Neurodiversity and mental health: Celebrating difference in the IP profession
When most people think about DEI efforts, we think of gender, race, and ethnicity first. We may also think about sexual orientation, physical disabilities, geographic and cultural diversity, and socioeconomic diversity.
Over the past several years, many have advocated that DEI efforts also should include neurodiversity, which studies estimate includes 15-20% of the population. Many neurodivergent conditions, however, are invisible and require self-identification by an individual to be included within a protected group. It is therefore imperative that companies provide an environment where neurodivergent individuals feel safe enough to self-identify so that they can work with their employer and peers to accommodate their differences without feeling marginalised.
What is neurodiversity?
If you’re not familiar with the term, neurodiversity refers to the concept that, just like fingerprints, no two brains are the same… and that’s ok. Judy Singer first coined the term in the 1990’s. These differences are the result of normal and natural variations in the human genome and our cognitive development, which influence traits like sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions.
People who have brains that function in the way society perceives as “normal” are neurotypical, whereas people who have one or more ways in which their brain functions outside of what is “typical” are neurodivergent. It simply means that they have different strengths (eg, ability to stay focused for long periods on a topic or activity of interest, out-of-the-box thinking, strong observational skills and attention to detail, increased ability to recognise patterns, special talents in areas of music, art, technology, and science) and challenges (eg, difficulty with social communication/interaction, challenges with speech and language, learning challenges such as difficulty with focus, reading, and/or problems with executive functioning, sensitivities to sensory stimuli, and uncontrolled physical behaviors like tics or rocking) as compared to those that are neurotypical.
Conditions that are commonly described as neurodivergent include autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, down syndrome, dysgraphia, dyslexia, dyspraxia, mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and chronic depression, Prader-Willi syndrome, sensory-processing disorders, Tourett syndrome, and Williams syndrome.
There continues to be debate as to whether mental health disorders fit under the definition of neurodivergence. The primary issue appears to be whether they are “acquired” traits as some mental health disorders are purely situational and many respond well to various medical treatments. The reality is, it’s complicated. For purposes of this article, mental health disorders are included in the discussion of neurodiversity as they impact cognition and the way an individual interacts with the world.
If you’ve made it this far, I’ll let you in on a badly kept secret… I identify as neurodivergent because I live (and still thrive) with anxiety and depression. My experience with anxiety first became noticeable when I was in middle school and my family moved from Louisiana to Kentucky. By high school I had mastered the art of catastrophic thinking - where my anxiety manifested itself in “what if” scenarios that usually ended with my failing to do something “perfect” resulting in what others would see as irrational and illogical outcomes. The anxiety resulted in OCD types of tendencies where I would use organisation to feel like I had control over my environment. Unfortunately, I also experienced physical symptoms of my anxiety in the form of a racing mind, hyperfocus, anxiety attics, and gastrointestinal issues (including reflux, diarrhea, and vomiting) that made test-taking and other “milestone” events even more stressful.
I began dealing with bouts of depression in my 20’s. To me, depression is more than just feeling “blue” or “sad” … it’s like you are weighed down and feel like you will never see the sun again. My depression may manifest itself as irritability, weepiness, exhaustion, lack of motivation (which can be distinguished from procrastination), and an inability to focus.
Fortunately, I have been able to manage my anxiety and depression with counselling, medication, and lifestyle changes (like exercise) for more than 30 years. But it’s important to understand that “managing” is not the same as “cured”. I constantly have to self-reflect and reassess so that I can try to mitigate things that are likely to destabilise my sense of balance.
Throughout the first half of my professional career, I was fearful of sharing my experience and how that would impact my career. I was worried that I would be labeled as unstable, emotional, irrational, or hysterical, not for something that I did, but simply because my brain works differently. I eventually realised it doesn’t matter that some people may use those labels because I’ve heard them all before simply because I am a woman.
At Equifax and in various professional organisations, I’ve had the privilege of sharing my experience and developing deeper relationships with so many people that have in turn shared their own experiences. During the pandemic, it seemed to become ok to not be ok … and this, fortunately, seems to have survived the return to office. However, there still are significant stigmas associated with neurodivergence and mental health that make it difficult for many people to be open (or even willing to acknowledge) their own neurodivergence.
Speaking about my own neurodivergence and learning about neurodiversity, however, has also made me a better attorney as it makes me more aware of how I show up for and interact with my clients and colleagues. It makes me reconsider how to teach my brilliant inventors about the nuances of intellectual property, some of whom may also be neurodivergent.
If an inventor is autistic, are they photo realistic visual thinkers, math/pattern thinkers, or word thinkers?
They may be quite literal in their thinking and I may need to consider how to incorporate visual storytelling into my conversation to try and explain the concepts of patentability. I should consider if it is easier for them to communicate their ideas in a conversation rather than through completing an invention disclosure form and may need to adapt my processes to better accommodate their preferences. It may make sense for me to schedule meetings or events on their calendars to help them meet certain deadlines.
If you know someone is neurodivergent and would be open to the conversation, a good place to start is simply asking if they want to talk and being open to it (on their schedule), asking how you can best support them (mental health days, help with figuring out how to compensate for difficulties with certain types of executive functions, etc), and being accommodating (not everyone works the same or can sit at a desk or cube in a corporate office). Although not everyone will be open about their own neurodivergence, we can each make adjustments to be more inclusive by educating neurotypical employees about different types of neurodivergence and mental health issues.
As IP attorneys, it is important for our profession to become more attune to issues of neurodiversity not only because it is the right thing to do, but also so that we are able to better work with our clients to identify intellectual property suitable for protection.
In many cases, the strengths of neurodivergent individuals make them especially suited to the types of creative and out-of-the-box thinking that lend themselves well to various forms of IP protection.
If we don’t do a better job of working more effectively with neurodiverse creators and inventors, we risk losing out on the value of their contributions … and these “lost Einsteins” will miss out on the opportunities associated with that recognition.
Inclusivity Insights is a monthly feature in which companies share stories, learnings, and experiences of their D&I journey related to IP and innovation with the IAM audience. Previous articles in the series: