Celebrating brain power in all its guises

Neurodiversity has its place at sea and on shore

By Felicity Landon

Does it help to have a label? That’s a question that perhaps applies more to neurodiversity than any other area within the diversity discussion. And even if you do agree on the ‘label’, there are also degrees along the spectrum, from mild to severe. To put it plainly, how neurodiverse can a seafarer be, while still ensuring the safety of the individual, their colleagues, the ship and the cargo?

Daniel Smith, chairperson of NeurodiversAtSea.org, says: “Unfortunately, neurodivergence is often misunderstood as something which is ‘life limiting’ … something that will hold people back no matter what they do, something that takes away any value someone may have to offer. This is because everyone focuses on the support neurodivergent people sometimes need, without taking a step back to look at both the value of the person and how much support everyone else needs.” Neurodivergence, he explains, is an umbrella term that roughly translates into a “brain that is different from society’s normal”. It includes conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), specific learning differences such as dyslexia and dyspraxia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

But take dyslexia, for example. As he says, the vast majority of people will associate dyslexia with difficulty reading or spelling; the reality is that dyslexics may simply need a coloured overlay to help them read text without getting lost on the page.

Anglo-Eastern Ship Management looks at diversity as a whole and all it can include – gender, race, religion or neuro challenges, says Melissa Otto, group communications manager. “In shipping and generally, the tendency is for people to associate diversity with gender in particular. At Anglo-Eastern, we are obviously well aware that diversity encompasses far more than gender, so we have a general approach to diversity. Having said that, I do feel that neurodiversity is not something that would automatically come to mind for most people when you talk about diversity.”

Value of labels?

The whole issue with ‘labelling’ is that it can cut both ways, she says: “It can be helpful but also unhelpful. Not everyone wants a label, or to be singled out and categorised, not even when it comes to gender diversity – for example, some women seafarers I have spoken with are very keen to advance their careers for their skills and abilities because they earned it – not because of their gender.

“In the case of neuro challenges like OCD, ADHD, autism and other challenges, these tend to lie on a spectrum. When you have a spectrum disorder, I personally don’t think it necessarily helps to have a label when a person’s symptoms could be very mild. Perhaps a person is simply seen as a bit quirky or has a few unusual habits, but where do you draw the line that people need a label? It’s not so black and white.

“Before ADHD was recognised as a disorder and increasingly diagnosed, we might have thought ‘this person has a lot of energy and is fidgety’, and we would not think too much more about it. Now everything has a label, but does it help? I am sure there are a lot of people working in companies who have degrees of these disorders, but they never needed treatment, never got diagnosed, so aren’t labelled.”

There are a lot of benefits in hiring a neurodiverse group of people, says Charles Watkins, CEO of Mental Health Support Solutions. “We all have varying degrees of differences in our brains. For example, some people are visual learners, some are audio learners. Some learn through exploring or listening to music.

“The diagnostic criteria are not necessarily helpful. However, when you do label things, in my profession it helps us to communicate and have a sense of where someone is, so we can help them. However, when it comes to modern labelling of people and putting them into boxes, these boxes are not comprehensive enough to fit all the differences in people. There might be someone who fits the ADHD criteria but other things that don’t fit.

“In other words, categorising helps us to discuss topics but when looking at an individual human being, there are always individual components that should not be forgotten, he says.

“There are varying degrees of ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia. It should never be automatic exclusion for these people. There should always be the consideration – does this make sense, is it safe, is it beneficial?”

Safety first

In any area, but especially in shipping, safeguarding of the person, the vessel and others on board has to be the highest priority, Watkins says.

That’s a point picked up by Henrik Jensen, CEO of Danica Crewing Specialists. “At Danica Crewing Specialists, we do not discriminate,” he says. “During the pre-employment screening process, we only look at a person’s qualifications, competencies, and social skills. However, the working environment on a vessel is risky and the crew on board is a small community. To mitigate these perils, international conventions, flag states and insurance companies require joining seafarers to pass physical and mental health condition examinations before proceeding to sea. Any candidate passing our screening process and who can pass the medical examinations is a potential candidate for employment through Danica.”

Anglo-Eastern Ship Management’s Otto adds: “In shipping, safety is paramount. You have to have safety of people, safety of the environment, safety of the ship and cargo. Yet you only have 20+ people on board – a small team, yet responsible for so much: ship operations, safety, regulatory compliance, etc.

“In this context, you really need a solid team, where every individual has the right skills set, attitude and ability to work independently as well as in a team. This is not something that can be compromised, so while we wholeheartedly support diversity and equal opportunities, we also need to be mindful of maintaining a meritocracy where performance matters, especially on board.”

That doesn’t mean that an individual with a high-functioning neuro challenge cannot hold a job in shipping, she says. “There can be advantages to some neurodiversity. For example, people with autism who are high functioning can be incredibly intelligent with a high IQ. People with OCD are typically precision focused, have strong attention to detail, patterns, numbers, words, etc. And maybe those people have already gravitated towards those jobs that require such skills, whether ashore or at sea. Most individuals are likely working in roles that suit their character, temperament or condition – not because they have been labelled.”

Look at patterns, not boxes

There is a huge stigma attached to neurodiversity, says Watkins. “We need to educate people about this so they understand it is not necessarily a handicap but just a different expression, of a brain that works differently and might have limitations or indeed expansions. Putting a specific label on someone limits the person and has a negative impact. We need to educate ourselves to really look at patterns instead of boxes.”

For example, he says, there are some people with ADHD that have severe problems concentrating; others just have problems concentrating for a very long time. “It varies greatly between individuals. You should always look at the person; what are the things that person does well, how do we communicate with them, what are the things we need to adjust? And that is very similar to working with different nationalities where words might be offensive to one person but not another, or with individuals where some you need to ‘show them’, others you need to ‘write it down’ for them to learn.”

Watkins says people doing the hiring need to be trained to understand that there are “a lot of different people on the planet with brains that function differently”.

However, when it comes to labelling (or not), he also acknowledges that being given a ‘label’ is sometimes a huge relief for a person: “It is ‘now finally I know what I have got and I can figure out what can help, get information and support, etc.’.”

At NeurodiversAtSea.org, Smith says it’s always worth taking a step back, “because difference doesn’t mean disability”.

“As humans, we have evolved a broad range of neurological characteristics within different populations; a natural variation. And for good reason – some genetic and anthropological work suggests that genes and traits we now associate with autism and ADHD could be ‘adaptive’, varying with time and place and being advantageous in hunter gatherer societies. Such natural variation has more recently been understood as ‘neurodiversity’. And evidence suggests that this diversity can still be highly advantageous, for both individuals and the people around them.”

In the modern world, this has been shown to translate to extraordinary potential at work, says Smith. “In financial services, JP Morgan Chase found neurodivergent employees to be 48% more productive. The Australian government identified 30% greater productivity in software testing.

“A better way of thinking about neurodivergence is to understand people – our colleagues at sea – as having different strengths and weaknesses, thanks to brain characteristics.”

Diversity across the spectrum

Claes Eek Thorstensen, executive vice chairman of ship manager Thome, points to changing requirements in the industry. “Decarbonisation, digitisation and ESG will be the big drivers of change in the maritime industry,” he says. “At Thome we recognise that we will need to equip our teams with the necessary up-skilling, re-skilling and cross-skilling training solutions to ensure they are ready for these changes.”

Thome has intensified its efforts and is leveraging technology advances to develop new learning and development solutions, says Thorstensen. This includes inhouse training facilities, partner institutions and onboard micro and e-learning platforms.

“This provides our employees with flexible learning solutions so they can train whenever and wherever they want to. We also recognise that not everyone learns in the same way and are keen to explore training options which enable greater diversity of knowledge sharing.”

He adds: “We encourage an open and transparent working environment at Thome where diversity, equality and inclusivity are welcomed, and where people are treated equally, irrespective of creed, culture, nationality or gender. We believe that having a diverse workforce brings in new ideas and experiences where people from different backgrounds can learn from each other. It helps improve problem-solving as colleagues share different views and perspectives. Working in diverse teams also opens up dialogue, which promotes creativity and leads to greater productivity.”

In the workforce

Marine robotics company Ocean Infinity has argued that the maritime industry’s movement towards remote vessel operations will not only build a more diverse workforce but the workforce itself will benefit from it.

Ocean Infinity says that its development as a fast-moving marine technology company specialising in the development and deployment of robotics for large-scale, subsea data acquisition, based on a demanding, problem-solving environment, has benefitted from the start from a neurodiverse workforce. Neurodiverse symptoms or conditions can bring advantages to an individual, providing they are fulfilling a role that is well aligned with their neurotype, says the company.

Watkins also points to automation and digitalisation as offering opportunities for neurotypes who enjoy working on monitors with the routine, structure and constant checking, or who are well suited to the detail of programming.

Anglo-Eastern has people working in its offices who have some degrees of autism or OCD, says Otto. “At the end of the day, everyone is unique and their own person, and we all work with many different types of people, including some who may be a little too gruff, a little too quick-tempered, kind of quirky, or low on people skills, etc. Do we need to officially label these variances, or only the ones that have a diagnosis? Then what about other personality ‘disorders’? Personally, I think not. In fact, it is these variances in character that contribute to diversity, so provided performance is there and we can all get along, it makes life – and work – more interesting.

“In short, we strongly believe in diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity, but also meritocracy. We can’t drop the ball when it comes to having the right skills and abilities on board a ship. We cannot have a team of 20+ affected by one crew member who cannot do the job, for whatever reason.”