Kasia Modlinska in conversation with Joanna Olekszyk in the February issue of #Zwierciadło. The theme of the month is neurodiversity (translated by Anna Pawłowska).
Founded by you, foundation “a/typowi” has been operating for over two years. Do you feel like awareness on neurodiversity has expanded over this time?
Neurodiversity has become trendy. But most importantly, more and more people notice how important that awareness is. More books are getting published, whole issues of magazines are being dedicated to neurodiversity, and it’s being broadly discussed on social media. As a foundation we initiated a post-graduate study program with the cooperation of SWPS University “Neurodiversity in the Workplace—Inclusive Recruitment and Management.” In the next academic year, the program will start at SWPS University in Cracow.
Let’s add that this is the first such program in the world!
Exactly! It was hard to believe, that when I tried searching for such a program on the web, nothing showed up. It looks like Poland is the pioneer when it comes to inclusive workplaces—at least on the academic level.
What can you learn from such a program?
The program is dedicated to the culture of including neurodivergent people, that is, ones that couldn’t pass the recruitment process for various reasons or weren’t able to keep a job long term. It’s not only about better social policy; such inclusivity is simply good for business. More and more studies show that people diagnosed with ADHD, the autism spectrum, or dyslexia—because that’s who it’s mostly about—are exceptionally creative and generate new solutions that push organizations forward.
And that’s the biggest hit—turns out that hiring those who we previously deemed weirdos, failures, or mentally ill, brings rational financial gains to the biggest global organizations. And as we know, in our culture that coverts everything into money, it’s a pretty strong argument. That’s why, quite consciously, we started our operation by focusing on the tangible effects of appreciating neurodiversity in the workplace. But money and work is just a part of human life; we soon expect to cover other fields as well.
Why hasn’t this been seen before? Why were neurodivergent people excluded?
I see it on several levels. In short, I’d put it this way; our perception of reality is often fallible, however in time as humanity we do make progress, or we don’t. In this case we begin to understand that neurodivergent people are different, not worse.
Do you think that people will show greater interest in how our nervous system works?
Instead of “nervous system” I’d use the word “psyche”—because it’s broader. And I think that the interest in this part of human life will become greater, partly out of necessity.
For example, we’re currently dealing with one of the worst workplace crises. A phenomenon called the great resignation was described for the first time in May of 2021. It consists in mass resignations—especially of young people—from their current job or form of employment. They leave because they feel like they’re not putting their full potential to work or like the values of their employers are not compliant with theirs. For them, material goods are not important enough to toil away, or do tedious, little engaging, and often pointless, and even detrimental jobs. And so recruiters are trying to figure out how to find people, who are able to bring new value to an organization, and who would want to engage with it. The answer to that need turns out to be neurodiversity.
By the way, the COVID-19 effect surprised me, I thought that we’d be facing mostly a deepening of anxieties, social division or financial crisis. But it turned out not only—the time we had more of prompted us to reflection. Maybe it’s better to focus on understanding each other than on earning money for a new car?
Does that mean that work will finally adjust to the worker, and not vice versa?
This process is already in pending—we begin to understand how important individual approach to an employee, and providing them with mental safety and treating with dignity are. We notice that it doesn’t take anything away from us; on the contrary, it might make the work easier and more pleasant, and at the same time generate bigger gains.
Could you say that neurodiversity applies to all of us? After all, everyone thinks and feels differently…
Yes. We’re all infinitely different in terms of mental traits. Neurodiversity abolishes the criteria for one existing normality. Instead of a “norm” it implements the concept of “typicality” that is, frequent occurrence, bigger commonness.
Adult autistic women, whose books I recently read, often admit that until the diagnosis they thought that there was something wrong with them, since they’re scared of walking into a crowded mall or a loud and bright supermarket. After the diagnosis, they began to think that something was rather wrong with these places, and not them.
Neurodiversity takes away the guilt feelings that stems from the fact that we’re different. The term itself was created by a sociologist Judy Singer, and at first it regarded the autistic community. When I wondered why autism gained so much importance just now, it occurred to me that it’s because of mental alienation, the awareness of that alienation, and giving yourself the right to admit that it’s the world that has something wrong with it, not us. The word “autism” derives from Greek autos, that is “alone”, “by oneself”, and for me, behind that meaning there is another; a stranger, an outsider. But that’s of course only one scope of this issue.
People on the spectrum, with ADHD or even highly sensitive, distance themselves from the world, but today’s world also distances itself from them. It doesn’t provide them with conditions to function well in it. It calls them misfits.
Michaela Coel, the director, screenwriter and actress in the television series “I May Destroy You”, which I value a lot, in her autobiographic manifesto “Misfits” explains how she defines this term. She writes that it takes on dual notions: “A misfit is one who looks at life differently. Many, however, are made into misfits because life looks at them differently.”
I think that the world adjusted to the needs of such misfits is friendlier for everyone. I’d also like to shop in quieter and more peaceful conditions. Recently it’s becoming more and more difficult for me to endure the excess of stimuli in my surroundings. And I notice that I receive understanding if, for example, I want to switch tables in a restaurant because the guests next to me are being too loud.
More and more places like museums or shops introduce quiet hours. There are quiet zones or carriages on trains. Besides noise, another stimulus that we’re sensitive to is light. And more and more places are designed to have dark zones. It serves us all.
Neurodiversity, neurodivergence, the spectrum—there are more and more new terms for new concepts describing quite old, but so far marginalised phenomena. Do you think that it’s a good sign? That the world is becoming more inclusive?
Yes, definitely. We expand our vocabulary and the categories, which we use to understand mental life. And I’m talking about everyday language. I perceive the neurodiversity movement as manifestation of this process. As a foundation, we’ll want to dedicate way more time to language in the next years, including—creating new terms.
In general, I’m impressed with how quickly it evolves. On the west there are newer and newer terms, some that don’t have a Polish equivalent yet, like “neurodistinct”, “neuroqueer”, “neuroinclusion” is emphasised as a next step in the neurodiversity movement. Awareness of phenomena, the ability to name them, is an important part of progress. After all, the limits of our language are the limits of our world.
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