Neurodiversity in the workplace

Written by
Ralph Jones

19 Sep 2019

19 Sep 2019 • by Ralph Jones

This article originally appeared in Issue 3 of Catalyst Magazine

Neurodiversity is a relatively new term, increasingly used in talent strategy, referring to people with dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism and other neurological conditions. Still poorly understood, it was the theme of a recent roundtable for senior talent-acquisition and recruitment specialists in the world of banking.

Participants included special guest Ray Coyle, UK chief executive of Auticon, a unique, multinational IT consultancy and social enterprise, which exclusively employs adults with autism as IT consultants. He stressed that the UK faces a shortage of STEM skills in fast-growing areas such as data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Meanwhile, only 16% of the 700,000 people diagnosed with autism are in fulltime employment, despite many having talents vital to the STEM industry.

Autism, Coyle explained, is a life-long developmental condition for which there is no cure. The neurons in an autistic brain are visibly different. However, staff at Auticon resist the condition being framed as a disability. Many people with autism are exceptionally proficient in specific skills but below average in others.

Through work with the University of Berlin, Coyle learned that people with autism are often better at pattern recognition, attention to detail, sustained concentration and logical analysis than the general population – an understanding that inspired Auticon’s launch.

“It’s about getting everybody to do what they do best,” said Coyle. “People with autism will not be led by assumptions in the same way as neurotypical people are.” To recruit neurodivergent people, Coyle advises employers to start by identifying and publicising the positives of their business for this demographic. Applicants will be more likely to disclose their neurodiversity if they understand that their skills are welcomed – a crucial step if businesses are to make adjustments to their recruitment process.

“When people diagnosed with neurological conditions are applying to big, scary banks, there’s a temptation to keep their diagnosis to themselves,” he explained.

He added that “an employer should tell an autistic applicant what changes would be made to the recruitment process to accommodate his or her requirements.

“Just saying ‘our doors are open, come on in’ isn’t going to be enough. It’s multifaceted and more complex than that.”

Unfair disadvantage

The phrasing of job advertisements often deters neurodiverse people from applying. For example, someone with autism, being very literal, might not apply for a role simply because it specifies two years of Java experience, when they only have 23 months’ worth of experience.

Chairman of Auticon’s advisory board, Sir David Walker, added that interviews pose similar obstacles, since massaging the truth to impress an interviewer isn’t something that comes naturally to many neurodiverse people. If the role in question is never going to require this sort of skill, the process seems unnecessary and unfair.

Asked whether any companies have made progress in this area, Coyle explained that one company he works with removes details such as an applicant’s university from CVs, and has their interview answers evaluated by people who weren’t present in the interview room.

Meanwhile, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) employs around 300 people with autism because it needs staff with sustained concentration to work on large, unstructured data sets. When looking for Oxford and Cambridge graduates to employ, it advertised for applicants with “the Turing factor: brilliant and unemployable”.

Progression and promotion

If finding a suitable job can prove challenging for those who are neurodivergent, career progression can be just as difficult. In many companies, salary increases come with moving into management roles. However, managing people isn’t necessarily something that people with autism are comfortable doing.

In workplaces that make no adjustments for neurodiversity, progression can be all-but-impossible for staff with autism, Coyle stressed. For example, in the UK, anyone applying to work at a bank must be checked by the Disbarring and Disclosure Service (DBS), which prevents unsuitable people from working with vulnerable groups. But you cannot pass if you have been homeless at any point. This is something that applies to a significant minority of Auticon’s consultants. “It’s outrageous,” he said. “But it’s not even visible because the path from homelessness to banking is not a well-trodden one.”

One crucial element of Auticon’s work is negotiating workplace adjustments for each of their consultants when they go out to clients’ offices. This involves considering the physical and communications environment from the specific individual’s perspective. “You can’t make an office ‘autismfriendly’”, pointed out Coyle. “You need the individual involved to tell you what adjustments they need.”

In this regard, neurodiversity could act as a lever for positive change. For instance, people with autism struggle with lazy, vague or unclear communication. Line managers who reduce the ambiguity in their communication with autistic people could become better at communicating with everyone, as a result.

Employing interns with autism at Credit Suisse prompted staff to think about their own communication skills, attested the firm’s global head of recruitment Annabel Morris.

Changing perceptions

While much of the roundtable was focused on autism, David Mason, head of talent acquisition at Santander, highlighted the prevalence of dyslexia in the workforce, another example of neurodivergence.

He argued that modern businesses will need to embrace neuro and cognitive diversity of all kinds in order to succeed in the modern marketplace. There is a commercial risk in trying to hunt down the metaphorical unicorn – a perfect, probably mythical candidate. Coyle agreed, warning that when hiring managers cannot source ‘unicorns’, they tend to employ candidates in their own likeness, entrenching the impression that everyone looks and thinks the same.

Walker admitted that Auticon’s work can only “chip away” at attitudes. In order to change perceptions, the company requires high-level sponsors, while to make a real difference, more companies must embrace (and be seen to embrace) a neurodiverse workforce.

Coyle believes that such change will prove good for business, beneficial to society and positive for individuals, though he acknowledged the need to “be reasonable in the scale of our ambition. We’re not going to get from 16% to 78% in employment in a short period of time,” he admitted.

The ultimate aspiration is for businesses to wake up and recognise the value of a neurodiverse workforce and the individuals that contribute their unique perspectives.

While people with autism are thought to struggle with empathy, Coyle considers this a two-way street: autistic people struggle to empathise with neurotypical people, but the reverse is also true. “Each side has a problem with empathy,” he concluded.