We speak with EssenceMediacom’s chief strategy and transformation officer for South Asia, Sonali Malaviya, about why we should embrace neurodiversity in the workplace, the importance of representation, and why neurodiversity benefits everyone.
This article is part of a content series on diversity, equity and inclusion for Campaign Asia-Pacific and Greater China’s Women to Watch, created in partnership with EssenceMediacom.
As diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) becomes an increasingly important topic in the Asia-Pacific region, we’ve seen corporations take great strides in embracing admirable causes like gender parity, generational diversity, LGBTQIA+ rights, and mental health awareness. But what about less-discussed forms of diversity, such as socioeconomic background, faith, and perhaps one of the most fundamental forms of diversity — neurodivergence?
What is neurodiversity?
This wide-ranging term, which encompasses a multitude of conditions including ADHD, dyslexia, and Tourette’s, refers to the very function of an individual’s brain. To be neurodivergent — or neuroatypical — is to be quite literally wired differently. This can manifest as differences in social preferences, ways of learning, ways of communicating, and ways that people perceive the environment.
It’s a matter that’s close to EssenceMediacom’s chief strategy and transformation officer for South Asia Sonali Malaviya’s heart. Malaviya, who is a long-time and fierce advocate for neurodiversity, said, “The most important thing to understand here is that the neurodivergent brain is different, not deficient.”
Like so many things — including one of the most famous conditions that fall under its umbrella, autism — neurodiversity itself is a spectrum, “which makes it hard to codify and even harder to comprehend,” said Malaviya. That lack of awareness and understanding “leads to a lot of stress and traumas around bullying, lack of support, and the need to mask [one’s] identity,” she continued.
Out of sight, out of mind
The invisibility of neurodivergence can make “it hard to wrap one’s head around, especially when you haven’t experienced it at close quarters,” said Malaviya. However, individuals with invisible disabilities may experience symptoms that are overlooked by others, such as cognitive dysfunction, mental health difficulties, sensory impairment, and learning differences, all of which can be perceived negatively by those with unconscious biases.
Representation can go a long way towards deepening awareness of neurodivergence, though as with other forms of diversity, there’s a fine line between media that helps or hinders the cause. “In my experience, [the representation I’ve seen so far] frequently plays to stereotypes, which can be harmful to neurodivergent communities. We often see neurodivergence used to comedic effect, or portrayed as overgeneralisation of a disorder to make a character fit in a box,” said Malaviya.
She believes that a nuanced and even understated approach towards representation — where neurodivergence is presented as just one aspect of life that intersects with others, “like race, socioeconomic status, school, work, friends, family, everything that constitutes life” — is key to dismantling harmful stereotypes.
Neurodiversity as an advantage
Though living in a society built for neurotypical people presents its own hurdles, neurodivergence can also act as a competitive advantage — especially within creative fields such as advertising and media, where “out-of-the-box thinking” and breaking from the norm are celebrated, not denigrated.
“In a work environment, neurodivergent employees often bring together a unique perspective, creative insights, and excellent problem-solving skills. Research shows that some conditions including autism and dyslexia show [exceptional abilities and skills like] pattern recognition, memory, and mathematics,” noted Malaviya.
For companies like SAP, HP, and Microsoft, which have made efforts to hire neurodiverse talent, that initiative has paid dividends. “Beyond reputational enhancement, [they’re seeing] significant productivity gains, quality improvement, and increases in innovative capabilities and employee engagement,” Malaviya said. “Closer home in media, neurodiverse people could be a straightforward fit into reporting, automation, writing code, and multiple other places. What’s important is positioning them where the organisation and their worlds intersect,” she continued.
Unconventional talent, unconventional methods
However, to reap the benefits of the neurodiverse talent pool, employers must break from convention and rethink their way of doing things — from the recruitment process itself to in-office practices and company culture. Revisiting job descriptions and requirements to remove bias can open employers up to a much wider and varied talent pool, while seemingly small gestures such as instituting quiet areas in the office or permitting headphones while working can go a long way towards easing sensory overstimulation.
“One thing that’s really important to make sure we’re able to set neurodivergent people up for success is to communicate very clearly,” said Malaviya. For neurotypical people, non-verbal communication such as facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation is often taken for granted — but alienates individuals with different backgrounds, whether they’re neurodiverse, from another culture, or have physical disabilities.
To eliminate ambiguity and create a welcoming working environment, Malaviya emphasises that “clear instructions, routine, empathy, and kindness” are essential. To better nurture neurodiverse talent, she also advocates for a “buddy system” — similar to what many companies already have in place for new joiners — calibrated towards helping people with diverse working styles succeed and flourish. “Providing learning and development opportunities, and creating individualised career journeys are some things that mentors or buddies could help neurodiverse people do,” she remarked.
That may not sound like a major departure from some of the systems many companies currently have in place, but simple things like using inclusive and positive language, clear communication, and embedding empathy into company culture can create a world of difference for employees — whether they’re neuroatypical or neurotypical.
Building a more neurodiverse world
While making work more comfortable for neurodivergent communities is important, it’s clear that neurodiversity needs to be accepted and embraced within society at large, too. When asked to reflect on how this could take shape — and the effects it would have, Malaviya said, “Around 15–20% of the world is estimated to be neurodivergent. That’s a lot of people who struggle to mainstream.”
“No two brains are wired the same. From everything I’ve learned, using atypicality as a description will soon be a thing of the past,” said Malaviya. Rather, she sees a future where everyone is understood to be different from one another — not less, not more, just different.
“Embracing neurodiversity makes our society more authentic and takes away the stress of conformism, which gives everyone the permission to be who they are, regardless of whether they’re neurodivergent. Equitability normalises differences in gender, race, sexual orientation, and skills — and neurodiversity should be no different,” she said.
To help bring this brighter, more empathetic future about from a grassroots level, Malaviya advocates for “embedding the idea of neurodivergent people as a very significant, and normal part of society.” Taking a linear view, that could even start from a young age through education about neuroanatomy at grade school that does away with “labels of dysfunction” and acknowledges neurodiversity simply as what it is — difference.