Learn more about neurodiversity, the benefits for organisations, and how to support neurodivergent people to be comfortable and successful at work
Date: 03:09:19 | Duration: 00:24:56
Neurodiversity refers to the fact that all our brains function differently. In the workplace it’s an essential area of diversity and inclusion that refers to alternative thinking styles, including autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia. Without an appreciation of neurodiverse conditions and considering how individuals can be enabled to perform at their best at work, employers will miss out on the sought-after skills of a large talent pool and potentially neglect a significant proportion of their customer base.
In this episode, Margaret Malpas, Vice President of the British Dyslexia Association, and the CIPD’s Diversity and Inclusion Adviser, Dr Jill Miller, explain why it’s so important for employers to understand neurodiversity. They also share ideas on how to create a neurodiversity-friendly workplace where people with alternative thinking styles can thrive. Kirsty Wilson, Lead International Job Coach at Auticon, an IT consultancy that exclusively hires adults on the autism spectrum, gives insights and practical examples of how to create an inclusive environment where people can fully use their talents.
View the full podcast transcript
Philippa Lamb: Hello and welcome to the podcast. Today we’re talking about neurodiversity and neurodivergence. What exactly are they and why is neurodiversity something all organisations should be working to achieve? I have three experts in the field with me: Dr Jill Miller, Public Policy Adviser Diversity and Inclusion here at the CIPD; Kirsty Wilson, Lead International Job Coach at Auticon and Margaret Malpas, Vice President of the British Dyslexia Association. Thanks for coming in everyone.
Shall we kick off with the obvious question. What is neurodiversity? Kirsty.
Kirsty Wilson: So neurodiversity is the spectrum that human beings think differently. But within that umbrella of neurodiversity there are a lot of conditions that we know about like autism, ADD, ADHD, and within those conditions there are more prominent traits of alternative thinking.
PL: Okay. So this plays into how people think, communicate, organise themselves, everything?
KW: Everything. The way that they think, the way they approach problems, the way they approach their everyday life and routines, their social skills and a lot of the things that someone that doesn’t have one of these conditions just take completely for granted; for someone that's got one of those conditions, it would be a little bit more challenging.
PL: So in terms of the workplace, why then is it vital for employers to understand and appreciate it?
Margaret Malpas: Because if you do not understand the people that are working for you, how can you possibly get the best out of them? There have been many, many billions of pounds spent on management development training which is completely redundant if we actually don't understand the people who are working for us. So it’s crucial.
Jill Miller: I think when we talk about neurodiversity, people are literally thinking differently, so why would you not want a range of perspective and ideas. But I think what happens in the workplace often is that we’re not really embracing neurodiversity and that's something that we really want to encourage employers to do.
PL: Shall we talk a bit about language and labels because functional labels can be very tricky?
MM: I think there are two issues about labels. I think the first is that they are very often useful to an individual who has struggled with not understanding why they think the way they do, why they act the way they do.
MM: On the other hand, it is fairly critical that that label is accurate because that will often lead to the solutions, to coping strategies for them. So obviously if we get the label wrong then they may not necessarily get the help they need.
PL: But I guess there's a danger in negativity isn't there because we talk about these things in terms of disorders.
MM: Yes. I personally obviously do not like that particular terminology but it used to be used. And I think it’s very often produced when people have conditions that have medical treatments. But we’re not talking about medical treatments in the main with these conditions, we’re talking about people who just process information differently and so it’s much more helpful to think about ‘difference’ than ‘conditions’.
PL: Okay. Well since this field, I think, will be new to everyone, can we clear up some of the terminology?
KW: I was going to say even within the communities I think labels is quite a controversial topic, and I mean the communities of those people that have a condition. So for autism for example, some people would say that it’s a disability because they are so challenged by their condition, but others would see it as a strength and it’s not a disability in any way whatsoever, it’s a condition. And finding the right terminology even within that community, they don't agree either. So it’s very important I think if you’re speaking to someone and engaging with someone that has a condition, you know how they like to call it so you’re not causing offence and you get to understand them and their approaches too.
PL: Yeah, because for HR professionals this is difficult territory, isn't it. They don't want to offend but they do want to understand. So I'm wondering could we go through some of the… I've done a bit of research on this and come up with a string of words including things like ‘neurodivergent’. Shall we start with that one, what exactly does that mean?
MM: It means that you diverge from what we consider to be the neurotypical way of thinking, it just means there is a divergence, it’s a change.
PL: So the general run of people might be ‘neurotypicals’? Would that be a word we’d use?
KW: At Auticon we tend to not even use the word neurotypical because that then denotes there is a typical, there is a norm, there is a normal. And we hire people that are autistic so if we use the word neurotypical we’re basically saying to them, everyone that's working with us that isn't autistic is normal, and maybe you’re not, which is absolutely not the case. And when you’re thinking about the concept of neurodiversity being each individual person, whether they have a condition or not, thinks differently, that word doesn’t really make sense. So there isn't a catch-all phrase I don't think that's fair.
PL: Kirsty, you obviously have a lot of experience in this area. Do you want to tell us a bit about your organisation?
KW: Sure, so Auticon is an IT consultancy first and foremost, but our expertise is that we only hire IT consultants that are autistic. So when they apply for us we just have three criteria: that they do have an autism diagnosis; they have a STEM degree because they’ll be working in IT; and they have at least one year’s work experience, but that one year’s work experience doesn’t even have to be within IT. And we hire them and we pay them a full-time salary and then we place them into IT projects and tech projects for really large banks, large medical organisations, through to SMEs. And then they work within that client organisation doing an IT project, using their skills, using their strengths and capabilities, and they have support to help them in the workplace and navigate that traditional workplace at the same time.
PL: So that raises a whole load of issues I want to talk about and I think the first one is management because there are some differences there and some things to know. So I'm presuming, Jill, this is an area where we’ve seen problems?
JM: I think where problems can start is really a lack of awareness or understanding about neurodiversity to start with and I think it’s really important, especially with line managers and other people who are recruiting into an organisation to start with, to give people some training, some basic understanding. And that's, I suppose, primarily and foremost so that we’re not screening out really talented people who are coming for a job at our organisation who may have the skills and capabilities that we really want, but for some reason in the hiring process they’re not making it through to a job role.
KW: Maybe even before that as well and we speak to organisations about if you've put on a job spec that you need five years’ experience, for someone that's autistic, they might have four and a half years and they’re incredible, but they won't apply. So you don't even see that talent but then you’re in an interview process speaking to someone with three years that can just persuade you really well that they can do the job.
JM: Yes, so I think that's a really good point because I think job descriptions just of what people read about the job to start with is so critical. Often I think the tendency is to write a really long wish list of wanting to recruit a generalist who could be good at everything, in which case if somebody with a deep level expertise that we really want reads that they might screen themselves out because they can't tick every box. So one of the recommendations that we would make was can you really think carefully about a job description? What are the core skills there? And even separate it into things like we must have, those skills you must have and those skills that are nice to have.
PL: And what about interviewing?
JM: I think interviews can traditionally be a test of how quickly you can recall things and also of social interaction. And I think when we’re thinking about any kind of screening or recruitment processes, people who are hiring need to be aware of neurodiversity to be able to take a moment of pause and reconsider their perhaps own preconceptions or consider what’s necessary for the role. The example I’ll give here is if somebody maybe finds it difficult to keep eye contact, to ensure that if they have got the skills required that they’re not screened out for something that might be completely irrelevant to the job role.
MM: One of the things that we find with dyslexia is that people think it’s an issue to do with spelling and reading and it’s not. Many, many dyslexics have problems with working memory and when you’re in a stressed situation, which interviews are, then very often individuals’ coping strategies go kaput. So one of the things we encourage is to make sure that questions are asked in the same order that people are given them, perhaps an hour in advance and so on. And it is interesting for employers because there’s case law here over this. So in fact if employers don't abide with this kind of thing, they are actually breaking the law and I think many of them just don't realise this, and they’re not trying to be difficult but they’re just unaware of it.
KW: I think the point you made there - of giving the questions in advance. I would say more than one hour even. But there's a tendency to assume that if you give them the questions in advance then they can plan too much and you won't really be able to find out how well they are at doing the job.
PL: So unfair advantage?
KW: Yeah exactly, but really that isn't the case because ultimately you should be able to have a conversation with someone to learn more about their experiences and how they can apply that to the job, not to catch them out in something.
MM: And of course interviews are one of the worst ways of recruiting, it has the least consistency to actually what happens subsequently.
PL: Yeah, lots of data on that.
MM: Absolutely. So one of the things we really stress actually is providing a work sample test, let the individual try out a piece of the work. You will see whether they can do it and also they can self-select about whether they want to do it or not because many, many neurodiverse people are actually very well aware of their own profile, their own strengths and their own challenges and can choose therefore whether this job’s going to suit them or it isn't going to, and recruitment should always be a matching process from both sides. I had a really interesting experience with Hampshire Police. Hampshire Police are probably the most advanced in dealing with candidates with dyslexia and related conditions in the UK. And I first met Peter Phillips who is their expert in this area probably about 10 or 12 years ago when I was running an awareness course for Hampshire Police about dyslexia because they discovered that a lot of their recruits were actually having difficulty on their training programme and had not disclosed that they were dyslexic. Well it’s been really interesting to see the travel with that organisation, because initially they were completely innocent of what these conditions might be and they were doing all those sort of things - writing complicated job descriptions and not necessarily encouraging recruitment from people who might be on the spectrum. Now they have screening in place for all their recruits – it’s voluntary, obviously, but they say over the last five years they’ve helped 150 police officers and they’ve actually been able to calibrate what that has meant to victims of crime because those individuals, as trained police officers, are very often very empathetic and they have found that this has had a serious business impact.
PL: It’s a great example and you make a really good point. It’s like all these diversity and inclusion conversations, it’s not a ‘nice to have’, it’s good business sense, isn't it. You talked about reasonable adjustments and that’s the thing that I think is a barrier, isn't it, for a lot of HR professionals. They imagine that there are going to be a lot of very complex and very expensive adjustments to make if they go down this road. What’s the reality on the ground?
KW: I think it’s, again, like we mentioned earlier, understanding that person and what they need but you don't need to change the entire organisation but just make sure there are options there for that person. So for example if you have an office where lots of the meeting rooms are glass all the way around, are there blinds there so if someone there is in the room that has autism and everyone walking past is really distracting and they can't concentrate on what you’re saying, they can just pull down the blinds and then they’re focusing. But in reality any adjustment that we provide as a suggestion for our consultants to other companies and clients, they’re so minimal, they’re really small but they make a massive difference to someone’s every day.
PL: Yeah. I pulled some data, I think it was your data, Jill, about the US Job Accommodation Network - they did a survey. 59% of common adjustment types cost nothing, which is a really good thing to know isn't it because that's not the perception.
JM: Yeah. I think most reasonable adjustments are likely to be low cost and often they’re universal and by universal adjustments we mean that they can benefit a huge range of people, whether you’re neurodivergent or not, and I think, as you say Kirsty, that one of the real keys there is to understand what’s important for that individual and then to be creating that culture where anybody in the organisation can request a reasonable adjustment or a workplace adjustment. And I think that's really important because if someone hasn’t disclosed a condition, and they might not want to, they can still request an adjustment then that’ll help them perform at their best when they’re at work.
KW: That's true actually. There’s a bigger picture there of accepting when someone’s within the team, for example that they’re autistic or they have a condition or even if you don't know they have, if they’re requesting adjustments, that's just a normal thing, that you’re allowed to do that. And a lot of our consultants that are still getting used to their autism and how it impacts them, they’re really fearful to ask other clients for adjustments because they don't want to stand out and they don't want to be shown as someone different that needs all these adjustments that somebody else might not.
PL: Thinking about people with these conditions, they bring talents and capacities to an organisation that other people don't, so it’s about managing talent isn't it?
MM: Well, to an extent. Because there is certainly the case, and I've written a book about it, about the creative talents of people who are dyslexic and so on. On the other hand, this is a spectrum disorder and many people are concerned that you can have someone who is just good at their job but not super talented, and then if we raise that expectation, this is also about talent management, those who are more seriously affected have too high an expectation made of them.
MM: So we have to be a little careful, and I think it’s just going back to what we said at the beginning which is you've got to know the person, you've got to understand what their strengths are, what perhaps some of their challenges are, they may be very minor or they may not be, depending on the extent to which they’re affected.
PL: How do you handle that Kirsty?
KW: The talent management?
PL: Yeah because obviously you've got a much bigger pool of people happily identifying as in this cohort than most other organisations.
KW: Yeah. So everybody that we place into a project that's matched to their skillset completely, so it’s all about using their strengths and knowing what their strengths are, maybe their IT strengths in particular, but also their cognitive strengths and areas that just come hand in hand with their condition. And when they are placed we’re keeping track of that, alongside their line manager in house at Auticon, but also their line manager in a client project, because there are certain things, or certain situations, where they’re doing their job but they’re bored, they’re really bored because they’re unchallenged and quite often sometimes they’re put into a client project and people - they’re still a little bit wary, they’re still a little bit scared, so they’re giving them working thinking ‘they’re autistic and they might not be able to do this’, and that is not the case, they can do often quite a lot more than someone that isn't autistic. So the talent management sometimes has the flipside whereas I think most of the time we assume that's to help somebody that maybe isn't performing, but to help managers actually ensure that they have the work that can help them perform at their best and more so than others.
PL: Training for line managers Jill?
JM: Yeah. I think training for line managers is really, really important. It’s something that we’ve actually done at CIPD as well ourselves. We’ve done training for our line managers and people who are involved in hiring but then broadened that out to all employees who could come along to lunch and learn sessions.
PL: Now Margaret. I think you delivered some of that training for the CIPD didn’t you?
PL: What did it involve?
MM: Very early on actually, what we did was to provide an e-learning programme from the British Dyslexia Association, so that employers could start to look at it. And it was used with recruiting staff and with managers at the CIPD.
PL: So, Kirsty, Auticon, I'm interested in your clients. So do your clients come to you specifically because they want to play into this, it’s important to them. Or do they come to you because you’re the best?
KW: The best, obviously! They come for an IT consultant first. Quite often what we’ve found about clients - they have a skills gap and then they're hearing a lot about neurodiversity and autistic IT consultants and the benefits that they have and because we exclusively hire people that are autistic and IT consultants, that's why they come to us because what they actually say is they’re hearing all these good things and they have no idea where to find the people and find the talent. So they come directly to us. And when they do and when someone goes on board related to that training and topic, we always give a 90 minute training session and to the team before we allow our consultant to go in there, so that we have the chance to give the training, raise awareness and correct all of the horrible misconceptions that are quite often there.
PL: And have you had bad experiences?
KW: No, none.
PL: Is that right?
KW: Yeah, nothing at all.
PL: So you haven’t had clients struggle with…?
KW: There have been challenges, but every single consultant that we hire comes with a coach, so when they join us they have a dedicated job coach to support them. But the clients get that coach basically as well because whenever anything comes up, maybe they’re a little bit unsure about how to communicate, or maybe there is a challenge with work pace, for example, or performance, they come to the coach and the in-house line manager at Auticon to ask for advice and then we sort it out with them.
PL: As Kirsty says, people don't know where to go to recruit people with these particular talents and abilities, even if they directly want to recruit them. So how do you, as an HR professional, set about making your organisation very open to that so that I imagine people will come to you? Because we talked about this, Jill, in the diversity inclusion arena and all sorts of other things, LGBTQ and BAME issues and all sorts. How do you actually make yourself as an organisation appealing in a genuine way, in the sense that you’re going to deliver on your promises?
JM: I think there's some really subtle things you can do that actually can speak volumes. One of the things I'm thinking of is on your job adverts, just like many organisations now are happy to talk flexible working, why not put ‘Happy to talk workplace adjustments,’ or ‘reasonable adjustments’, whichever is most suitable.
PL: Yeah, and has anyone ever seen that on an ad? I don't think I have?
PL: Okay, good thought.
JM: But also I think it’s making the actual working experience for people live your values. So if you really want to be an inclusive organisation, you have to make sure that that is what you’re breeding internally. You need to make sure that people are aware of neurodiversity, you need to look at your people practices, you need to look at the whole employee lifecycle to make sure that you’re not screening people out.
PL: Other thoughts on becoming a destination employer?
MM: I think one of things we’ve found that’s been really helpful has been having internal networks in organisations. So you know like you get a women’s network, you get a black and ethnic minorities network, in fact there were no dyslexic networks until about 12 years ago and the British Dyslexia Association has really pushed on this and has provided a guide for how to set up internal networks, a guide for mentoring, all of which are free by the way, so downloadable from the website.
PL: Though presumably, Kirsty, networks don't work for everyone?
KW: Yeah, for people that are autistic they probably wouldn’t go. But I think knowing that something, or more so, someone, is there is quite crucial. That's why I think a lot of the time challenges are quite low when we are placing people because they have the support of a job coach. If there was nobody, they would be trying to navigate it and not really, unsure of what’s going on, probably get it wrong and make mistakes. But when they’ve got that person they can trust and speak to, whether that's a coach, a mentor, a line manager in particular, that works really well.
PL: So we’ve talked about making reasonable adjustments, people working easily within ordinary office environments, not necessarily places like the wonderful Auticon where it’s all set up for exactly this purpose, but mainstream organisations and I know, Margaret, you've got an issue that's popping up a lot that it’s a problem?
MM: Yes, it’s about being able to have assistive software on the general system for an organisation, their general platform. And the problem seems to be about making sure that that system is safe. So they're concerned about viruses being introduced, or something similar to this.
MM: Absolutely understandably, but I think it’s a challenge at the moment that we’re seeing quite a lot of. And it’s quite interesting because if you take the most secure organisation, GCHQ, then they have a long history of employing individuals with dyslexia because of some of their abilities, in some cases to visualise in 3D, and also of autistic individuals because of their attention to detail, and they have managed it. So there must be solutions to this. But we know it’s something that IT departments who perhaps are less aware of neurodiversity are actually throwing up and saying, no you can't use your assistive software here because it may introduce a risk into our IT structures.
PL: Interesting. We need to wrap this up but before we do, I just want to ask you all - this is new territory for a lot of people, even for HR practitioners. It seems to me that awareness is on the rise and I've come across some great examples, certainly in Jill’s research work. Do you have others that you’d like to share?
MM: The accounting companies have done quite well, Ernst & Young, KPMG and so on, but mainly relating to their accountancy trainees who are going to do exams and we’ve worked extensively with professional exam bodies to make sure reasonable adjustments are put into place. The other interesting area is trade unions. Trade unions are doing a lot of work. Prospect Trade Union, for example, which deals with white collar workers, has put neurodiversity in the forefront of its strategy for the whole of the trade union. TSSA which deals with Crossrail and so on, are very well informed and are doing good work in that area. So there's some really good examples out there of what to do.
PL: I came across a lovely one, in Florida, Rising Tide? I think I found it in the CIPD’s data on this somewhere, a carwash brand in the States that primarily hires autistic people, they’ve got about 80 I think now, and that seems to be going extremely well for them and they are radically changing their whole way of hiring off the back of the experience, all the things we’ve been talking about I think. So it’s coming isn't it, but there's not that many examples right now.
JM: I saw a great example on the BBC website and I think the example takes the conversation past just your employees or your job applicants to looking at customers or clients as well. I was looking at their media city tours and they have a fabulous video on there which gives you an insight into all the sounds, the sights and the experience you'll have when you go on the tour and it’s interactive so you can click on the sound link to see, for example, what it’s going to be like when you enter the carpark before you even get to reception for the tour.
PL: That is sophisticated.
JM: Yes, yes and I think that was a really powerful thing for me to think actually we need to think about our customers as well, because if we’re thinking about a significant proportion of the population who are neurodivergent, it makes clear business sense, as well as the right thing to do, to be making our workplaces neurodiverse friendly. PL: So more information for people who are listening to this and would like to find out more. Jill, there must be stuff on the CIPD site?
JM: Yes, well at CIPD we worked with Optimise to produce a guide for people managers and for HR managers on neurodiversity at work and it has two main things, aims of the guide. The first is to increase awareness and understanding and so it’s for people who are very new to the area. But also it provides some practical examples of things that you might like to do as an employer to make your organisation more neurodiversity friendly.
PL: Thank you everyone, it was a really great discussion: Dr Jill Miller, Kirsty Wilson and Margaret Malpas. Thanks for listening and join us again next month.