To kick off our ‘In Conversation With…” series, with The Centre for Inclusive Leadership, Chantelle Dusette talks with Nancy Doyle, CEO of Genius Within to talk all things neurodivergence…

Dr Nancy Doyle is an Occupational Psychologist and the founder of Genius Within, a social enterprise dedicated to facilitating neurodiversity inclusion through consultancy, talent assessment, workshops and coaching for businesses.

Dr Nancy Doyle works with customers in finance, technology, defence as well as those who are unemployed and incarcerated, working towards a future where all neurominorities are able to maximise their potential and work to their strengths.

Nancy is a Research Fellow with Birkbeck, University of London having completed her Doctoral Research at City University of London. Nancy advises NGOs, international and national civil servants and political groups on how to improve disability inclusion. In 2019 she was recognised by the British Psychological Society with an award for her contribution to Policy Impact in Occupational Psychology, based on her work to improve inclusion for neurominorities in all walks of life.

CD: Thank you so much for agreeing to give us some of your time to answering questions on neurodivergence, an on being a self-described “a proud neurominority” individual which is really just the best! I want to start with the list; you’re a Dr, with a PhD in Organisational Psychology, and are a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society.  You made a TV show with the BBC called “Employable Me” which sought to tackle obstacles faced by neurodivergent employees and you are also the founder of Genius Within, a neurominority led organisation that seeks to help businesses access talent from neurodiverse individuals – impressive to say the least! I always think it’s interesting to know a bit about the child who became the adult and was wondering if  you could talk a bit about your childhood, what was school like?

ND: I stopped going to school when I was 14 years because it was rubbish.  (Cue laughter from both Nancy and myself).  Luckily for me I got away with that because it was the 80s and 90s and we didn’t have attendance targets, so as long as I could carry on getting A’s . . . nobody really bothered me.  And I think being female and having white skin made a difference as well, I feel like a number of Black and Brown boys in my situation would have been castigated for truancy or sent to a pupil referral unit.  That said, femaleness in my case was also not a privilege because had I not been female, I would have had the diagnosis of ADHD, which I didn’t get until I was in my 30s.

CD: Oh goodness, why was that?

ND: The rules changed on female diagnosis about 10 years ago.   The rules for ADHD diagnosing was that you had to present with symptoms before age 7.   With neurodiversity, it’s always about differentiating between something that is neuro-developmental (always been there and part of your development neurologically) versus something that is acquired; trauma, a brain injury, or a chronic disease, like hyperthyroidism, which can produce the same symptoms as ADHD –

CD:  Can it really?

ND: Yes absolutely, symptoms can also surface in an acquired mental health condition like bi-polar disorder.  In diagnosis, you are looking to see if the symptoms have always been there, i.e dyslexia, dyspraxia or autism.  Trauma heightens senses, shortens attention span, there are lots of ways in which ADHD symptoms can emerge.  The problem diagnosing ADHD for girls was because of issues around social conditioning around genders.  The behaviours that were looked for in young children, were only the ones presented by boys.  A hyper-active girl is more likely to twiddle her hair, chew her nails, doodle, or tap her foot, than she is to stand up and move around the classroom, so it doesn’t get noticed. It can become internally driven for the young girl and you get daydreamers.

CD:  I can relate to that.

ND: Yeah, which meant that all the girls were being missed . . . until puberty, when we kick off like crazy!  Then you see symptoms started to be expressed.  I’d always felt very aligned with the ADHD profile and when I learned to do diagnostic assessments, I had someone do it on me first, so that I knew what my clients would be going through and I had a really typical spiky profile; high verbal, high visual, low working memory (attention span) and processing speed but it wasn’t until the rules changed that I was able to receive a diagnosis, I went to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as ADHD, lots of Gen X women fall into that category.

CD: Oh really?

ND:  Yes and a lot of Gen X women are getting diagnosed in menopause now, or as a result of their kids getting diagnosed.

CD: That’s a difficult time as it is . . . so what happened after you left school?

ND:   I did a theatre foundation course when I was 16 years, there are only two in the country, it was prep for drama school.  I was cast as the White Witch in “The Lion, The Witch  and The Wardrobe” and then as Mary in the Passion Plays, I thought “oh wow, this is going to work” which was shortly followed by the most horrendous imposter syndrome –

CD: Yep, I know that feeling as well –

ND: And then I had this massive realisation that the theatre world would be too neurotic for me.

CD:  Say more about that . . .

ND:  I’d always been into theatre, playing The Artful Dodger at 6 years, and Alice in  Wonderland, there was always something going on.  And it was fine when I was the only artsy person but when I was totally surrounded by the artsy theatre people who were all as nuts as I was, I realised there was no way.  (Cue more laughter from Nancy and  myself).  It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the job, it was more that I wouldn’t survive  mentally…

CD: Right, I get it,

ND:  The pressure, the exposure, rejection, and felt there was no way to win and I had this sort of vision of myself aged 30 years in rehab and so I left at 16 years which was unheard of because it was near impossible to get onto that course.

CD: We’ve seen those images, yeah…so then what did you do?

ND: I bummed about for a bit, pretending to do A levels, everyone was on my case and then my  granddad took me to the pub and he told me I needed to learn self-discipline.  Everything I                had done up to then was too easy and I needed to get a job that I cared about.  So I did.  At 18 years I got a job as a residential social worker, doing social care and personal care work for adults with learning disabilities and physical disabilities and autism.

CD: That was your first job?

ND: Yeah.  One of my clients Evie, with Down’s Syndrome taught me Makaton –

CD: What’s Makaton?

ND: It is a simplified sign language for people with learning disabilities, you don’t really use verbs, everything is in nouns.

CD: Oh wow.

ND:  So I did that for 2 years and it galvanised me because of the psychologists I came into contact with there.

CD: How so?

ND: I didn’t like them very much (more laughter) and so decided to become one, so that I could talk to them from a place of psychology. I was explaining all of this to my son who will be starting his A levels this time next year, about my journey into work and the ableism on  which much expertise is placed and how that infuriated me. His response was “so let me get this straight, is your entire career based on a grudge?”  I said “yeah, pretty much!”

CD: (laughs) It’s good to know!   I mentioned your show “Employable Me” in the intro, which you created, can you tell us a bit about how it all came together?

ND: The thinking behind the show was around my work. In my early practise, I was sick to death of being asked to do coaching sessions, for people that already had diagnostic assessments, they wanted me to coach them to understand their reports.   My frustration was “why do you have a report that you can’t read?”  “What is the point of a report you can’t read?”  “Who is writing these reports?  “How are they writing them?”  Psychologists need to level up because you should be able to read your report and it should be the psychologist you go to, to read your report.  I ended up with all these reports and my assessment was “oh gosh, look at your verbal skills, you’re in the top ten per cent in the  population” it was in the report and people couldn’t believe it, their assessor hadn’t pointed it out.   If we have these conditions that are entirely defined by the fact that they have   strengths and weaknesses that are quite extreme, why are we only focusing on the weaknesses?   To me it seems we  are setting people up for constant failure and for them to  feel bad about themselves.

CD: Yeah, that’s a really good point.

ND: There were two main thrusts in what I wanted to achieve in making the programme, the first was to change that and to make it standard that the reports are written in a language that the people they are written about can understand and the second was to show the balance between the strengths and weaknesses, not to diminish people’s difficulties.  A lot of people feel disabled and that is a completely rational, perfectly viable response and people are disabled by the conditions that come into the spiky profile category but it is not the only part of the picture but if the only part of the picture that you hear is the negative, then you might feel more disabled than you are.  It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

CD:  It was an insightful and impacting show.   A huge achievement.   Tell us about your next big achievement if you would – Genius Within.

ND: Right, so how I got into this was to change psychology, and to be part of a movement to resist pathologization of difference and trauma.  And Genius Within is really an extension of my own consultancy, so it’s all the work I did as an independent practitioner.  Then when my kids started school and I couldn’t send them to grandma’s when I had work far way, I realised that either me or my husband had to be able to work during the school day and we looked at our work, he was in full-time employment, and I was consulting here, there and everywhere and I looked at my work and I thought if I sub-contract far away clients and keep the clients nearby, I’ll take a slice of the sub-contracted work because I’m generating the work, plus all the admin that goes with it, and that will mean we will be able to pay the mortgage.   So we did it like that.   That was year one – seven associate sub-contracted people; London, Birmingham, Manchester and so on… year two, I had twenty-five sub-contractors, year three – fifty, year four – I had seventy-four, year five I had over a hundred.  I now have nearly two hundred sub-contractors and fifty employees.  And it’s our ten-year anniversary this year.

CD: Congratulations!
ND: Thank you.  So after I’d been doing it for three years, I’d realised that this was a proper job, I had to  stop delivering myself and I had to run the business and so at that point I madethe business a community interest company, rather than a limited company.   A community interest company is halfway between a charity and a limited company and it is important to me that status.   I never wanted Genius Within to be a charity because I think the work we do on inclusion is valuable and it has beneficiaries,  both the tax payer and the state are beneficiaries of creating inclusion.  Businesses are beneficiaries of  creating inclusion.   If you create inclusion, you create pathways to inclusion and productive inclusion, you should be paid for that.  I’m not doing anyone a favour, I don’t want any donations, or to be at the mercy of benefactors, I want to be paid for the work do because it adds value to businesses and the state.  The big thing I wanted to do with Genius Within was to walk our talk, we reinvest 65% of our profits into services for our community and we have just set up a foundation to celebrate our ten-year anniversary called “The Blooming Genius Foundation” which will provide services for young neuro-  minorities.  I can’t run it because I’m still too triggered by my own experiences in education, so I realise I’m not the best person for that – I have appointed and Naz Senoglu as director, an ND woman under 25 years, to lead Blooming Genius for us.    That will accept donations.   We have to do something to help children, the state system has failed neurodiverse children entirely.

There is still no legal requirement on schools to provide special education needs.  During the pandemic they removed the legal responsibility for educational authorities to provide for SEN families.  They have been completely cast adrift out of the school system, whilst they focused on the abled children in this pandemic.  We’ve had lots of press about children in poverty without school meals (quite rightly) but there are some disabled children who don’t even have a school to go to most of the time.  There is a huge gap.   Another thing about Genius Within is that we are a majority disability company; 60% of staff identify as disabled, 43% identify as neuro-minority, 60% of our senior leadership team and board are neuro-minorities.  That’s really important to us, we are constantly living in our own process, finding the edges, we really live it.   I see lots of people jumping on the bandwagon, everyone is into neurodiversity, it’s the new cool thing, it wasn’t cool when I started doing this over 30 years ago.  The thing that concerns me is how can you take advice on neurodiversity inclusion, from an organisation that doesn’t know how to do neurodiversity inclusion and isn’t living it?  I see big consultancies expressing EDI credentials, without EDI representation.

CD:  That’s really powerful that you ‘walk the talk’ as you say and take your point on neurodiversity inclusion.  Can you expand on your point on “businesses are beneficiaries of creating inclusion” please?

ND:  I guess there’s carrots and sticks with inclusion in business.  The carrots are that businesses need to represent their customers, how can you design for and serve your customers if you don’t represent them?  If you’ve got an exclusive business, then there is a whole sub-section of people you are supposed to be working with but who you don’t have access to (their experience), so they are not part of the design and delivery and therefore what you do won’t be marketable, or useable to a wide enough  range of people.  And that I think is just a really clear, straight forward argument.

CD: You can’t really argue with that at all.

ND: No, you can’t.  And there are secondary impacts of being inclusive, studies have shown that companies that take disabilities and inclusion seriously tend to have higher rates of engagement from all staff, not just disabled staff because people like to feel that they are working for a positive employer  who takes care of people.   It’s basic psychology, it’s really not rocket science.

And also there is a stick to this – it’s the law.  We can argue about the benefits, what works and doesn’t; especially if you have an autist and an ADHD(er) in the same team because one of them likes rules and the other one needs to break rules, and sometimes they fall out and how are you going to deal with that?  It’s a bit difficult.  Well, yes, we can help with that, it can be difficult, that’s what we are here for.   But at the end of the day it is the law.  It’s illegal to discriminate, it’s illegal not to be employing people who are disabled, the same as it is to not employ women, LGBTQIA+ communities, people of colour, I could go on.  You need to be an inclusive employer because it’s the law and it has been the law for quite a long time.  And people who break the law go to court and they lose their cases  and have to pay a lot of money and their brand gets trashed and people kick off on social media – quite rightly so!

CD: How do you think we can encourage employers to embrace the journey of hiring neurodivergent talent?  Essentially, we want that diversity of talent and thought, we need to celebrate that and we need that more and more as we evolve in the future of work.

ND: It is the future of work, there is a paradigm shift that we are in, in all cases, we’re moving from normalisation to personalisation. We used to have standard medication protocols, and we now have personalised medicine (genetic profiling), where people are really looking at a much wider range of indicators before deciding how to treat various medical conditions, it’s not out there yet completely but it’s getting there more and more.   We are going into a space of diverse thinking, personalisation, we don’t quite have all the tools for it yet but we are evolving out of standardisation. Employers need to embrace this.  I think where they are going wrong is that they are stuck on tokenism and doing token projects.

I started a research centre at Birkbeck University of London, with my academic partner Professor Almuth McDowall, to look at neurodiversity in the workplace and one of the things we are doing is to look at the autism at work paradigm.   The whole thing where lots of big (particularly tech companies) have started doing positive action hiring and we’re a bit critical of these programmes if I’m honest, I’m in favour of more autistic people being in work but it’s not getting more autistic people into work.

CD: Why?

ND: Because the initiatives are too niche and too small.  The companies tend to be very white spaces and they tend to be very male spaces and the result is that they tend to help the autistic people who need help the least.   They start in the place where it is the easiest to start, where they have to change the least to get these people in, and actually where they don’t have to do any reflection or work and growth on themselves. The thinking invariably tends to be ‘we can just pop some people into this organisation, put them in a little box and leave them there.’  That then allows organisations to tick a box that says they’ve done disability or neurodiversity hiring, they’ve only hired autistic people, only hired those with a diagnosis.  Now diagnosis is privilege not everybody has one, they also tend to recruit technologists who tend to be white and tend to be male.

Hiring of neurodivergent thinkers, needs to be systemic, throughout businesses as a whole.

CD: I see.  Yes, unfortunately we see this pattern repeated in other communities, when initiatives are put in place, which is why change needs to be systemic.  What else are you doing at Birkbeck?

ND: Currently we’re looking at what we can learn as neurodiverse activists, from other social justice  movements that are older and wiser than us: critical race theory, anti-racism work, feminism, gay rights movements; through 60s to 90s, we learn things.  One of the things we learn is that token gestures are not inclusion.

CD: Absolutely.  What do you think people don’t really people with neurodiversity?  And what do you think would help employers make the switch from being target driven to being more openand active in wanting to recruit neurodiverse talent?

ND: Neurotypicals do not understand the full impact of sensory sensitivity.  We have this tendency to think  that what is in our head is what is in other people’s head.  So if you say that someone who is neurodiverse can become overwhelmed by noise, the neurotypical person will relate that to a time when they felt overwhelmed by noise, in a club for instance.  And that’s what they can mistakenly think it is but its not.  Sensory sensitivity is a completely difference experience, to how a neurotypical would experience  sound overwhelm, it can be traumatising, its often incredibly painful and requires recovery time.  The neurodivergent thinker is in a place of fight or flight, and then all of a sudden the behaviour of a neurodivergent thinker makes sense; the need for predictability for example.  If a cannon went off now, you’d jump out of your skin but if you knew it would go off at 2.45pm every day say, it would be less alarming.  Noises, images, light intensity, changes of temperature can have that same immediate startle reflex, which is why neuro-minorities prefer to know what is going to happen in advance, have an idea of what an environment will be like before we show up, and if we don’t know certain things, we  can have a really odd reaction and it can come out cross, or as if we are being rude, dismissive, aggressive, withdrawn, so giving people the benefit of the doubt in sensory overwhelm, and waiting for people to go away, decompress and come back, is probably the most important thing an employer can do. Equally, I don’t think a lot of neurodivergent people understand how frightening it is for neurotypical people, when they see us have that sensory overwhelm, I don’t think we realise quite how  startling that can be.  That is the kind of thing Genius Within can help with, we do; conflict resolution,  co-coaching (manager and client pair) understand patterns and triggers, so that they can stay in a place of curiosity rather than contempt, and rather than blame each other, they can work out how to move forward.   We help with that, smaller companies can receive assistance via Access to Work, we provide services via AtW, and it can be funded.  There is no need for any employer to be struggling to incorporate and to include neuro-minorities, all the help is available and the government provide  financial support, and that’s true for assisted technology, as for co-coaching, for people having over whelm.  I would say to employers, don’t struggle on in silence, a tool-kit in your HR manual won’t solve all your problems, you need to be proactive and predict that these things are going to have and put procedures in place.

CD: Talking with you today I feel like everything you’ve done, you’ve done from your heart.  You’ve felt something, you’ve explored it, you’ve done all these different things, your passion feels like your drive and I feel as though you are building towards a legacy, and I’m not even sure it’s conscious –

ND: (laughs) It’s definitely not.

CD: But what you’re building is incredible.  There is going to be a legacy for sure, what will it be do you think?  What is the big takeaway?

ND: It’s the same as it was when I was 21 years having done 3 years in the care sector, my overwhelming take on it all; the anti-pathologization, anti-traumatising of people through labelling, my thesis was “you’re not fucked up if you feel fucked up in a fucked up situation.”  It’s still that.   We have to stop treating people as fucked up when they feel fucked up in a fucked up situation.  It’s about going into those things to you can learn, rather than skirting around, minimising, otherising, don’t otherise things you don’t recognise – it’s genius within.  It’s about understanding your purpose in the world.  My genius within is that I can find that in other people, I’m really good at it and I can see when someone is in their zone, it’s the way they talk, there is a flash of something and I can give them the belief that they can.

My favourite line from “Employable Me” was when I said to one of the contributors: We need to get you to fly because the world can only benefit from you working at the power of your strengths.

CD: Talking with you today I feel like everything you’ve done, you’ve done from your heart.  You’ve felt something, you’ve explored it, you’ve done all these different things, your passion feels like your drive  and I feel as though you are building towards a legacy, and I’m not even sure it’s conscious –

ND: (laughs) It’s definitely not.

CD: But what you’re building is incredible.  There is going to be a legacy for sure, what will it be do you think?  What is the big takeaway?

ND: It’s the same as it was when I was 21 years having done 3 years in the care sector, my overwhelming take on it all; the anti-pathologization, anti-traumatising of people through labelling, my thesis was “you’re not fucked up if you feel fucked up in a fucked up situation.”  It’s still that.   We have to stop treating people as fucked up when they feel fucked up in a fucked up situation.  It’s about going into those things to you can learn, rather than skirting around, minimising, otherising, don’t otherise things you don’t recognise – it’s genius within.  It’s about understanding your purpose in the world.  My genius within is that I can find that in other people, I’m really good at it and I can see when someone is in their zone, it’s the way they talk, there is a flash of something and I can give them the belief that they can. My favourite line from “Employable Me” was when I said to one of the contributors: We need to get you to fly because the world can only benefit from you working at the power of your strengths.