Editor’s note: Sam Myers is senior strategist at research services firm Sympler. 

“Neurodiversity may be the birthplace of some of humanity’s greatest minds.” – Harvey Blume

Designing for neurodiverse experiences has become prominent in the marketing research industry and in culture. Neurodiversity is now acknowledged as a genuine expression of self that should be celebrated and openly discussed. People who experience the world in neurodiverse ways have shared how they want society and brands to respond to and reflect their experiences. Their minds and lives are creative and provide deep insights that can transform research methods and interpersonal relationships.

Our research has highlighted ways neurodiverse individuals can feel marginalized. For example, our team completed a study on day-to-day workplace experiences that included neurodiverse respondents – including dyslexia, autism and ADHD – who shared about the difficulty of being in an office environment. Many shared how norms around communication (format, small talk, etc.) and the office environment itself make it difficult to navigate their professional lives. Learning from this experience can transform our understanding of what it means to be in working relationships and what the work process looks like. 

In another study on self-expression in fashion, we had one individual who shared about the rainbow toe socks that they felt were a quirky and deeply meaningful expression of both their neurotype and their queer identity, and the judgment they’ve felt in being seen in these socks that they love. Fashion can be a place to learn about deeply rooted identities, creative flair and the articulation of the mind itself in everyday aesthetic expressions. 

Pushing back against marginalization and silencing, market research respondents are increasingly proudly identifying themselves as neurodivergent, and calling out ways that normative modes of communication can be stifling and ineffectual. In turn, this has shaped the most basic nature of our communication with our participants. 

Understanding the marketing research environment through a neurodiverse lens 

Neurodivergent or neuroatypical differences have been underappreciated in society, and in the unique challenges of qual research design and analysis. Understanding marketing research through a neurodiverse lens helps us all do better, richer research. 

For example, private messaging allows respondents to express themselves freely in a conversation that doesn’t require direct eye contact, being in the physical presence of a stranger or picking up on social cues that distract from the task at hand. Respondents have the time and space to share their experiences and feelings in a self-paced and completely open-ended context. There’s the opportunity to pause, reflect, walk away and come back to the conversation at any time. There’s the opportunity to use any words – what might feel to respondents like the wrong words in the moment – and then work out the fuller expression of their experience on their terms. 

Being attentive to neurodiverse experiences is not only a matter of inclusion and appreciation of a broader spectrum of diversity, but also a radically different way of thinking about the mind, knowledge exchange and qualitative research itself. Learning from neurodiverse respondents goes beyond efforts to “accommodate” or “appreciate” the neurodivergent experience; it’s about letting the radical alterity of being human wash over us as researchers and change the way we do qualitative research at a more fundamental level. The power of neurodiverse minds – whether the researcher or the respondent – is in the spark of innovation, of free-thinking, of looking at a subject or problem from an angle that may not have been previously considered. This deepens our understanding and the way we try to know others in our research. 

It is our job as researchers to consider the fundamental aspects of research design and what it means to connect and resonate most with respondents. Here are three suggestions to create a safe and productive space for neurodivergent respondents, allowing for deeper, more personal sharing and uncovering surprising insights:

Create a nonconfrontational environment. It can be difficult for some neurodiverse respondents to articulate thoughts quickly and deeply in more traditional qualitative research environments (one-on-one in-depth interviews, focus groups, etc.). Social dynamics, social cues and overall pressure can put unnecessary stress on respondents. Whether it’s the freeing environment of private chat or another way of offering prompts that allows for private reflection and response, moving away from traditional methodologies can be more inclusive and assist in gathering richer responses from all respondents. 

Include mixed media in research study prompts. Everyone expresses themselves differently. Some flourish in being able to write long, reflective responses. Others use visuals as a springboard for text-based explanations. Some use music to access and describe their feelings and experiences. Offering an array of mixed-media prompts can create an environment where people can choose the most expressive and resonant methods and help us, as researchers, understand and connect to respondents’ experiences. This increases our own sensitivity and allows for more holistic analysis and understanding of the topics we study.

Create a range of open-ended and direct questions. Asking a single direct question can resonate well with some individuals. For others, a single question might not spark the kind of in-depth reflection we strive for in qual research. Offer multiple, fully open-ended questions to ensure that at least one of the questions can directly resonate with every respondent, giving something to inspire and anchor their experience and expression of it. It’s important to be direct and clear when writing questions, while also creating space for interpretation, self-inquiry and “ah-ha” moments. This might elicit long, seemingly meandering responses, but appreciating the thought process behind an answer is just as important as the answer itself.