Talent trumps diagnosis when neurodiverse skills are supported at work

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11 Jul 2022

Claudia Plowden Roberts

Claudia Plowden Roberts, Research Officer

Follow @claudiaplowrob 

Specialisterne is a Danish tech company with a difference: 75 per cent of their employees have an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. The company, which provides software testing, programming and data entry services, sees the value in the skills that the individual has, rather than their label or diagnosis. However, only one in five autistic individuals in the UK are in employment, making companies like Specialisterne a rare example of how neurodiversity has been embraced in the workplace.

Neurodiversity describes neurodevelopmental conditions including ADHD, Asperger syndrome, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, and autism spectrum disorder. It is estimated that one in seven people in the UK are neurodiverse, but around 50 per cent of those people do not know they are neurodiverse. Despite being protected by the Equality Act, these characteristics, like ethnicity or gender identity, need to be more widely accepted and equally respected as a part of human diversity.

Neurodiversity is becoming more present in Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) policies alongside other characteristics such as gender identity, ethnicity, age, and religion. Rather than being perceived as a label or hindrance, neurodiversity is now being celebrated as part of human diversity. However, in many organisations, neurodiverse workers are left trailing behind their neurotypical peers (where the brain functions and processes information in the way society expects), meaning that their needs are less understood by employers and not considered within all workplace policies.

A reliance on talent, not diagnosis, provides organisational advantages that make good business sense, including specialised skills, consistency in tasks when mastered, and approaching tasks from different or more creative perspectives. These types of skills are widely considered as being highly valuable within organisations, allowing them to be more productive, competitive, and successful within their industry. As a result, it is argued that there is a need to move away from the medical models of these conditions, which explain the ‘deficits’ and ‘difficulties’ that neurodivergent individuals may experience, and begin to understand their varying strengths and skills, and that employers should adapt workplaces to suit the needs of the employee. Improved neurodiversity policies can enhance workforce performance, which will have a wider economic benefit for all.

While there is a clear business case for having a diverse workforce, certain provisions are required to ensure that a neurodiverse employee can thrive at work. For example, adapting the working environment to include ‘quiet’ or ‘creative’ zones’ for different styles of working, or using a suitable communication style (verbal compared to written),ensuring that the employee can perform well. Employment policies and practices would also need to be updated to reflect these workplace changes, which will not only benefit and attract neurodiverse employees, but it could also benefit all employees and address organisational issues such as innovation and social responsibility (behaving in a way that will have a positive influence on the environment and society).

Previous research has suggested that by becoming more flexible, improving communication styles, and providing ongoing access to training (including ‘soft skills’), all employees will feel that they are supported by their employer, and this will bring performance benefits to organisations. It is not just policies that need to change, attitudes will need to change too. Management should make themselves aware of the harmful attitudes that will need to be challenged if any policy changes are to be successful.

A 2019 study has shown that managers reported feeling uncomfortable employing a neurodivergent individual as they perceived the management process as being complex, time consuming, and emotionally draining. Other research has suggested that half of all managers would not employ someone with one or more neurodivergent conditions. Similar reasons were cited including the need for additional support and supervision, and the assumption that they themselves would not be capable of providing the support needed. This suggests that it is the policies and training within organisations that has influence on managerial attitudes and could be preventing neurodivergent individuals from accessing suitable, sustainable employment opportunities.

Furthermore, any omission of neurodiversity from D&I policies and training perpetuates stereotypes and unconscious biases towards neurodiverse employees, meaning that it may not be management bias, but rather organisational culture and practices which are the cause for concern. A common example would be the way in which organisations recruit new staff – many recruitment processes rely too heavily on in-person interviews. These can be especially difficult for some and sometimes entirely irrelevant for the job at hand which sets individuals up to fail before they can display their strengths and abilities. A more inclusive hiring process might look to offer greater flexibility in the recruitment tools that are used.

Neurodiversity is really about changing the mindsets and ideas within the neurotypical community in regard to the neurodiverse. Instead of trying to “cure” or “fix” individuals, more time and effort should be invested in developing and promoting systems that are supportive, enabling neurodiverse people to thrive. When we discuss D&I in the workplace, we need to recognise that there is so much more to it than gender identity, ethnicity, age, religion, and physical disability; neurodiversity should be included within those conversations too. This must happen on a much larger scale, and it may be that celebrating neurodiversity in wider society needs to take place before any real changes occur.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.