclosed neurodivergence in society averaging out at 15%, arguably we are all likely to have some association with different kinds of minds. But how is this reflected in the workplace? “We find pretty low levels of disclosure in the organisations we’re speaking to,” says Thornburrow. “The subject is fairly immature relative to issues like gender equality or mental health at work so we’re not yet having the same sorts of conversations.”
The key to understanding the low levels of disclosure comes back to tackling the stigma of neurodivergence, both in society and the workplace. Both men agree celebrating people who think differently will lead to better outcomes for businesses.
For Manson, refracting perceptions of neurodiversity makes ethical and financial sense: “You will have a better, more effective workplace where you will develop more leaders who will achieve great things. If you want to be an organisation that allows your people to fulfil their potential and come up with creative, brilliant solutions for clients, for customers – that’s why you embrace neurodiversity at work.”
The charity wants young people to be advocates for their own neurodiversity, while demonstrating that what those young people possess as future employees is a USP in itself. Properly applied, the nothing-about-us-without-us model would render the notion of a “box-ticking” exercise obsolete – because the box contains the full spectrum of the workforce. With SMC currently reaching some 1,000 people and families across Scotland per year, Thornburrow wants to see a systemic shift. “I’ve spent a lot of time around business and government, campaigning for change and embedding equalities,” he says. “There’s a well-worn path – you get a senior sponsor, form an employee network, raise awareness, sign a commitment or a pledge. They’re all important elements, but they don’t necessarily drive organisational change at a lived-experience level.”
Manson believes CAs can make a huge difference: “They are some of the most influential people in business globally. If one embraces, harnesses and understands neurodiversity, your employees will be better off, as will your clients, customers and business. We are increasingly working – especially under Alan’s leadership – with business because people in business understand that. And of course we can apply some of that at home, too. It’s a win-win.”
The pandemic exploded the myth that organisations cannot be creative in response to change – a fact appreciated across industry and disability circles. This may be the time to ride that wave: “We can have better conversations about what good looks like,” says Manson, “to the benefit of individual and business.”
The mistake would be to miss the opportunity to capitalise on a paradigm shift that addresses neurodivergence alongside those in the workplace and society in general – such as mental health. For Manson, such openness is key to bringing your best self to work: “I believe effective leaders and team workers are prepared to be vulnerable, and to say none of us are perfect. To be able to say, ‘You might know my talents, but here are the areas I need to work on.’ This self-awareness could percolate right through society, right through the workplace. We would all be much more effective and better off for it.”
Thornburrow agrees: “If you have a strong and empathetic, but vulnerable leader, it creates certain conditions within the wider organisation. That begins with helping to have those more authentic conversations, then creating the conditions where people can feel vulnerable, and actually seeing a bit more about what life is like for them. How do they process the world? It’s about making people feel like they belong.”
Time to talk
Manson’s enthusiasm for the work he is doing with SMC is infectious, particularly as he looks ahead to It Takes All Kinds of Minds (Itakom), a two-day event held at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, on March 13-14. “Embrace it, learn about it. Come to Itakom – online or in person,” he says. The event has attracted more than 50 speakers, including experts on neurodiversity in the workplace, neuroscientists and nutritionists; campaigners, clinicians, comedians; actors, artists and activists. Indeed, it opens with comedian Rory Bremner in a talk titled “ADHD & Me”. For anyone who wants a better understanding of neurodiversity, Itakom is a key event in the calendar.
“It’s a prime example of us bringing together all the things we’ve been connecting between science and reality,” says Thornburrow. “I think we’re part of a step-change, a proper breakthrough moment for neurodiversity. There’s lots of great work being done. But I want to double down and campaign hard. We want to reach a million minds in employment by 2026. It’s really exciting what’s coming up.”
And that is not just on a national level. Collaborations with research institutions, such as King’s College and University College London, suggest a shift in thinking. Yet the biggest lesson is how much can be achieved by starting small. “Understand more about your diversity,” says Manson. “How could you work more effectively as a team by embracing the diversity of thinking that comes with neurodiversity? Grow your awareness. You don’t need to be an expert, just be aware of its potential when you are working in a team. That’s not just in business, but also in wider society and the community.”
For more about diversity and inclusion, visit the EDI hub