Take a straw poll on the high street and ask passers-by if they’ve heard of the term ‘neurodiversity’ and it’s likely most will answer in the negative.
Neurodiversity is a catch-all term that covers variations in some aspects of the human brain and is often used to refer to the hidden disabilities such as dyslexia and dyscalculia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder and the autistic spectrum. Helen Mitchell, press officer at the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC), is more direct in her description. She says that neurodiversity “is a relatively new term and it refers to the different ways the brain can work and interpret information, highlighting that people naturally think about things differently.”
The difference is more widespread than was previously thought. Tom Neil, Acas senior adviser, reckons that “a significant minority of society, often estimated at around 1 in 7 people, could be neurodivergent. And according to a November 2018 Chartered Institute for IT article, The rise of Neurodiversity networks – and why it’s a good thing, neurodiversity affects around 15% of the population with dyslexia accounting for two-thirds of that.
No matter the rate, Neil says that “employers should never assume that a team member is neurodivergent or take it upon themselves to diagnose an employee”. In fact, he recommends that (in general too), employers should take steps to “make their workplace more inclusive so that it better meets the needs of all staff, whether they choose to disclose a condition or not”. He’s of the view that a more informed workforce is also likely to make an employee feel more comfortable talking about their neurodivergence and not worry about being treated differently or unfairly.
As it affects the workplace
How employers react to neurodivergence is key to the acceptance of those individuals with associated conditions.
According to Emma Kearns, head of enterprise and employment at the National Autistic Society, the term doesn’t just refer to people who think differently, “it also involves appreciating the benefits this can offer”. She adds that while “it could include people who are autistic, or with dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD or a number of different neuro-developmental conditions... some people may have more than one condition”.
From a legal perspective, Mitchell warns that being neurodivergent may amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. This means organisations have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace, which could be removing barriers or providing extra support for a disabled worker or job applicant.
And Neil agrees. He remarks that “apart from the legal obligations placed upon employers, having a workplace that is set up to proactively think about what can be done to support the needs of each employee can make it much easier to identify and implement adjustments for neurodivergent staff.”
As to the obligations, the law places a duty on employers to take steps to remove, reduce or prevent the obstacles a disabled worker or disabled job applicant faces, where it is reasonable to do so.
Kearns warns that “a failure to make reasonable adjustments counts as unlawful discrimination and could leave the employer open to a discrimination claim from the individual”. As any lawyer knows, successful discrimination claims have no limit on the award that an employment tribunal can make.
But while some may demonstrate prejudice against those with any form of disability, Kearns thinks that “those with autism have a huge amount to offer employers and many are desperate to find a job that reflects their talent and interests”.
And it appears that a growing number of employers, from various industries, are recognising this potential. As reported in Fortune last December in a story with a bold headline – As Workers Become Harder to Find, Microsoft and Goldman Sachs Hope Neurodiverse Talent Can Be the Missing Piece – companies including these two are changing their hiring and employment practices to take on people with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, and other cognitive differences. In the UK, the BBC reported in January that Universal Music UK, insurer Direct Line and even the government’s listening station GCHQ are now actively hiring the neurodiverse.
However, National Autistic Society research from 2016, The autism employment gap report, suggests that the number of autistic adults in full-time paid work is still very low, partly due to employers’ lingering misconceptions around what autism is and the type of jobs autistic people can do. As Kearns explains, “many employers say that they don’t know how to support autistic people and are worried about getting this wrong”.
The reality is that organisations like the National Autistic Society both encourage and support employers to change their recruitment and workplace practices to help autistic people. The society says, for example, there are a number of simple steps that employers can take to level the playing field when taking on staff, such as being clearer in the job description about what’s actually involved in the role or offering details of the interview format and panel in advance. These simple changes can help autistic people to manage anxiety about unexpected changes; and it should go without saying that these are changes can benefit everyone, not just those with autism.
Naturally, employers are not expected to be mind-readers and so to an extent, the process (and legal duties) is dependent upon individuals telling an employer that they have a condition.
The problem of course, is that the autistic worry about the impact of this news on their employment prospects. Conscious or unconscious bias is a real prospect, which is why The autism employment gap report found that 58% of subjects said that they had told their current or most recent employer that they’re autistic but 32% had not.
When an employee has a neurodivergent condition, Mitchell says “an employer only has to make adjustments where they are aware – or should reasonably be aware – that the individual has a disability”. And this goes to nub of the matter because until an employer is alerted to an employer’s condition, they need do nothing.
As Mitchell sees it, a reasonable adjustment could mean ensuring that someone with autism has regular hours or a structured working day. She reminds that “as part of the reasonable adjustment, it is the responsibility of the employer to make sure that other workers co-operate with this arrangement”.
Characteristics of the neurodivergent
It’s important to keep in mind that autism involves a spectrum of conditions which means, by definition, that everyone is different. This means, that changes made to processes will vary for every individual as there is no one-size fits all approach.
But just as people with conditions vary in their needs, so, as Kearns outlines, each autistic person will have their own strengths and areas where they will need more support. She adds: “However, when autistic people find the right role and are well supported, they may have [their own] strengths.” These include a logical or methodical approach to problem solving, an ability to focus intensely, being task oriented and persistent, possessing good accuracy and attention to detail as well as good memory, reliability, integrity, a strong sense of justice, strong visual skills, and strong skills and knowledge in specific areas of interest. Each and every one of these traits could prove valuable to an employer.
At this point Neil reiterates the need for employers to not stereotype staff and he has also seen “clear benefits and competitive advantages to having employees who think differently.” He outlines key attributes that include creativity and innovation, lateral thinking, strategic analysis, and the development of highly specialised skills and consistency in tasks once mastered.
Another way to look at the positivity that flows from employing the neurodivergent is that they deploy what is effectively an extra set of eyes and different thought processes; the National Autistic Society has seen this lead to innovative ideas and creative approaches to problem solving. It’s interesting that, as Kearns says, “managers often tell us that the adjustments and strategies they put in place to support autistic colleagues are beneficial to all employees and can lead to a change in management practice”. She adds that people who think differently can also identify inconsistencies and ambiguities in company policies or ways of working, which can then be clarified to the benefit of all.
The best roles for the neurodivergent
What roles are best suited to the neurodivergent is a natural point to consider, and quite logical too.
The problem is that while it shows that neurodivergent traits are being considered, it actually shows the depth of misunderstanding of the subject because, as noted earlier, everyone on the spectrum is different. In other words, just as anyone not on the spectrum can perform any job, subject to the right skills of course, so can those in the neurodivergent world – just differently.
As an aside, Kearns adds that there’s also a misconception that some autistic people have almost superhuman abilities, which, she says, is most frequently not the case.
So, as the National Autistic Society is aware, some people will thrive in routine roles, some will excel in technical areas and others chose to work in the creative industries and in customer facing roles. And Kearns says the National Autistic Society leads by example: “We have autistic colleagues working across many departments, including HR, training, finance, IT and marketing.”
Of course, the cut and thrust of business may suggest to some employers that they take the path of least resistance when it comes to hiring. But Neil reckons that while some time and resource may be needed initially to identify ways to minimise any potential difficulties, he’s also seen – like the National Autistic Society – “neurodivergent individuals who can do (and already are doing) all types of roles across all types of organisations”. It’s his opinion that employers should think when recruiting for a role what they actually need. He says: “They should identify the main purpose and main tasks for the role, consider whether it needs a broad range of skills and abilities or more specialised skills and then focus on recruiting the person who can best meet their needs.” If that means hiring a neurodivergent person, then so be it.
As to what the most effective adjustments are, Kearns notes that an awareness and understanding of autism among their managers and colleagues is best, “including what it’s like to be autistic in the workplace and the adjustments and strategies that can help.” She says that creating a supportive and inclusive culture is key.
A reasonable adjustment means adapting the working environment to enable an employee to be able to perform their job comfortably, to the best of their abilities. It’s about reducing barriers to allow access and inclusion – something that applies to everyone.
With a knowledge of the law, Mitchell details that adjustments can vary depending on the individual’s condition and various factors that influence whether a particular adjustment is considered reasonable. She says: “The test of what is reasonable is ultimately an objective test and so employers could consider how effective the change will be in avoiding the disadvantage the disabled worker would otherwise experience, its practicality and cost, the organisation’s resources and size, and the availability of any financial support.”
From her standpoint, the overall aim should be, as far as possible, to remove or reduce any disadvantage faced by a disabled worker. The EHRC also recommends that employers collect data on the recruitment, retention and progression of disabled staff to help inform their own policies, and how they may better support individuals. Records may help employers defend a claim should one be brought.
Moving to the practical, Kearns advises that “adjustments don’t necessarily need to be expensive and can vary from making physical changes to the workplace to introducing equipment/assistive technology or adapting work processes.”
Noting the same, Neil also points to minor adjustments when he says that “often small, simple changes to working arrangements or responsibilities will be all that is required to enable an employee to perform at their best.” He gives the example or allocating staff a workspace away from the noisier areas of the office, speech-to-text software or the provision of dual screens to increase the working space.
Simple assistive technologies may be of use too: smartphone navigation apps can help someone plan their travel arrangements and reduce anxiety, and instant messaging on work computers can help anyone who feels anxiety in social situations. None of these apps are autistic-specific, but are, says Kearns, used by many autistic people in day-to-day situations.
On top of this Kearns says that the National Autistic Society endorses more sophisticated assistive technologies like the Brain in Hand app that “can be programmed with helpful processes, reminders, timetables, anxiety tracking and management strategies, which can assist the user if they need help”. She says that this form of technology links the person with their manager and support network and provides an overview of how the person is progressing – “it can be really effective”.
Other things Kearns also recommends management consider include reducing the level of lighting if it’s too bright, or noise cancelling headphones if the sounds of the workplace are distracting – “small things like this can make all the difference for better work performance”.
Changes to work processes could benefit the neurodivergent including changing how colleagues communicate with autistic colleagues. Here Kearns offers common sense advice: “Go for clarity, for instance by providing agendas ahead of meetings or by following up face-to-face meetings with an email outlining the agreed actions points and giving a clear timeframe for these to be completed.” As with many adjustments, these changes can help other employees too, meaning there is less confusion and greater understanding in the workplace.
And this is something that Neil says Acas has found from its own research, Neurodiversity at work, published in 2016: “We found that the actions and strategies put in place to support neurodivergent employees benefited all staff and can [even] help an employer get the best out of their whole workforce.”
Bullying is an issue
Lastly, it’s a harsh fact of life that individuals that stand out from the norm often find themselves the target of bullies; and autism is no different says Kearns. She quotes statistics, again from The autism employment gap report, where nearly half (48%) of the autistic people surveyed reported bullying or harassment in the workplace and 51% reported other discrimination or unfair treatment due to being autistic.
She adds that “this is compounded by the fact that because of differences in communication autistic people may not always recognise they are being bullied until it either becomes glaringly obvious or a benign colleague recognises what’s happening to them.”
It’s a matter of legal principle that bullying is an issue that has to be tackled decisively and ruthlessly by any employer, particularly as its consequences aren’t just short term. As experts who deal with the aftermath will know, bullying can be long term and can leave someone with dangerously low confidence and self-esteem, leading to long-term unemployment, greater dependency or mental ill health.
From an administrative point of view, Neil says that bullying and harassment are never acceptable. To tackle this, he advises employers consider framing a workplace policy, but adds that “this need not be over-elaborate, especially for small firms, and might be included in other personnel policies”.
As we gain a greater understanding of human nature, we gain an insight into the various traits and skills that exist in people. Just because an individual is classed as being neurodivergent or on the autistic spectrum doesn’t mean that they should be overlooked during the recruitment process. With a multitude of skills and abilities that non-neurodivergent people don’t possess, employers that cannot see the value in hiring the neurodivergent really are missing out.