Neurodiversity in the Lab: A Symphony of the Minds

Aug. 14, 2023

A conductor directs an orchestra.
Building a lab based on neurodiversity is like conducting an orchestra–each player’s instrument contributes to the ultimate harmony.
Source: iStock
Building a lab based on neurodiversity is like conducting a symphony orchestra–each player’s unique instrument contributes to the ultimate harmony. A conductor who restricts themselves to a selected number of instruments will deprive the listeners of the full breadth and beauty of the music. In a similar way, a team that fails to embrace neurodiversity misses out on the extraordinary potential and unique perspectives that can only be found throughout the neurocognitive spectrum.

Diverse minds are essential to the STEM enterprise, and neurodiversity proposes an important point of view about diversity from a neurocognitive perspective. Unlike the old paradigm, which viewed certain neurocognitive conditions as pathologic and attempted to treat them in order to make the individual living with those conditions more similar to “normal” people, the neurodiversity paradigm sees each individual as a unique human being with distinctive abilities. While neurodiversity was originally used to highlight the unique potential of the autistic community, this paradigm has now expanded to include a wide range of other conditions, such as ADHD and dyslexia.

The lab, though filled with opportunities to do research, is also a dynamic rapid-pace workspace, where lab members have to follow strict protocols using various laboratory equipment and also work closely with others in the lab. Neurodivergent individuals harbor a unique set of skills, though they often are marginalized rather than empowered, due to societal misconceptions. Therefore, it is critical to build a lab environment that fosters a sense of inclusion for neurodivergent scientists and educators.

The Missing Chords

Notes floating on lines of sheet music.
Only by finding the missing chords can the system in STEM evolve.
Source: iStock
Certain traits are more commonly seen in neurodivergent individuals. Punctuality, the ability to concentrate for long periods of time, honesty, reliability and the ability to think logically are just a few examples. Although these attributes are highly valued within the STEM enterprise, neurodivergent individuals still remain underrepresented in STEM graduate programs, despite the fact that they have similar intellectual abilities in many domains compared to their neurotypical counterparts. Seeing things from the perspective of neurodivergent individuals is the first step toward creating a more inclusive environment. Only by finding the missing pieces of the puzzle in the current system can society overcome the barriers impeding the complete inclusion of neurodivergent individuals in STEM fields.

A Sensory-Friendly Work Environment

The interpretation of different sensory stimuli can be difficult for neurodivergent individuals. This information overload can, in turn, lead to anxiety and stress. Providing measures to decrease sensory overloads, rather than judging a person based on their natural response to a sensory stimulus, can make a world of difference to a neurodivergent individual.

Child wearing over the head earphones, closing their eyes and placing hands over their ears.
A sensory-friendly work environment is important.
Source: iStock
For example, while a neurotypical person can work comfortably near a centrifuge in the lab, a neurodivergent individual may not be able to tolerate the sound at times. However, that very same person can work just as well, or even better than, a neurotypical individual in a sensory-friendly work environment. Creating a sensory-friendly environment does not require much effort, or expense. Below are some ways in which institutions can make their laboratories more sensory-friendly.

  • Use natural light or warm light bulbs inside the lab rather than bright LED or CFL bulbs.
  • Make sure glass rooms are fitted with blinds to minimize distractions from outside if necessary.
  • Designate workplace areas that are not exposed to traffic noise outside the building or install soundproof windows in noisy areas.
  • Implement measures to turn off lab equipment alarms within a reasonable amount of time and make arrangements to relocate individuals who may be too sensitive to the sound, if necessary.
  • Offe work-from-home options if physical presence is not necessary.

Clear Communication and Supportive Mentoring

Moving to a new lab and taking on new responsibilities can be challenging for anyone. However, a change in daily routine can be extra stressful for neurodiverse students, making this transition even more difficult. Because of this, supportive mentoring that encompasses social and emotional support beyond academic guidance could play a crucial role in mentoring neurodivergent students, particularly during early stages of such transition.

Mentors should also be aware of “self-silencing," a common practice employed among neurodivergent individuals to maintain stability in situations that they perceive consist of a threatening power dynamic in their relationship with their mentors. This would, ultimately, lead to an individual being mute in the face of struggles, rather than seeking support from their supervisors. By creating a safe and inclusive environment, a mentor can promote self-advocacy in their neurodivergent mentees and eventually break this self-silencing pattern. A mentor can work to cultivate this kind of environment by:

  • Clearly communicating instructions and expectations to all students to help avoid misunderstandings.
  • Taking initiative to check in with students. Asking them questions and giving them opportunities to seek clarity. Being open to changing their mentoring approach based on each individual's unique needs.
  • Celebrating their mentees’ progress and accomplishments—no matter how small—to boost confidence.

Culture of Respect

Diverse minds are valuable and essential, especially in STEM.
Diverse minds are valuable and essential, especially in STEM.
Source: iStock
Another challenge neurodivergent individuals face is the pressure to mask their neurodivergent characteristics in order to look more similar to their neurotypical peers. This places an onerous emotional and cognitive burden on their shoulders, since they pretend to be someone they are not. A culture of respect and teamwork where all team members feel supported and included is the solution. Building a culture of respect does not happen overnight, but a few tips to begin fostering this kind of environment are listed below.

  • Build trust in your lab. By building trust, students and faculty are able to function with mutual respect.
  • Create a psychologically safe environment. This kind of environment enhances communication and permits vulnerability, both of which cater to a culture of respect.
  • Lead by example in the lab by respecting each lab member's opinions and values and treating them with dignity.

While it might look like a Herculean task to challenge the status quo, fostering an inclusive environment for neurodiverse scientists is indeed possible. It requires an open mind willing to realize that one may not conform to the societal constructs of neurocognitive normalcy, but at the same time, can perform feats “normal individuals” might not even imagine. Neurodiversity in action requires being willing to listen to a symphony of the minds.

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Author: Parham Habibzadeh, M.D.

Parham Habibzadeh, M.D.
Parham Habibzadeh, M.D., is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute of Human Virology, University of Maryland School of Medicine.