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Autism, ADHD and gorillas in the workplace

Updated: Jan 15, 2022

I have four sons between ages nine and fourteen. My house is very loud and very smelly.

Our amazing boys are a veritable smorgasbord of neurodiversity. In the mix we have ASD, ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome and OCD as the main actors. As is often the case with ND stories, there are a host of minor actors on the stage too, but the diagnoses mentioned are the headliners that most shape life and routine in our little home.

A quick note for those who haven’t come across the term neurodiversity before. The word popped up mostly in the online autism community in the 1990’s. It has now spread quite widely on and off-line. The neurodiversity movement is basically about understanding that neuronal variances such as autism are not defects or illnesses to be fixed and cured. Rather they are a part of natural variation in brain structures and development that exists within any human population.

There are many things that I struggle to understand about my sons. Little things like why they can’t hang a towel up and why memes are a thing, but big things too.

They all have a strength of character that utterly befuddles me. Every day I see them work harder than most of us will need to in a life-time just to understand their way in the world. It must be utterly exhausting. I remember how awkward and fearful I was as a teenager, how alone I felt at times and how angry it made me. Yet every day they face a barrage of challenges that I readily admit to scarcely even being able to fully come to terms with. Yet somehow, they remain gentle and kind. I am baffled at how much courage can exist in the fibre of something that seems so fragile. I know that sons should look up to their fathers and I’m sure they do, but the truth is that I admire them all enormously.

Anyhow, the title of this blog promised you gorillas, not just sappy dad stuff. I must offer a “spoiler alert” here. I’m about to ruin a great little learning tool for you, in fact I probably already have just with the title. Some of you will be familiar with “The Invisible Gorilla”, a world-famous lesson in selective awareness by Daniel Simmons and Christopher Chabris. A quick google search will pull up the video if you’d like to check it out.

Many years ago, a much faster, slimmer, handsomer and infinitely stupider version of myself worked at sea on offshore tug boats. “The Invisible Gorilla” was a favourite tool for consultants engaged by our project leads to provide courses on human factors in safety management. I remember being in conference rooms with tanker captains, harbour pilots and tug masters. Men and women who have spent their entire working lives training to be the person who notices stuff that isn’t quite right. Of course, there would invariably be a few in the room who had seen this exercise before and I’d always enjoy watching the consultant trying to commit them to keeping the outcome to themselves using very obscure language that didn’t risk giving up the jig for everyone else.

The video starts and the viewer is instructed to count the number of times the players wearing white pass the basketball. Three players wearing white and three wearing black come on screen. Each group has a basketball which they start passing between themselves. It takes about thirty seconds and then the viewer is asked how many passes they counted. Generally, the facilitator pauses here and works around the room asking each participant to offer up their count (just to be sure that I completely ruin the whole thing for you, the answer is 15).

The facilitator will then ask “who saw the Gorilla”? At this point I’ve seen entire conference rooms of professionals look backwards and forwards at each other in confused silence. The facilitator will normally then play back the video and everyone notes an additional individual wearing a gorilla costume walking straight through the middle of the group, pausing to beat it’s chest, and then moving out of frame. I would estimate that in all the times I’ve seen this exercise performed well over 80% of people totally miss the gorilla.

I thought about this exercise one night for some reason and decided to play a little trick on my wife. I played her the video. She counted 14 and gave me the familiar blank look when I asked about the gorilla. This was precisely the outcome I was looking for. My wife is much smarter than I am and so I relish any opportunity to pretend otherwise for even the briefest of moments. My brief moment was over very quickly as she came up with a much better idea, “Show it to the boys”.

Shortly after I was watching the face of my eldest Jake (who is autistic). Watching his eyes dart across the screen and excitedly waiting to tell him about the gorilla. The concentration. You could of driven a Morris Minor full of circus clowns through the wall of my loungeroom and he would not have blinked. At the end he said, ‘fifteen Dad’.

He grinned as I said “that’s right” but stopped as I added “Did you see the gorilla?”.

He said “what gorilla, there was no gorilla, they passed it 15 times Dad”.

I played it for him again he said “oh there’s a gorilla. That doesn’t matter, the gorilla didn’t touch the basket ball and you asked me to count the how many times they pass the ball…..the answer is 15”.

Without thinking too much about it I had a chuckle said “well done”, scruffed his hair and told him to go and get his brother for me.

Next, I sat Luke our ADHD second-eldest down and gave him the exact same instruction. I started the video and Luke squinted at the screen. He started to count out load - “One, two, three, four, HA HA – A MONKEY, five, six”.

Luke counted 13. I told him how clever he was, that the answer was 15 but that the point was to see if people spotted the gorilla and that very few people do. We then discussed the difference between a monkey and a gorilla for a while and he went back to whatever he was doing prior.

Jake is 14 and I’m writing this right now mostly as an excuse to get out of tidying up after Luke’s 13th birthday party. Recently I’ve noticed them both starting to question how they fit into the workforce. Luke has asked a few questions but Jake in particular seems to have been occupied by this. A couple of weeks ago he straight out asked his Grandma “what kinds of jobs will I be able to do?”. It broke my heart to hear that on top of everything else he was now starting to worry about his future and how he would fit into employment. At the time I didn’t know how to explain to him that there is a job out there that he will just nail, and he will feel proud to do it, and he will excel and grow in it, and most importantly it will make him happy.

‘The Invisible Gorilla” continued to play on my mind for a while that night. After about half an hour I called Jake and Luke back out to the loungeroom and asked them if they understood what happened with that video. They both looked at me like I was an idiot (which is pretty normal because they are teenage boys). I said “you’ve both been asking us lately about what you can do and what you will be able to do well at work, do you understand that we just watched your superpower”.

I explained that Jake’s laser focus on the task and visual perception skills meant that he was the only one in the family that got the count right. Luke on the other hand couldn’t get so deep into that task that he didn’t see something out of place. He saw that gorilla the moment it stuck one hairy leg into frame and not one other person in the family spotted it.

The boys seemed chuffed and headed off to bed. I felt like a good Dad for making them happy and headed of to bed too. However, I kept thinking about it and after about a week I realised I was utterly and completely wrong. You shouldn’t be surprised; this is how long it normally takes me to figure out when I’m wrong. Counting the passes correctly or spotting the gorilla isn’t their superpower at all.

At times my boys squabble, as all brothers do and should. But they have an underlying respect for each other that goes well beyond the bonds of siblinghood and family in a way that I find very difficult to describe. They seem to grasp that there is strength in diversity but only where they put in the effort to find and understand the intersections. Remembering that we are talking about quite young children, they seem to have an intrinsic understanding about the nature of what it actually is that makes them stronger together which is light years ahead of so many experienced professionals that I’ve worked with over the years.

Most of us at their age can see that we are stronger together, but we mostly have a simple strength-in-numbers mindset. We seek out those that think like us and we band together providing mutual support. There’s nothing wrong with this primal urge to find our tribe. These behaviours serve us to a degree and they are therefore reinforced and carried into adulthood. I see different behaviours in my sons and I pray that they carry these through to adulthood as well. They seem to just get what most adults can’t, that thinking differently is leveraged at the intersections.

So….. (and this part is really, really important. DON’T MISS IT)

they have developed behaviours to deliberately and actively seek those intersections out and explore them because they know that this is where the best answers are. Not the answers that will help them get the same outcomes that they always have before or the same outcomes as everyone else gets. This is the space where paradigm shifting answers live, the ones with the potential to change how everyone gets outcomes.

That’s their superpower.

I will walk into a room in our house and the boys are collaboratively playing a video game. One has the controller and is working on directions from two others who are independently focusing on particular aspects of a problem that they are co-operatively attacking in the game. I will sometimes hear them deferring to each other and bringing a brother in on a task or subject matter that is new. I think they do it without thinking and (much like the kids who exhibit more typical behaviours of banding together with the like-minded) if I was to ask them, they might not be able to explain why they are doing it. However I watch them, and I can see that on some level they know that by approaching a particular brother with the problem, based on specific knowledge about how that brother thinks and approaches things, they understand that something will be teased out that is not a product of how they see the issue and not a product of how their brother sees the issue, but a more valuable factor of the intersecting space between them.

This is why I feel that neurodiversity in the workplace is the next frontier for organisations seeking to develop strategic competitive advantage through quality management. You can put three of my wife in a room (if you do warn me first). It might be easier to explain the task, you won’t have to change anything about the way you approach it or communicate. You also won’t get the count right or see the gorilla. The alternative is to activate the superpower. You do this by putting three people in a room who think differently to each other. It might be more difficult, it might require that you invest some additional time or money, you might have to think about different ways to communicate and include people on a more individual basis. Its understandable that organisations might baulk at this to begin with. It’s unknown. They may continue to baulk at it right up until the point that stuffing up the count and missing the gorilla runs them out of business, because that’s how quality and competitive advantage works.

Two weeks after this realisation I started working with Audir Management Consultants. The vision at Audir speaks to me very clearly. It’s not about inclusion or motherhood statements. This isn’t about including neurodiversity in our workplaces because it’s a nice thing to do. I have absolutely zero time for such. Its about understanding neurodiversity, recognising and appreciating its value and helping organisations to figure out how to most effectively leverage it as they would any other aspect of human capital at their disposal. Its about seeking out, creating opportunities and exploring the intersections just like my boys have learnt to do.

Of all the things that I struggle to understand about my sons, I simply cannot fathom that in the infinitum of possible futures that the universe holds for each of them, there could exist any event or circumstance that might make me any more proud of them than I already am. I am also utterly certain that they will continue to show me such events and circumstances and that the most impressive and life-changing examples of such will always occur at the intersections between them.

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