This is a series of occasional blogs by BESA members and is part of their paid membership service. These views are not necessarily those of BESA and a published blog does not constitute an endorsement.

“It’s like having a superpower and a missing leg” – Eleanor Demuth, Head of Model and Credit Risk Governance, Metrobank – and autistic.

In this blog, Kate Mackay – People Business Partner – discusses how we must shift our perception and focus on the positives of neurodiversity in our work lives, personal lives and within schools.

Until about five years ago, I’d never heard the term “neurodiversity”. Neurodiversity is a relatively new blanket term covering people whose brain is differently wired – e.g. dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit disorders.  

I’m keen not to overgeneralise when each neurodiverse condition is unique and complex, but the amazing thing about neurodiverse individuals is that they often have really significant strengths, which means they can perform some activities better than the ‘neurotypical’ person.

  • For example, many people with dyslexia have amazing creativity, spatial awareness, strong visual memory, great communication skills and a novel approach to problem-solving, all making a great addition to teams.
  • Many people with autism have incredible focus and attention to detail, the ability to see patterns and links that many of us don’t, and can be highly tenacious and direct, often leading them to ask the difficult questions. Some of the most able programmers, mathematicians and scientists have autistic traits – from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs.
  • Other strengths across a range of neurodiverse conditions include the ability to think laterally, be persistent and having a deep loyalty to family, friends or an employer.

Richard Branson is often quoted as an example of dyslexic success – a serial entrepreneur and highly successful businessman. Richard believes that 

“the reason that people who are dyslexic seem to do so well is that we tend to simplify things.”

Similarly, the well-known wildlife TV presenter Chris Packham was diagnosed with Aspergers, or ‘high-functioning autism’, in his 40s and now credits autism with his ability to focus on and observe details in nature

It’s brilliant to see these success stories but sadly the picture is not all positive.

Around 15% of the population has a neurodiverse condition and yet, in the workplace, they are woefully underrepresented1. Neurodiverse individuals are far more likely to be long-term unemployed than their neurotypical peers. For example, only 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment and only 32% in paid work at all (despite 77% wanting to be)2. Neurodiverse individuals are also far more likely to end up in prison, with an estimated 30% to 50% of the prison population being dyslexic alone. It’s apparent that we are massively failing a population with incredible strengths in both their work and life opportunities. 

 

 So, what can we do to raise awareness and support neurodiversity?

 

1. Spot the signs early by educating ourselves and others

Teachers are particularly well placed to understand and notice early signs, challenges and strengths of neurodiverse individuals, often having daily contact with students. They do an incredible job in this. However, teachers are overloaded and time pressures, coupled with funding cuts, a complex and time-consuming EHCP (Education Health and Care Plan) process and dwindling specialist support provision in schools, is making it increasingly challenging for teachers to speak up unless problems are severe in the classroom. 

Parents may spot behavioural patterns consistent with dyslexia, autism, ADHD etc., but even when seeking support or ‘diagnosis’, they are met with resistance, hurdles and multiple delays. Numerous agencies from across healthcare and education – including occupational therapy, clinical psychologists and speech and language therapists – may be involved in getting an assessment, and this process typically takes two years or, sadly, many more.

So the system is against us. Yet, early diagnosis and support will lead to adults who are able to more quickly function better in life and in the workforce, be economically and socially more productive and, perhaps most important of all, be happier. 

The more we grow awareness and understanding of the strengths neurodiverse individuals bring, the greater the appetite to notice and support the wider neurodiverse community will be.

 

2. Make access into the workplace easier 

Neurodiverse conditions can be declared as a ‘disability’ (and are often called a ‘hidden disability’.) Whilst the term itself undermines the strengths people bring, if a neurodiverse condition is declared, employers can make reasonable adjustments both in access to employment and at work. A variety of changes might be appropriate at selection or interview stage – for example adjusting lighting in an interview, considering background noise/distraction during assessments, differentiating timing for written assessments or providing access to specific software. Microsoft, SAP, Willis Towers Watson, Ford and many others have started changing recruitment processes to better accommodate those with neurodiverse conditions, but workplaces as a whole are at the start of a long road.

As someone who has interviewed nearly 100 people over the past year, I know of only two people who mentioned their neurodiverse condition before coming to an assessment or interview. This is in contrast to high levels of mental health disclosure I’ve seen through the same set of interviews. Whilst it’s been great that many more people have felt confident sharing their mental health challenges, people are still holding back when it comes to neurodiversity, whether it be due to perceived stigma, lack of awareness of the support that exists or something else?

Disclosure of a neurodiverse condition once in the workplace can also be problematic. People need to feel psychologically safe in the workplace to share their vulnerabilities. At the core, this will only happen when we

  • see others speaking out, 
  • have positive role models in positions of influence or responsibility, and 
  • have managers who focus on strengths and embrace difference.

 

3. Support managers to give support! 

Silicon Valley is awash with neurodiverse individuals; some organisations have definitely tapped into these strengths. But for many team leaders, managing a neurodiverse individual for the first time can be difficult to navigate without education or understanding. If you don’t know that an individual needs to ‘stim’ or that the positioning of their desk causes them particular distress, you may not be as supportive of a behaviour or making a change. If you know that giving really clear, unambiguous instructions and that prior warning of changes in routine to a colleague will reduce anxiety and improve performance, you are more likely to do this. If you are unaware of the amazing capacity for precision, creativity or commitment an individual has, you may only focus on any visible challenges.

Many organisations are starting to change this by providing manager education and support, from Dyslexia awareness to coaching. Genius Within, led by Nancy Doyle (famous from the TV series, ‘Employable Me’), is one of the pioneering companies in this arena.

 

4. Help individuals once in the workplace

Reasonable adjustments and support should continue within the workplace. OK, so a blanket approach is definitely not going to work here – everyone’s needs are different, and the resources available to organisations will vary widely. Employers can support in many ways, from mentoring, induction design, specialist software, peer networks, and adjusting training programmes to changing workplace/station design and flexible working practices. We need to start a personal dialogue to better understand people’s needs, be open enough to consider radically different solutions and respond where we practically can.

 

What can you do to help?

As an employer, teacher, school, parent, colleague or friend, start your own personal journey of understanding this incredible group of people. Start thinking of neurodiversity as a ‘superpower’. If you are hiring anytime soon, make sure you think about the broadest range of candidates and what strengths widening the candidate pool can bring.  All of us – both neurodiverse and neurotypical – have a part to play in increasing awareness of neurodiverse strengths, giving people a safe place to disclose any concerns and reducing stigma.  Perhaps in a couple of years, more people in the workplace will be openly raising their neurodiverse conditions before interviews and at work?  If I’ve piqued your interest and you would like to find out more about neurodiversity, particularly in the workplace, check out the following pages:

  1. Genius within – what is neurodiversity? 
  2. British Dyslexia Association – neurodiversity and co-occurring differences
  3. Stages Learning Materials – Five Research-Based Strengths Associated with Autism
  4. The Health Foundation – mental health in society 
  5. Acas – neurodiversity in the workplace
  6. CIPD – a guide to neurodiversity at work
  7. CIPD – press release about more organisations are focusing on neurodiversity at work
  8. Harvard Business Review – neurodiversity as a competitive advantage 
  9. Musings of an Aspie – one woman’s thoughts about life on the spectrum

References

  1. https://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=6676
  2. https://www.autism.org.uk/get-involved/media-centre/news/2016-10-27-employment-gap.aspx