As has been noted previously in The Scholarly Kitchen, few people set out to have a career in academic publishing – we often end up here when walking away from other paths. Many arrive from traditional business backgrounds in other parts of the communications or publishing industries, while another large segment is comprised of former academics. The latter often arrive once they reach the end of their PhD student/postdoc funding and find that a faculty job is unavailable or undesirable (or both).
The divergent backgrounds found in scholarly publishing make it a vibrant and diverse community, but the large population of former academics imbues our community with another, overlooked attribute: neurodiversity. Because people in STEM-related occupations score considerably higher on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) than members of the general population (see here), we are likely to have a lot of neurodiversity in scholarly publishing.
Neurodiversity encompasses a wide range of traits and behaviors, but in general people on the autism spectrum are good at non-verbal reasoning, reading, perceptual motor skills (e.g., working out the right lid for a Starbucks coffee cup), drawing, computer-related skills, and music. They may also have exceptional memory skills and visual-spatial abilities (e.g., navigating or estimating distances). On the downside, people on the spectrum may have trouble with developing social relationships, difficulty communicating, an excessive dependence on routine, or abnormal sensitivities to sensory stimuli. There’s a fascinating Twitter thread about traits associated with autism here.
People with severe autism don’t generally enter the workforce, but those with mild autism can go on to have successful and productive careers. They may even go on to revolutionize their field, as some combinations of autistic traits can lead to an extraordinary capacity for innovation and the single-mindedness to make their vision a reality.
The drive to embrace other aspects of diversity in scholarly publishing and elsewhere focuses on equity and inclusion, which is the idea that everyone is given the tools and opportunities they need to achieve their potential. For neurodiversity, the difference between equality (everyone is given the same opportunities) and equity (everyone is given what they need to succeed) is particularly stark.
For example, an golden opportunity to work in Sales could be unwelcome for some neurodiverse employees: navigating complex social dynamics with potential customers in a noisy room might prove very stressful; a neurotypical person might find the same situation normal or even enjoyable. An opportunity to derive actionable insights from reams of complex data might be bewildering and frustrating for a neurotypical person, but deeply satisfying for someone on the autism spectrum. The key is to help neurodiverse employees find their niche, one where their weaknesses are not a constant source of discomfort, and one where their sometimes-surprising strengths are used to benefit both the individual and the organization.
April is World Autism Month, and thus a good opportunity for each of us to appreciate the differences in how our friends and colleagues perceive and interact with the world. Helping them and their organizations make best use of neurodiversity may be the difference between frustration and a rewarding career.