Demystifying Neurodiversity: It's Time to Embrace the Different Ways We Think

Bryan Gill, JPMorgan Chase's head of the Global Office of Disability Inclusion and the bank's head of Global Neurodiversity, discusses how empathy is the secret to unlocking potential and new ways to drive positive business outcomes.

April 26, 2023

How often have you heard someone remark, “He's a little ADD" or “She's being super OCD" or “She's definitely on the spectrum"?

Diagnostic terms like “autistic," “ADD" (attention-deficit disorder), “ADHD" (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and “OCD" (obsessive compulsive disorder) have become commonly used descriptors for a host of quirks and unusual personality traits. And while many of us have only a crude understanding of what these terms mean, we often have no problem applying them widely, freely and—often—inaccurately.

On one level, this is basic human nature: When we sense a difference, we try to put a name on it—and, by doing so, find a way to explain it to ourselves. But with our limited understanding of these terms, it is all too easy to misunderstand the people who we tag with these labels. And, in the process, we may trivialize the challenges—and power—of neurodiverse thinking.

Misusing these diagnostic words comes with a cost. By highlighting—and misdiagnosing—these differences, we run a risk of propagating the stigma surrounding neurodiversity. Society tends to dismiss those who are different. That would be a tragedy in any circumstances, but it is a severe shortcoming in a business context, where good ideas are highly valued. In other words, we ignore diverse perspectives at our peril.

Beyond that, though, when we dismiss or minimize the neurodiverse, we also reinforce the notion that difference equals weakness—and that those who are different are somehow insufficient. In the process, we encourage those who are different to mask their quirks, denying them the opportunity to bring their whole selves to the workplace, and denying us the opportunity to benefit from their whole, authentic personalities.

Changing Words, Changing Perspectives

The term “neurodiversity" and its related term “neurodivergent" could offer us another approach to difference. Australian sociologist Judy Singer coined the word in 1998 as a way of acknowledging—in a nonjudgmental way—that everyone's brain develops differently.

According to Cleveland Clinic, “neurodivergent" is a nonmedical term that describes people “whose brains develop or work differently for some reason." On one hand, this means that a neurodivergent person may face challenges—including medical disorders and learning disabilities—that a neurotypical person may never have to confront. Conversely, the neurodivergent may have unique strengths, including better memory, the ability to mentally picture three-dimensional (3D) objects easily and the capacity to solve complex mathematical calculations in their head.

Another benefit of the Cleveland Clinic's approach is that it encourages us to acknowledge that, on some level, we are all neurodiverse. Some of us may need silence to work or may feel the need to be rigidly organized. Some may have difficulties with Zoom meetings or may be uncomfortable with face-to-face interaction. The key takeaway is that we all have “quirks" that we bring to the office, and those distinct differences can be both a strength and a challenge.

Bringing Difference to Work

An estimated 15 to 20 percent of the world's population exhibits some form of clinically diagnosable neurodivergence. This population faces an uphill battle in finding employment. In the U.S. alone, the unemployment rate for neurodivergent adults is eight times the average rate—around 30 to 40 percent, according to University of Connecticut's Center for Neurodiversity and Employment Innovation.

But what often goes unnoticed is that some of these individuals have skills and talents that enable them to look at things differently because they think differently. We're tapping into this underserved talent pool at JPMorgan Chase because these employees can deliver astounding results—and we have the empirical data to substantiate that statement.

In 2019 we introduced the Business Solutions Team (BeST), which matches people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and other forms of neurodivergence to jobs that fit their unique abilities and skills. Things like matching data sources, or verifying address information, or manually inputting data—work that might be intellectually exhausting for neurotypical employees, but is well-suited to neurodivergent ones.

Our results show dramatically decreased error rates, improved morale with our neurotypical teammates and a more accepting, inclusive culture amongst these teams of neurodivergent/neurotypical colleagues. And just as important, our results dispel the myth that neurodivergent people are “less than" because they may think or act differently.

I want to share two success stories that demonstrate the value neurodiverse employees bring to our business:

  • At the height of COVID-19 in Texas in 2020, Bernie lost the job he'd held for 10 years. In his early 50s and mostly nonverbal, he faced an uphill battle finding employment. But My Possibilities, one of the nonprofits we work with to source IDD talent, thought he might be a good match for BeST. We hired Bernie as an apprentice for 60 days so he could try us out—and vice versa. Not only did Bernie get hired after his apprenticeship, but he's exceeded expectations in every way. Assigned a job that we thought would take over a year, he completed it—error free—in just six months.
  • When Kym joined J.P. Morgan in Bournemouth as consultant in 2016, she'd already held six jobs in the two previous years. Although she had a sterling academic record from her university, she struggled to fit in at work. But she liked JPMorgan Chase's culture, and her manager saw her potential. She took it upon herself to do some research and thought she might be autistic; when she received her official diagnosis, she joined our Autism at Work program and benefitted from supportive management, teams and colleagues. Fast forward six years, and Kym is now a vice president who's admired for her leadership, tenacity and ability to see things in data that others don't.

The Key: Empathy

While Bernie and Kym embody different forms of neurodiversity, they demonstrate how—with some minor adjustments to our workplace processes—we can attract overlooked talent, giving them the opportunity to come work here and be their very best. It's a compelling business model that can help create an amazingly inclusive culture. But it takes one key ingredient: empathy.

I want to emphasize that the most important accommodation any business can provide is its allyship and empathy—it's a vital competency for both leaders and colleagues. How we interact, engage and support each other impacts how we perform at work. I advise leaders to encourage their people to step back and ask themselves, “How can I be a supportive colleague? How can I be a patient coach?" The best leaders recognize that empathy needs to resonate with their entire team.

Empathy, simply put, is the secret sauce in our recipe for success for driving results. We're proud of the culture we've built at JPMorgan Chase, one that recognizes we all bring our “true selves" to work with different ways of thinking, interacting and working…quirks and all.

Learn how we strive to provide the best support and environment for people with disabilities at JPMorgan Chase.