The importance of humanising neurodiversity in a neurotypical world
Dr Rachel Craddock is a Thales Expert with 30 years’ experience under her belt in artificial intelligence and machine learning. In 2013, when Rachel was 42 years old, she found out she was autistic, and has since led the Thales Neurodiversity Group in the UK.
Rachel joined the Thales Research, Technology and Innovation (RTI) team in 1998 as a Senior Engineer and has worked her way up to become a Thales Expert and Fellow of the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET). The Neurodiversity Group actively work with Human Resources, Employee Relations and Managers across the business to humanise neurodiversity.
We caught up with Rachel to find out what her experience has been like and to get an insight in to the work the Neurodiversity Group are doing at Thales in the UK.
How would you describe being a neurodiverse person in a neurotypical world?
It varies from day to day. The world doesn’t work for me or make sense on some days, but then you have these wonderful days, where being neurodiverse gives many gifts, things that a neurotypical person wouldn’t experience. For example, my neurodiversity means I see things in a different way, almost a childlike way of viewing the world with a sense of wonder. It’s really quite powerful because you appreciate the world in a different way. Other days just don’t work well. It’s as if I’m a Martian on Earth and I don’t speak the language or understand the customs. Everything I do or say will feel wrong and despite everyone, including me talking English, we do not understand each other – I fail to make people understand me and I can’t understand them. It’s very frustrating and exhausting.
My neurodiversity makes my thinking very quick and this is both a gift and a curse. I struggle when people don’t keep up with me. When I had chemotherapy, it slowed down my thinking and I was like “is this how normal people think, I want my super human thinking back” – it just dulled my brain and I didn’t like it, it just wasn’t me.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions of being neurodiverse and how can we improve this?
One misconception is that all neurodiverse people are the same, and we’re not. Just like all neurotypical people are different. Being neurodiverse in society affects each individual differently. Someone like me, can work, can drive and survive ok in society. It’s certainly not easy, but I manage through a lot of hard work and effort. However, there are people who need 24hr care and then there’s everything in between.
Another misconception is that neurodiverse people should be put under the mental health bracket. Neurodiversity is not a mental health condition. But just like neurotypical people, neurodiverse people can suffer from mental health conditions. In quite a few cases, depression and anxiety will be the result of trying to live in a society that doesn’t understand us or accommodate us well.
People also ask “can we cure it?” If you cure it, you change me. You would have rewired my brain and I won’t be me anymore. A cure is society taking the easy way out, and getting everyone to conform, rather than putting in a bit of effort to accept everyone’s differences. I like being neurodiverse and being me. I don’t like feeling excluded by society and having to put in all the work to survive in a neurotypical world.
Many of the misconceptions are old fashioned and limit the life a person can lead.
Why did you volunteer to lead and support the neurodiversity group at Thales in the UK and can you tell us about the work you do?
I didn’t know I was autistic until I was 42 years old. As soon as I found out, I wanted to make a difference. In 2019, one of my colleagues said, “we’ve had an email from our diversity lead and they’re looking for someone to be the new neurodiversity lead” and straight away, I said, “I’ll do it”.
The Neurodiversity Group is looking at awareness, accommodation, acceptance and enabling everybody to be the best they can be within Thales. We’ve done a lot of work with Human Resources and Employee Relations, as well as Managers to humanise neurodiversity.
For neurodiversity to succeed, it is important to include neurodiverse people. There’s a saying we use a lot – “Nothing about us, without us”. We also have an internal neurodiversity network, a safe place for neurodiverse people to express themselves.
Why is spreading awareness of neurodiversity important to you?
My autism gives me a strong sense of fairness. I want the world to be fair and I want our future generation to have a better experience.
I want people to know that I’m a Thales expert and make people aware that my autism hasn’t limited my career or stopped me succeeding. If anything, it’s enabled me to be good at my job.
What are your plans going forward with the neurodiversity programme at Thales in the UK?
We’ve partnered with an organisation called Genius Within, who have provided training to Human Resources, Employee Relations and a small number of line managers. Our ambition is to train more people across the business on “this is me”, irrespective of whether you are neurodiverse or neurotypical and how we can best work and support each other. I don’t want neurodiverse people to be treated as special, I want everyone to be treated as special. Inclusion means everyone.