How to nurture a neurodiverse workplace

The BBC’s 2016 series Employable Me brought to wider public attention a very misunderstood subject – neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity refers to a broad range of conditions, including dyslexia, autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, Tourette syndrome, anxiety and depression, and neurological disorders.

These are all ‘spectrum’ conditions, with wide-ranging characteristics, yet they share some common features in terms of how people learn and process information. However, each person diagnosed with a specific condition is an individual, with unique drivers, perspectives and skills. Indeed, there’s an argument that all people are neurodiverse, or differently abled (a term favoured by some neurodiverse people), given our inherent physiological differences, and our unique upbringings and experiences.

Employable Me showed the challenges neurodiverse people face in finding employment. There is little existing research (though much is underway) to shed light on workplace neurodiversity. Within the wider context of workplace diversity, a red-hot topic of our times, neurodiversity is a latecomer to the ongoing diversity and equality debates. Primarily this would appear to rest on the fact that many do not understand the conditions, or believe that they equal disabilities and therefore neurodiverse people are not able to provide value to a workforce.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

“It is worth considering that some of the most iconic innovators of the 20th century changed the world not only in spite of their condition, but arguably because of it,” says Jen Davidson, a senior consultant at The Clear Company, which supports employers in achieving inclusive recruitment practices.

“Walt Disney, Pablo Picasso, Mohammed Ali and Steve Jobs were all gifted individuals with dyslexia, and both Tim Burton and Andy Warhol are widely believed to be on the autistic spectrum. Who would not want to become more open to minds such as these?

“Offering tailored support to candidates and employees not only creates opportunities for often misunderstood talent pools, it also makes perfect business sense. Teams made up of a diverse mix of individuals, which more accurately reflect a businesses’ consumer base, have the benefit of a wider range of skills, ideas and perspectives.”

First steps to a neurodiverse workplace

There is no ‘one-size fits-all’ approach to recruiting and managing neurodiverse candidates, which can seem daunting when considering how to recruit, manage and support neurodiverse staff. Yet some of the most important and effective things an employer can do are also simple and not too costly. The Clear Company research suggests that the price of average reasonable adjustments far outweigh the cost of having to recruit and train a new employee, costing on average £30.

“The best thing an employer can do is to simply ask how they can help neurodiverse people to work at their best. If an employee is open to making their condition known, then an employer should ask what it is they need,” says Cheryl Winter, director of In Work Support at Genius Within, where she oversees neurodiverse workplace coaching.

This isn’t to say you need to rescue people, says Winter. “Their condition can then turn into a crutch, a reason not to attempt doing things. An employer can make them feel disabled by their condition, so it is a fine balance.”

Another point to consider is that candidates or current employees may not want to declare a condition for fear of being treated differently. A culture of openness, cooperation and understanding can go some way to alleviating such concerns. For an organisation to attain such a culture requires educating its workforce and instilling such values in its leadership.

Many companies invest in management and leadership training programmes as part of their existing employee development schemes, but Winter is concerned that currently little if any time is devoted to understanding neurodiversity in these programmes. “It needs to be built into their HR and management processes, if it is, organisations will get a lot further.”

Additionally, as Davidson highlights, some organisations may benefit from unconscious bias training to help workforces to recognise and overcome innate prejudices that can be a barrier to true inclusivity.

Recruiting neurodiverse people

Traditional desirable skills, such as being good communicators, team players, negotiators and networkers, with strong emotional intelligence run counter to the behaviour of many neurodiverse people. Yet neurodiverse talent can bring some very strong, specific skills to an organisation. Therefore, a good starting point for an employer is to see if required skills match neurodiverse profiles.

“While every person is different, there are specific strengths that are commonly associated with individual conditions,” says Davidson. “Some autistic candidates, for example, can demonstrate above-average levels of concentration, reliability, conscientiousness and persistence, as well as paying incredibly close attention to detail.”

Meanwhile, dyslexic workers typically have superior spatial reasoning skills and the ability to view an object or event from multiple perspectives – to quickly get the ‘gist’ or big-picture. In addition, they usually have a strong ability to learn from experience and to reason well in dynamic settings, when facts are incomplete or changing.

During the recruitment process, organisations should strive to ensure that procedures are accessible for all. “This can be done by stripping recruitment processes back to basics, assessing candidates on relevant criteria alone and, crucially, opening lines of communication to ensure that jobseekers feel comfortable to disclose their conditions and request adjustments,” says Davidson.

Adjustments in recruitment can include more time during assessment, adapting interview questions so that they cover specific examples rather than complex concepts, or even swapping the traditional interview for a work trial.

Supporting the neurodiverse employee

It’s worth bearing in mind that most workplaces are set up by neurotypical people for neurotypical people. Activities, environments or modes of working that can help neurodiverse people to perform may seem out of place or disruptive in a workplace.

For instance, people with ADHD or Aspergers need to be able to wander around, but may not feel they can, because they have targets and they don’t see anyone else doing it, but not being able to can ultimately make them less effective.

People with dyspraxia are very environmentally sensitive and can be thrown off by the acoustics, lighting and seating, while some high-rise buildings can wobble. They then struggle because they don’t how to put their discomfort into words.

Accommodating adjustments for people with autism, for example, can be as simple as ensuring they have a quiet space to work in, giving them clear and succinct written or verbal instructions, avoiding hypothetical or abstract questions and allowing them to wear headphones.

Staff with dyslexia, meanwhile, may benefit from using coloured paper to make reading easier, using a dictaphone to capture notes rather than pen and paper or even a ‘do not disturb’ sign on their desk to discourage unnecessary distractions.

While not every contingency can be catered by every company, it does always come back to being open with neurodiverse people about how they can be supported. By fostering a culture of openness, and celebrating cognitive differences, employers can help neurodiverse employees to reach their full potential and subsequently unlock the certain key skills, qualities and ways of thinking that can benefit an organisation.

“Communication is key,” says Davidson. “Employers have a duty of care to support neurodiverse staff and line managers should be trained to ensure that they are able to do this adequately. There is plenty of free third party support available from organisations such as The British Dyslexia Association or Autism Awareness, for example.

“Furthermore, online tools such as Clear Talents On Demand allow individuals to complete a personal profile which then acts like a ‘sat-nav’ for line managers to help manage their needs.

“However, no one knows better than the individual themselves what support they may require,” says Davidson. “Don’t be afraid to ask the question – and don’t be afraid of getting it ‘wrong’.”

A Genius Within blog provides a guide to recruiting neurodiverse people, including a table of typical difficulties experienced by each condition – read here.

The Autism employment gap

  • 16% – autistic people in work
  • 77% – autistic people who want to be employed
  • 4 in 10 – say they’ve never been employed
  • 60% – employers say they fear getting support for an autistic employee ‘wrong’
  • 60% – employers don’t know where to go for support or advice about employing an autistic person

Source: The National Autistic Society

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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