Understanding the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace

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Neurodiverse employees can offer significant benefits to a business. Yet figures show that a large percentage of neurodiverse talent are being left out of the workforce. But by understanding and accommodating the needs of these people, employers can foster a more diverse, inclusive and successful organisation.

Equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) is now a key focus for organisations, and while many are taking steps to improve their inclusion of workers from different cultures, genders and social backgrounds, other groups, such as neurodiverse people, tend to be overlooked.

Adults with neurological differences such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD and dyslexia are being left out of the workforce. Amaze, an organisation in Victoria that provides resources and implements change for people with autism, commissioned a report in 2018 that found the unemployment rate for autistic people in Australia is 31.6 per cent –three times higher than people with a physical disability.

These characteristics of neurodiverse people can be greatly beneficial to organisations –differently abled people can bring new perspectives to companies because their way of thinking is so different from neurotypical employees. They are able to observe things that otherwise might go unnoticed and therefore add immense value to organisations.

What is neurodiversity in the workplace?

Neurodiversity at its core, challenges preconceptions about neurological conditions. These are normal variations in humans, and therefore should be treated in the same social capacity as gender, disabilities, sexual orientation and ethnicity. Encouraging neurodiversity in the workplace would look like treating that these different ways of thinking the same way in the workplace.

Why prioritise neurodiversity in your organisation?

With such large numbers of employable neurodiverse talent side-lined, what exactly are organisations missing out on?

Improving neurodiversity can help tackle skills shortages

Autism Europe suggests that improving neurodiversity could bolster much-needed skill sets. The non-profit association say that while people with the condition often struggle with social interaction, communication and some cognitive functioning (such as planning or prioritising), they are also predisposed to display high levels of concentration, hold detailed factual knowledge or technical skill and excel at repetitive tasks. Similar skills are also often seen in people with Asperger’s syndrome.

Meanwhile, a 2019 EY report indicated that people with dyslexia often display the most in-demand skills for the workforce of the future – leadership, creativity and initiative.

Services Australia have recently ramped up their Aurora Neurodiversity Program (Aurora) which aims to support people with autism in their career outcomes. The program creates clear pathways for people to access roles and demonstrate the value people with autism can offer in employment.

Neurodiverse candidates can offer different strengths

Carlene Jackson, CEO of tech company Cloud9 Insight – who is herself dyslexic – estimates around 20-30 per cent of her company are neurodiverse. Describing the benefits these employees can bring, she says, “Firms need to understand the value of having people that don’t think in a traditional way. We find the ability to focus and be loyal are strong autistic traits, while being creative and an out-of-the-box thinker is a dyslexic’s contribution. Why wouldn’t we want this in our business?

US software and quality assurance (QA) testing non-profit Aspiritech has gone further still. Its entire workforce is made up of people on the autism spectrum. Founders Brenda and Moshe Weitzberg set up the business in 2008 after their autistic son Oran was turned away from many jobs.

Our clients benefit from an affordable, US-based, highly skilled solution for their QA testing needs,” says Brad Cohen, Chief Marketing Officer. “The staff gain a well-paying job in a suitable environment that supports their long-term employment. Everyone gains when people are given the opportunity to use their skills for meaningful, well-paying work that leads to a fully independent life.

The benefits are long-term as well; Aspiritech has a retention rate of 95 per cent and team leaders and managers are hired from within the organisation.

How to foster a neurodiverse workforce

Tailor your support

While these reports and experiences indicate there are many benefits to improving neurodiversity in the workplace, many organisations are simply not set up to help these employees succeed. One of the biggest challenges is around improving understanding and awareness.

The Amaze survey found that 20 per cent of employees have lost a job due to their autism, and 70 per cent of Australians believe employers should make adjustments for autistic employees, both pointing towards a need for businesses to be better set up to support neurodiverse employees.

Organisations also need to ensure that, culturally, colleagues are aware and accepting and thoughtful of their peers’ different needs. “This is the tougher ask,” says Dr Nancy Doyle, CEO of Genius Within: “The paradigm shift is for everyone to ask, ‘What can neurodiverse people can bring?’ Currently, thinking around neurodiversity is still closer to disability and discrimination legislation – about making reasonable adjustments – rather than seeing it as a benefit in the whole.

Adjust your interview proces

When it comes to adjusting recruitment practices, Aspiritech’s Cohen says there are a number of barriers to overcome. “Primarily, it is identifying the skills that a candidate has and how to accommodate for their individual challenges. Specifically, weak social skills, a lack of eye contact, and difficulty with interviewing skills can hide the candidates’ true abilities."

Awareness of these issues can open up opportunities for both the job seeker and the employer. There are many resources to assist employers with best practices and tips on hiring.

DivergenThinking is one of those organisations offering e-learning courses that can educate employers on neurodiversity and how they can best attract members of that talent pool to make a real difference.

He says the secret to Aspiritech’s success in hiring neurodivergent employees had been offering them the support they need. “Even during COVID-19, we employed 116 QA autistic testers plus a handful of support staff to help autistic employees with both hard and soft skills. We also offer daily and weekend social activities, coding clubs, women’s groups and many other planned free activities to create an environment where our staff can shine and be effective QA testers for our paying clients.

Helen Needham, Managing Principal at global management consultancy Capco, has experienced the differences small adjustments can make first-hand. She was diagnosed with autism in her 40s and says that she struggled with the decision to reveal it in 2018. “My condition means I can’t read people’s emotions the way normal managers can. I was conflicted about opening up,” she recalls, “because once you do, you can’t take it back, and I didn’t want people to think it was me excusing myself for a certain type of behaviour. What I decided, though, is that this is simply me. My brain just operates differently.

Since revealing her autism, Needham, who also runs the Me.Decoded forum for other autistic people, says she’s had huge support. She now has what she calls her ‘social bridges’ – trusted people that report back to her the feelings of her team – emotions she might have missed.

Talking about neurodiversity will improve awareness

While there are challenges, there are some organisations taking formal steps to set up programs to improve neurodiversity and ensure workers with differing needs and abilities are catered for.

Supporting neurodiversity requires HR directors to think about more than just tapping into skills, or new conversations that come as a result of thinking differently, but being totally supportive of differences,” says Nadya Powell, co-founder of Utopia and chair of the diversity committee of the British Interactive Media Association.

Powell helped write Universal Music’s Neurodiversity Handbook and consults on its Creative Differences project aimed at supporting the 10 per cent of staff who identify as being on the ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) scale.

She says that just by starting to talk about neurodiversity, staff are learning to spot (and be more accepting of) signs that their colleagues might be different. But Powell and others accept being neurodiverse isn’t easy.

Closer to home, National Australia Bank (NAB) teamed up with DXC Technology to create the Neurodiversity at NAB program. The program aims to employ those that are on the autistic spectrum and also provide a workplace experience that benefits those individuals and address skills shortages in IT.

Start with a conversation

For those looking to make concerted efforts to make their work environment an easier place for neurodiverse colleagues, Cohen suggests simply taking the plunge. “Just do it. Start by being really nice and think about the social challenges that the candidate is facing. Don’t forget that the skills and abilities are there.

“Once a person becomes an employee, find them a mentor or co-worker who they can meet with. Ask the employee what simple accommodations will make them more productive. Many of these accommodations are really easy; a quieter area to sit, noise-cancelling headphones, a place to decompress or eat lunch in private.

“Why not ask them to lunch or coffee? But don’t be offended if their response is frank. Be clear about communication protocols and listen to their ideas, you will be surprised. With a successful hire, the loyalty and long-term job retention will benefit everyone.

About this author

Yvonne is the Group Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion for Hays plc, with over 23 years professional recruitment experience.

Yvonne spearheads Hays’ commitment to being recruiting experts by ensuring that our major recruitment linked activities and insights are designed to positively promote and create more diverse workforces and inclusive workplace cultures. 

Recently Yvonne was featured in the SIA 2019 Global Power 150 Women in Staffing list, which recognises the female leaders and influencers in the global market space. Prior to joining Hays, Yvonne initially trained and qualified as a litigation lawyer with international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright.

Follow Yvonne on LinkedIn

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