What links Charles Darwin, Jerry Seinfeld, Emily Dickinson and Courtney Love? It sounds like the start of a highly improbable joke. But the answer – they have all been diagnosed to be, or are assumed to have been, on the autism spectrum – shouldn’t come as a surprise. A link between certain neurological conditions and high performance, whether in evolutionary theory or stand-up comedy, has long been acknowledged. And finally business is starting to use this information to its advantage.
‘Neurodiversity’ is beginning to enter the HR lexicon as an umbrella term to cover individuals with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and Asperger’s (a fuller list includes other conditions such as bipolar disorder, OCD and more). It’s estimated that around 10 per cent of the population is neurodivergent in some way, so employers that choose to ignore it could be missing out on talent.
What’s more, neglecting to think about how different types of thinking styles can work together, whether they have recognised conditions or not, means you may be actively encouraging ‘groupthink’ and failing to reflect the neurological make-up of broader society.
According to the National Autistic Society, only 16 per cent of adults with autism are in full-time paid employment in the UK, compared with 47 per cent of disabled people and 80 per cent of non-disabled people. The reasons behind this come back to the theories of ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’ that underpin our understanding of unconscious bias, according to Jan Hills, partner at consultancy Head Heart + Brain.
“If someone is different to us in any way we tend to put them in an ‘out group’ category – this means we’re less empathetic,” says Hills.
Nancy Doyle, managing director of Genius Within and a psychologist advising on the BBC documentary Employable Me, says: “Historically, neurodiversity has focused on the negatives – the things people can’t do.” Workplaces are typically built to support neurotypical people, she argues: we embrace open-plan environments, send emails rather than make calls, and demand generic qualifications that may end up having little relevance to the role.
“Strong spatial reasoning won’t get you an English GCSE, but it could make you a fantastic surgeon or mechanic; it will allow you to scope out problems in an abstract way and it may translate to above average skills in body language. We’ve decided that the only skills we care about are literacy, numeracy, concentration and eye contact,” she says. But the tide is turning as employers recognise they cannot afford to miss out on talent, and that employees with different thinking styles and approaches can help them innovate.
“This is beginning to take off because prominent companies are taking this really seriously… it’s kickstarted a positive conversation,” says Ed Thompson, CEO and founder of Uptimize, which delivers training on how to sensitively recruit and manage neurodiverse staff to clients including Microsoft, Google and JPMorgan.
“All individuals have their own strengths and challenges,” he adds. “A lot of the challenges that neurodivergent people face in the workplace are situational and can be avoided. Often, the issue is that managers and HR teams are subconsciously optimising for neurotypical people, such as in the way managers give feedback or instructions. Starting instead with the understanding that every individual thinks differently – and has their own preferences around things like social interaction and communication channels – is a platform for much more effective management, hiring processes and customer interactions.”
Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes, which looks at the history of autism, has also been impressed with the growth in interest in neurodiversity. “[Businesses are] moving on from the notion of employing people with cognitive disability as a form of charity, to realising that it can be good business,” he says. “They’re realising that they can think in ways neurotypical people can’t, can identify problems invisible to neurotypical employees and suggest solutions outside of the box.”
Enterprise software firm SAP has gone one step further, committing to a goal to have 1 per cent of its workforce made up of those on the autistic spectrum by 2020 – reflecting the percentage of the global population that is autistic. Its Autism at Work programme launched in 2013, and the company has transformed the way it recruits and trains staff to be as inclusive as possible. “We had to develop so many processes from scratch because we didn’t want to use standard HR processes,” says Stefanie Nennstiel, senior director of diversity and inclusion at SAP. “Someone with autism would not survive the traditional interview process, for example, so we had to be more creative.”
Interviews take more of a ‘gamified’ approach – applicants are asked to build a robot with Lego Mindstorms and are assessed on how they arrive at solutions and support others, rather than a daunting panel interview. SAP also runs summer camps for autistic students considering a career in technology where they can build business skills and develop trust in the company, helping them feel more comfortable to apply for a position. “Initially, we thought [autistic applicants] would be suitable for quality testing roles but, the more we learned, we realised there are no limitations – so now we have autistic recruits in sales, HR and finance,” adds Nennstiel.
What has helped SAP in this area is a partnership with Danish company Specialisterne (it translates as ‘the specialists’). It was founded by Thorkil Sonne after his autistic son struggled to succeed in the labour market. “I was a tech director at an IT company and needed people with particular skills, but autistic people just weren’t applying. So I decided that instead of making them behave like non-autistic people to fit into the workplace, why couldn’t we change the workplace?” he says.
The organisation’s aim is to provide meaningful and productive jobs for one million people with autism, and it shares best practice with a host of major employers including Microsoft, EY and JPMorgan. Sonne believes the changing world of work needs neurodiverse talent. “In the fourth industrial revolution, we’ll need people to be agile, innovative, resilient,” he says. “Innovation comes from different types of people – if you’re leaving out people who could add value, you’re not well prepared for a situation where new technologies and disruptive business models require you to innovate.”
According to Doyle: “The main benefit we hear about is that the inclusion of diverse thinking styles increases creativity and innovation within an organisation. Homogenous work teams fail to challenge the status quo and can become entrenched and inflexible.”
So how can employers ensure they have an environment where neurodiverse teams will thrive? Many of the adaptations made for those on the autistic spectrum can be of benefit to all employees, argues Margaret Malpas, joint chair of the British Dyslexia Association. “Often it’s simple things such as installing an extra monitor for someone who has to reconcile a lot of figures, or allowing employees whose concentration is disturbed by an open-plan office to wear earphones or face a wall. Not communicating everything over email, or not expecting neurodiverse employees to be able to prepare for a meeting in five minutes – these are things that can benefit everyone,” she says.
Hills says it’s equally important to challenge lazy thinking styles at work: “The way we express ourselves if we see someone as an outsider means we’re more likely to dismiss their ideas. We need to see how, if we slow down, take time to listen and think about how [neurodiverse individuals’] views might be helpful, this might throw up a different perspective.
“This is hard in a busy environment where we’re rewarded for getting things done on a deadline and people are used to us operating in a certain way.”
Consider, too, that not everyone who is neurodivergent will have a formal diagnosis, and, equally, not everyone who thinks differently has a recognised issue. Asif Sadiq, director of diversity and inclusion at EY, was only diagnosed with dyslexia four years ago, when he held a similar post in the City of London Police.
“Because I’d been dyslexic for so long, I’d developed lots of coping mechanisms anyway. When I joined EY, they looked at what my role would involve day to day and how that could be supported – my dyslexia wasn’t seen as a burden,” he says. He uses read-write software (which makes web and document text accessible) as well as a special pen that records an audio file of notes as they’re written down.
“My team know that if they want me to read something, not to make the background white or use certain fonts. They know I’d rather present things on one page and use diagrams instead,” he adds. “We understand that people think differently and we don’t want people who all think the same way. One of our directors even has ‘excuse the typos, I’m dyslexic’ in his email signature.”
Dr Jill Miller, diversity and inclusion adviser at the CIPD, says employers need to consider every element of the employee cycle when it comes to embracing neurodiversity – often, the focus is on adapting how we recruit. “As well as that, we need to think about internal progression,” she advises. “We’re quite stuck on expecting certain competencies from our leaders and managers; we have very traditional views of what a leader should be like.”
Working with relevant employee networks or focus groups can be useful, she says. “They can help to shape the people management approaches and identify the flaws in HR processes. Charities also have a wealth of information on specific conditions.”
Having a ‘neurodiversity strategy’ should not be a one-size-fits-all initiative either. “We need to ensure we don’t generalise about certain groups of people, such as assuming all autistic people dislike social interaction,” says Miller. Listening to people about their needs and how they like to operate is often the best strategy, argues Thompson.
“On a personal level, if someone discloses, you can talk about what would make them more comfortable. It’s about acknowledging differences in cognitive processing across a spectrum, not just how a ‘condition’ relates to work. Once you realise this, you see it in a new way.
“However, some people may not want to disclose, so good practice would be to consider reasonable adjustments from any applicant or employee; this could take performance from good to excellent.”
Embracing a workplace where different thinking styles can thrive certainly makes good business sense – Silberman argues that autistic people “made Silicon Valley happen”, while the Israeli defence force has an all-autistic division dedicated to examining satellite imagery.
Inclusivity needs to become paramount. “There’s anecdotal evidence that managers who are trained in supporting neurodiverse employees treat their teams more as individuals and are better people managers as a result,” says Miller. It’s time to awake this sleeping giant so everybody can flourish.
'My employer helped me find out what I'm good at'
Mollie Rolfe (pictured centre) was diagnosed with dyslexia in secondary school after discovering that she could perform very well in certain exams but poorly in those with multiple-choice questions. She is also slightly dyspraxic, which means she struggles with some aspects of coordination.
When she decided to go to university to pursue a business degree, she disclosed her dyslexia and received practical support and extra time in tests. She was nervous about doing the same when she applied for an internship with Enterprise Rent-A-Car, but has never looked back.
“In the assessment centre, my materials were printed on yellow paper [a white background can exacerbate visual stress] and the recruitment team constantly asked if everything was OK – and I was offered extra time,” says Rolfe. She was offered a position as a management trainee a few days later. Having just finished a 15-month placement, she hopes to return when she graduates.
Her day-to-day role involved a lot of reading as well as verbal and written communication, but colleagues were happy to proofread or adapt their communication styles to suit. Enterprise has a WhatsApp group for each region, and this short form of communication suited Rolfe well. Her managers agreed to let her send a short summary email at the end of each day rather than numerous longer communications. “Some days my brain doesn’t want to process anything, and on those days managers would give me things to do that required less brain focus, such as going out to our branch network or doing something outside,” she adds.
Rolfe has been asked to talk and blog about her dyslexia for the company’s disability network, which has also improved her confidence. “I used to be so shy. They’ve helped me to come out of myself and find out what I’m good at,” she says.
The CIPD and Uptimize will be publishing an employer guide to supporting a neurodiverse workforce this month.