Cognition and neurodiversity: Eight reasons why cognition matters for neuro-inclusion

6 mins read

If you’re just learning about neurodiversity, or are already familiar with the concept, it’s likely you have also come across the concept of cognition.

Neurodiversity and cognition are both complex areas of psychological science, and they relate in important ways.  

Organisations must fulfil their obligations under the Public Sector Equality Duty in the Equality Act 2010 by eliminating unlawful discrimination, advancing equal opportunities, and fostering good relations between people who share protected characteristics and people who do not.  

Training and awareness are the first steps in fulfilling these obligations regarding neurodiversity, but subsequent support and reasonable adjustments follow closely.

Understanding the cognitive diversity of individuals and teams can provide an important link between awareness and relevant support, a link that we’ll discuss here. 


What are the concepts of cognition and neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is an inclusive umbrella term relating to many kinds of psychological difference including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC), and learning differences such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia.

Neurodiversity research is centred around increasing our understanding, inclusion and support for these differences. For example, updating diagnosis procedures and criteria, creating effective support for people of all ages, expanding our knowledge of the intersectional characteristics of each condition and adapting our environments to increase inclusion. 

Neurodiversity relates to differences in multiple areas of psychology that help to define the broad diagnostic labels, such as: 

  • behavioural differences 
  • social differences 
  • cognitive differences 
  • personality differences 
  • associated mental health challenges. 

Cognition relates to specific mental processes involved in perception, manipulation, storage, and retrieval of information. Cognition is involved in everything we do that involves thinking and underpins all learning throughout our lives.

It is one of the most important areas of psychological science to consider when adapting our workplaces and learning environments for neuro-inclusion. We all process the world differently based on our cognitive differences, both our strengths and challenges. 


The connection between cognition and neurodiversity: why it matters

So, if cognition is just one area of neurodiversity, why does Cognassist put such a focus on it? We think cognition is one of the most, perhaps the most, important area of neurodiversity when it comes to inclusion in the workplace or support in education, for the following reasons: 


#1 Some of the most common neurodiverse conditions are defined by specific cognitive differences

For example, dyslexia, which is experienced by an estimated 10% of the population (British Dyslexia Association), is defined by specific differences in processing language, often associated with phonological processing or verbal working memory differences, both of which are cognitive.

#2 Neurodiverse conditions that aren’t defined by cognitive differences often co-occur with cognitive differences

These differences can compound challenges for individuals if not supported.

Over half of autistic adults may also experience cognitive learning differences (Learning Disability Statistics, 2016) and ADHD commonly occurs with working memory and executive function differences (Toplak et al., 2013).

In fact, cognitive differences are the most commonly seen difference across a wide range of conditions that fall under the neurodiversity umbrella (Abramovitch et al., 2021).


#3 The strengths that come with neurodiversity are often cognitive

These include examples like creative thinking, approaching problems in new ways or attention to detail (Baron-Cohen et al., 2009; Cancer & Antonietti, 2020).

Modern organisations are increasingly attempting to attract employees who experience the world differently, due to emerging evidence that diversity leads to increased innovation and creative problem solving.

The emerging evidence is pinpointing cognitive diversity within teams as an important driving factor of the increased innovation that comes with neuro-inclusion in the workplace (Loiacono & Ren, 2018; Patrício & Franco, 2022).


#4 Cognition impacts important life outcomes

Cognition has consistently been shown to be one of the most reliably measured psychological constructs related to neurodiversity and has shown to be important for predicting:
– Academic success (Calvin et al., 2010; Kriegbaum et al., 2018)
– Career success (Ng et al., 2005)

#5 One of the most common adaptations for neurodiversity in the workplace and learning environments is Assistive Technology (AT)

All AT’s are essentially cognitive augmentation tools in a similar way that computers and their storage systems augment our ability to carry out calculations and store information that we would otherwise forget.

Speech-to-text software augments our ability to write, text-to-speech augments our ability to read, mind mapping tools augment our ability to visualise and reason about complex problems or systems, planning and organisational software augments our ability to control our attention, and voice recorders augment our ability to remember verbal information.

Because people experience conditions such as dyslexia and autism differently, the diagnosis itself does not always tell us which AT is suitable for an individual; however, cognitive assessments do. They tell us which areas of cognition the person experiences differently and where their strengths lie, both of which can inform which AT may be most useful.

Cognitive information can provide the missing link between neurodiversity diagnosis and provision of AT.


#6 We all use cognition all day every day

Every task, especially at work or in education, requires processing language, memorisation, reasoning, writing, problem solving, maths, and controlling our attention.

Everything around you started out as an idea.

Look at the buildings, technology, literature, vehicles, systems and art that surround you. They didn’t just come into existence by themselves, they started out as an idea, or cognition, in people’s minds. Many of the best examples you see will have come from neurodiverse minds.

This points to the importance of understanding our cognition and how the cognitive differences aspect of neurodiversity can affect everything around us. An impact that can be facilitated with the right information and support.


#7 Cognition also extends beyond neurodiversity

It is not only neuro-different individuals who experience cognitive differences.

Based on our data less than 10% of people score within the typical range across all the domains that we measure. This points to the fact that cognition is not simply intelligence, but a complex array of mental processes that we all use differently.

By understanding these differences, we are in a better place to capitalise on them to drive neuro-inclusion and innovation.


#8 Cognitive assessments help to provide objective measures of our complex minds and different needs

Some neurodiverse conditions are investigated with self-report scales. While these can be important to understand somebody’s experiences, they are subjective and can be biased, so are less useful for understanding how somebody processing the types of information we deal with every day.

Without objective measures, such as cognitive diversity assessments, we have less information about the kinds of support, flexibilities and adaptations that are relevant for an individual. 



Understanding cognition and neurodiversity to improve inclusivity and accessibility

Although cognition does not cover all differences that relate to neurodiversity, and not all neuro-different people experience cognitive differences, this is one of the key areas of neurodiversity to understand.

Recognising different thinkers in your organisation helps to build a more neuro-inclusive world and increases the collaborative innovation and success of every individual.  

The link between cognition and neurodiversity is a strong one backed up by the research surrounding neurodiverse conditions and the fact that some of the most common adaptations, including AT, are directed at supporting cognition specifically.

Without understanding cognitive differences, we’re less able to fulfil obligations under the Equality Act 2010 through creating the crucial link between neurodiversity training and subsequent support, adaptations or flexibilities. 

Cognassist’s aim is to normalise our differences, so that everyone feels included and more people seek out the support they need and deserve. None of us should feel embarrassed or singled-out for requesting flexibilities that enable our success.  

By using evidence-based assessment tools, we are offering people the chance to discover more about their natural processing bias and cognitive traits, such as language, memory, speed of processing and reasoning. That’s something all of us can benefit from and it helps to build a culture that embraces different thinkers, leaving none of us behind. 

Read our free handbook

Discover more about cognitive differences and understanding neurodiversity in the workplace with our handbook, How to support neurodiverse employees.