Early in my career as a leadership development trainer, I was asked to deliver curated content for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging learning tracks. Courses on topics such as unconscious bias, active listening, psychological safety, and emotional intelligence (EI) were, and still are, table stakes. At one particular session, I was respectfully challenged by someone who identified as neurodiverse (ND) with “but what if you do not intrinsically understand or experience empathy?”
This is where my theory of EI met the real world and the many other ways that our unique and beautiful brains work. I was promptly schooled that the perception and processing of emotional intelligence can be a great challenge for those identifying as ND, as was the case for this student. Simply reviewing theoretical constructs and models of EI not only lacked sophistication but unintentionally perpetuated my own systemic bias.
Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like autism, dyslexia, ADHD, and mental health are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome. It’s estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence. In certain pockets of the population, this percentage greatly increases. A recent Silicon Valley university study investigated the prevalence of neurodivergent characteristics in successful entrepreneurs and their first-degree family members. Of those polled, 72 percent self-reported being neurodiverse.
Neurotypical (NT) learners have brains that function similarly to most of their peers. Neurotypical individuals have more customary ways of learning, communicating, and perceiving their environment. They develop skills at around the same rate as others their age. Having people who see things differently and maybe don’t fit in seamlessly with NTs can help protect us from herd mentality and various forms of affinity bias.
ND and EIThe idea of emotional intelligence was introduced in the 1960s and is described as the ability to perceive, understand, and cope with your own emotions as well as the emotions of others. It is hailed as one of the most powerful skills you can employ as a modern, people-centric leader. Psychologists such as Daniel Goleman, Abraham Maslow, and Howard Gardner studied concepts of emotional strength and multiple intelligences in individuals and concluded a direct link between having higher levels of EI and success, especially at work. Simply stated, when practiced with skill, it allows us to build vibrant relationships and thriving workplaces.
Goleman’s four-box theory of emotional intelligence holds its weight for many NT learner profiles but can miss the mark in meeting the more nuanced needs of our ND learners. Traditional models like these are great for foundation setting, focusing on building social awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and relationship management. What they don’t address is how this relates to those who are not wired for social-emotional reciprocity. Without addressing self and social regard and cultural and ND differences, we can exclude others from the conversation. To support diversity and inclusion, we need to protect against these arbitrary biases by designing and developing learning experiences with a broader view.
Bridging the NT/ND DivideOne research-backed view emerging in recent years is that NTs and NDs merely speak different, but equally valid, social languages. As such, it’s on all of us to bridge the communication gap. It’s also incumbent on those of us who are trained in how to reframe conversations to enable stronger equity and inclusion.
While some neurodivergent characteristics can present challenges in educational settings, many ND individuals possess unique strengths that present a striking competitive advantage. And while we know that each ND learner is as unique and nuanced as each NT learner, the needs and experiences around learning for those with ND can look quite different.
One student who identified as an autistic person suffered from “mind-blindness,” a cognitive phenomenon where the person is unable to attribute mental states to themself and others, or “putting themselves in someone else’s shoes.” While this created significant barriers to communication and closeness, this individual reported to be no less desiring of rapport and intimacy.
Other more challenging ND traits, such as auditory processing disorder, can further complicate the experience of both learning and the expression of EI. Teaching empathy to a neurodiverse audience requires tailored strategies that consider their unique learning profiles and perspectives. Here are five strategies to personalize the learning experience for ND audiences:
- Use social stories and partnerships. Social stories or scripts can effectively teach ND individuals empathy. These narratives provide clear guidelines for recognizing and responding empathetically in various social situations. Create a safe space for participants to practice with one another and provide feedback to help them improve their empathetic responses.
- Invite somatic learning. Multi-sensory activities cater well to various learning styles. Somatic learning is based on leading-edge research demonstrating the power of the mind to activate physiological, mental, and emotional healing. It’s an innovative body-oriented approach that incorporates mindfulness, visualization, movement-based, and breathing exercises that increase our interoception—the capacity to feel one’s body through emotions and sensations. We all have sensory data about how our body functions and feels—that “gut feeling” or a “felt sense.” Whether recognizing physical sensations, such as flushed cheeks or an elevated heart rate, we are signaled that our body is trying to tell us something. The body is wise and has a fantastic memory! Encouraging learners to tap into their somatic intelligence center enhances their well-being and grows emotional awareness.
- Visualize, voice, and validate emotions. Many individuals with neurodiverse traits are visual learners. Incorporate visual aids, such as a Plutchik wheel, mood flip book, or a feelings list to help explain empathy concepts. Next, encourage participants to reflect on their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Ask questions that prompt self-awareness around their feelings. If the space feels adequately held, invite peer-to-peer learning experiences that pair differing yet equally valid expressions of EI in the workforce. Others can validate one another’s experience and help to label emotions if they need extra support.
- Promote active listening and perspective taking. Unlike technical skills and experience, EI is often more difficult to define and can be even harder to practice and grow, especially for some ND populations. One researched-based method to help all types of learners increase their EI is to help them learn how to listen. When we understand how and when to turn on this skill, we often strengthen trust, build stronger relationships, and reduce misunderstandings. Encourage perspective-taking to understand and relate to others' emotions and experiences. Activities such as role-playing, storytelling, or group discussions can help participants build their active listening muscles.
- Reduce stress. Another step to improving EI can be to reduce stress. As with all learners, it’s critical to ensure that the learning environment is welcoming, accepting, and free from judgment. Embedding well-being and stress reduction content into your EI course will not only benefit your ND learners but also everyone. A win-win for all!
Everyone is, to some extent, “differently abled” because our ways of thinking and learning result from both our inherent hardware and the experiences that have shaped us. Because of our unique biology and wiring, we all start at different places and construct our own meaning based on our life experiences. If learners are not neurologically wired to be empathetic, educators must level up to make this coveted soft skill more accessible. The answer lies in our ability to invite different but equally valid voices and strategies to the learning table.