Neurodiversity: Embracing differences
A diverse workplace is mostly thought of in the context of gender or ethnic division, however, in recent years the concept of neurodiversity has emerged as an area of growing interest for employers looking to diversify their workforce.
Put simply, neurodiversity is a concept where neurological differences are to be recognised and respected as any other human variation, similar to ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender. This means hiring and retaining talent with dyspraxia, dyslexia, ADHD, dyscalculia, autism, Tourette’s syndrome, and other neurological variances.
The term neurodiversity is attributed to Australian social scientist Judy Singer, who first used it in her sociology honours thesis in the late 1990s.
For Andrew Eddy, founder and director of the Untapped Group, neurodiversity represents the different ways of brain wiring.
Advocates for neurodiversity, such as Mr Eddy, reject the idea that it is a problem to be 'fixed', instead they believe that we are all neurologically diverse in some way.
But, while research into brain variances has shown that some of the common traits of neurodivergence (particularly autism) may clearly be seen as beneficial in the workplace, particularly in number crunching fields like accounting, statistics reveal that worldwide over 80 per cent of people with autism are unemployed or underemployed.
- 164,000 Australians have autism (ABS 2017)
- People with autism experience the lowest labour force participation rates (40.8 per cent) compared with other groups
- Reducing employment gap between people with and without disabilities would result in rise to GDP of 0.85 per cent
Autistic advocate Kathy Isaacs clarifies that the issue is less about the availability of work opportunities than it is about the accessibility of them.
“The whole process of seeking and applying for jobs requires a very specific set of social skills that are far more innate for neurotypical people than neurodivergent. Interviews and HR selection processes are far more focused on who can sell themselves best than they are about who can actually do the job best,” says Ms Isaacs.
Mr Eddy agrees. He explains that most of us are set up to deal with the neurotypicals. And, by definition, neurodivergent people just aren’t conventional.
“When looking for an employee we look for someone who is bubbly and makes eye contact. The truth is that people with neurological differences don’t have these traits, which makes it hard for them to take that first step and apply for a job,” says Mr Eddy.
He explains that while eye contact is an important nonverbal communication behaviour that most of us use automatically in social interactions, it can be very stressful for people with neurodiversity.
“In order to effectively communicate with you, people with autism tend not to take that extra sensory input. They can then be perceived as non-trustworthy,” Mr Eddy says.
He argues that implementing various workplace accommodations, flexibility in the way we interact with others, and acceptance of neurodiversity as a way of life, would allow a meaningful percentage of the neurodiverse population to become valuable members of our working community.
In an attempt to facilitate a link between neurodivergent talent and companies offering work experience, internships and employment opportunities, the Untapped Group is co-ordinating the development and promotion of the Neurodiversity Hub.
The Neurodiversity Hub is currently talking to a number of companies interested in tapping the neurodiverse talent pool.
Mr Eddy reveals that while interest does exist, most companies are not set up to accommodate people with neurological diversities.
Having helped multinational B2B IT services provider DXC Technology integrate neurodiversity into its workforce, he says that the process requires the participation of subject matter experts and spectrum consultants. Employers too must become more sensitive to individual needs.
“A lot of the trainees that come to DXC didn’t have a whole lot of life skills, things like getting to work, eating well, financial literacy and various other skills,” he explains, adding that this realisation led the team towards focusing on improving the employability of neurodivergent talent.
The Neurodiversity Hub has now partnered with several education institutions, including universities country-wide to increase the number of roles available to students with autism, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other neurological differences.
It is also working on making job ads neurologically friendly.
“The stats show that a man looking at a job ad with say 10 items on it, will apply for the job if he fulfils three of the 10 items. A woman may not apply unless she can do around eight, but a person with neurological differences will ignore the ad unless they meet all 10 requirements,” Mr Eddy points out.
The underlying issue is that, while physical disabilities and differences are better understood and more often able to be accommodated through a one-time environmental modification, most people don’t know how to approach neurological talent.
According to Ms Isaacs, neurological differences usually have few external prompts, and require an ongoing series of adjustments which may appear trivial to neurotypical people.
“HR frequently take a very top down approach to doing things for employees with disabilities (meeting their minimum legal obligations) but there is not much interest in empowering people to thrive in their roles by educating managers or providing acceptable working conditions for those with invisible disabilities,” she says.
The accommodations that make focused work possible for neurological talent could, however, be easily provided with adequate understanding and support.
But, Ms Isaac warns, there is very little understanding, either from HR or from managers, as to the actual needs of neurodivergent people.
“It’s much easier to build a wheelchair ramp than it is to remember daily not to touch someone without warning, or to avoid figurative language for a literal thinker,” Ms Isaacs says.
“Having your requests for necessary adjustments ignored means that people become very reluctant to press for workplace accommodations, or to disclose their neurological status at all.”
This results in neurodiverse people desperately trying to hide their differences.
“Autistic people fear the consequences of disclosure and believe they are required to ‘mask’ constantly within the workplace,” Ms Isaacs says.
“The risks of disclosing your neurological status may well be higher than any benefits to be gained by better understanding of the source of your difference – there is a very great fear of ‘making it worse’.”
She warns that constant masking, and the tense neurological defences required to navigate the workplace without understanding or accommodations, is very likely to lead to burnout and a significant deterioration in mental health.
Many myths and stereotypes exist about neurodiverse talent, particularly people with autism. These include a perception of dependence or reduced personal competence.
Ms Isaacs warns that the freedom of self-knowledge and self-understanding that can come with diagnosis is tempered by the ignorance of others who have never needed to understand.
Some of the common traits of neurodivergent (particularly autistic) people are well known, and may clearly be seen as beneficial particularly in fields like accounting, Ms Isaacs believes.
“People with autism are known as intensely focused workers, with high levels of conscientiousness and attention to detail, and are generally uninterested in office politics or in socialising during work hours. The level of passion and hyperfocus that they can harness when fully involved in a business project goes beyond what is considered ‘normal’,” she says.
More valuable in business, however, is their tendency to have very strong intellectual curiosity and a thirst for problem solving.
Also, having unconventional brains, neurological talent tends to approach ideas, concepts and problems from a unique perspective.
“This ability to see things ‘outside the box’ may lead to business ideas and solutions that are highly creative, and would possibly not have occurred to a NT mind,” Ms Isaacs states.
In fact, in March 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that 60 per cent of unemployed or underemployed autistic people in the US have cognitive abilities at or above those of neurotypical people. A 2016 study by the National Autistic Society in the UK arrived at a similar conclusion.
Moreover, JPMorgan Chase completed a side-by-side comparison of a neurodiverse team with a neurotypical team, which indicated that the neurodiverse team achieved 48 per cent higher productivity.
“Some of these people are quite brilliant,” says Mr Eddy.
He reveals that the Neurodiversity Hub has helped employ 98 neurologically talented people over the last four years in the areas of cyber security, software testing and data services.
“We had trainees here doing software testing and they were 30 per cent more productive. We had another group in the cyber area, normally it would take them five years to get to level two analyst, but our neurologically talented trainees were writing level two reports in five months,” Mr Eddy says.
He advises companies who find that they have an area of work that may be repetitive or require a lot of attention to detail, to consider people with autism or other neurological differences.
“They are very loyal, they are very hardworking and diligent,” Mr Eddy says.
Andrew Davis, Autism CRC CEO, reiterates that autistic individuals have strengths and skills that might contribute to a more productive and innovative workplace.
“Autism CRC’s vision is to see autistic people empowered to discover and use their diverse strengths and interests. Obtaining meaningful employment and economic participation enables greater quality of life, health and wellbeing,” he says.
“Organisations currently operating autism employment programs often report benefits beyond the programs themselves, with the changes made to employment processes to better engage autistic individuals, also leading to the greater recognition and use of the skills of all their workforce.”
But, while some might consider accounting to be an obvious choice for a role that requires detailed, task-focused concentration, all stereotypically autistic qualities, the strong focus on networking, socialising and presenting a conventional, often conservative, and professional image for clients means that the industry can be quite intolerant of difference.
And while industry and government roles may be generally more accepting of neurological differences because there is less pressure to impress external clients, Ms Isaacs reveals that there are still many challenges of cross-neurotype communication between colleagues and with management.
So, what needs to change?
“We need to change recruitment practices so that they judge a potential employee on their ability to do the work, not on their ability to self-promote,” says Ms Isaac.
She warns that even when organisations have accessible recruiting methods, neurodivergent people may get into entry level positions but then find it hard to get promoted due to the differences in communication style.
“It is not enough to change HR practices – we also need to train managers in neurodiversity acceptance and understanding, enable support networks to develop and grow, and stop considering neurotypical-style communication to be a fundamental work skill,” Ms Isaac says.
Within a specific workplace, changes like reducing sensory stimuli can be helpful, she clarifies.
This includes allowing neurologically different talent to use quieter spaces to work, rather than large open spaces; swapping out bright lights for gentler lighting, and allowing personal protective measures such as wearing sunglasses, ear plugs or a hat at desks.
“But these are only small changes in a much larger need,” Ms Isaac says.
“More and more, research is showing that autistic people do not have deficits in communication, so much as a different style of communication, which is absolutely functional within an autistic framework. Written communication is often processed more easily, and information transfer is valued over social transaction.”
She reiterates that people with neurological differences frequently have deep, rather than broad, skill sets.
“Acknowledging that a team is made up of people who have different but complementary skills, and removing the necessity to pretend to be neurotypical, allows neurodivergent people to fill a niche where their skills are valued,” Ms Isaac’s concludes.
Answers provided by IT trainees in an autism employment program
What sort of hardships have you faced in your search for employment?
- The biggest challenge with finding employment was the interviews. I couldn’t keep proper eye contact and when I spoke I was either unable to form a coherent sentence or unable to speak at all, I couldn’t stand the process of being evaluated for a job and would often just try to put my mind somewhere else, which would then cause my attention span to drop. I suppose it came off as being disrespectful when these things would happen but it’s really difficult to take your mind into a state of focus when you’re already a nervous wreck.
- I have faced difficulty in keeping up with my pile of emails from different employment agencies, due to me applying for a bunch of jobs per day. Sometimes I would check the email too late and miss out.
- Lack of experience with paid work
- Age because employees usually want to hire younger people because they don’t have as much pay as older people.
Would you say that business owners tend to be insensitive or have a lack of understanding for people with neurological differences?
- I would say that business owners try their best to be sensitive to people with neurological differences but lack the knowledge on how to approach issues with them at times, it does however vary from a case-to-case basis.
- I’d say that business owners do have a lack of understanding as with most people, however, that is slowly changing. In the past people used to look down on the neurologically impaired, but now it seems more people are aware of the abilities of such people and what they can contribute to the workplace.