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Are you SPIKEY?

This year I learned that a neurodivergent person may be described as having a spikey profile, it has changed my view of myself and others around me. It can be usefully applied to working outdoors with learners and colleagues.

In January '23 I was fortunate enough to go to the Neurodeiversity Conference ITAKOM and saw a presentation from Professor Nancy Doyle about the spikey Profile. She showed us her own spikey profile diagram. Here was an obviously very successful ND (neurodivergent) human admitting their difficulties publicly!

A person can have a spikey profile if they have abilities and skills considered above average and some that may fall below average. Often a spikey profile for a ND person might mean significantly above average strengths but also significantly below average difficulties. This can cause problems socially at school, in groups and at work when there is not a thorough grasp of how a person with a spikey profile may perform. For example, my creativity is very high along with problem solving but my memory and time management is low and both are difficulties for me.

In a mainstream or largely neurotypical setting, a spikey profile can be problematic for children and young people and importantly also for working adults. What seems like a dive in effort or lower than usual outcome can be misunderstood by others as laziness, intent or agenda.

Understanding a spikey profile requires a bit of a perspective shift. It can be difficult to understand a participant, a friend or a colleague who has an incredible ability to complete some challenging tasks with what appears to be low effort, yet tasks that are traditionally seen as basic and standard can be close to impossible or take much more time than average to complete

Having honest conversations about your spikey profile is important to increase awareness and reduce responses from others that can be unintentionally hurtful or shaming. It can be confusing for any person who may not yet understand their own skills or challenges in a holistic way, when high expectations from others are met with your "failure" to deliver. Painfully low expectations for a person with lots to give, is equally tragic and disheartening.

This can be the start of social difficulties and ultimately bullying. It is hard to not stand out if you excel in some areas but also “fail” in others. The lack of consistency is difficult to manage socially and many ND people already find social interactions difficult enough. At work, colleagues with a high level of skills in one area can be overlooked despite an obvious valuable ability, due to their difficulties in another. A classic representation of this scenario is a colleague whose skills, perspective or vision, work on a level no other is able to achieve yet there is a palpable lack of respect for them as they find it difficult to engage in small talk, hate networking or they miss deadlines for example. We are great at pathologising weakness and terrible at acknowledging and valuing strengths where a spiky profile exists. This reminds me of a slightly provocative saying I recently heard for the first time- “If you can’t handle my dysregulation, you don’t deserve my hyper focus”.

Many with a spiky profile learn to mask their weaknesses in order to create what appears to be a more consistent output. This can look like spending excessive extra time on preparation, practise, research or work to keep up and present as standard, usually leading to exhaustion and burn out.

We need to guard against work-place bullying in the same way we do for school bullying, where there are neurodivergent minorities and not enough understanding of a spiky profile. Neurodivergent colleagues in the workplace are frequently underestimated and simultaneously overestimated to an extent where it is probably discriminatory. In schools many programmes or trips designed to deliver or extend experiences for some children seen as “gifted”, say for medicine or STEM subjects, frequently require a high level of achievement across subjects and may not be accessible to some with a spikey profile.

I believe that the outdoor learning environment leaves more space for those with a spikey profile to be spikey (as long as there is not a reliance on authoritarian or overly behaviourist approaches). A low demand approach to learning outdoors offers room for neurodivergent learners and leaders alike to exercise those valuable skills and abilities that may not be visible in mainstream/neuro typical settings or workplaces. Functioning and even enjoying operating in adverse weather conditions is to my mind a valuable strength. One of my ND skills is that I have an almost birds eye view of what’s happening, a kind of inner map showing where everyone is-great outdoors but pointless in a classroom. Many ND outdoor leaders have an extraordinary antenna for mood change and shifts in dynamic. I see these abilities in outdoor learners too, along with many other skills such as spotting flora and fauna when others don’t. Yet these same learners or participants although already a great young leader with amazing observation skills, amazing resilience in difficult conditions outdoors may also be in detention most days for forgetting equipment at school, speaking to adults in a way that is misunderstood or missing deadlines.

The trick as I have been told is to accept the down spikes as much as we accept the up spikes, to be honest about our peaks and troughs and explain when our processes are different. Understanding your own spikey profile can support you to understand your difference and not feel bad or like a failure. Too many ND individuals spend too much time frustrated with themselves for not being able to do the simple things that others around them do easily, this can be especially confusing if a moment before they completed a task no one else could.

How might you apply the idea of a spikey profile to yourself, your team and your participants? A spikey profile is a likely explanation for the well known outdoor learning folklore of-the child who struggles in the classroom but staff see them come to life and miraculously succeed in the outdoors. The outdoors makes a lot of things ok to BE and ok to DO, but also the outdoors makes lots of things ok to just NEVER have to be or do-perfect for a spikey profile.

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