Celebrating the unsung superpowers of the neurodiverse brain, and why the gender-biased, one-dimensional view of neurodiversity is holding back innovation.
I fumbled my way through life and work for over 40 years before I was informed by my then-girlfriend (a brilliant MD/PhD in biotech) that she was on the autism spectrum… then she gently added, “and I’m pretty sure you are too.” You’ve got to be kidding me, right? We both seemed normal to me.
Thing is, I knew nothing about autism beyond the stereotypes like poor social skills and repetitive behavior, neither of which fit me. Diagnostic tests are exclusively based on boys; widespread gender bias abounds, like this article from HBR that presents a male-centric, one-dimensional view of autism in the business world.
Yet autism presents quite differently in women (working screeners here and here). Unlike boys, girls are more motivated to fit in and make friends; highly intelligent girls learn social rules through careful observation, trial and error. We develop the skills of masking and camouflage, even from ourselves. We can be empathetic, read voraciously, have friends and jobs… in other words, we can come across as normal, until those moments when we’re not.
It’s nearly impossible to hide who we are; our differences eventually reveal themselves. No matter how good I think I am at social interaction, like many other HFA women, I’ve lost jobs, friends and relationships without understanding why. I often feel awkward and misunderstood around neurotypicals, like I’m speaking a totally different language.
Learning about how autism presents in women was an incredible revelation – finally, my life makes sense! – but when I shared with my dad, he quickly advised, “don’t tell anyone.” Because that’s what that generation did, right? Sweep uncomfortable things under the rug. Act like everything is normal.
But what is normal? We need to start normalizing something that’s an unrecognized and under-valued part of our humanity. So I’ll start writing about my experience in hopes that more people start to understand and appreciate the superpowers that diverse humans – and especially diverse women — bring to the party. We’re the rebels with a cause, and we have a lot to offer.
The pattern-matching perks of neurodiversity
It’s called a spectrum for a reason – divergent traits can be radically different from person to person, which is why it can be so hard to identify or diagnose. It’s also not black and white; there are many shades of grey. The benefits can also vary by individual: the right side of this list fits the conventional view of autism, but my strengths are on the left:
Processing data quickly.
Consistency in tasks once mastered
Grasp of complicated mathematics
Attention to detail.
Let’s dig into the lesser-known benefits, shall we? A core theory about the neurodivergent (ND) brain is that it’s more connected than that of an average person (aka neurotypical, or NT.) This connectivity helps them “perceive and process more at any point in time than a non-autistic person.” It’s also linked to the bottoms-up thinking style that powers the creative and strategic traits.
Bottoms-up thinking is considered a neurodivergent trait. It’s not exclusively autistic, nor exclusively male or female. However, since women mask so many other ND traits, this way of processing information is often a tell-tale sign of a differently wired brain, leading to feelings of not fitting in or misunderstood.
Most people take in the concept before the details; they start with a theory or idea, then find details to support it. But bottoms-up thinkers take in the details before the concept. Our ND brains are constantly taking in information, consciously and subconsciously, and then finding patterns across it all.
- “Most people have to have a theory first, and then they try to make the data conform to it. My mind works the opposite way. I put lots of little pieces of data together to form a new theory.“
- “I’m good at trawling through the Internet through vast amounts of journal articles and then picking out what are the really important things. I then synthesize all this resource down into one short paragraph… I’m a bottom-up thinker – I take the details and put them together.”
This is, by the way, aligned with “first principles” thinking popularized by Elon Musk. As James Clear writes, “it’s a cycle of breaking a situation down into the core pieces and then putting them all back together in a more effective way. Deconstruct then reconstruct.” But Aspies don’t even need to deconstruct; we live in a deconstructed world, endlessly seeing possibilities for how it can be constructed better.
(UPDATE: Just discovered that this could also be a function of low “latent inhibition,” which I’ll write about in another post.)
The pattern-matching superpower
In many NDs, this detail-first approach means they’re great at getting down in the weeds to deeply understand the way things work… and we can do that a lot faster than most people. It also means we can get bogged down and easily feel overwhelmed; if I take in too much information too fast, my brain freezes up and I need a nap to “reboot.” I also need a lot of silence and intentional downtime.
But I and others (usually those who also fall in the “gifted adult” camp) have also honed our natural pattern-matching abilities into a superpower. I’m compelled to find the central organizing principle that can create coherence, simplicity and wholeness where an NT would see only chaos. I’m compelled because it helps quiet my brain, and I love solving an infinite puzzle.
You might say my special interest is coherence – seeing how to orchestrate individual parts into a powerful whole system – whether that system is an individual human, a highly complex global organization, or a large-scale system with “unsatisfactory equilibrium points” resulting in homelessness, deforestation, climate change and other challenges.
As I’ve been exposed to all aspects of organizations through various roles, I’ve made it my mission to find practical tools and approaches that are effective at the intersections, knitting together what’s been artificially separated for no apparent reason I can see.
This pattern-matching superpower should theoretically be valued by leadership. I believe it was Steve Jobs’ secret sauce; very likely on the spectrum, Jobs was an absolute master at creating simplicity and coherence across a complex global ecosystem.
Could this be why the most successful companies today are tech companies? Their advantage isn’t the technology; it’s their minds. Many of these leaders literally see the world differently, crafting innovations and coherent business strategies that are radically different from the status quo.
While full-blown Asperger’s Syndrome or autism hold back careers, a smaller dose of associated traits appears critical to hatching innovations that change the world.
“A typical child might just accept, ‘Okay this is just the way it’s done, this is how we do things in our culture or family,” said Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center in Cambridge. “Someone with autism or Asperger’s, they kind of ask those ‘why’ questions. They want more logical answers. Just saying ‘Well we do this just because everybody else does,’ that doesn’t meet their test of logic.”Why Shades of Asperger’s are the Secret to Building a Great Tech Company
But these superpowers don’t seem to be valued outside the tech world. And frankly, the way it manifests in women is so unique that I don’t think they’re recognized and valued in tech either. I’ve lost or left jobs precisely because I’m a rebel who thinks different. I’ll tell those stories in later posts, but suffice it to say, it’s taken me a long time to realize that I simply can’t work with companies (as an employee, a consultant or a coach) who won’t even try to see the world through my eyes. This is why I now exclusively work with “rebels with a cause” or those who appreciate us.
A call to be taken seriously
All the women I coach happen to be bottoms-up thinkers, even if they don’t resonate with other spectrum traits. They’re brilliant, intuitive, and can get lost in all the possibilities they see. Traditional, linear goal-setting usually doesn’t work. Different brains need different tools and support… but more than anything, they need to be recognized.
These women aren’t going to fit in according to traditional standards. They aren’t good at working their way up a career ladder. They’re divergent.
Leaders, it’s time to identify, value and nurture the incredible pattern-matching brains that see possibilities that no one else can. Every organization needs Connectors: the people who play at the intersections and see how things could be integrated. And many of these connectors are women: the so-called lost girls who have incredibly intuitive insights, yet aren’t taken seriously… or their social quirks get them ostracized or fired.
“They are very often incredibly creative individuals, almost like Renaissance people who are extremely bright… On the other hand, the anxiety can be completely crippling for them, especially when they are misunderstood. People see a verbal, bright woman, and the expectations for that person are way, way high.” says Dania Jekel, Executive Director, Asperger/Autism Network– “Invisible women, lost girls: being female on the autism spectrum”
If you’re a leader or manager who’d like more insight for yourself or your employees, or you’d like an Aspie brain to review your strategy if you’re trapped in complexity, let’s talk.
What questions do you have? I’d love to hear from you.
“While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Steve Jobs
Side note: If you suspect you’re a bottoms-up thinker, it doesn’t mean you’re autistic; this information-processing style is simply one of many traits that diverge from the norm. You might simply be what my dear friend Shannon Lucas calls a catalyst. It’s the number and magnitude of traits that together contribute to a diagnosis.