It's time to concentrate on neurodiversity

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth July 1, 2021
Organizations are missing out on vital skills due to a poor understanding of neurodiversity, and society needs to recalibrate its educational approach

Image of a brain
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

Elon Musk recently revealed he is autistic on US national TV. The entrepreneur, famous for his electric car brand Tesla, has dealt neurodiversity a positive hand, experts say. Many hope that, whatever you feel about Musk as a business leader and technology innovator, his revelation will help society and, in particular, employers reconsider their approach to our neurodiverse members of society.

Autism is just one form of neurodiversity, and alongside gender and racial diversity, CIOs need to ensure neurodiversity receives the same level of attention as gender and race in their recruitment and leadership. But this isn't just about being representative, with CIOs and CTOs struggling to find recruits, many believe the neurodiverse community offers a gold mine of talent potential.

As is to be expected, neurodiversity is a wide-ranging set of traits, including the Autistic Spectrum such as Asperger's Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia and Dyscalculia; Developmental Coordination Disorder, such as Dyspraxia, which affects coordination and movement, through to Tourette's Syndrome. Some, especially ADHD and Tourette's, have, unfairly, gained an unrealistic fear factor.

Professor Amanda Kirby, Chair of Developmental Disorders at the University of South Wales, says the above labels are unhelpful but welcomes the recent adoption of the term neurodiversity.

This framing is really positive as it starts to say, tell me a little about yourself, and that is a major shift.

Neurodiversity is how our brains diverge; if you develop Parkinson's Disease, it is the same brain, but it has diverged.

The professor says moving the debate onto neurodiversity and away from the individual diagnosis will enable society and, therefore, business technology leaders to see someone with ADHD, for example, as energetic, enthusiastic, creative and working well under pressure, and is able to see patterns. Therefore someone who is hyper-focused when deployed to the right task and ideal in today's fast-moving digital economy where team members need to be project and outcome-oriented.

You too

If you have a brain, with your own thoughts, feelings, moods, and behaviours, then ultimately you are neurodiverse, since no two brains are the same.

Recruitment services provider RTM observes in its Future of Work whitepaper. It turns out that many of us are, to varying levels, neurodiverse. Professor Kirby adds:

Our brains naturally differ from person to person, and are therefore diverse, and are therefore part of human difference. There are 86 billion brain cells, so why would we all be doing things in the same way? In your senior leadership team, colleagues and business supply chain, there are people that are neurodiverse. Most of us are divergent in some areas and have a spike of skills in one area.

Neurodivergent team members will have adopted a personal formula for dealing with situations that clash with their divergence. CIO Martin Carpenter reveals:

You have to develop coping methods over the years. For me, there is a real personal interest to think about what neurodiversity means for employment practices.

Professor Kirby's work, which includes a number of books, has identified that coping mechanisms like that used by Carpenter become a form of camouflage and that employees do not like to disclose that they have forms of neurodiversity. She says that women, in particular, are good at "putting their face on" and hiding skills and difficulties.  Carpenter adds:

These are differences that you cannot see, that only manifest themselves in behaviours, and sometimes things that challenge cultural norms, that cut across ethnicity, sexual orientation or identification or religious beliefs. A neurodiverse person may be quiet and reserved in many cases, but over-share when it comes to a subject area they know a lot about. Awareness, let alone acceptance of these traits is still very nascent.

Businesses bang on about representing the people that they serve. But if you have autism, your employment chances are only 1-in-3, you then realise that business doesn't represent the society that they serve.

Carpenter has been a CIO calling out the need for greater attention on neurodiversity for a number of years. The Synomics agritech CIO adds that for business technology leaders, neurodiverse candidates often have the exact skills their organizations need for data analytics, testing and security.

I have employed and nurtured neurodiverse people without knowing it at the time, and this has been a highlight of my career. There is no more satisfaction than taking someone who others say "doesn't fit" and providing an environment in which they thrive and flourish, ultimately leading to significantly wider life choices. Sometimes, the very best people require extra work to help them on their journey. If we were more upfront about neurodiversity, we would take the approach of: what do we need to do to make the organisation "fit" around the individual in order to get the best out of them?

Dominic Hilleard, Director at Rethink Group and a business ambassador for Ambitious About Autism, a not-for-profit organization that places autistic people into employment, adds:

Neurodiversity is about focusing on what you are really good at.

The dial is moving, organisations such as UK broadcasters the BBC, Universal Music, spies GCHQ and telco Virgin Media have all begun programmes to increase the neurodiversity in their businesses. But Hilleard says that organizational culture and leadership styles will have to change, and he is under no illusion as to how difficult that will be.

How we engage with our workforce means we have to consider everybody's working environment and needs. Organizations are achieving it; JISC, TalkTalk, Virgin Media are three examples.  

For CIOs, there is a responsibility to educate themselves further and lead industries to make sure the dialogue about neurodiversity happens. Luckily there are lots of good toolkits out there.

Despite having worked in recruitment in the past, Hilleard says that existing practices of Preferred Supplier Lists (PSL) used by enterprises to secure recruits are detrimental to neurodiverse candidates and CIOs.

A PSL is about the first candidate first, rather than the best, and it is entirely discriminatory, so as an employer, it doesn't allow you to get to the best person, and we all need to move towards outcomes-based employment.

CIO Carpenter agrees and says interviews have been poor not only for technology recruits but for CIOs and CTOs as well.

There is no point putting people that have anxiety issues in front of a panel; you will not get a true representation of how that person will perform. It is better to perform workplace assessments.

CIO Claire Priestley agrees and adds:

If we start from a similar perspective to Belbin's Team Roles Theory of how we can tap into the broadest and deepest spectrum of rich talent; then we start our search from a different mindset. Actively seeking what is different, gives us permission and makes us accountable for exploring channels of talent that we otherwise pre-exclude - unwittingly or otherwise.  So accepting that the broadest spectrum of talent results in the most effective team, also means that failing to achieve diversity in the workplace is actually failure as a recruiting manager.

It has become a norm in recent years for CIOs and CTOs to recruit for cultural fit, but Priestley argues against this.

Whichever way you slice it, cultural fit is simply code for: "you look / sound / act like us, and we like that".  Or as I like to spell it:  b-i-a-s.

Beyond IT

As much as CIOs and CTOs can be instrumental in changing attitudes and approaches to neurodiversity in their own teams and organizations, there needs to be a wider societal change. Professor Kirby says:

We need to have conversations about neurodiversity; people are worried about the language, so it gets avoided.

There are international financial services firms and UK public sector organisations that have tackled that language issue, setting up discussion forums following the death of George Floyd in the USA to learn from black colleagues and openly discuss race. The same approach will be necessary for neurodiversity, and I recently saw a cloud engineer with the digital tech services business AND Digital speak openly on a webcast about being dyslexic.

The #metoo and BLM movement has made neurodiversity more prominent.

Hilleard says of the increased awareness of individualism that has arisen from recent events. Things have improved from the 1970s when Carpenter was a school pupil and he says:

I ended up learning how to pass exams, and not bother about learning the subject area. By adopting that approach, in the late 1980's I moved from a pass classification at the end of year two in my Economics Degree to a shade off a first. I was told by some lecturers that I had submitted the best exam papers they had ever seen. I felt a little sad, I had applied a logical and systematic approach to getting the best grade I could, yet felt I did not have an understanding of the subject area. The world however revolves around exams and grades - so you have to learn to win using neurodiverse skills.

The CIO adds that it is vital to help neurodiverse people understand neurodiversity earlier in their lives, so their talents can be harvested earlier and they can focus on what they are good at, and understand and accept what they are not so good at. Professor Kirby says education has come a long way, but too many traditional means of measurement exist, such as a reliance on the calibre of handwriting and exams:

Equity is about treating people differently depending on their needs, their skills and their talents.

My take

CIOs and CTOs, in my experience, are well aware of the benefits of gender diversity and are increasingly realizing race, and now neurodiversity needs to be tackled. With many organizations concerned about skills shortages, the neurodiversity community has many of the talents business technology leaders require. As with digital transformation, the challenge is changing the culture of the organization to accept "divergence".

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