Neurodiversity inclusion at work has been a hot topic since the early 2000s when some of the large, international technology companies started hiring autistic people to work in their coding teams.
What these forward-thinking companies were quick to realise, is that unusual thinkers can do unusual things! It was ground-breaking for those of us who have worked in disability inclusion for many years – finally, employers were interested in us because of the talents we bring, not because they feel sorry for us or want to look good in marketing materials.
Since these early days, affirmative-action hiring for neurodivergent people has proliferated, and business articles extol the virtues of neurodiversity. In the main, however, practice remains limited to tech, finance and defence and focused on Autistic brains more than the other neurotypes such as ADHD, dyscalculia, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourettes and others.
Also, in part driven by the industry norms themselves, the main beneficiaries appear to be disproportionately white and male. So we can say that these programs have shifted our mindsets from a negative to a positive view, but the work is not complete. What can we learn that we can take forward to aid neurodiversity inclusion to create a more universally inclusive style?
Firstly, we need to reconsider how limiting our view of ‘talent’ is, and how anchored in the 20th century. We hire and promote ‘Jacks of all trades’ rather than masters and specialists. The route to leadership is a boggy hack through layers of middle management where literacy, numeracy, compliance, deference and politeness are valuable. Yet leadership requires creativity, rule-breaking, directness and self-reliance.
Those who make excellent data analysts are not always the best at handling office politics or waiting their turn in long drawn out meetings. Employees with innovative insight might struggle to spell or read lengthy policy documents. We’ve learned that when you design jobs for specialists (Autistics in tech) you can hire exceptional talent – lets change more of the ‘rules’ to make it easier for talented specialists to arrive, survive and thrive as leaders in our businesses.
Recruitment and Selection
Hand in hand with this revelation is the need to adapt our recruitment methods to the job at hand. Interviews are still the go-to method of selection, but how well do they measure our abilities in written work, numerical reasoning, graphic design? Neurodiversity programs have switched to work sample testing – give a spreadsheet or some data to code or a piece of design work and see how people get on. This isn’t just good for neurodiversity inclusion, it’s better for the whole organisation because we will have the right people the right roles, even if they can’t explain themselves in interviews.
By the way, interviews are still good if the job relies on verbal communication with new people – coaches, teachers, social workers, sales people – should still be interviewed. It’s the extent of the match between hiring method and eventual job performance that is key.
After several decades working in this sector, a part of me gave a wry smile in the pandemic when we all started working from home. My neurodivergent clients have been asking for remote working as a disability adjustment for years, and were always told ‘it’s not reasonable’! Nowadays we have made this adjustment and the result is transforming productivity for those who find crowded commuting and shared workspaces overwhelming. This level of flexibility I call ‘informal adjustments’ – making changes to company protocols such as where you work, what time you work, when your breaks are.
Informal adjustments are rated very highly by neurodivergent people. We also like coaching support to help us with self-organisation, time management and communication. Assistive technology has come on leaps and bounds and basic versions are now built into standard word processing packages. Many employees still need training to work out how to adapt to assistive technology into their everyday routines and software designers still need to understand how everyday basics like multi-factor authentication and password entering cause barriers for neurodivergent and disabled people. But progress is steady and in the right direction – tools such as the 7 principles of Universal Design are making improvements every week.
Adjustments are typically still deployed one person at a time, however, rather than at scale and as part of the ‘way we do things around here’. Typically, people have to disclose their condition and ask for help, many do not until their employment is at risk and relationships have started to break down. Diagnosis also poses a barrier here, with waiting lists stretching into years for NHS funded assessment, and research pointing to systemic under diagnosis of females as well as those marginalised by race, ethnicity or poverty.
Diagnosis is privilege, yet employers do not need to wait for a formal letter to make adjustments. Adjustments can be made on the basis of long term difficulties with day to day activities, such as memory, literacy, communication, managing social interaction, concentration. To do so is actually in line with the Equality Act, which does not cite which ‘labels’ qualify us as ‘disabled’. Employers can get ahead of the need for adjustments by predicting what is likely to come up, and offering it before performance takes a dive. Adjustment menus can be brought into onboarding conversations, 121 reviews, appraisals, promotions and become a great tool for unlocking potential and supporting neurodiversity inclusion, rather than a stigmatising ‘plea for help’ as a last resort.
All of the above is transformatory for wellbeing. The ability to engage in good work, which suits your ability and is well-resourced predicts overall health and wellbeing across the lifespan. It can be incredibly healing for neurodivergent people who struggled at school with inflexible, high-demand sensory tsunamis in mainstream education. Many of us find work our salvation, the place where we can finally follow our interests and feel valued as part of a team. As we develop more research and evidence about what makes ‘good work’ for neurodivergent people, the effects will ripple through communities and generations.
However, this opportunity must be balanced with reality. In 2021 the Office for National Statistics reported that Autistic people were the least represented in the workforce, with less than a quarter of Autistic adults employed, compared to an average of 53% for disabled people in general and 83% for abled, neurotypical people.
Our prisons disproportionately house neurodivergent people; the Criminal Justice Joint Inspectorate reported in 2021 that the majority of prisoners cannot read and that rates of ADHD, Autism, dyspraxia are far in excess of the general population. What we have here is a story of two vastly diverging possibilities for neurodivergent people and very little in the middle. When we are failed by an impenetrable, normalising school system we can either find adulthood a relief, or a continuation of exclusion. And I don’t need to remind you of which personal characteristics make each journey more likely but I will – race, poverty, parental neglect, caring responsibilities, trauma, additional disability.
Businesses in 2023 are waking up to the burdens that we carry as we arrive at work everyday. Barriers are intersectional and they cost us cognitive power, emotional resilience and creativity. Employers who are taking active steps to facilitate authenticity and wellbeing at work are rewarded with loyalty and engagement.
Neurodiversity inclusion is a moral, social and economic imperative. We all lose when human potential is squandered.
Dr Nancy Doyle is a Chartered Psychologist, in organisational and occupational psychology and the founder and owner of Genius Within CIC, a social enterprise dedicated to facilitating neurodiversity inclusion through consultancy, talent assessment, workshops and coaching for businesses. Nancy is also the co-founder of the Centre for Neurodiversity Research at Work and is widely published on the topic of Neurodiversity and Employment.