Neurodiversity and context

Neurodiversity and context
Photo by Dan Meyers / Unsplash

This might not seem quite so obvious as some of my other topics, but for me, thinking about context explains a huge amount of neurodivergent experience.

In this talk I explore:

  • Why context is so important
  • How it shows up for neurodivergent people
  • What context means for the value of neurodivergent perspectives

Content warning: Mention of invalidation, social trauma


  • Baisa, Ayelet, Carmel Mevorach, and Lilach Shalev. “Hierarchical Processing in ASD Is Driven by Exaggerated Salience Effects, Not Local Bias: Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 51, no. 2 (February 2021): 666–76.
  • Watts, Tyler W., Greg J. Duncan, and Haonan Quan. “Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A Conceptual Replication Investigating Links Between Early Delay of Gratification and Later Outcomes.” Psychological Science 29, no. 7 (July 2018): 1159–77.
  • Stagg, Steven, Li-Huan Tan, and Fathima Kodakkadan. “Emotion Recognition and Context in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 52, no. 9 (September 1, 2022): 4129–37.
  • Clasby, Betony, Brigit Mirfin‐Veitch, Rose Blackett, Sally Kedge, Esther Whitehead, and Brigit Mirfin-Veitch. “Responding to Neurodiversity in the Courtroom: A Brief Evaluation of Environmental Accommodations to Increase Procedural Fairness: Criminal Behaviour & Mental Health.” Criminal Behaviour & Mental Health 32, no. 3 (June 2022): 197–211.


Hi everyone, and welcome to another one of my live streams where today we're going to
be talking about neurodiversity and context. Now, I'm not sure this immediately jumps out
as quite such an important topic as some of the others that I've spoken about, but for
me, thinking about context explains so much about the neurodivergent experience and quite
a lot about how we can be really of benefit to others as well and where a lot of our strengths
might lie. So what I'm going to talk about today is why context is important, why it matters,
how it shows up for neurodivergent people in particular and where it can be a difficult thing,
and then why neurodivergent perspectives are so valuable and how that relates to context.
So bit of a content warning, there would be mention of but not detailed descriptions of
invalidation and social trauma. Please do ask questions. If you're watching this live, it would
be really helpful and I'll also mention at the end, ways you can ask other questions that I can then
take on in future episodes. Now, context for me is a really, really interesting area. I've,
I only really came across it recently explicitly in relation to neurodiversity and for me,
it's explained an awful lot of surprising amount about exactly what's been going on for me and
some of the problems and difficulties that I've had as well as some of the real advantages and
and strengths that I happen to have as well. So when I say context, what I mean is that overall
situation, the environment, the thing that you're in and the way that you're experiencing the world
and this overlaps really strongly with the exact specific way that you're experiencing the world.
We're all filtering all of the time, like choosing, usually without any conscious awareness, exactly
which elements of the, all of the input that we're getting, we want to pay attention to.
Now, that differs between people and what matters to people, what people are aware of
and when we're neurodivergent, that can be really quite different, you know, what, what,
what comes up for us sensorially is different to other people and that means that our overall
context can often be different, our awareness of the world and everyone has an incomplete
view of the world. No one has a complete view of context and complete awareness. That's just not
something that's possible. We're all bringing in different aspects and different awareness
and it's context that informs the actions that we take as well. So we make appropriate behavior
in a certain context and that's, that's, that's a core thing. That's just something all humans are
doing all of the time and we're reading the environment for cues about the right thing to do
so that we can meet our needs. Now, the funny thing about this and behavior is
the context very much does tell us what's available. I've sometimes heard this described as
affordances, you know, which is, which is a term from design that talks about
how things show up and what the environment actually tells us about what we can do and what
we cannot do in that particular environment. Door handles are a really obvious example of
an affordance, but there are loads of them and they can be much more subtle and they can be social
as well as physical. Now, the affordances that we have in a given environment are really kind of
a design decision, whether implicit or not, but whether they actually work for us and what they
tell us depends on whether the environment has been designed with us in mind in any sense.
So there's this real problem where we actually shows up a lot in design where
whoever designed it and lived experience, whoever designed the thing, it tends to work for them
automatically, but it doesn't work for other people and this awareness, this context is considered
kind of almost transparent. It's not really considered at all when it fits with our default
expectations about people and those default expectations are really, really quite tightly
defined. It tends to be the more in inverted commas normal you are, how referenced you are,
how expected your way of being in the world is, as to how well it's going to fit and how well
you're going to fit into that context. And this doesn't just apply to a kind of everyday context
and to maybe the workplace or wherever it is that we're in at the current moment. It also
applies to the context in which we're actually creating knowledge and thinking about things
and this idea of, okay, from whose context are we generating knowledge and how does that relate
is a really, really big problem for when we think about how other people are experiencing the world
and when we think about how the experiences that we might have are understood as a positive or a
negative as a problem or a difficulty. One of the really interesting ones I think really shows up
how complicated this can actually get is the marshmallow test. Now this is a pretty widely
known area of kind of psychology research or one of those classic psychology experiments.
In the original experiment, what the experiment has found was if you put a marshmallow on a plate
in front of a kind of early school age child and told them you can either eat that now or if you
wait after 15 minutes you'll get two of them and you'll be able to eat them both. And they found
out that the kids that could wait and actually wait long enough and delay that gratification
were the kids that were later much more successful and showed a lot of markers of success in life.
And the original conclusions of the paper were really that, you know, being able to
self-manage and self-regulate in that way was the most appropriate thing and would develop
these skills. However, later researchers recontextualized this and found out that really what happens
is when you account for all of the variables, kids are responding to the context that they
expect to see. So if a child is grown up in a really stable context, if adults are trustworthy,
if things go well, they're much more likely to wait. They're much more likely. The rational
thing for them to do is wait. If a kid is grown up in a context where that wasn't the case, where,
you know, if you didn't trust what might happen is that someone would promise something and then
the adult and adult wouldn't deliver that, it doesn't necessarily make sense to wait
and delay that gratification. Because the adult might come back in and go, oh no,
actually, I'll have that marshmallow. And you might go with nothing. So really, the rational
response there is just to eat the marshmallow straight away and have it. So this idea of,
like, how are we viewing the individual's behavior versus an awareness of their context
becomes a really, really important thing. And I want to move on to how that applies,
particularly in the case of neurodiversity and neurodivergence now.
So one of the really interesting ways to see neurodivergent conditions is as
different contexts, both internal context in terms of how we experience the world,
how we construct the world, what we are kind of seeing, filtering, interested in,
wanting to do out of the world and wanting to get out of the world. And external context,
how we are constructing things, how we are acting in the world, how that world responds to us and
how that world is, is actually really constructed for us or not and how well it predicts what we
want and what we don't want and how we might be able to get that. There's a real element of this
as well in terms of what's valid in a given context. And one of the things that we often
experience as neurodivergent people is being told that our context, our experience isn't
right, isn't valid in the sense that, so to use an example, if you have particular sensory
sensitivities, you might find that a good context, a good environment for someone else
is overwhelmingly difficult for you to engage with and isn't something that you can work in.
And this idea of seeing a different context and experiencing a different context can be something
that we get repeatedly invalidated and can make things really, really difficult for us in future
because you almost learn not to trust yourself when this happens over and over and over again.
And one of the, really working with this, I think a lot of us implicitly, we've learned
to work with this and learned to work with our different context, the different way that we're
understanding the world. Particularly in the case of autism, and actually it's one of the really
almost diagnostic traits of autism is needing, both needing and giving a high degree of verbal
context in a situation. So when I say verbal context, that's the asking the difficult question
sometimes is like, well, why do I have to do this? Why should I, how do I approach this? And
I think it's very often interpreted as being difficult or not wanting to do it.
Whereas my experience is that it's actually because I understand context slightly differently.
It's not that I can't draw it myself. It's that over time, I've learned that I'm likely to draw a
different context to the person giving me the instructions. So if I kind of go on my
immediate instinct, I'm going to spend a lot of time doing something and then at the end be told,
this isn't what I wanted. So I've learned to do it upfront. I've learned to ask for context upfront.
And this is a real reason, you know, this is this is a huge thing, I think, for a lot of autistic
people. And we also tend to often give a lot of verbal context to explain why we've done something.
Again, because quite often we've experienced that people have said what we've done isn't really
explicable. They don't understand. So we kind of get our self justification in preemptively.
Now, another way to look at context is as structure as inter external structure. And this
is one of the things with ADHD that's a real issue. We really, if we have ADHD, we tend to
need a lot of certain types of structure and really being able to understand what that is and what's
supportive and what gets in the way is one of the key things of being able to succeed with ADHD.
If people don't give us the structure, we often find that we have to give it to us ourselves. We
use a whole load of tools around that, you know, the note taking tool that I'm using in this
presentation and in this piece is exactly an example of my need for a certain sort of structure.
External process that is something that really helps me. And so if I don't have that, I'd really
struggle to be able to keep track of everything. And this gets me to another point is, you know,
we talk about reasonable adjustments in terms of what people can adapt, how people can help us
engage and really support us in doing what we need to be doing. And I think context being given
context in whatever form you need it is a really important reasonable adjustment to ask for and
something that can actually be quite difficult to ask for. But really the, you know, the why,
what's this about or what structure do I need to support me in this is a very valid and very
reasonable thing to ask for. Now, one of the reasons this can be quite difficult is because
a lot of people don't regularly reflect on context. As I mentioned earlier, it's kind of
transparent. It kind of just sits there, does its thing and people don't notice what's going on.
Being asked to reflect on the context, to reflect on why you've made certain decisions,
why you're viewing things a certain way is often seen as being rude or challenging or
unnecessarily complicating the situation. And it's also the case that if we exist in a slightly
different context most of the time, and this is true for people from different cultural backgrounds,
people who've had different life experiences, all of it, is we are quite regularly bumping up against
these contextual barriers, these things where it's like, oh, yeah, no, that doesn't quite fit.
That's not what I am experiencing. And we get very used to negotiating it and being aware and
reflecting on ourselves and being like, oh, yeah, what do I need? How do I relate to this?
And then being able to work out what our actual underlying needs are,
rather than just being able to rely on the situation to deal with it.
However, if you've mostly experienced the world designed for you that thinks in the ways that you
do, you might not have had that opportunity to reflect on that nearly as much. In fact,
you're very unlikely to have had that. And so being asked to reflect on that can both be
can be very difficult. It can be a real challenge. And if you ask someone else to do that without
necessarily realizing that's what you're doing, you might get quite a lot of pushback because
people just aren't expecting to do that and can sometimes really have some quite negative responses.
You know, that being asked to reflect on why you should do something is a really valid question
on some level. But it's something that people have so very rarely asked to do that they might
find it very difficult to really reflect on why they are thinking about things and wanting to do
things a specific way. So one of the really important aspects of context and why it matters
so much to us as neurodivergent people and particularly in the workplace and in terms of
our contribution to the world is that the, as I mentioned before, we all have this incomplete
awareness of the overall situation of the environment of the context that we're in.
And that means that we've all got different perspectives on a common situation.
We don't, or anyone, no one has privileged access. The point is that the more perspectives that we
have and the more perspectives that we can communicate between the richer and fuller our
understanding of the world really is. So it's about building this joint understanding about
creating the connections between that is where an awful lot of the value of really neurodivergent
thought and creativity and innovation comes from. And it's very interesting to note that it's
this cognitive diversity that really seems to be one of the big drivers of why organizations that
really work on diversity get so many of the benefits that they do. It's a huge thing.
Now, one of the things, and this is also an excuse to share, one of my absolute favorite
quotes from an Ian Banks book, but is one of the really big benefits is not just innovation,
but also organizational resilience. And this awareness of things in the environment that
that we wouldn't otherwise be aware of. And if we have a very narrow perspective,
if our context is highly shared, and we don't know about everything that's going on in the
environment as an organization, we're at risk of things that are coming in from a completely
different perspective that we have no way of handling. And Ian Banks coined this phrase,
outside context problems in the book, accession. And I'd like to read you a quick quote of what
he puts, because yeah, there's, you know, I like words, but I am nowhere near as good with
words as Ian Banks. So I use his original words. An outside context problem was the sort of thing
most civilizations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter, rather in the
same way a sentence encountered a full stop. The usual example given to illustrate an outside
context problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largeish fertile island. You tamed the land,
invented the wheel or writing or whatever. The neighbors were cooperative or enslaved,
but at any rate, peaceful. And you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess
productive capacity you had. You were in a position of near absolute power and control,
which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of. And the whole situation was just
running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass. When suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears,
sailless and trailing steam in the bay, and these guys carrying long funny looking sticks come ashore
and announce you've just been discovered. You're all subjects of the emperor now.
He's keen on presence called tax. And these bright eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.
This idea of something coming in from outside that we just had no idea about is such a big
problem for organizations. And actually, it's what ends so many organizations because they become
these monocultures, they've got stuck in their ways, and they're obsoleted by new technology,
new needs, societal change. And so really being able to integrate as many of these ideas
from as many perspectives as possible is such an important part of what it takes to be a really,
really good organization. And we neurodivergent ourselves, quite a lot of the challenge of
really being creative, being like the being innovative, developing ideas, isn't actually
the coming up with the ideas, because we were already coming from these different perspectives.
We have that inherently. Our challenge is actually kind of bringing it out into the normal world,
making it make sense, explaining it to other people, making it work in, you know, in relation to
all of the existing things, rather than coming from our own context and our own coherence.
Now, one of the big things that can make it very difficult in particularly in the workplace
is sharing context is a vulnerable act. We're telling people a lot about how we experience the
world and we're kind of putting ourselves at some degree of risk. So it's only going to happen
in a place where we feel psychologically safe. If we're in an organization and that's something
that can be created for us, then that's great. We can, you know, the organization can hopefully
work to develop a good grounding in psychological safety and make it so that diverse opinions can
be shared and developed together. And that that kind of productive disagreement process that
comes to agreement that converges is a really healthy thing in organizations.
If we happen to work for ourselves, then it becomes how can we make it safe? How can we bring
about a situation where it's going to feel good for us? What do we need to support us in this?
And how can we develop that capacity over time? Because sharing context can be incredibly difficult.
The first time I stood on stage and talked actually about stuff that I really cared about,
I literally couldn't get the words out. I physically couldn't. And I barely said anything and had to
kind of run off stage. It wasn't a pleasant experience. But really being able to develop that
over time and practice is one of the most valuable things that we can do. However you happen to
share your context, whether you do it with words, with pictures, by creating things, whatever you
do. So it really is your perspective, your context that is perhaps the most valuable thing
that you can offer as long as you can convey it and get it across to other people.
If you've got any questions or anything, I really appreciate you sharing them in the chat
comments, ask me any questions about this, or ask me anything that you'd like me to
take up at a later date. Because I'd really love to start getting viewer questions in there and
sharing it with everyone. There are notes available on the website and there will be a transcription
available shortly as well. So if you've found this useful, please do share it with someone
else who you think it might be useful to as well. And I'll see you again soon.