SPECIALISTERNE NETWORK

International Specialisterne Community

Specialisterne USA

Specialisterne USA Inc., a charitable not-for-profit 503(c) American organization, focused on building a bridge between neurodivergent job seekers and employers. We support employers to tap into the talents of a neurodiverse workforce and build inclusive organizations through education, training, and advisory.

Specialisterne Foundation

Specialisterne Foundation is a nonprofit organization that works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges.

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The neurodiversity movement, to a great extent, was born out of a desire to see the differences in individual-level psychological functioning as a dimension of diversity, rather than deficits. This diversity, however, is situated within many other intersecting aspects of human differences, one of which is national-level cultures. National cultures, along with many other levels of culture, such as ethnic, industry, or organizational, can shape the experience of neurodivergence and impact important occupational and life opportunities.

Cross-cultural psychology often relies on cultural dimensions to describe how cultures function and shape individual human experiences. Geert Hofstede’s dimensions (e.g., individualism and collectivism) are among the most popular frameworks. These cultural dimensions can significantly influence how neurodivergence is perceived, experienced, marginalized, or supported in different societies. National cultures are not “right” or “wrong,” but the aspects of national cultures can make them more or less welcoming of specific forms of neurodivergence.

Both research and my decades of experience with global diversity indicate that cultural dimensions are not either-or, and various cultural characteristics can coexist within the same society and manifest differently among the members of that society. Nevertheless, cultural dimensions are well documented by research and can be helpful in describing national-level cultures and their impact on the workplace, as long as we avoid overgeneralizations and an assumption that culture-level averages describe all members of that culture. Cultural dimensions, while important, are just one set of factors shaping individual experience.

CULTURAL DIMENSIONS AND THEIR IMPACT ON NEURODIVERGENT EXPERIENCE

Here is how some of the key cultural dimensions could  potentially influence neurodivergent experience:

1. Individualism-Collectivism: This widely recognized cultural dimension differentiates societies based on whether they prioritize the goals and needs of the individual over the goals of the group (individualism) or the goals and needs of the group (collectivism). Typically, individualistic cultures such as the US, value personal achievement and independence, potentially offering neurodivergent members of the society more leeway to advocate for their needs and pursue their unique paths. However, very high levels of individualism can also lead to isolation and the loss of community support as a source of well-being. In contrast, collectivistic cultures, such as most Asian and Latin American cultures, emphasize group harmony and interdependence. Collectivistic environments could potentially support neurodivergent individuals through a strong sense of community, but could also be associated with the pressure to conform and fit in, making it difficult to fully express one’s individuality.

While IndividualismCollectivism is the best-known cultural dimension, it intersects with many other cultural-level characteristics, creating many unique cultural settings. One important intersecting dimension is cultural Horizontality/Verticality, as defined by Harry Triandis and Michele Gelfand.

2. Horizontal-Vertical Cultures: This dimension explores whether societies emphasize equality (horizontal) or accept and expect hierarchical relationships (vertical). Horizontal cultures (e.g., Norway, Australia) value egalitarian relationships and might foster environments where neurodivergent people experience more equality and inclusion. Vertical cultures (US, India), with their emphasis on hierarchy and status, might create additional challenges for neurodivergent individuals in navigating social and workplace dynamics, where their differences do not easily “fit” within established hierarchies. Horizontal cultures have been found to be associated with lower levels of loneliness.

The interplay of individualism-collectivism (I/C) and verticality-horizontality adds a nuanced layer to understanding how different cultures perceive and integrate neurodiversity. Classifying cultures along two axes: I/C and Vertical/Horizontal (V/H) provides a more detailed framework for exploring how cultural attitudes towards hierarchy and equality impact the experience of neurodivergent individuals.

Vertical Individualist (VI) Cultures

Vertical individualistic cultures, such as France and the United States, are characterized by an emphasis on achievement and relative status, often through individual competition. In these societies, success and advancement are highly valued, and individuals are encouraged to distinguish themselves from the group. For neurodivergent individuals, this can mean that their unique skills and perspectives are valued when they lead to notable achievements or innovation. However, the competitive environment can also create significant pressures, making it challenging for those who may require accommodations or have different paths to productivity.

Vertical Collectivist (VC) Cultures

In vertical collectivistic cultures, like Korea and India, authority, tradition, and the well-being of the group are paramount, sometimes at the cost to individuals, if necessary. These cultures emphasize respect for hierarchy and the importance of fulfilling one’s role within the group. For neurodivergent people, navigating these societal expectations can be challenging, as deviation from norms may be less tolerated. However, the strong sense of community and collective support can also provide a robust support network for those who are accepted within these structures.

Horizontal Individualist (HI) Cultures

Horizontal individualistic cultures, such as the Nordic countries and Australia, value equality but also emphasize uniqueness and self-reliance. These societies encourage individuals to be independent and pursue personal goals, but without the one-upping competitive aspect of vertical individualist cultures. For neurodivergent people, HI cultures can offer a supportive environment that values individual differences and provides space for personal growth, all while promoting an egalitarian approach to social interactions and workplace dynamics. Interestingly, Specialisterne originated from the cultural context of Denmark, a largely horizontally individualist society. Australia, also a horizontally individualistic society, has some of the more pronounced national-level neuroinclusion and employment efforts in the world.

Horizontal Collectivist (HC) Cultures

Horizontal collectivistic cultures, which are less likely to be found at the national level and are exemplified by communities like the Israeli kibbutz or some traditional societies, prioritize sociability, equality, and shared responsibility. In these settings, neurodivergent people might find a welcoming community that values each person’s contribution to the collective well-being, without imposing strict hierarchies or competitive pressures. Such environments could foster inclusion and support for neurodivergent people, although other specific values of the group also matter.

Intersections of Culture with Neurodivergent Experience

The intersection of cultural dimensions with neurodiversity reveals a complex landscape. Neurodivergent people may thrive or face challenges based on how their unique traits align with or deviate from their cultural context’s values and expectations. For instance, a neurodivergent individual in a vertical individualist culture may excel if their unique abilities lead to personal achievements but may struggle with the competitive environment. Conversely, in horizontal collectivist cultures, communal support might facilitate a sense of belonging and acceptance, though opportunities for individual recognition may be limited.

Understanding these cultural nuances is crucial for developing inclusive practices that respect both cultural values and neurodivergent individuals’ needs. It underscores the importance of a multifaceted approach to neuro-inclusion, one that considers not just neurodiversity but also the broader cultural context in which neurodivergent people live and work. By recognizing and addressing these cultural dimensions, societies and organizations can better support neurodivergent people, allowing them to thrive and contribute to their fullest potential.

ORGANIZATIONS ARE CULTURES, TOO

In addition to the influence of national cultures, organizational cultures play a crucial role in shaping the workplace experience for neurodivergent people. Within the same national culture, organizations can create environments that significantly differ in individualism-collectivism, verticality-horizontality, and other dimensions. For example, both Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and Amazon are US-founded companies, but Ben & Jerry’s is known for an exceptionally egalitarian organizational culture. These organizational-level cultures can profoundly impact the day-to-day experiences, opportunities, and challenges faced by employees, either counteracting or amplifying the effects of the broader national culture. These organizational-level differences can also substantially impact neuro-inclusion.

Organizational Cultures and Neurodiversity

1. Organizational Individualism-Collectivism: Organizations that lean towards individualism may prioritize personal achievement, innovation, and autonomy. This can create an empowering environment for neurodivergent individuals who excel in unique problem-solving and creative thinking. However, it may also require robust support systems to ensure that these individuals can navigate the workplace effectively without feeling isolated. Conversely, collectivistic organizations focus on teamwork, communal goals, and shared success. Such an environment might offer stronger support networks for neurodivergent employees but might also require adjustments to ensure that the value of individual differences is recognized and developed.

2. Organizational Verticality-Horizontality: In vertically-oriented organizations, hierarchy and status are significant, potentially creating barriers for neurodivergent individuals who might struggle with conventional expectations of authority and protocol. In contrast, horizontally-oriented organizations emphasize equality and flat structures, which can facilitate more open communication and collaboration, potentially benefiting neurodivergent employees by creating a more inclusive and flexible work environment.

Impact on Neurodivergent Employees

Organizational culture can significantly impact neurodivergent employees’ experience, engagement, productivity, and well-being. For example, in a highly competitive, vertically individualistic organization, a neurodivergent employee might face challenges related to workplace dynamics and social interactions. However, in a horizontally collectivist organization, the same employee might find a supportive community that values their contributions, possibly leading to higher job satisfaction and engagement.

Creating Inclusive Organizational Cultures

Cultures are less about what people say, and more about what people do. With a commitment to neuro-inclusion, organizations can take proactive steps to create environments supporting neuro-inclusion, regardless of their starting position on the dimensions of individualism-collectivism and verticality-horizontality. Some strategies that can work across cultural environments to help soften the effects of extreme cultural settings and open doors for further improvement include:

    • Leveraging Neurodivergent Strengths through Job-Matching and Job-Crafting: neurodivergent people are likely to thrive when their unique strengths are matched with tasks or roles where they can excel. An argument for this can align with both the value of maximizing individual talents and the value of maximizing a contribution to the group. Examples of success can be found both in individualist settings like Australia (horizontal individualism) and collectivist settings like India (vertical collectivism).
    • Peer Support Networks: establishing peer support networks or affinity groups for neurodivergent employees can provide a community and help people share strategies for navigating workplace challenges, including those related to specific cultural contexts. These networks also help meet a human need to belong, a universal across cultures.
    • Flexible Work Arrangements: implementing flexible work policies that accommodate different working styles and needs also maximizes productivity, something organizations across cultures strive for. This could involve flexible hours, working from home, or hybrid arrangements that align with both group and individual needs.
    • Promoting Awareness and Understanding: educating employees about neurodiversity can help facilitate understanding and eventually translate into developing an increasingly inclusive culture that values different ways of thinking and working.

There is no ideal culture, but culture-add organizations that avoid the extremes and blend elements of individualism and collectivism with a strong emphasis on the equal dignity of all people might be well-positioned to create high-performing, caring and neuro-inclusive work environments.

Conclusion

National-level cultures are a powerful determinant of neuro-inclusion. However, organizational cultures can also significantly influence the experience of neurodivergent employees. By understanding and intentionally shaping these cultures, organizations all over the world can create environments where neurodivergent people can thrive and where all employees can be welcomed and productive.