Mon 16 Mar 2020
Since its coinage as a term in the late 1990s, an awareness of the importance of acknowledging and celebrating neurodiversity in our workplaces, schools and society has been slowly building. Neurodiversity has also become an increasingly familiar term within the D&I space, for good reason. Neurodivergent people often face significant barriers in traditional workplaces, designed with neurotypical people in mind. However, there are numerous skills and attributes associated with neurodivergence which make teams, processes and products more robust, innovative and representative of both society as a whole and one’s customer base.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity encompasses several neurological conditions, such as autism (including Asperger’s Syndrome), ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia, amongst others. It is thought that approximately 15% of the UK population is neurodiverse. The remaining 85% of the population are considered ‘neurotypical’, which Acas describes as having a brain which ‘functions and processes information in the way society expects’.
Neurodiversity as a term and concept steps away from the previous global approach to autism, ADHD and other forms of neurodivergence, which considered them disorders requiring medical treatment. Instead, the concept of neurodiversity acknowledges ‘the biological reality of infinite variation in human neurocognitive functioning’ – a definition offered by CIPD in their ‘Neurodiversity at Work’ guide. This guide outlines the social model of disability -- which has been widely acknowledged as key to effectively supporting people with disabilities -- as an essential prism through which to consider neurodiversity.
Rather than considering neurological conditions in terms of ‘can’t’ -- as was traditionally the case -- this understanding of neurodiversity unlocks the advantages and potential of neurodiversity by acknowledging specific skillsets and associated attributes. Such an approach enables a facilitation and incorporation of neurodiversity in the workplace. Significant proportions of the population can thereby achieve their potential, rather than being impeded or, indeed, discriminated against, by systems and processes which overlook their skills by valuing a specific way of processing information.
There are distinct attributes associated with each form of neurodivergence. It is important to note, however, that neurodiversity exists on a spectrum, and often different forms of neurodivergence co-exist. An individual may be both autistic and dyspraxic, for example. Associated attributes may therefore be expressed in different ways, or not at all, depending on the individual.
Generally, however, dyslexia – which affects about 10% of the UK population – correlates with creativity, problem solving, story-telling and enhanced verbal communication skills. Dyslexic people are known for entrepreneurship – for example, Richard Branson and IKEA-founder Ingvar Kamprad -- and are often proficient at viewing the ‘bigger picture’. Problems with reading, writing and spelling are also common traits. Tech supports such as read-write software can therefore make a significant difference to the performance of dyslexic employees, allowing them to focus on developing and applying their strengths.
Approximately 5% of the UK population have dyspraxia -- also known as Developmental Co-ordination Disorder, or DCD. Dyspraxic people often have issues with physical coordination, such as tying shoelaces or geographically orientating themselves. Organisation and timekeeping can also present difficulties. However, dypraxic people often tend to be highly creative and strategic in their thinking, as well as excellent communicators.
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders) affect approximately 4% of the UK’s population. Inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity are three key characteristics associated with people with ADHD, but other attributes such as hyper-focus, spontaneity and an ability to ‘jump right in’ to problem-solving or a task are also strongly associated with ADHD.
Autism is thought to affect 1-2% of the UK population. Logical and analytical thinking, exceptional focus, punctuality, and dedication to specific passions or areas of expertise are typical strengths associated with autism — attributes which can offer distinct competitive advantages in the workplace. Furthermore, autistic people are often not subject to confirmation bias, as neurotypical people often are, allowing for problems or mistakes to be identified quickly, as well as for innovation to be enhanced. Autistic people often find it difficult to identify and interpret social cues, or to adapt to changes in structure or routine. However, stereotypes of autistic people as anti-social or as singularly technical in mindset and skillset are misplaced. CIPD, in their ‘Neurodiversity at Work’ guide point out that whilst autistic people are often popularly portrayed as ‘high on IQ, lower on emotional intelligence’, autistic people ‘often feel deep emotions and empathy; they may just find it harder to express these feelings than neurotypicals’. Furthermore, they frequently prove themselves to be 'reliable, dedicated and loyal employees’.
The role of organisations
Despite these positive attributes, there are currently only 16% of autistic adults are in full-time paid employment, with 32% of autistic adults in some kind of paid work. Compared with 47% of disabled adults and 80% of the population without disability -- and underpinned by the fact that 77% of autistic adults who are unemployed would like to be -- this represents a significant shortfall in understanding and awareness around how best to support neurodiversity at work. The employment statistics for other forms of neurodivergence are not as stark as for those of autism. This is not to say, however, that the potential of those employees could not be supported and developed more successfully, were there greater recognition of neurodivergence and the associated competitive advantages, with steps taken to support neurodiversity, and maximise performance and strength-alignment.
In order to better accommodate neurodiversity in the workplace – thereby incorporating associated valuable attributes and realising true diversity of thought – organisations must consider their processes from three distinct perspectives: recruitment, accommodations, and management.
Oftentimes, recruitment processes will eliminate neurodivergent applicants as the skills which are measured do not align with the strengths they can uniquely offer. Elimination of CVs due to mistakes in spelling or punctuation, to the disadvantage of dyslexic applicants, or selecting staff based on interview to the detriment of autistic jobseekers, are common examples. Recruitment processes that remove unnecessary criteria in job descriptions, such as ‘dynamic communicator’ for back office roles, can have significant impact, as can the use of job trials to determine competency.
Under the Equality Act, a disabled person is defined as someone with a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out day to day activities. Neurodivergent people often fall under this definition. Bearing this in mind, alongside the fact that the world was designed with neurotypicals in mind, businesses must consider how certain adjustments can enable neurodivergent staff to flourish, and work with neurodivergent staff to identify what they need in order to contribute their best work.
Finally, an understanding and informed management style plays a crucial role in enabling neurodivergent staff to thrive. It is vital that, in a neurodiverse workplace, managers are educated around what to expect of neurodivergent staff, and are aware of both the modes of cognition associated with their form of neurodivergence and the supports they may need. It is also important to note that, given 15% of the population are neurodivergent, workplaces are likely far more neurodiverse than is commonly acknowledged. Effective and educated management can ensure not only a greater success for neurodiverse jobseekers and employees, but also that the skillsets of all team members are best aligned with the task at hand, ensuring optimal outcomes for staff, organisation and customers alike.
Our ‘Neurodiversity in the Workplace: Thinking Differently & Supporting Unique Talents’ events are the first of their kind to tackle the subject of neurodiversity in the workplace head-on. Upcoming events will take place in London on 10th September, and in Manchester on 28th October.
View all news