“It’s a real asset for an organization to have people who can help think outside the box.”
AJ was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and dyslexia in the past year and says the unique way his brain is structured helps his work as a principal software engineer at the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.
“We’re trying to understand things, and solve problems, [so] as many different opinions and different ideas and ways of thinking about things as you can bring together, the better.”
April 2 marks the United Nations’ World Autism Awareness Day, which this year is focused on Inclusive Quality Education for All. During the COVID-19 pandemic, students with autism have been disproportionately impacted by disruption to education and support services.
Access to education, vocational training and lifelong learning opportunities can help people on the autism spectrum “fulfil their potential and achieve sustainable success in the labour market”, says the UN.
But often, as employment statistics bear out, neurodiverse people – those with diverse thinking styles, who have conditions including autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia and ADHD – face discrimination, with companies focusing on the challenges rather than the benefits of neurodiversity at work.
“It’s not about curing it, it’s not about taking it away,” says AJ. “It is about giving people the tools they need to be the best they can.”
Why a neurodiverse workforce matters
Somewhere between 10% and 20% of the global population is considered neurodivergent, according to consultancy and auditing firm Deloitte.
Around one in 100 children worldwide have autism, the World Health Organization’s latest figures show, but for many people, including AJ, it’s only diagnosed later in life. In the US, one in 44 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as it’s also known, according to the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite its prevalence in the US, the majority of people with autism (85%) are unemployed, according to Deloitte, compared with 4.2% of the overall population.
“I think there are lots of stereotypes around all kinds of neurodiversity,” says AJ. “People think of dyslexic people as being unable to read, or those with autism and Asperger’s as people that have no social skills at all and can’t cope in the real world.
“I don’t think any of those are true. There’s an adage that says, ‘If you’ve met one neurodiverse person … you’ve met one neurodiverse person.’ We are all different – in the same way as everyone is different.”
Many companies – including Deloitte, Microsoft, SAP, JPMorgan Chase and EY – have recognized the skills that neurodiverse people can bring to the workforce, and this has prompted them to introduce neurodiversity hiring programmes.
These firms are also among those on the non-profit Disability:IN’s Neurodiversity @ Work Employer Roundtable, a community of employers working together to “create understanding, awareness and supportive systems that provide opportunities for neurodivergent employees to grow and achieve their full potential”.
When SAP started its Autism at Work programme in 2013, the applicants included people with dual degrees and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and economic statistics, according to the Harvard Business Review, but many had not previously been able to work in jobs utilizing their skills.
Neurodiverse employees hired through programmes like this are recognized for their attention to detail, pattern recognition, inferential reasoning, mathematics and coding skills, timeliness, and for offering innovative, creative solutions, among many other capabilities.
How companies can support neurodiversity
Leaders need to be more open about their own experiences, says Deloitte. One in four CEOs are dyslexic, according to technology firm Cisco’s former CEO John Chambers. Alongside Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, Chambers is one of the more open neurodiverse leaders.
“If leaders self-identify as neurodivergent, the rest of the workforce would feel comfortable to come forward too,” advises Deloitte.
The consultancy suggests three clear areas to address in order to boost workforce diversity, and “better integrate and leverage the full potential of neurodivergent professionals”.
It starts with looking at hiring processes, which can be rife with unconscious biases and algorithms that are trained on “neurotypical” candidate data.
Interview processes can be tweaked to reduce stress on candidates. Microsoft, for example, organizes hiring events that take place over several days, allowing candidates to showcase their skills.
Companies need to create a culture where both neurodivergent and neurotypical people can thrive, says Deloitte. This means avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach with employees.
Instead, managers should “find out how each professional works best, how they best understand assignments, and adapt their style accordingly”.
Minor tweaks to communication go a long way too, according to one professor to neurodivergent students, who explained to Deloitte the need to be more specific with instructions, including adding verbs such as “read chapter 1” and “solve questions 1 to 8”.
Providing mentors and buddies and building in flexibility, particularly around hybrid working, are also key ways of creating an inclusive, supportive culture that can boost productivity and loyalty.
As Deloitte concludes: “Common considerations for neurodivergent professionals may alter traditional HR practices but can inevitably make the workplace a better, safer and more inclusive place for everyone.”
By Kate Whiting
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