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Thinking Differently: Policing and Neurodiversity (Part 2)

Neurodiversity police autism and dyslexia

In Part 1 of this in-depth blog duo on ‘thinking differently’, I introduced and explained the meaning of ‘neurodiversity’ and Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASCs). This included prevalence and relevance to UK police promotion. Then I showcased some high-profile examples of neurodiverse individuals who have achieved great things through their ability to think differently. In this thoroughly-researched sequel, I explore more typical strengths of atypical thinkers, propose some relevant CPD, signpost to support, and consider the future of thinking differently in policing.

“Sometimes it’s the people no one can imagine anything of that do the things no one can imagine.” – Alan Turing


Valuing Different Thinkers: 6 Hidden Superpowers…

“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry D. Thoreau

In addition to famous examples I alluded to in part one, there are many reasons to value and include neurodiverse thinking in police leadership and decision-making. Even though the childish stigmas seem less prevalent in today’s world, many still see only the disabling side of ASCs. I believe police leadership should instead consider the untapped hidden superpowers of truly ‘thinking differently’. These are skills lying dormant that policing can and must awaken. As Chief Inspector Stephen Lenney of Devon & Cornwall Police recently articulated the issue, policing may be dying without embracing such diversity of thought. His article is well worth a read, giving an insight into what a drastic shake up may happen in UK policing, should the kind of individuals I outlined in Part 1 choose to get involved in deciding its strategic direction.

I’ve blogged previously on tools to help individuals think differently about subjects, issues or challenges, particularly when preparing for promotion. For example, see De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. This is a useful CPD tool for all individuals, with ASCs or not, particularly in the context of the timeless leadership behaviour of decision making. Neurodiverse thinking however goes well beyond; as an exceptional ability to see and consider things others can’t. The following are just some of these untapped, hidden superpowers of those with ASCs:

1: The ability to imagine what others can’t.

Alan Turing summarises it well: “Sometimes it’s the people no one can imagine anything of that do the things no one can imagine.” This includes the ability to side-line and be unimpeded by ‘social norms’; particularly when the critics and bystanders of change say ‘it’s impossible’, when aspiring to achieve something truly fantastic. A filter-free realm of possibility if you like.

How as a leader are you maximising the creative potential of your teams? 

2: The ability to focus on activities without distraction

The ability to focus on things for extended periods of time is another hidden superpower. This includes the ability (and often preference) to work autonomously. This relentless focus can be misconstrued as seeming blunt, rude or disinterested in other things, but is a clear internal strength. Combined with a keen eye for detail creates particular advantages of autism in scientific fields; as explained in this article on ‘The Power of Autism’, published in the journal Nature.

Are you emotionally aware enough to make the best use of your teams’ diverse skillsets? 

3: Seeing complex patterns and problem solving

Pattern recognition is one reason why the UK intelligence agency GCHQ actively recruits for such individuals. They recognise that unique problem-solving skills are a core strength to analysing intelligence, cryptography, cyber engineering, and other roles. This strength also lends itself to good decision making, by appraising a variety of complex information. Decision-making can also be enhanced by the ability to look more objectively at the facts and facets relating to problems.

How are you maximising your potential for great decision-making through such skills?

4: Seeing the bigger picture

Although the details may have typos or grammatical errors, one thing with dyslexia and other ASCs is the ability to see the big picture, with the additional benefit of conceptually connecting the details and creating a clear path to the vision for those they lead. On the other hand, most people tend to be good at one or the other. Many cops struggle with the nebulous strategic terminology of force’s mission, vision, and values.

This connection is one reason neurodiverse individuals in leadership can thrive particularly at the more strategic rank of Inspector and Chief Inspector. They are more strategic, even though at face value both are assessed at Level 2 of the CVF. Neurodiverse individuals in leadership can therefore make the vision meaningful to their teams. For example by connecting strategic priorities to operational tasking, and walking the talk of the CVF: We deliver, support and inspire.

How are you considering the strategic aspects of the role of Inspector and Chief Inspector in your promotion preparation?

5. Enhanced memory

This enhanced memory can be particularly in relation to points of facts and visual memory. For example, in Part 1 where I introduce famous examples of neurodiverse thinkers, consider Stephen Wiltshire’s extreme capabilities to sketch a city from memory following a brief helicopter ride. The enhanced retention of key points of law may well have helped some neurodiverse officers through the promotion process to date. For example, providing an advantage in the NPPF Step 2 Sergeant’s exam and Inspector’s exam. This YouTube video explains the key functions of memory and offers some top tips, which may help candidates preparing for upcoming promotion boards. I also cover plenty of thinking tools and memory aids within my digital toolkits and Masterclass video.

How are you utilising memory aids to assist in your preparation for promotion?

6: Desire and willingness to do things better and differently

Importantly, this desire to improve public service in policing is based on evidence. ‘Evidence-based policing’ is often discussed as the ideal by forces and the College of Policing but is not always practiced. For example, how often have you seen things progress beyond Step 1 of the ‘Ladder of Evidence’ when a new operational initiative or business change has been introduced? Those with neurodiverse conditions, skills or abilities can spot opportunities to do things differently, then formulate a way to authentically assess its impact. The disregard for social norms or when others say you can’t do something epitomises this strength.

A massively inspiring individual to me personally is Elon Musk, who happens to have Asperger’s as I outlined in Part 1 of this in-depth blog on neurodiversity. I shared the below video recently, since I believe it epitomises thinking differently and spotting opportunities perfectly; it’s well worth 3 minutes of your time!

What’s your best evidence of a time where you have delivered, supported and inspired others?

Let’s look at change in a bit more depth, because it can be a stereotypical misconception about those with ASCs…


Change as a Comfort Zone

Some people don’t like change, but you need to embrace change if the alternative is disaster.” – Elon Musk

Many individuals with ASCs find comfort in personal daily routines, habits, or repetitive behaviour, where changes to this can cause distress or anxiety. However, it does not necessarily follow that business changes at work would equally bring great discomfort, distress or even resistance to change. It is important when leading change to know that this would be an oversimplified generalisation. The ‘comfort’ comes from having things in order and doing things in the best possible way. This means that unlike many of their colleagues, everyday working in a system which could be made much more efficient or effective (see my PEEL video for more on those subjects!) is something that in fact causesdiscomfort and stress. This is an important area to recognise different thinkers. They can therefore be great change navigators, where changing policing for the better is a true comfort zone.

Obviously like everyone else, change for its own sake, or some leaders’ ill-conceived pet projects (perhaps aiming to leave a legacy), will cause great discomfort. The key is making sure the change is congruent with evidence-based policing I mentioned and linked to in Superpower 6, with clear communication behind any change. If so, this will place neurodiverse colleagues in a comfort zone with change, being the ‘navigators’. For others, you may still have your hands full moving the ‘bystanders’, ‘critics’ and ‘victims’ through the change, since they are no longer in their comfort zone of ‘this will do’.

An example of the ability to make (and lead) drastic change is Steve Jobs, following interactions with Xerox. In summary, he saw a more user-friendly interface used on computer screens, whereas computing to that point was still primarily code-based. Unlike Xerox however, he recognised this being a game-changer in the future of personal computing and set about incorporating the technology at Apple. Xerox could have been bigger than Apple and Microsoft combined, had it had such vision and willingness to change the entire direction of the company. Instead, Xerox predominantly stuck to printing on dead trees, ignoring the innovation it was sitting on. It now “boasts” less than 1% of the profits seen by Apple alone.

Consider the following police promotion interview question aligned to the CVF competency, ‘We Are Innovative & Open-Minded’ for example:

“Please give an example of how you have embraced or influenced change. What did you do and how did you persuade and support others to follow your lead?”

For more senior roles e.g., Inspecting ranks, you may also consider the following question about leading during times of uncertainty. This blog series on operating ‘in the grey offers further food for thought.

“How will you lead effectively in ‘grey areas’ or during times of uncertainty?”

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Essential CPD

“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand… then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” – Daniel Goleman

In the context of police promotion and leadership CPD, this all comes down to core policing values and in particular the CVF competency (aka behaviour), ‘We Are Emotionally Aware’. Whether you like it or not, you are unlikely to progress to Sergeant, Inspector or Chief Inspector without demonstrating emotional intelligence. To develop your CPD and recognise any evidence you may have for this particular competency, I would suggest exploring topics in the following section. This can be a common development area for those with ASCs or other ‘neurodiverse’ traits, but is also key for more ‘neurotypical’ folk and those who simply want to better support others through inclusive leadership.

Firstly, begin with knowing yourself and working to develop the learnable skill of emotional intelligence (EQ). This stereotypically, is an important development area for those with ASC related tendencies. Contrary to popular belief, EQ isn’t just something innate, but can be learned and developed like other leadership and technical skills. EQ can sound like nebulous or unfamiliar territory for those who prefer structured information. However, the work of Daniel Goleman breaks it down into clear themes and structured facets to help think through the subject. My detailed blog on the CVF: ‘We Are Emotionally Aware’ provides a good grounding to help aspiring individuals to understand what it all means, plus suggested tangible tools to develop your capabilities. Here’s a summary for example of Goleman’s four aspects of EQ:

1: Self-awareness

This is about having insight to your own emotions and an understanding of your own strengths or limitations. For example, here’s a free self-assessment akin to MBTI to help you understand your own temperament and personality preferences. Knowing your strengths will also stand you in good stead for promotion preparation, regardless of whether you will face strengths-based interviews or otherwise. For example, what you are good at, how you can work at your best, and what motivates/energises you.

2: Self-Management

This is about resilience to external challenges/upsets and remaining calm under pressure. Consider my blog on perseverance and a growth mindset for example, particularly in relation to the promotion process. You may also find some of the resources from the National Autistic Society and other support organisations helpful in managing yourself and with useful coping mechanisms for stressors around you. These can be helpful for anyone, such as the NAS’s ‘Dealing with change’ guidance. 

3: Empathy & Social Awareness

This is about understanding others’ perspectives and emotions, while having good listening skills to aid more effective communication and support others. Goleman describes several types of empathy, from cognitive, to emotional and compassionate. This aspect may feel like harder work for those with ASCs to develop along with communication skills, so can take more practice and determination to hone.

Empathy and social awareness can however be developed through simple techniques and practice, for example on mindful listening, practice noticing facial expressions and body language cues, asking coaching-style questions, recognise you can listen to someone without necessarily agreeing with them, and making time for colleagues to support them through challenging situations. Not forgetting of course to do the uncomfortable thing for introverts: practice interacting with others, asking questions and be curious as to what they might say. Here’s more information on developing empathetic skills.

4: Relationship Management

This is about clearly and persuasively conveying your point, while encouraging others to feel relaxed when working with you. Consider this quote for example by Elon Musk, who is open about his Asperger’s: “Patience is a virtue, and I’m learning patience. It’s a tough lesson.” Practicing interacting with people, ‘networking’ and building relationships and trust, will also be useful to develop on this front.

Related to developing your EQ, you may also benefit from researching about the Public Sector Equality Duty, considering how you can put in place supportive arrangements and be inclusive of those who think differently. For example, know what ‘Positive Action’ truly means (and that there is no such thing as “positive” discrimination), plus the difference ‘Work Based Assessments’ can make. Some with ASCs have described it as helping them to make sense of their life and do their job more effectively.


Thinking on the Future of Police Neurodiversity

“Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by the ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

Thinking on the future of neurodiversity in police promotion and leadership CPD, how will you support individuals and develop yourself to progress? How could you create the right environment for those on your teams who may be struggling with the format of work, words, numbers, or other ASC-related challenge to seek help? Some may have gone through their whole lives experiencing stigma and without diagnosis. How will you create the necessary environment of trust for individuals? How would you relate this issue to the CVF competency, ‘We are emotionally aware’?

Culture doesn’t always change quickly in organisations, but it can change overnight with the right leadership in place. For example, ‘It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy’, tells the story of how at 36 years old and the youngest Commander in the Pacific Fleet Michael Abrashoff took command of the USS Benfold. At the time this was the worst performing ship in the Navy, plagued by low morale, high turnover, and abysmal performance evaluations. Few thought the ship could improve, yet 12 months later the ship was ranked number 1 in performance, using the same crew. People were amazed and the lesson was clear leadership matters and culture is everything. Here he summarises his approach:

This included one to ones with every member of the crew, effective delegation and an inclusive approach to problem solving and change. Questions which any emotionally aware and astute leader can use to get to the root cause of problems and then focus on solutions/performance include…

Abrashoff’s approach harvested ideas from the crew including “Why don’t we buy stainless steel nuts and bolts?”. Time saved from repeatedly painting the ship’s rusted bolts was used to focus on other activities. The idea was used across the whole Navy. 

Finally, consider these questions on the future of neurodiversity in police leadership:

No innovation fires are created without friction, so don’t just surround yourself in your comfort zone of people who think and act similarly. I’ll leave you with the following thoughts from Steve Jobs, remembering that “people with passion can change the world for the better.” As you may see, thinking differently and neurodiversity are hardly new concepts; they have however gained significant attention and traction more recently. True leaders have always sought contribution from and progression of ‘misfits’…

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently, they’re not fond of rules. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them, because they change things. They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Apple advert, 1997

I hope you have found this blog useful, let me know your thoughts and ideas on the subject in the comments. Please share with anyone you think may also find it useful.

Kind Regards, Steve


If you found this blog helpful, you can hit the ground running with your promotion preparation. Get your personal digital promotion toolkit, attend or download my Police Promotion Masterclass, or contact me to arrange personal coaching support. If you first want to explore completely free content, I have a collection of videos, eGuides, a podcast, plus free blog content both here and via my Police Hour guest articles.


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