Changing perceptions of neurodiversity

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Written by Jacqui Wallis on 28 January 2022 in Features
Features

Jacqui Wallis discusses the neurodivergent workforce and how to recruit, retain and get the best from this valuable group of people 

There is little awareness or understanding among employers and colleagues about neurodivergence, according to a report by the Westminster AchieveAbility Commission. We know that often many neurodivergent people are unaware of their strengths as many have come through an unsupportive education system. 
 
Neurodiversity is a minority group but a sizeable minority (around 15-20% prevalence in the population). Tourette’s is more common than having green eyes, dyspraxia is as common as having red hair, and you are as likely to be left-handed as dyslexic. One in seven of us has mental health needs (an acquired type of neurodiversity). 
 
Yet an understanding of neurodiversity is pitifully low. Lack of awareness around neurodiversity leads to many individuals being unnecessarily excluded and removes many talented people from the candidate pool for jobs.
  
Some organisations have embraced the benefit that different minds can bring to the workforce. The tech sector, for example, recognises the positive impact neurodiverse thinking can have on its organisations and actively looks to recruit people who think differently. GCHQ has gone out of its way to recruit dyslexic thinkers for their strengths in creative problem solving.
Our cognitive variances come in as many different types as there are fingerprints
Often, we get a bit stuck on labels. While we recognise the power of diagnosis, that can be cathartic and open doors to resources, but not everyone can access a diagnosis, and some don’t want to be ‘put in a box’.  Sometimes what works better is to look at need rather than the diagnosis and to explore what can be helpful in a work context.  
 
The power of an individualised approach
No two individuals are alike. So, overlapping conditions can prove problematic if we go down that pure diagnostic route. We must avoid lazy stereotyping, deciding what someone else might find useful without asking the individual. 
 
For example, we shouldn’t believe that all autistic people do not enjoy social interaction. Or that ADHDers can’t concentrate (ever heard of hyperfocus?) or that dyslexics can’t read. Our cognitive variances come in as many different types as there are fingerprints.
 
Equally, our workforces are dynamic – they change. With an ageing population (1-in-3 workers are over 50, according to the International Longevity Centre), and the average age of acquired disability is 53, we know our workforce will be facing a changing cognitive dynamic. Long-tail COVID affects our executive function; menopause, getting older, and more severe life-changing illnesses, like a stroke or cancer, can all affect how we think, remember and process information. 
 
Therefore, cognitive diversity is something that every business needs to be aware of and start ensuring all their staff have access to adjustments that mean they can continue to work at their best.
 
The need for reasonable adjustments
According to The Equality Act 2010, ‘there is no need for a diagnosis. It is the effect, not the cause, or the impairment that matters.’ Discrimination comes when assumptions are made about capabilities so that individuals with disabilities are treated differently. It’s also when organisations fail to make the adjustments needed, impeding the individual from doing their job successfully. Removing systematic barriers can help everyone, and the more we appreciate the individuals, the better our workplaces will be for us all. 
 
Help is available to determine what adjustments need to be made. The Department for Work & Pensions’ Access to Work programme provides practical and financial support for individuals and organisations. Experience based on extensive data points of what works, and what doesn’t, it shows some areas for the neurodivergent are common challenges, such as memory, organisation, and timekeeping. More recently, stress management has increasingly featured in those top-scoring areas as individuals struggle with the changes to their working lives as determined by the pandemic.
Adjustments to improve the working lives of neurodiverse people can be made for minimal cost. 
 
These changes need to start from the recruitment process – too often, recruitment is unfairly prohibitive for some people. Companies rely on a “one size fits all” interview process. Namely, recruitment requires a candidate to be immediately comfortable dealing with strangers in an unknown setting, answering unexpected questions – while trying to show off their real personality. Some people are great at interviews under these conditions, but you’ll hire someone great at interviews, not necessarily great at the job.
 
Again, some tech companies are leading the way, with Microsoft notably using its Minecraft platform as an alternative means of recruiting new staff.
 
Diversity in recruitment
However, many HR and hiring managers believe they have a magic touch for picking a “good person”, an attitude that remains decades after Schmidt and Hunter’s paper The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology declared the interview process ineffective.
 
The data shows that even increased experience in conducting interviews doesn’t affect someone’s ability to pick a good candidate.
 
What’s more effective is understanding the skills you need and allowing that to guide the interview process. Things you can do to make recruitment more comfortable for candidates include:
Providing interview questions in advance,
Ensuring the waiting room isn’t overwhelming because of noise, light, smell, colour or temperature. 
 
If you’re assessing candidates for a practical role, can you arrange a work sample or something that will be closer to the actual role? This will help you make a better choice and stands the candidate a better chance of succeeding.
 
Let’s adopt work sample tests as a key part of the recruitment process in the future. 
 
Benefits to employees
Addressing the system-level barriers that might disadvantage individuals within the organisation means more employees will benefit. Our journeys are unique. Some employees will want to disclose a diagnosis, some will not have had the opportunity to access a diagnosis, and some might not even know there might be a better way to work.  
 
Individuals may not feel disabled or even want to have a label identifying any difference – but we know that specific environments can be disabling. This is the best place for organisations committed to change to start. Systemic change means that the organisation seeks to reduce disabling factors, addressing any internal barriers that prevent great performance, even when their staff have not disclosed them. 
 
When we play to our strengths, it’s incredible what we can achieve. The business benefits, certainly, and the employee who can flourish is happier in their career, less likely to leave, take time off sick and be much more productive, as a valued member of the team. That seems like a win-win and is the best outcome of all.
 
Jacqui Wallis is CEO of Genius Within

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