Thinking differently – the benefits of neurodiversity

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne March 6, 2018
There’s a huge, untapped source of talent out there most employers are missing out on. It's time to rethink recruitment practices if you don't want to miss out on the next Steve Jobs!

Albert Einstein, Richard Branson, Agatha Christie, Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg.

What they all have in common, apart from their own forms of brilliance, is they are reported to be dyslexic.

In fact, at least one in 10 people have dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), are on the autistic spectrum or have another neurodivergent thinking style that differentiates them from the neurotypical mainstream.

As the list of names above demonstrates (and it is by no means exhaustive – there was a rich seam of individuals to choose from), this is potentially a group of highly talented individuals.

Yet most companies just aren’t hiring them. According to a UK National Autistic Society report in 2016, for example, just 16% of individuals on the autistic spectrum are in full-time employment.

Meanwhile, a recent CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development) poll found only 10% of HR respondents said neurodiversity was included in their organization's people management practices.

Tech steps up

There is a growing list of prestigious names, however, including Microsoft, SAP, JPMorgan Chase, Ford, Amazon and Google, which do see this as important enough to run neurodiversity programs in their organizations. 

Despite this action by a few organizations, for most, this remains an unmined source of talent, according to Dr Jill Miller, policy advisor, diversity and inclusion at the CIPD, the professional body for HR professionals:

We’re getting more data about the prevalence of autism and dyslexia and ADHD. There is greater societal awareness, which is helping, but also organizations are very much looking for talent and want to find different talent pools and neurodiversity in individuals is virtually an untapped talent pool.

Organizations need this neurodiversity in the same way they’ve already recognized the power of diversity in areas such as gender or ethnicity. The accepted wisdom is that having an organization with diversity of thought, which comes from employing people with different experiences and backgrounds, increases innovation and creativity. And of course, these neurominorities, by definition, are people who think differently.

Although stereotyping should be avoided, the CIPD Neurodiversity at Work report,  a guide to raise awareness and offer pointers on how to take action on neurodiversity, has found some common characteristics neurodivergent thinkers can bring. Miller explains:

Some of the things employers are telling us that are really valuable are the ability to spot patterns and trends and capacity to process information, data-driven thinking and inferential reasoning. Innovation and creativity and also some other benefits.

JPMorgan, for example, found that autistic workers took just three to six months versus the usual three years to do the same level of work in its Mortgage Banking Technology division. They were also 50% more productive, according to the CIPD report.

As 10% of the customer base will also be neurodivergent, it also makes sense for organizations to have employees that reflect their customer base.

The trouble is that workplaces tend to be designed for the 90% of the population who are neurotypical. To encourage the 10% to join their ranks, organizations must adapt to individual’s needs rather than expect staff to fit in with their practices, as Miller explains:

We’re starting to move away from expecting people to fit into the way we’ve traditionally designed workplaces and to adapting the workplace to individuals or adapt people’s job roles to when and where they work. We find that really small adjustments can bring huge benefits to someone’s working life.

This means thinking carefully about the working environment. While open plan offices are great for communications and team-building, for example, they can be noisy and distracting, which some people find highly stressful. Organizations could set up quiet zones where people work, or offer people headphones to cut out distractions if they need to concentrate. Bright office lights can also be highly distracting to some individuals.

Changes to lighting or noise levels are often easy to alter and don’t cost a bomb. In fact, the US Job Accommodation Network found that as many as 59% of the common adjustments needed to the workplace cost nothing for the employer.

Recruitment changes

An obvious place to start making changes is recruitment. The job description should clearly signal that the organization welcomes neurodiversity by using inclusive language in the job ad and thinking about what specific skills are needed. If the job isn’t customer facing, for example, does the job ad really need to ask for someone with good communication skills? Companies will often put that on every job role as a matter of course, when it’s not really required. Miller adds:

We’re expecting people to come into the organization to be generalists. There will be a huge list of skills, but do you actually need those to be effective in the job role? If you can narrow it down to what skills people really do need, then you’re enabling those people with really outstanding ability in certain areas to flourish.

The same holds true at the interview stage. If people can’t hold eye contact well or aren’t very good at the general chit-chat about the journey and weather on the way to the interview room, does this really matter in the role you’re trying to fill?  In fact, is an interview actually the best way of assessing someone’s suitability for a role – perhaps a work trial would be a better indicator of someone’s abilities?

It’s important that individual candidates don’t feel pressured to either declare or hide their neurodiversity. Instead, says Miller, it’s up the employer to create an environment where individuals feel able to ask for help or assistance without someone doubting their capabilities:

Ask everyone whether there is anything you can do to make life easier? It’s making everyone aware that these things are available, because it may be that someone doesn’t have a formal diagnosis of dyslexia or dyspraxia and may think that actually I do have problems with that part of the role. It’s not necessary to have a label attached to it.

Any neurodiversity initiative is going to need the belief and backing of senior management, but the lynchpin of it working at ground level is to have line managers fully on-board. They are the ones who will need to spot any potential problems and find ways to help staff be the most productive they can.

So, raising awareness and training managers in neurodiversity is obviously key, but it also needs to be recognized as a valuable part of their role, as Miller points out:

In most organizations, line-manager roles are still rated on performance in terms of operational terms, but there should be equal focus on the people.

HR has a key role to play putting these performance changes in place, raising awareness and training, and also setting up employee support networks for employees, including mentoring and coaching.

A lot of these suggestions are good advice for managing all employees, not just neurodivergent individuals, points out Miller:

We’re finding a lot of the adjustments or ways of managing that people are adopting to embrace neurodiversity are universal - they are good for everybody. Line managers get taught to communicate much more clearly and understand people’s challenges, people’s strengths and be more flexible and consider adjustments to the workplace and work. Wouldn’t everybody want those things?

There are a few words of caution. Everyone is an individual. Making assumptions about how certain groups of people behave – that autistic people are always poor at social contact or a whizz at maths – are not helpful and not true. A quote from autistic author and thought leader Dr Stephen Shore in the report summarizes this admirably:

If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

And of course not everyone who fits into this 10% neurodivergent category has an official diagnosis or sees themselves as different.

Societal attitudes are changing as more well-known people such as Richard Branson not only share the fact they are dyslexic, but also see it as contributing rather than hindering their success. This changing narrative is beginning to shift the view that ADHD or dyspraxia are conditions or disorders that need to managed or even cured, but as attributes. Miller says:

I think traditionally we saw neurodivergence as maybe conditions to be treated, whereas now we’re actually realizing the language is changing and realising the huge benefits and huge strength neurodivergent workers bring to the workplace.

My take

We’re each ultimately in a neurominority of one.

Employers need to start looking at all are strengths and weaknesses and individual requirements of all individuals – neurotypical or neurodiverse -  not just have blanket practices for all. The onus must shift to employers to make their environments work for employees, not expect employees to make all the compromises.

The CIPD report is great first step for raising awareness about neurodiversity, but it’s still very early days for recognizing and celebrating neurodiversity in the workplace. 

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