Inside Learning Podcast with Dr. Maureen Dunne – The Neurodiversity Edge

Posted by Learnovate

In this episode of Inside Learning Podcast, hosted by Aidan McCullen and brought to you by the Learnovate Centre, we deep dive into the fascinating world of neurodiversity with our special guest, Dr. Maureen Dunne, author of “The Neurodiversity Edge”. In this discussion, Dr. Dunne dissolves common myths associated with neurodivergence, highlighting the enormous value neurodivergent individuals bring to organizations.

Discover how embracing neurological differences such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia can unlock a pool of untapped potential and innovative thinking in businesses. Through the lens of neurodiversity, we explore the future of AI, the revolutionary role neurodivergent individuals can play, and the introduction of Dr. Dunne’s Pyramid of Neuro Inclusion.

Understanding transparent communication, promoting neurodiversity-friendly protocols, and building empathy networks is crucial for thriving work cultures. Delve into the workings of Google’s Project Aristotle, the importance of psychological safety, and the potential of non-traditional hiring practices. Gain valuable insights from various case studies of neurodivergent individuals in the workplace, along with strategies for fostering a culture of trust, respect, and appreciation.

Dr. Maureen Dunne is a renowned expert on neurodiversity, who can help steer your organization towards a future powered by diversity, innovation, and inclusivity. This episode is a must-watch for any business leader, HR professional or educator looking to gain a deeper understanding of neurodivergent talent and how to harness its full potential.

In this episode:

  • Introducing neurodiversity: perspectives and definitions
  • The strengths of neurodivergent individuals
  • Embracing neurodiversity in organizations
  • The pyramid of neuro inclusion: building a neuro inclusive culture
  • Innovative hiring practices for neurodivergent talent
  • Celebrating achievements and where to find more


Aidan McCullen 00:00:15

Neurodivergent people perceive the world differently when compared to their neurotypical peers. These differences are inherently valuable.

“Different perceptual tendencies and different ways of forming conclusions, add to the diversity of thought available to any group of people, whether it’s a community, an organisation, a small company, or any social context”.

That’s an excerpt from today’s book. Welcome to the Inside Learning podcast.

I am your host, Aidan McCullen, and we are joined by the author of The Neurodiversity Edge, the essential guide to embracing autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurological differences for any organisation.

Dr Maureen Dunne, welcome to the show.

Dr Maureen Dunne 00:01:01

Thank you. I’m really happy to be here and excited to talk about the book.

Aidan McCullen 00:01:04

You opened the book with a metaphor of Flatland, and I thought that would be a great way to open today’s show.

Dr Maureen Dunne 00:01:10

I started out with the Flatland metaphor because in general, I think that many neurodivergent people, including myself, feel like we’re not always looked upon for our strengths and that there are so many strengths that can be hidden.

In Flatland, it’s a world that’s bound in two dimensions and there’s these two-dimensional beings that have difficulty seeing outside their familiar frame of reference.

And I feel like it’s a good metaphor for some of the strengths and invisible talents that aren’t always appreciated that can come along with this neurodivergent cognition.

Aidan McCullen 00:01:48

The concept of neurodiversity has many different interpretations.

I thought it was important to share what your definition is, given all the research that you’ve done; 20 years of research plus your own experience.

Dr Maureen Dunne 00:02:00

The term itself, neurodiversity, was coined by an Australian sociologist named Judy Singer.

And her definition is more related to seeing neurodiversity similar to how we see biodiversity.

This idea that there is a broad range of brains that are part of the normal human population and everybody has strengths and weaknesses.

And so neurodiversity, the term has it when it first came out, it was meant to just appreciate all human minds. And that includes people that are neurotypical.

And then over time, the field has evolved. There’s been a lot more research.

There’s a lot of people with mental health conditions that identify under the neurodivergent umbrella as well.

But when it first started out, it was more of an autism rights movement.

And I think it’s now evolved to really be an umbrella term for anyone who thinks or learns differently.

Aidan McCullen 00:03:01

One of the things you mentioned later on is that intellectual capability is entirely independent of the presence or absence of a neurodivergent cognitive profile.

Dr Maureen Dunne 00:03:12

Yeah. And there’s a really wide spectrum of traits and abilities and challenges.

And far too often we get stereotyped. And even within any particular diagnosis, each individual is very unique.

And in the general public, sometimes it seems like there’s just the level of nuance gets lost where it’s assumed that if someone is neurodivergent or neuro distinct, that means that they necessarily have an intellectual disability.

But it’s actually a separate thing. Just like any other person, there’s autistic people that are highly intellectually gifted. There’s non-autistic people that have intellectual disabilities. So everyone has their unique strengths and weaknesses.

But a neurodivergent profile is its own thing. It’s a separate thing that’s separate from intelligence.

Aidan McCullen 00:04:01

There was another thing you said here. “The deficit-based perspective is a coloured lens through which most of us have viewed cognitive differences all of our lives, and the collective experience of that reality has sown hidden, deep-seated biases that are not only counterproductive to organisational outcomes, but also contrary to a growing body of research”.

I thought we’d share some of that research, some of the stuff that you’ve seen that’s thrown this upon its head to show that it’s not about deficit anymore, but if we embrace neuro differences, then we can gain from it from an organisation perspective.

Dr Maureen Dunne 00:04:36

And I think for far too long, there’s been such an emphasis on deficits that often the strengths aren’t even noticed.

And there’s a number of studies. We won’t have time to go through them all today, but one that I think is really interesting with ADHD is there’s been some studies. One of the researchers, a psychologist named Holly White’s done some work looking at creativity in ADHDers.

There was one particular study that I found fascinating myself where ADHD college students were asked to imagine alien fruits and to draw different types of varieties of alien fruits or types of fruits that would not exist on Earth.

And then the drawings and the creativity was compared to neurotypical college students.

And what she found was that the ADHDers seemed to be less inhibited by existing models, pre-existing types of fruits that already exist.

So there was more originality in terms of creating features in fruits that don’t currently exist or are within our semantic range of exemplars.

Whereas neurotypical people were creative too, but the examples tended to be more similar to already existing fruits.

Aidan McCullen 00:05:59

When you look at any kind of skills that are required by organisations today, creativity will be top of the list. It’ll be up there.

Innovation will be top of the list. Yes, the desire to hire people authentically rather than just from a token perspective, like you say, is not always there.

Your research is showing if you do lean into it, there’s a huge advantage to the organisation by hiring neurodivergent people.

Dr Maureen Dunne 00:06:24

Yean, and one thing I talk a lot in my book too, I think it’s a perspective that’s not currently being considered among leaders and CEOs is there’s so much discussion right now going on around AI and where things are going in the future and the types of changes that all companies and organisations are going to face.

And one of those changes I think a lot about is that this is really a unique time in history where we’ve never really had the level of cognitive work being taken over by machines as we’re starting to see now and what’s going to accelerate.

And so something I’ve encouraged, and I talk about this in my book, I think all leaders, all organisations should be actively preparing for that future, not just from a perspective of what types of technology they need or how do we integrate AI into our systems, but from a human resources perspective.

And making sure that there’s a welcoming organisational culture that’s going  to attract all kinds of minds.

Neurodivergent people, generally speaking, are less correlated with the group in terms of analytical and perceptual and emotional and analytical skills. And there’s a lot of benefits to that.

There’s a lot of skills like lateral thinking and systems thinking and nonlinear thinking that are incredibly valuable and maybe have been undervalued in the past, but in the future in the economic context are extremely important skills.

Aidan McCullen 00:07:51

We talked about on this show before the idea of collaborating with AI.

And as you mentioned there, a systems thinker, thinking in a neurodivergent way, can actually really embrace that skill and be a bridge between the two different ways of working.

Inside the book, one of the key frameworks is a beautifully named Pyramid of Neuro Inclusion.

And I thought we’d share this because this is a way for organisations to create the right environment for neurodiverse people to not only survive but actually thrive with inside those organisations.

Dr Maureen Dunne 00:08:31

So, the peer and neuro inclusion, it was something I started working on as a student many years ago when I was at University of Chicago and I was thinking about it more broadly in terms of how neurodivergent people can be meaningfully included in society, in communities, in schools, in workplaces.

But over the years, I’ve worked on more detailed research and given particularly the huge disproportionality in economic opportunities and the high unemployment rate for most neurodivergent people, for autistic people in particular.

There’s different research on it, but it’s estimated to be as high as even 85% possibly that’s either unemployed or underemployed.

And then if we look at various cognitive topologies taken together, such as ADHD and dyslexia and autism, it’s estimated to be 30 to 40% unemployment or underemployment.

And putting that into context with the current unemployment rate for the general population, which is under 4%, right, in the United States.

So, I then started thinking a lot about that same framework in terms of organisational cultures, in terms of the types of work environments where neurodivergent people are going to feel welcomed, where they’re going to be able to do their best work and where the whole organisation is going to benefit.

And I purposely put psychological safety as the foundation because there’s been many organisations I’ve worked with over the years, there’s so many elements to building what I call an authentic neuro-inclusive culture.

But I’ve found that there’s some organisations that have done some good work in terms of changing some policies, making it more sensory-friendly, having more options in terms of hybrid or types of work options or remote.

But, as I talk about in my book, there’s really no amount of neurodiversity-friendly policies that could outweigh the kind of trauma that goes along with bullying or a toxic work culture if there’s not psychological safety.

And so I put that at the foundation because I think if that’s not in place, there’s just not going to be trust among team members.

There’s not going to be the kind of conditions that allow teams to innovate, allow for people to take risks, actual risk, allow for people to make mistakes and request clarification if there is a misunderstanding.

So that trust and that psychological safety is, in my experience, absolutely essential.

And there’s many other elements to building an organisation.

And one that I also think is really important is building in an infrastructure where there’s effort being made by all team members to try to meet each other halfway and build these empathy networks.

And so one of them is the Universal Empathy Network.

And then just being really concrete and transparent is really important, I think, as well.

It’s not a healthy culture, especially for autistic people who are not going to perform at their best if they’re constantly having to try to figure out through vague hints what they’re expected to do.

The expectations being really clear are super important.

And I think this goes for all employees when we’re looking at a work context and applying the pyramid to more of a workplace is focusing on results, but giving managers more authority over day-to-day decisions so that everybody could perform at their best and allowing for some flexibility in processes and how people accomplish those goals can go a long way.

Aidan McCullen 00:12:15

I find that so interesting that so many of these elements that you talk about in the pyramid are also important for creativity in an organisation anyway, like psychological safety, transparent communication.

And that transparent communication one is very rarely there, and I’d love you to maybe to share some thoughts on that one.

Dr Maureen Dunne 00:12:37

Yeah. And going back, just real quick with the psychological safety and creativity, Google had studied all their teams. It was called Google Project Aristotle.

And one of the interesting conclusions that they’ve realised in their work is that psychological safety was the most important factor to the teams that were the most innovative, even above resources and their perceived idea in terms of what talent was on what team, psychological safety was the most important factor.

In terms of the transparent communication, I think that’s just really helpful for everyone so that there’s not confusion about what expectations are.

For a lot of neurodivergent people, it’s extremely important for there just to be very clear communication, and also to not have to expend a lot of time and energy just forcing oneself to fit in.

Being able to focus on the problem solving, focus on doing really good work is critical and one case study I bring up is someone I know well who’s a financial markets analyst.

And when he was given permission to work from home, it made such a big difference for him because of his ADHD. So just being able to set up his office in his garage, a market hub-type office and feeling like he can be hyperactive when need be, turn off his camera and jump around at his productivity and the results he’s demonstrated with his company just skyrocketed.

Whereas before you had to go into an office and play that part and so much energy and being put into, okay, I can’t really move around very much. And that actually was not the best setup for performance.

And then there’s another case study I bring up where there was an employee and some consultants that were working for a company that seemed to be doing some good work in terms of neurodivergent-friendly protocols, but they were just really disorganised and they’d cancel meetings five minutes before they were scheduled, and they seemed to change the goalposts regularly.

One consultant was told to do a report. This was an autistic consultant, and she spent weeks on it, and then suddenly they didn’t need it anymore, and they weren’t going to pay her for the work that she had already done.

I mean, that kind of a scenario is not healthy for anyone, but especially for a lot of neurodivergent people and particularly autistic people, trying to guess what the expectations are all the time can be just really exhausting and it’s not in the best interest of anyone, right? Including the employer, if you want to get the most out of your workers, out of your employees. Right, it’s best that there are these types of protocols in place.

And the other thing I bring up, you might remember in the book, the three C’s, it’s codification and conduct drives culture.

And so the idea there is that to really do this right and do it well, it’s important to codify policies; there should be clear policies that are anti-bullying, anti-harassment, neurodiversity-friendly type of policies.

But that in itself isn’t enough if management’s going to turn a blind eye to, say, bullying or allow for the kind of everyday conduct that actually doesn’t reinforce those values that have been codified.

And codifying the policy is one step. Doing a value statement can be a useful thing, especially if the leadership is fully on board and buys in. I’ve seen that actually be an excellent starting point. But then the harder part in the next steps, the deeper work needs to happen as well, where there is a genuine appreciation for people with differences, that people are open to listening, to learning from each other, to make the whole organisation go through training, not just the neurodivergent people.

And I think when a culture starts to become more open to differences, and maybe the leader is telling positive stories about people that are neurodivergent, there’s an integrity between the kind of policies that are codified and the actual behaviour and the values that the organisation espouses then are being enacted on a daily basis.

And that’s where I think you see a really powerful organisation where you have people that really trust each other, you have people that respect each other and there’s genuine appreciation. And that’s the type of environment that’s going to foster, I think, as we talked about, the greatest levels of innovation. And that is something that should be a priority for every CEO at this point.

Aidan McCullen 00:17:10

The pyramid really gives you an overview of all the steps you need to get through to get to an A grade, essentially, as you reach the peak of the pyramid.

One of the things then you go into in part three is even going right back to informing hiring policies, etc.

Maybe you have some low-hanging fruit strategies that organisations can put in place.

Dr Maureen Dunne 00:17:34

Yeah, it’s a question I get asked actually a lot. What can we do differently to make sure we’re not missing out on unique talent that we really would want to be hiring?

And something I talk a lot about is non-traditional interview processes.

And a lot of times when I’m working with corporations and different organisations, I start with a neurodiversity-friendly audit, so we see where the organisation is at.

There’s a number of research studies that have looked at non-traditional interviews, such as game-based assessments.

There was a study, for instance, that looked at when autistic job seekers and neurotypical job seekers were interviewed using these sort of non-traditional types of assessments, including game-based assessments, which could be less subjective, which were actually more tied to the role, the skills required for the role or the job that the candidate was applying for, that there was more even hiring decisions that were made.

Whereas what can be a problem in a lot of cases is that our standard hiring practices and interview practices can be many times quite subjective and divorced from the requirements or the types of skills that are needed to do the particular role or the job.

And there seems to be many times a heavy emphasis of just, do I like this person? What kind of social skills does this person have? And it can be very subjective. And that’s not in the best interest of what skills are required for the role.

And then allowing people, all people, neurodivergent and neurotypical, to showcase their talent. To not just be judged on if they smiled the correct way or happened to be really good that day at performing, right, in acting out for the role, but instead showing what kind of skill sets they have. Maybe it could be a portfolio of prior website designs, if that’s a job that requires those skills, or could be showing Bitbucket and code, if it’s a job for a coder, or if it’s a job that requires a lot of public speaking; there’s actually a lot of extroverted autistic people out there, people don’t seem to realise that, showing a demo reel.

I think that helps a lot to just be more flexible and try to give candidates the opportunity to showcase their strengths. And I think that’s going to be a much better measure of what that person can do than just sometimes where it’s just these really subjective interview processes where it’s just a lot of time could end up being based on a lot of theoretical scenarios or social chit-chat and a better marker of making sure you’re hiring the right person, I think is definitely moving in the direction of allowing and embracing these non-traditional interview processes.

Aidan McCullen 00:20:38

Maureen, you gave me great news just before we came on as well, that your book is a bestseller in the US.

But also, I wanted to congratulate you as well. You were the keynote speaker for the UN for Autism Awareness Day.

Maybe you’ll share a little bit about those things and also where people can find you because you do a lot of work as a consultant, and as a keynote speaker as well to raise important information about neurodivergence.

Dr Maureen Dunne 00:21:04

Yeah, absolutely. So, the UN keynote is available on a website for World Autism Awareness Day that people could watch.

And in terms of reaching out to me, you could follow me on LinkedIn, but you could also, I have a website, So just

And if you want more information about my book, the book website is

Aidan McCullen 00:21:36

Fantastic. And congratulations. Thank you for joining us on the Inside Learning Podcast.

Author of The Neurodiversity Edge, The Essential Guide to Embracing Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Neurological Differences for Any Organization, Dr Maureen Dunne. Thank you for joining us.

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