It's Neurodiversity Awareness Week. Is your talent strategy on board?
Understanding of neurodiverse conditions is increasingly important, not least in the workplace
UK government research lists 16.5% of school students as having a learning difference or requiring special educational needs. Around one in five people may qualify as neurodivergent, yet despite these high proportions, there is still a lack of resources and training for supporting people with learning differences. Thus begins a pattern that may start in the classroom and continue into one’s professional life.
Neurodiversity is the term used to describe differences in ways of processing and thinking about the world and your surroundings. The origin of this word is commonly attributed to the anthropologist Judy Singer, who had noted a growing movement from people with autism to claim self-advocacy and remove societal stigmas around the condition. Today, neurodiversity is used to encompass not just autism, but also ADHD and a variety of other conditions.
13-19 March marks Neurodiversity Awareness Week. While general understanding of this topic has improved in recent years, there is still progress to be made, not least in professional life. We’ve seen many companies taking steps to improve gender and racial diversity among their staff. While bridging gaps in these areas is necessary and welcome, it does not mean that addressing other topics should be left aside. This may be particularly relevant for neurodiversity, which is less visible to prospective hirers.
Understanding and coverage of neurodiversity in the world of work remains, sadly, underexposed. The unemployment rate for neurodiverse people is between 30-40%, three times higher than the rate for people with a disability, and eight times higher than for those without disability. The reasons for this are complex, but one factor is certainly societal prejudice against neurodiverse people. Furthermore, many workplaces may not be adequately equipped – both in terms of physical space and infrastructure as well as working practices and culture – for neurodiverse individuals to thrive. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano note that frequent behaviours of many neurodivergent candidates ‘run counter to common notions of what makes a good employee—solid communication skills, being a team player [...] the ability to conform to standard practices without special accommodations, and so on’. Interview processes, especially ones that involve many direct questions and/or take place over several stages, are also more likely to be especially challenging for neurodiverse candidates.
But the situation is far from hopeless. While there is still a long way to go, neurodiversity is starting to feature more frequently in conversations about diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) in the workplace – and with good reason. Openness to, and accessibility for, neurodiverse people at work is not just equitable: the different ways of thinking, and particular strengths exhibited by neurodiverse candidates, can often be advantages in the workplace. For instance, a survey conducted by Hewlett Packard Enterprises noted that their neurodiverse software testing teams were up to 30% more productive than the others. People with autism have been observed to display, among other positive traits, high levels of concentration, pattern recognition, and conscientiousness at work, while those with dyslexia are often thought to be creative, outside-the-box thinkers.
The activist Greta Thunberg, who has Asperger’s syndrome, has described her condition as a ‘superpower’ – and a number of prominent neurodiverse entrepreneurs might concur. Richard Branson has spoken about how dyslexia and ADHD helped to form him as a businessman, while the late founder of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad, also had these conditions and adapted his business model to work with them. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that research has drawn links between childhood diagnosis of ADHD and entrepreneurial spirit in adult life. Charlotte Valeur, former chair of the Institute of Directors, was diagnosed with autism as an adult, and has used her platform to raise awareness about neurodiversity. She admits that her professional life has not been without its challenges, but notes that her autism meant that she was ‘brilliant at certain things such as trading, because you need to be super focused all the time, you need to be fast in your mind’.
It is increasingly important for employers to be open to different ways of thinking at all stages, and to consider ways of making their practices more accessible for neurodiverse talent. This can stretch from removing barriers to, and relaxing, the interview process for prospective candidates, through to having employees focus on single assignments rather than multitasking. Consider the way your job descriptions and responsibilities have been set up thus far – do you need to stipulate that some roles require teamwork if certain candidates operate much better on their own? And would access to new technology, specialist training, and working from home benefit neurodivergent employees at your company? Various organisations, such as the National Autistic Society and ADHD UK, offer suggestions that are specifically relevant to people with these conditions in the workplace.