HR can learn from the Mexican tetra to help neurodivergent staff flourish

The Mexican tetra, also known as the blind cavefish, is a fascinating example of how biodiversity can help species survive in difficult and changing environments. This fish is found in underground rivers and caves in north-eastern Mexico, where it has evolved to be blind.

By abandoning sight and heightening its other senses, the tetra has gained a competitive advantage: the ability to navigate and hunt in complete darkness.

But what does this fish have to do with human brains and neurodiversity? The answer lies in the idea of adaptation and evolution.

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Just as the tetra has adapted to its environment to survive, humans have also been shaped by the environments in which they have evolved.

However, the pace of human evolution has been much slower than that of the Mexican tetra, and as a result, some brains are better adapted to certain environments than others.

Take autism, for example. One of the most important modern theories about autism is that it represents an alternative cognitive style, or a different way of processing information.

Research suggests individuals who are autistic may have enhanced perceptual processing abilities, especially in the visual domain. They may be better at detecting patterns, details, and visual information than other individuals who are not autistic.

Similarly, ADHD and dyslexia represent different cognitive styles or adaptations.

Individuals with ADHD may have a heightened sensitivity to novelty, a tendency to seek out new experiences, which would have been an advantage in some environments and certainly why there are a higher proportion of entrepreneurs who are ADHD and/or dyslexic.

When it comes to neurodiversity, it’s important to recognise that co-occurrence is more common than not.

For example, individuals who are autistic are highly likely to also have co-occurring traits such as ADHD or dyslexia.

These individuals are not only processing information differently, but also dealing with additional layers of complexity in their cognitive and sensory experiences.

Traditional workplaces and educational systems may prioritise certain skills and ways of thinking over others, which can be a disadvantage for individuals with alternative cognitive styles.

And let’s remember our brains have evolved from the early primates over 55 million years ago, to what we have today. The development of the modern brain has been over the last 100,000 years and puts the biological evolution of the Mexican tetra into context.

The increasing pace and complexity of modern life, with its emphasis on multitasking, social communication, and rapid decision-making, can present significant obstacles for those with atypical neural wiring.

But the pandemic has forced many of us to adapt to new ways of working and learning. This shift towards digital and flexible work practices may be more conducive to the cognitive styles of individuals who are autistic, ADHD or dyslexic, for example.

The pandemic has taught us to be more flexible and adaptable in the face of changing circumstances, and to value different perspectives and ways of thinking.

This is where the concept of neurodiversity comes in. Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological variations should be recognised and respected as natural variations in human cognition.

It is not a disorder or a deficit, unless the individual chooses to identify it in that way, but rather a unique way of experiencing and interacting with the world.

In the modern workplace, it is crucial to recognise that many individuals may require accommodations to support their optimal performance.

These accommodations can take various forms, such as offering flexible work arrangements, providing noise-cancelling headphones, or granting access to assistive technology.

By proactively providing these accommodations, employers not only foster a more inclusive environment but also empower all employees to thrive and excel in their roles.

By addressing the needs of individuals, employers are bridging the gap between the evolutionary pace of our brains and the demands of the modern work environment.

By doing so, we create an environment that not only embraces diversity but also cultivates an inclusive culture where all employees can thrive, grow, and contribute to their fullest potential.

It is through such intentional actions that we pave the way for a more equitable, empowering and successful future for all.

In the world of business and its workforce, waiting for evolution to naturally address the challenges we face is not a viable option.

This is where we humans need to intervene. We made the changes over the past few hundred years that have negatively impacted on biodiversity and neurodiversity.

It’s time to set it right, and ensure we have a universal design principle that is both bio-inclusive and neuro-inclusive.

Theo Smith is an author, podcast host and founder of Neurodiversity at Work