By Prachi Laddha, Consultant – India
Even though it’s broadly accepted that Diversity and Inclusion as a concept is one that brings great benefits to a business, many elements of D&I that come to mind are those that we can see or easily identify. However there is one type of diversity that we as a society have spent very little time considering, and that is the diversity of thought. Neurodiversity refers to the different ways the brain can work and interpret information, and we should realise that these differences are just that – differences! They don’t need correction, but rather need different support than the norm.
Around 1 in 7 or more than 15% of the UK population is neurodivergent. In the US, 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls lie on the autism spectrum. In India, an estimated 2 million people belong to the autism spectrum. But how much are their needs catered to? Are the positives of the neurodivergents celebrated? Not enough! Many people still don’t understand what neurodiversity means; there’s a stigma associated with students who have special education needs, employers are quick to dismiss any applications from people who seem “different”, and even largely in the society people with autism, dyslexia, ADHD or other neurodivergent conditions are excluded because they are seen as less intelligent, unsociable and different-looking. In a 2017 bullying report by Ditch the Label, 70% of students with learning differences reported being bullied at school.
It’s time that we realise that sometimes when a bunch of neurologically identical people fail to solve a problem, it’s often this one person who’s different who holds the key. Neurodiverse skill sets can include data-driven thinking, trends and pattern recognition, systemic approaches to problem solving, sustained focus over long periods, comfort with repetition, deep-dive analysis, the capacity to process information at extraordinary speeds and even customer facing. Research has shown that especially people with autism often outperform others in auditory and visual tasks and do better on non-verbal tests of intelligence. A study by University of Montreal found that in a test that involved completing a visual pattern, people with autism finished 40% faster than those without the condition. Therefore they become great talent for fields such as programming, software developing, scientific research work or music. Neurodivergent people are proven to be filled with creativity and can bring a different perspective to the table. They can develop highly specialised skills and are consistent in tasks once mastered. Moreover, they are good at strategic thinking!
Yet, the neurodiverse population remains a largely untapped talent pool. According to UK’s National Autistic Society, only 16 per cent of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time employment and only 32 per cent are in some kind of paid work, even though 77% of unemployed autistic adults want to work. When they are working, even highly capable neurodiverse people are often underemployed. This could be because of various reasons, a major one being that the behaviours of many neurodiverse people run counter to common notions of what makes a good employee – solid communication skills, being a team player, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, the ability to network, the ability to conform to standard practices without special accommodations, and so on. Typically, hiring teams seek individuals who not only most closely match the job description, but who also are predicted to be a good culture fit for the organization. These criteria systematically screen out neurodiverse people.
But many are realising that there seems to be an unforeseen flaw in settling for only those candidates who appear during the hiring process to be congruent with traditional workforce practices and operational structures. By limiting a hiring search to the aforementioned criteria, employers potentially restrict their chances of introducing and benefiting from innovative thinkers and value-added achievers. Moreover, estimates suggest that up to 20% of employees, customers and clients might have a neurodivergent condition and research suggests that around 60 million people around the world have some form of ASD. Supporting neurodiversity within the workplace can make it easier to identify and provide the support that neurodivergent customers need too, giving your company a competitive advantage.
So what can society and organisations do to fully absorb the potential of those that are neurodiverse?
First and most important step is for the insult to stop – be respectful in your language! Sensitise yourself to the fact that some people are just naturally born with learning and thinking differences. Let go of the stigma attached to being different and that something is “wrong” with them. This by itself can help build confidence, self-esteem, motivation and resilience amongst those that are neurodivergent.
Second step is to understand that they deserve more than just understanding, they deserve meaningful help. An early intervention for speech and behaviour might be a good first start. Society can make changes to houses, parks and workplaces to make them more accommodating. Society must respect, value and make neurodiverse people feel part of the community.
Acceptance of neurodiversity backed by the support they need is in itself a big enough step to take.
Let’s move on to what organisations should / could do. A CIPD poll found that 72 percent of HR professionals said that consideration of neurodiversity wasn’t included in their people management practices, and 17 percent said that they didn’t know if it was included. Of course, recruiting and positioning neurodiverse talent can be difficult, but there are a few, perhaps simple, interventions that employees can take.
A crucial thing to remember is that while trying to include neurodiverse employees, managers and employers must tailor individual work settings more than they otherwise might do. The most important part is the hiring process. Some simple implementations that can be done are a reflexive interview process and offering contracts that are flexible to worker’s needs. An accommodation to make during job interviews is, asking applicants with autism to demonstrate work skills that they are being interviewed for, rather than asking them where they see themselves in 10 years’ time.
To make people feel included in the workplace once they’re hired, organisations can make accommodations including, installing different lighting, providing noise-cancelling headphones, using light background memos that make it easier for people with dyslexia to read, accepting a person’s incapability to be extroverted at social gatherings, providing flexible work hours, giving instructions in writing over email or voice recording, allowing them to play light music, maintaining a low-noise and fragrance-free environment around them and build corners where employees can go when they need to calm down. The most important of all, though, is educating other neuro-typical employees of the needs of the neurodiverse ones and how they can help them fully participate and belong in the business. One last thing to remember is that the neurodiverse employees realise that they don’t inherently fit in the office environment and this makes them more susceptible to burnout and overwhelm; therefore their well-being needs to be taken care of probably more so than the other employees’.
Besides, aren’t we all differently abled in our own ways? After all, we are all born different as well as raised differently. Developing an understanding of this could aid businesses while also fostering more humane treatment of all people in society.