Embracing neurodiversity, from ADHD to dyslexia, gives adland a creative edge.
Richard Brim, chief creative officer of Adam & Eve/DDB, is catching up with his friend, who is a psychologist. To his surprise, he becomes the subject of scrutiny. After observing Brim, the woman says: “You show signs of ADHD.”
Later, when Brim told his wife and friends, they were like: “No shit, Sherlock.” But for Brim, this unexpected observation brought a moment of clarity.
From a young age, Brim recalls being “all over the place at school” and considered “a naughty boy”. As he grew up, he finally found something he was good at, which “helped channel my brain. It was art and problem-solving, but not in a conventional sense.”
Brim (pictured, above) went on to study art at Central Saint Martins and then work in advertising, becoming one of the industry’s most esteemed creative leaders. With a renewed understanding of himself, he now sees his neurodivergent traits as a strength. “There are certain things I’ve learned to curb as an adult, and certain things I’ve learned to harness,” he says. “Difference and different ways of thinking is actually a superpower in this industry.”
While some advertising leaders have lately championed the importance of difference and diversity, just how suited is the industry to fostering diverse minds? There are many others like Brim across the creative sector, but barriers still remain to making workplaces more inclusive for all types of brains. Now, organisations such as Commercial Break and Brixton Finishing School are aiming to open up the ad industry to neurodivergent talent, with initiatives that would make a creative career more accessible to a greater diversity of minds.
They recognise that at this juncture, when the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating shifts in the workplace that were already under way, embracing neurodiversity could have far-reaching benefits for the entire industry.
Neurodiversity refers to variations in cognitive functioning and is used to describe people who have conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia or dyspraxia. Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist who is on the autism spectrum, coined the term in the late 1990s and American journalist Harvey Blume helped popularise it, writing in The Atlantic in 1998: “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will be best at any given moment?” The neurodiversity movement highlights the unique strengths and abilities of neurological differences and argues that they should be accepted and respected in the same way that other types of diversity are.
Just as with other forms of diversity, any discussion or approach to neurodiversity should be nuanced, because the term encompasses a wide range of traits as well as much variance within each condition. Adelphi University professor Stephen Shore, who has autism and researches the condition, highlighted this truth when he said: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
However, certain stereotypes, such as the common perception that everyone with autism is good at maths or resembles the savant protagonist in the film Rain Man, hold many back from a deeper understanding of neurodiversity and how it can best be harnessed.
This lack of understanding is a crucial blind spot for the ad industry. For one, many of the consumers it is trying to reach could be neurodivergent – an estimated one in seven people (nearly 15%) in the UK is neurodivergent in some way, according to Acas.
In the industry’s own workforce, that number is higher. The organisation Creative Equals found in its 2020 Equality Standard Accreditation survey that 18% of employees in advertising, marketing and media have one or more neurodiverse traits.
Meanwhile, Universal Music’s 2020 report Creative Differences estimates that the proportion of people who are neurodiverse across all creative industries is almost double that of the general public. Because many people may not disclose their conditions to their employers or are undiagnosed, that figure could be even higher.
The high proportion of neurodiverse people in the creative sector is striking and chimes with research that highlights a strong correlation between neurodiversity and creativity. Universal Music’s report cites studies showing that, for example, individuals with ADHD outperform others when thinking creatively, and autistic traits may put people at an advantage when generating ideas or can spark greater verbal creativity.
Great artists and innovators throughout history – Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, Agatha Christie, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Pablo Picasso and Stanley Kubrick, to name just a few – have, or were reported to have, neurodivergent conditions.
Addressing the challenges
The ad industry has its own examples of successful creatives who are neurodivergent. Yet while Brim and many neurodiversity advocates cite such traits as “superpowers”, there is also a danger in ending the conversation there, because it doesn’t address the many challenges that neurodivergent people still have to face.
“It was an idea I used to cling to – that these things make me superhuman and it’s magical I can see the world from a different way,” Jae Tallawah, creative legacy and inclusion lead at arts and social justice organisation Maia, says.
But after a bumpy road earlier in their career, Tallawah, who lives with dyslexia, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, realised: “When people get pushed into this space of ‘you’re a hero’, there’s no space to be human there. I’m not a superhero, I’m a person like everyone else with complex needs.”
Wayne Deakin, executive creative director EMEA at Huge, who is on the autism spectrum, points out: “I think [neurodiversity]is a superpower but it’s a bit like any weapon – it’s got a double edge. I would hate if neurodiversity becomes trendy, because there are challenges as well as strengths, and that needs to be recognised as well.”
Among those challenges is that because neurodiverse conditions are often hidden, misunderstood or stigmatised, many businesses are not set up to fully support the neurodivergent people within their organisations or to recruit more of those who are.
“There’s just a huge amount of untapped potential,” Red Brick Road executive creative director Matt Davis says. He has a son with high-functioning autism and is a trustee of autism research charity Austica and a patron of Ambitious About Autism.
The problem with this untapped potential starts early. Like Brim and Deakin, many people who are neurodivergent recall struggling with the more rigid and traditional aspects of school and university.
That was also true for Aidan McClure (pictured, below), founder and chief creative officer of Wonderhood Studios, who has dyslexia, which can sometimes manifest itself with difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.
McClure says: “The classic way of learning at school and uni was really challenging because it required a lot of short-term memory, reading, studying textbooks and writing. It was the formal learning that brought me out in a bit of a cold sweat.”
These early struggles can have long-term effects on people’s self-esteem and career choices later in life, according to Kate Power and Kathy Iwanczak Forsyth, co-authors of two books about dyslexia: The Illustrated Guide to Dyslexia and its Amazing People and The Bigger Picture Book of Amazing Dyslexics and the Jobs They Do. Both have worked in the creative industries in art and design and have children with dyslexia, while Iwanczak Forsyth herself is dyslexic.
“It’s the confidence that’s the killer,” she says, while Power adds: “You’re always going back to that root of insecurity that you were made to feel at school.”
With their colourful and upbeat books, Power says that they want to “change the negative connotation to the word dyslexia” and show the breadth of creative potential and career options available to those with the condition. People with dyslexia “have amazing skillsets that aren’t recognised by the system”, Power adds.
Iwanczak Forsyth says she “gravitated towards the creative industries”, whose roles seemed to better suit her abilities and also offered a less conventional career path.
McClure found a similar home in advertising. “With advertising, I think it was the first time in my life that I felt like I could do this quite well and I could do it better,” he says. “It’s almost the perfect industry for dyslexic people. Everything has to be quite short and simple and it’s all about ideas. Everything else doesn’t really matter – if the idea is strong, that’s what matters.”
Before getting a job at an ad agency, McClure studied at The Watford Course, which, like other advertising courses (such as that at the School of Communication Arts in London), tends to be less rigid in its education style and recruitment of students. Yet even these courses – from which many agencies recruit new talent – may be putting off potential students before they even apply.
Commercial Break, an organisation aimed at increasing diversity within advertising, discovered this while working with a young woman who has dyslexia and ADHD. “She had this slightly dark sensibility, this spark where it was obvious she thinks differently and she’s going places,” James Hillhouse, co-founder of Commercial Break, says.
But after winning a scholarship at SCA, the woman wavered when she saw the required reading list. “She was looking at the reading list and saying, ‘I can’t do it’,” Hillhouse says. “Marc [Lewis, dean of SCA] was very accommodating, but the fact that the anxiety was already there and she thought she would be starting behind was enough of a problem.”
Realising that the path into the industry for people with dyslexia was strewn with invisible barriers such as this, Commercial Break and ad professionals Kat Pegler and Alex Fleming created Leo, a fully customisable and free reading platform that combines text, audio and video, to make it easier for people with dyslexia to study advertising coursework.
Leo launched in January with Steve Harrison’s How to Do Better Creative Work, a leading textbook for budding creatives. Each chapter is read aloud on the platform by a creative leader such as McClure, Creature London’s Stu Outhwaite-Noel and Futurimpose’s Ollie Olanipekun.
The goal is to expand Leo into a library of books about advertising and marketing, making a creative education more accessible to those who are neurodivergent. “It helps level the playing field,” Hillhouse says.
Brixton Finishing School, a free creative course for 18- to 25-year-olds from underrepresented groups, is also tackling this problem of access for neurodiverse talent. It plans to launch a course next year specifically tailored for neurodiverse young people.
Along with the course, BFS is in talks to set up a neurodiverse office space for students and creative professionals. It would be specially designed so that people with neurodiverse traits could work in environments that best suited their needs, and industry leaders could visit and learn “how they could hack their offices into neurodivergent spaces”, BFS founder Ally Owen explains.
More such initiatives are needed in the industry, because “our corporate structures still expect you to be neurotypical”, Owen says. “As an industry, we don’t seem to be worshipping or facilitating neurodiversity in the way we should.”
Barriers to employment
The inflexibility of corporate structures, along with persisting prejudices and stigmas, partly explains why employment rates tend to be lower among neurodiverse groups. For example, just 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment in the UK, even though 77% of unemployed autistic adults want to work, according to research from the National Autistic Society.
Davis learned of these sobering statistics after his son, now aged 13, was diagnosed with autism 10 years ago. His son also has ADHD and dyspraxia.
Over the past decade of parenting, Davis has come to realise that “a lot of autistic people see the world completely differently”, which he believes would be hugely beneficial in the workplace because “difference within an organisation can help you think and behave in a more creative way”.
This insight inspired Davis to become a vocal campaigner for employing more neurodivergent people in the ad industry. Five years ago, Red Brick Road partnered the charity Ambitious About Autism to recruit an autistic employee, named Chris, and create a tailor-made role that would best use his varied skills. Now, Chris works across the finance and creative departments, as well as helping with internal communications.
“He’s quite a social glue for the agency,” Davis says. “There have been a few instances where we’ve had to give him support, but no more than other staff.”
Red Brick Road has also developed a work experience programme for autistic sixth-form students. Such initiatives have proved to Davis that “some talented people are sitting at home because they don’t know where to look and employers don’t know where to look either. We need to try to get them into work.”
Amy Walker, diversity and inclusion co-ordinator at Group M (pictured, below), agrees with Davis’ assessment that neurodivergent people are an untapped talent pool – it rings true with her own experience. She was diagnosed with autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia at a young age – and after being bullied and struggling at school, she dropped out around the age of 12. Later on, she applied to art college with a photography portfolio and “the admissions tutor gave me a chance despite having no qualifications”, which led to her attending university.
From there it took her a long time to settle on a career path, but an autism exchange internship programme at M/SIX introduced her to the world of media agencies and helped her land her current role. Without that programme, and people along the way who took a less conventional approach to recruitment, it may have taken her longer to find her place, she says.
Walker also set up Neurodiversity Works, which develops training and job opportunities for neurodivergent people. She says that to attract and retain this talent, the ad industry needs to make changes such as creating more flexible roles and educating hiring managers about neurodiversity, so that they “don’t overlook someone if they have slightly odd mannerisms or behave differently”.
Positives from the pandemic
The shifts brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic have in some ways encouraged people to open up about their personal challenges at work and offered opportunities for businesses to better accommodate diverse minds, Walker says.
For example, many companies that were previously reluctant to allow flexible working have been forced to embrace it during lockdown, while some aspects of office life that neurodivergent people may have found challenging, such as social events or open-plan offices, have fallen by the wayside, she explains. Before the pandemic, she already worked from home two days a week and has appreciated the additional time to do so, because it allows her to hyper-focus on her tasks without distractions and have more control over her working environment and schedule.
Many companies are still ironing out the kinks of remote working and need to do so with neurodiversity in mind, Walker says, such as by offering accessibility training for video calls. And there are still some glaring issues in the ad industry that need to be addressed if it is to become a place where all brains can thrive.
In September, Craig Ainsley, a creative director at Mother, wrote a piece on Medium entitled “The Normalisation of Overworking in Advertising”, in which he talked about “the institutionalised epidemic of overworking”.
“I realised I know nine people in advertising who have had to seek medical help because of work-induced burnout and exacerbated mental health problems. A few of them were hospitalised. Some had to take a leave of absence,” he wrote. “I know dozens more who feel the strain but are yet to break.”
In some cases, this problem may be worsening in an era of remote working, when the lines between work and home life are increasingly blurred and businesses are under greater pressure due to the financial impact of the pandemic.
Although Ainsley did not mention neurodiversity in his piece, the “epidemic of overworking” that he describes worries copywriter Charlotte Adorjan as she eyes the industry’s future for people like her eight-year-old son, Woody, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three.
“Woody’s day-to-day life is incredibly stressful and he has a lot of anxiety, so to manage that is a difficult thing,” she says. “If advertising can’t stop burnout with neurotypical people, I worry what would happen to non-neurotypical brains within that, because the support system you have to have in place is big.”
When Tallawah entered the creative sector in 2013, they observed a common mindset in which “this idea of working yourself to the bone means you’re a hero”. After working for businesses that did not understand their needs, or where they were afraid to disclose their conditions, Tallawah concluded: “A lack of care for yourself doesn’t make you the best version of yourself. My neurodiversities are part of me so I can’t not say what they are.”
After landing their current job at Maia, Tallawah (pictured, above) decided to use an accessibility document, which explains their neurodiversity, how it affects them in the workplace and how best they can be supported. Tallawah is now working on ensuring that all Maia employees – both neurodivergent and neurotypical – create a similar document about working styles and the support required.
“When I’m brave enough to put my access needs forward, neurotypical people will realise things within the system that don’t work for them,” Tallawah says. “So many of us go along with things because it’s the way it’s always been done, but we need to reimagine what care looks like in the workplace.”
Opening up at work
Like Tallawah, art director and copywriter Lucy Hobbs had a similar turning point when she realised the importance of opening up about her neurodiversity at work. Throughout her life, “I had my ups and downs, I could never hold a job down and I got bored easily”, she says. Hobbs found her groove as a creative, working at agencies such as HHCL and St Luke’s before going freelance, which allowed her to hyper-focus on short-term projects and come up with a lot of new ideas.
As an adult she was diagnosed with ADHD, and only last year found out she has an autism spectrum condition. “It was a revelation because it made me not blame myself,” she says. “It’s just the way my brain is, so I need to find ways to work with it. The career I’d found seemed to work very well for my brain.’’
For a long time after her diagnosis, however, Hobbs (pictured, above) did not disclose her ADHD for fear of appearing difficult to employers and losing out on opportunities. It wasn’t until a Creative Equals event about neurodiversity, where she met others with similar experiences, that she realised neurodiverse talent “is already there [in the industry]. But not enough people are speaking up.”
Hobbs went on to set up The Future is ND, a support network that champions neurodiversity in the creative and tech industries. After years of disillusionment with traditional corporate models, her biggest dream is to start her own neurodiverse agency that would combat many of the challenges she has faced while working in advertising.
She envisions a company that would employ a network of freelancers who can work flexibly and on short-term projects and have an office space with quiet pods where people can go to concentrate, “completely be themselves, be understood and work at their best”.
Echoing Hobbs’ frustrations, Deakin accuses the ad industry of still being “a bit estate agent” and subscribing to “groupthink” rather than “challenging the status quo”. But “actually the people who don’t fit in make more interesting work”, he says.
While Brim says he, too, has sometimes encountered an attitude of judgment or conformity in the ad industry, gaining a deeper understanding of his own mind has reinforced to him that talent can blossom and great creativity can emerge when differences are recognised and celebrated.
“What it’s given me is a tolerance of other people who struggle with different ways of thinking. Our industry is better for having those people,” he says. “The more of a safe place we can make this industry for people who think in different ways, the more exciting and individualistic the thinking will be.”
Fostering diverse thinking
Charlotte and Sonny Adorjan (pictured, below), a creative director at Engine, have also become advocates for fostering diverse thinking within the industry since their son Woody’s autism diagnosis. Woody has defied their expectations from the beginning. “There’s a perception that people with autism don’t have much empathy, but Woody is almost more empathetic than anyone I’ve ever met,” Charlotte says.
Since he learned to speak, Woody has always had a way with words, demonstrating a knack for evoking emotion and describing relationships and situations in new ways. His parents took to calling his phrases “woodisms” and they even inspired Sonny to make art, turning the boy’s most memorable expressions into linocut prints.
Their creative collaboration became an online shop called Woodism, which sells posters and cards capturing some of Woody’s phrases, including “I love you for all the minutes” and “I wish we were the only people onboard this planet”. The project won a D&AD pencil in the Side Hustle category last year.
“I’ve been a copywriter for 20 years, but in just a few years of his life Woody has come up with better phrases and ideas than I’ve ever had,” Charlotte says.
The success of Woodism is particularly poignant because Woody has faced numerous struggles at school. “He’s reached an age where he knows he’s different, and he gets frustrated or down about it sometimes,” Sonny says.
But one day, after Woodism had taken off, the teacher called on Woody to present his creations. “The teacher said, ‘We have an artist among us, and his name is Woody’,” Charlotte recalls. “For him it was a moment of seeing that he’s thriving even though sometimes he feels like he’s failing. It gave him a sense of pride.”
Woody is still a long way from deciding what to be when he grows up, but his surprising and singular ideas might one day flourish in a creative environment, the Adorjans say. Indeed, his different way of thinking is an example of what Brim looks for when leading one of the most celebrated creative departments in advertising.
“When we’ve been at our best, it’s when different people have been given a voice. Sometimes the best ideas aren’t going to come from the loud person who talks too much. Sometimes it’s going to come from the quiet person in the corner who’s terrified to say something or doesn’t know how to say something,” Brim says.
“It’s really important not to leave anyone behind just because their personality or brain function doesn’t fit in. We’ve got to be very careful not to lose some absolute geniuses along the way.”
Terms and conditions
About one in seven people (about 15%) in the UK is neurodivergent, according to Acas, the independent public body that advises on workplace rights, rules and best practice. In the creative sector, the figure may be double that, Universal Music reported in its 2020 survey Creative Differences.
Neurodiversity encompasses a wide range of traits and conditions, which include:
(Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
It is estimated that about 4% of the UK population have ADHD, which “affects the person’s ability to control attention, impulses and concentration, and can cause inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness”, Acas says.
But ADHD has also been linked to increased creativity. “In his 2004 book Creativity is Forever, Gary Davis identified 22 reoccurring personality traits of creative people and found a significant overlap between those traits and behavioural descriptions of ADHD,” Universal Music’s report says. “The conclusion, as the book notes, is that ‘people with ADHD characteristics are more likely to reach higher levels of creative thought’.”
(including Asperger syndrome)
About 1-2% of the UK population are autistic. Autism “impacts how a person perceives the world and interacts with others, making it difficult for them to pick up social cues and interpret them. Social interactions can be difficult as they can have difficulty ‘reading’ other people and expressing their own emotions. They can find change difficult and uncomfortable. People on the autistic spectrum are often very thorough in their work, punctual and rule observant. Many autistic people develop special interests and can hold high levels of expertise in their given topic.” (Acas)
Studies have also shown that autism may spark greater verbal creativity and put an individual at an advantage when generating ideas. (Universal Music)
An estimated 10% of the UK population are dyslexic. “Dyslexia is a language processing difficulty that can cause problems with aspects of reading, writing and spelling. They may have difficulties with processing information quickly, memory retention, organisation, sequencing, spoken language and motor skills,” Acas says.
“People with dyslexia can often be very good at creative thinking and problem-solving, storytelling and verbal communication.”
Up to 5% of the UK population are dyspraxic, which “relates to issues with physical co-ordination and, for most, organisation of thought. People with dyspraxia may appear clumsy or have speech impediments and might have difficulties with tasks requiring sequencing, structure, organisation and timekeeping.
“People with dyspraxia often have good literacy skills and can be very good at creative, holistic and strategic thinking.” (Acas)
Prominent neurodivergent creatives
Andy Warhol, artist
Some researchers believe that Warhol had Asperger syndrome. Qualities such as his affinity for repetition, adherence to routine and monosyllabic speaking patterns suggest he may have been on the spectrum, Dr Judith Gould, a psychologist specialising in autism, told The Guardian. Those traits are visible in his signature artworks, such as the image of a tin of Campbell’s soup repeated across a canvas.
Leonardo da Vinci, artist and polymath
Scientists have argued that the Renaissance polymath may have had ADHD. Da Vinci was known for his chronic procrastination, irregular sleeping patterns and high-intensity periods of working. Yet he created some of the world’s most famous art.
“While [it’s] impossible to make a post-mortem diagnosis for someone who lived 500 years ago, I am confident that ADHD is the most convincing and scientifically plausible hypothesis to explain Leonardo’s difficulty in finishing his works,” King’s College London’s Professor Marco Catani told The Week. “ADHD could explain aspects of Leonardo’s temperament and his strange mercurial genius.”
Agatha Christie, writer
The legendary crime writer reportedly had dysgraphia [a neurological condition affecting people’s ability to write]and dyslexia. She described herself as the “slow one in the family”, who had trouble reading and writing in school. But she went on to pen 66 novels, 14 short story collections and the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap. Her books have sold more than two billion copies.
Stephen Wiltshire, architectural artist
Wiltshire was diagnosed with autism at the age of three and began drawing at five. Known for producing lifelike, accurate representations of cities after having observed them only briefly, his work has been exhibited around the world. He was awarded an MBE for services to the art world in 2006.
Florence Welch, singer and songwriter
Welch, whose albums have topped the charts and won awards, was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia [which affects people’s ability to understand maths]while at primary school. Describing them as “learning difficulties” was “not exactly helpful or accurate”, she said. “My thoughts are disordered, not especially logical and not at all linear – but that’s okay, they take me to more interesting places,” she writes in Universal Music’s Creative Differences report.
Photography: Colin Stout and Daniel Adesina (Jae Tallawah)