17 May 2021 | Rachael Wilson
Rachael Wilson, managing director of UK-based equality, diversity and inclusion consultancy EW Group, explores the need to think differently about neurodiversity.
A few years ago, I watched a compelling BBC documentary about wildlife expert, TV presenter, author and conservationist Chris Packham and his experience of living with autism.
Packham, with his intense focus, hyper-sensory awareness and encyclopedic wildlife knowledge, derives great joy from his neurodiversity and is steadfast in his belief that he would not want to be the same as anyone else.
During the documentary, Packham visits a correctional institute in the US, where the focus is on making children on the autism spectrum ‘more socially normal’, forcing them to be something they are not. With visible sadness, Packham says it’s easier to change the individual than it is to adapt society. To see, process and remember things in a way that most people cannot is a gift.
He is right, and businesses are beginning to see the strength in difference too.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity describes the various ways the brain can function and process information. It is an invisible developmental disorder and one in seven of us has a neurodiverse condition. People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have other associated conditions including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia, among others.
People with ASD may encounter difficulty with social communication, social interaction and/or social imagination. It may be difficult for them to hold a conversation or understand verbal and non-verbal cues; they may prefer to spend time on their own and may struggle to express their emotions; and they may find relief in structure and having a routine.
Broadening the talent pool
Neurodiverse people often don’t interview well but excel in other important areas. People who have neurological differences think differently and have special talents, meaning they can often solve problems at a deeper level and drive innovation.
Neurodiversity is a huge asset to organisations because developmental conditions like autism offer a vast array of perspectives and ways of thinking. Improved memory, lateral thinking, pattern recognition and problem solving are some of the many benefits a neurodiverse workforce brings.
People with ASD can also be extremely reliable and high-performing employees because they possess good attention to detail, high levels of concentration and strong research skills.
An increasing number of technology companies are reforming their HR and recruitment processes to tap into neurodiverse talent.
Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program has made them a pioneer in this area. They actively seek to hire people on the autism spectrum. Microsoft’s programme has rewritten the traditional interview approach to create an environment better suited to the way autistic people think and communicate. Candidates hang out on campus for a few weeks and work on projects while being observed. Formal interviews only take place after this.
German IT and software multinational SAP is working with a consultancy that specialises in staffing technology-oriented jobs with autistic people.
Vodafone and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise are among other technology companies building a reputation for being neurodiversity friendly.
Tactics for inclusion
Many workplaces continue to largely cater for the cognitive “norm”, yet an increasing number are making changes to ensure all their team can reach their full potential.
Some of the steps organisations can take to build an inclusive and supportive culture and attract and retain neurodiverse talent include:
• changing recruitment and interview practices – focus on skills and share questions in advance;
• considering workspace adjustments, such as providing screens or noise-cancelling headphones;
• providing structure and routine – be specific about priorities and start and finish times;
• providing reassurance – give information about any changes to the workplace or tasks well in advance; and
• raising awareness across the business about neurodiversity and autism.
Having an increased awareness of what autism is, how individuals with autism can best be recruited and managed, and the reasonable cultural and physical adjustments that may be required, could enable more people with autism to find and/or stay in work.
While the stigma around neurodiverse conditions is clearly diminishing, data from the Office for National Statistics’ Outcomes for Disabled People research reveals just one in five (22%) autistic people in the UK are in any form of employment.
With skills shortages in software engineering, data analysis and technology, it’s clear that organisations are still missing out on an opportunity to boost their talent profiles and gain competitive advantage by thinking differently about neurodiversity.
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