different brains shows different ways of thinking


Research into neurodiversity is on the rise. As the concept makes its way into the zeitgeist, it’s time for us to start thinking about the many implications for mediation.

By Danielle Hutchinson[1] and David Hutchinson[2]

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is an overarching term that refers to the variation in people’s behaviours and traits arising out of neurodevelopmental difference. While there is still debate about what differences fall under this umbrella, it typically includes autism spectrum disorder[3][4] (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and Tourette’s syndrome[5].

Within the current understanding, neurodiversity differs from mental Illness in that it is not about a person’s state of mental health or wellness. Instead, it is a healthy state that is simply neurologically distinct from that of ‘neurotypicals’. One of the common features of neurodiversity is that the difference between strengths and weaknesses are often magnified. For example, there may be an unusually large disparity between a person’s verbal reasoning and their working memory. While the variation is unique to each neurodiverse person, a familiar trope is that of the absent-minded professor. Diagram 1 shows common strengths and weaknesses for each condition[6].

neurodevelopmental conditions falling under the umbrella term neurodiversity

Diagram 1

Why is this important to mediators?

Research into neurodiversity is still in its early days. However, it is starting to become apparent that this disparity between finding some things extremely easy and other tasks almost impossible, can lead to confusion, frustration and misunderstanding in a range of contexts. This can be particularly so where the neurodiverse person has chosen not to share their diagnosis or is unaware of their neurodiversity.

Unfortunately, recent research into neurodiversity has shown that it is not uncommon for “employers, work coaches and authority figures to conclude that the individual is ‘not trying’, when undertaking particular tasks. Inconsistent performance is mistaken for a bad attitude or poor motivation, which leads to discrimination and perceptions of unfairness on behalf of the individual.”[7]

Given the potential for conflict to arise in such situations, and current estimates that as much as 30% of the population may have some form of be neurodiversity[8], it seems inevitable that as mediators we will need to consider the different ways that neurodiverse people make meaning of their interactions with others. More importantly, if we are to ensure that our practices are truly inclusive, we must start to consider the ways in which our practices may be premised on neurotypical assumptions.

For example, the following table outlines a few differences common to ASD and/or ADHD that may be misinterpreted as the neurodiverse person being deliberately difficult or as demonstrating traits of a high conflict personality.[9]

Traits that may impact on traditional mediation techniques
  • Difficulty experiencing, identifying and expressing emotions
  • Challenges with introspection, observing own mental and emotional processes, and/or identifying and responding to emotions in others
  • May struggle to communicate emotions to others
Black and white thinking
  • Polarised thinking patterns e.g. an argument or lack of agreement means the end of a friendship
  • Difficulty picking up on nuances and non-verbal gestures
  • Literal interpretation of conversations or agreements
Cognitive rigidity
  • Strong preference for rules and routines
  • Difficulty changing mental states or thinking about things in a different way
Executive functioning
  • Difficulty with tasks such as planning, problem solving, organisation, time management and working memory
Impulsiveness and inhibition
  • Acting without thinking things through or accounting for potential consequences
  • Difficulty allowing others to speak uninterrupted
  • Emotional self-regulation
Rejection sensitivity
  • Extreme sensitivity to being criticised or rejected, whether real or perceived
Sensory sensitivity
  • Can manifest as hyper or hypo-sensitivity
  • Bright lights, noise or smells can be distracting or distressing and inhibit ability to engage in activities

When we consider the typical facilitative mediation, it becomes apparent that we may have unintentionally set some neurodiverse people up to fail.

Where to next?

Each of these neurodevelopmental conditions manifests uniquely in each person, hence the catchphrase, “When you have met one neurodiverse person, you have met one neurodiverse person”. As mediators, it is not our role to diagnose or make assumptions. However, it is important that our practices are inclusive and can enable the full participation of all people involved. In providing an neuroinclusive environment we can start harnessing the many strengths of neurodiverse participants to find mutually beneficial and sustainable outcomes for all parties involved.

Source: It’s time we started talking about neurodiversity in mediation by Danielle Hutchinson and David Hutchinson. Republished with permission from The Australian Dispute Resolution Research Network  The ADR Research Network is a group of Australian dispute resolution academics. Blogging & tweeting high quality, critical dispute resolution scholarship.

[1]Danielle Hutchinson is a lawyer, mediator, author and co-founder of Resolution Resources. Danielle has lived experience of neurodiversity and, in consultation with experts in the field, is investigating neuroinclusive practices in mediation.

[2] David Hutchinson is an autistic researcher and writer.

[3] Difference as opposed to disorder is now being used by some researchers in the field e.g. Fletcher-Watson & Happe (2019) and preferred by many in the ASD community

[4] The DSM-5 now includes Asperger’s Syndrome within ASD as ASD1. Even so, many people identify strongly with being an ‘Aspie’ and the term remains in use for those who wish to identify as such.

[5] First coined in 1998 by Australian sociologist, Judy Singer in research into Autism. While there is no formal definition, the term has been adopted broadly and is widely accepted as encompassing the neurodevelopmental disorders described above; see also ‘What is Neurodiversity?’ National Symposium on Neurodiversity at Syracuse University (webpage, 2011) https://neurodiversitysymposium.wordpress.com/what-is-neurodiversity/

[6] Neurodiversity, Dyslexia Scotland (webpage)  https://www.dyslexiascotland.org.uk/sites/default/files/library/Neurodiversity%20Model_SDMar16.pdf

[7] Ashley Weinberg & Nancy Doyle, Psychology at work: Improving wellbeing and productivity in the workplace (British Psychological Society, 2017) 44.

[8] ‘Neurodiversity and other conditions’, ADHD Aware (web page, 2018)  https://adhdaware.org.uk/what-is-adhd/neurodiversity-and-other-conditions/

[9] See the work of Bill Eddy and Grant Lester on high conflict personalities and the vexatious litigant.