Celebrating neurodiversity in STEM

Neurodiversity comprises a variety of learning differences including dyslexia, dyspraxia, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Often these learning differences coexist. Individuals who identify as having one or more of these learning differences perceive and process information in different ways which may lead to difficulties at school, university, and work. In some instances, individuals with these differences may face barriers to their progression in education or their career. 

Within this piece, we talk about Professor Sara Rankin, who is doing work to reduce barriers in this area. Sara highlights the acceptance and inclusion of neurodiverse (ND) individuals in society. She recognises that ND individuals have valuable skills and perspectives that can benefit society if properly accommodated and supported through greater neuro-inclusivity, and with this ND individuals can achieve anything they want. Although these individuals may perceive and process information in different ways, these differences allow them to excel. 

Combatting the Challenges

Within the ND community, there are many potential challenges and social barriers faced from an early age into adulthood. 

A key problem which was present for many years in schools was the lack of consideration for ND individuals in diversity and inclusion strategies, resulting in students feeling disadvantaged due to being perceived differently in comparison to their peers. This was the case for Sara, who didn’t identify that some of her struggles may be due to dyslexia and dyspraxia until her late 40s, and so in school was made to feel lazy due to her literacy skills. If her differences were recognised earlier, she may have felt more supported and valued. Education is therefore key when understanding that neurological variations are not flaws, but assets in many ways, with individuals often having greater creativity and problem-solving skills.However since then, progress has been made and as of 2015 individuals with Special educational needs and disability (SEND) are supported under the SEND code of practice. 

Challenges associated with ND can present differently depending on the person. Some of these may include communication problems and sensory issues, often associated with ASD, and difficulties with literacy which are commonly related to dyslexia. Though these are challenges, strategies can be developed to help manage these. Sara, for example, often uses electronic diaries to organise her thoughts and ensure she is on track with all her tasks. This combats difficulties in planning that are often linked to dyspraxia. Implementing proper education can therefore resolve barriers and help ND members reach their full potential, which SEND is aimed to achieve. 

Celebrating ND in STEM  

As someone who believes that her differences have allowed her to succeed in a scientific career, Sara also dedicates a great deal of her time to outreach initiatives to encourage young ND individuals to pursue a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).  

She said: "I feel that if young people identify as having these differences, they can start making career choices based on their strengths. Good scientists are innovative and creative, and that’s how people would describe me, and I believe that that is down to my neurodiversity. I definitely see it as a strength and not a disability."

Celebrating ND is especially important to Sara, and she recently hosted an event to showcase the variety of contributions ND scientists make to science, the community and beyond. The event involved panel discussions from ND scientists in a variety of career pathways and conversations surrounding how to harness your differences to help you succeed.

Image from ‘Celebrating ND in STEM’ event at Imperial College London, 22nd March 2023. Pictured from left to right, Dr Sara Rankin, Mr Joost van Kempen, Dr Chantelle Mason and Dr Jason Mellad.
Sara's latest project is collating 'ND in STEM' profiles to be used as a resource for young people looking to start their university experience or career in STEM. The aims of this project are to highlight the invaluable addition ND scientists bring to the workplace, and to highlight that learning differences do not have to hinder career opportunities but can instead be utilised as a strength. The profiles will be posted to the website https://www.cacti.org.uk, a page created by Sara to further celebrate ND in STEM. The name Cacti was chosen as these plants suffer in the ‘normal’ conditions of most other plants, but when given resources specific to their needs, they thrive and flourish; a comparison which can be drawn with ND individuals.  

What is the future for ND individuals in the workplace?

Adapting the workplace from the recruitment process to working strategies for a multifaceted team fosters innovative and intuitive thinking, leading to success.

The common goal for workplaces, especially in STEM, going forward is to adopt a diverse and inclusive environment, especially for ND individuals who have in previous years shown to be at a lower rate of full-time employment in the UK: with 16% of autistic individuals employed, in comparison to 80% of non-disabled individuals employed. Sara is determined to change these statistics and believes that more can be done to support ND individuals.

“When it comes to recruitment, we need to think carefully that our recruitment methods are not disadvantaging ND people”, Sara explains.

”Individuals who are neurodiverse process information more slowly, so an interview where you are expected to answer quickly is stressful, providing questions just 30 mins ahead of the interview gives that important thinking time.”

Some of the companies bridging this gap in employment in their inclusion strategies include Google, Microsoft, JPMorgan and Ernst & Young (EY). As part of their workplace strategies, Microsoft offers features such as subtitles and real-time closed captioning, and Google has a team with experience welcoming and supporting ND individuals, in addition to training interviewers and managers on how to work effectively with ND candidates.

In 2015, global investment bank JP Morgan launched their Autism at Work initiative. Within six months it was reported that the employees who were a part of the initiative were 92% more productive. It is also interesting to note that in Adecco Group’s research, 64% of participants in the IT and Tech industry have heard of the term neurodiversity, solidifying that companies in this sector are ahead in educating their employees on important diversity and inclusion topics. Sara also mentions that “Innovate UK launched its pilot project for reasonable adjustments to give writing grants to ND individuals”. 

The examples above show companies and agencies taking a focused approach to inclusiveness and welcoming those with non-linear thinking and they have shown so far that making adjustments can have a profound impact on individuals with ND as well as on the wider community as a whole.


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Published: 04 May 2023

About the author

Hana Kajashi 

Hana Kajashi is a 3rd Year BSc Pharmacology Student at King’s College London working alongside Professor Sara Rankin at Imperial College London on a project highlighting the importance of Neurodiversity in STEM. She is interested in pursuing a career in the field of Regulatory Affairs following her studies.

Yusra-Aina Choudhury 

Yusra-Aina Choudhury is currently a 3rd Year BSc Pharmacology Student at King’s College London. She is working alongside Professor Sara Rankin at Imperial College London on a project which celebrates Neurodiversity in STEM. Following her studies she intends to branch out into a career in Tech.

Anna Webster 

Anna is currently an undergraduate student at King’s College London, in her final year of BSc (Hons) in Pharmacology. After graduating, she intends on moving into industry and working in Technology Consultancy, specialising in Financial Services & Tech Enablement.

 Yasmin Marziakhall

Yasmin Marziakhall is currently a 3rd Year Pharmacology student at King’s College London who is collaborating with Professor Sara Rankin at Imperial College London on celebrating Neurodiversity in STEM. After her studies, she intends on broadening out to technology consulting and data analysis. 

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