Dyslexic Thinking For Sustainability


I have a couple of post-graduate degrees, my second book is about to be published and…I can’t tell the time on a watch.

Nor can I tell my right from left, and couldn’t spell my own name until I was 12 years old. Which was around the same age I became passionate about social justice and environmental issues. My work since means that I’ve been lucky enough to get to know a lot of wonderful people in the sustainability, justice and ESG fields.

As a diagnosed dyslexic myself, I began to suspect I wasn’t the only neurodiverse person working in change-making. So, late last year, I asked fellow sustainability folk on LinkedIn a question that had been buzzing around my mind for a while:

Nearly 250 people responded, and to my surprise, well over half – 57% – said they are neurodiverse, either diagnosed or not. Far more than the one in seven that is reportedly typical of society at large

Sustainability and neurodiversity, it seems, go hand in hand.

Perhaps, the over-representation of atypical mental states in sustainability fields shouldn’t be that surprising. It’s been well documented that neurodiverse people -particularly those with ADHD and/or autism – are associated with a strong sense of justice and fairness. The world’s most influential climate campaigner, Greta Thunberg, is autistic. World-changing figures like Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, and Mother Teresa are all thought to have been dyslexic.

Even the World Economic Forum have explored the topic, quoting recently published scientific theories that humans have actually evolved to specialise in different but complementary ways of processing information. People with dyslexia, scientists suggest, are specialised in exploring the unknown. This is the consequence of having ancestors that experienced major environmental instability. The ability to adapt became paramount. And what group of human beings is more adaptable than one that includes a range of different thinking styles, working interdependently to solve problems together?

If neurodiverse people evolved in response to environmental crisis, could we help solve our current one?

Understanding of neurodiversity has grown in recent years, and with it public awareness and support. There’s still a long way to go, but we are collectively beginning to recognise that the goal should be about much more than inclusion. Neurodiverse ways of thinking could bring new angles and alternative approaches that will help us navigate the world’s most pressing challenges.

So with that in mind – what does it take to think, and solve global challenges, like a dyslexic?

1. Assume you’re wrong

Neurodiverse people have grown up in a world that measures success by a limited set of metrics, which means we know ‘failure’ well. We are familiar with what it feels like to make a mistake. When working in sustainability and justice, there’s a lot to be said for assuming that you’re wrong. Being aware of how you might have misinterpreted someone or something can make your judgements far more considered – and make you much less likely to misinterpret something in the first place.

2. Question everything

Neurodiverse people often don’t automatically ‘get’ social rules. Instead of knowing and accepting a certain social ‘norm’ or piece of etiquette, we might ask – why? A great question to ask of, well, most things about our world. In 2023 we need to change our systems faster and further. Just because most people have always done something one way, doesn’t mean it’s the best way.

3. Be itched by injustice

Unfairness and exclusion don’t make logical sense. Neurodiverse people are often highly logical and systematic in their thinking – and prejudices don’t make logical sense. This doesn’t mean neurodiverse people are free of prejudice, but it does mean we’re quick to spot injustices in the world and are passionate to address them. Everyone could do with a better nose for unfairness.

4. Find another way

The easy, straight path from A to B is often unavailable to neurodiverse people. I for one didn’t learn my ABCs until I studied the history of the alphabet during a degree in Classics. The winding, off road path is often the only option for dyslexics – and down it, there are discoveries and creative solutions you otherwise wouldn’t stumble across. So, imagine the most straightforward path isn’t open to you. Where can you go instead?

5. Try anything

Being neurodiverse can make things usually considered ‘easy’, very hard. Being pushed to do hard things quickly taught us neurodiverse folk that it’s possible to keep jumping off cliffs and hoping we’ll fly. Yes, it’s terrifying. But solving problems that matter will take just this kind of courage and boldness.

Neurodiverse people like me spend a lifetime learning how to fit into a neurotypical world. But perhaps neurotypicals – the remaining 43% of the sustainability community that responded to my poll – could learn a thing or two from us about how to do things differently. Thinking like a dyslexic, even if you aren’t one, opens up new ways to build a fairer and greener world.

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