How and why to embrace neurodiversity in the workforce

Written by
Sarah Wild

06 Nov 2019

06 Nov 2019 • by Sarah Wild

The success of a unique IT consultancy demonstrates the value of neurodiversity and how enabling individuals to thrive can help employers get the best out of their whole workforce.

Embracing difference is not simply a matter of altruism, as business is beginning to learn. Diversity of thought, ideas and ways of working “helps people to grow and learn, tackles under-utilisation of skills by enabling people to reach their full potential, improves decision making, boosts engagement and innovation, and enables business to better meet the needs of a diverse customer base,” according to the CIPD.

Or as 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg puts it: “Given the right circumstances, being different is a superpower” – a competitive edge that any modern organisation should want to tap into.

Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Thunberg explains that her autism makes her view the world in stark terms. “It makes me see things from outside the box,” she told journalist Nick Robinson, when interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme. “I don’t easily fall for lies, I can see through things. If I would’ve been like everyone else, I wouldn’t have started this school strike, for instance.”

However, neurodiversity is a poorly understood element of diversity and one from which many organisations shy away. Despite the unique skills and qualities people with conditions such as autism, dyslexia and ADHD offer employers, firms are slow to recognise these ‘mental deficits’ as potential strengths, and unsure how to embed neurodivergent employees into teams.

Reversing this trend is auticon, an international social enterprise which exclusively employs adults on the autism spectrum as IT consultants. It was founded in Germany in November 2011 by Dirk Müller-Remus (expanding into the UK and France in early 2016, followed by Switzerland, the US, Italy and Canada in 2017 and 2018) and has insights and lessons for any organisation wishing to support workforce diversity and inclusion (D&I) – including helping neurotypical employees to thrive.

Untapped skills and abilities

UK CEO Ray Coyle outlines the social problem underpinning auticon’s mission: “We have 700,000 autistic people in the UK and only 16% in fulltime employment – compared with about 78% for the population as a whole and 48% for disabled people,” he says. “Even among the disabled community, autistic people find it very difficult to access work.”

However, he also emphasises the immense untapped value of this demographic’s skills and abilities, stressing that while there are moral reasons for addressing inequalities, there are business reasons beyond these. Autism affects a person’s cognition, perception, emotions and behaviours, but autistic adults of ten have extraordinary abilities and intense interest in IT, physics, mathematics and technology – areas of expertise in which there are crucial skills gaps.

“We did a lot of research with the University of Berlin and others in the UK and know that you’re more likely to find very high levels of attention to detail, pattern recognition, sustained concentration, error detection and logical analysis in the autistic community,” he says.

“We’re not trying to pigeonhole autistic people or make sweeping generalisations; there are lots of people with autism who are wonderfully artistic and musical. But, because we are an IT consultancy, we’re looking for particular skills.”

Auticon’s model is to employ people with autism with the relevant skills on a permanent basis and match them with corporate organisations who have specific tech needs. High-profile clients include Allianz, Direct Line Group, Siemens and KPMG; Sir Richard Branson is one of auticon’s investors.

“We offer businesses a means of bringing autistic people into their workforce, on a fixed-term basis, to augment their teams,” says Coyle.

By taking the time to get to know each employee’s skills, interests and challenges, and carefully matching these with the right tasks and support mechanisms, auticon creates careers that allow autistic people to work to their full potential. Meanwhile, clients receive highquality work, lateral and unbiased thinking, and access to people with the specialist STEM skills they urgently require. It’s a win-win for people with autism, for businesses – and wider society, through the acceptance of cognitive and neurological diversity.

Focusing on capability

Of course, getting it right involves a range of challenges, which lie in the sourcing, onboarding, matching and support of auticon’s people; however, out of these come a wealth of transferable lessons around embracing individuality at work.

Adopting the perspective of the autistic candidate, the company is not prescriptive about job descriptions or particularly interested in CVs, which represent “history rather than capability”.

Coyle explains: “We tell our candidates ‘these are the skills we’re looking for; if this sounds like you, please apply’. We also ask people to tell us what technical skills and experience they’ve got; we don’t ask for ‘three years of experience in this or that’. Many people on the spectrum take things literally. If you say, ‘we need three years’ experience’, people with two-and-a-half years won’t apply.

“And when people come in, we don’t interview consultants – ever! An interview is a high-pressure, unstructured test of interaction skills; totally irrelevant to the skills we’re looking for. Instead, we bring in candidates for a skills assessment and test them for exactly those cognitive skills we said we were looking for; no more, no less.”

Tests are devised by a third-party company and results are shared fully with candidates. “They get the same results we get, at the same time,” explains Coyle. “It’s an open process. If candidates have the tech skills we’re looking for and the cognitive skills, we’ll employ them.”

Valuable lessons

When it comes to matching consultants to corporate clients, he believes that “it’s easier for us than for most businesses because, through our preparatory work, we get a really good understanding of the consultants’ capabilities”.

The core challenge lies in educating clients who start off with a traditional “I want someone with three years’ experience” approach.

“Once clients understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, they tend to be very responsive,” says Coyle. “If we go back and ask, ‘are you looking for someone who’s very detail focused or for a creative problem solver’, they may not have put it in the job description, but they will know. That enables us to get a better match. We’re trying to put in someone who will deliver the work in the way the project manager wants it delivered.”

While he admits “it can take a bit more communication around that to get it right” he feels “there is an awful lot of value in that. I think there is very little we do that wouldn’t be a valuable lesson for anyone dealing with neurotypical people,” he adds.

Once auticon’s consultants are matched with clients, an expert conducts a workplace assessment looking at any adjustments that could be made in order to “set up the project for success”.

Coyle is keen to emphasise that this isn’t about sending in an expert and saying, “I can make this workplace autism friendly, generically”. Instead, it involves using their detailed understanding of their individual consultant’s needs and suggesting minor changes to the physical and communications environment that will enable the consultant to perform better.

For people with autism, adjustments range from tweaking desk allocation to providing noise cancellation headphones or allowing consultants to submit updates via Slack rather than face-to-face. “It’s about reducing the anxieties or difficulties you put people through in order to free up their cognitive capacity to do the job you’re paying them for; it’s commercially justifiable,” says Coyle.

“It’s a good approach for anyone bringing human resources into a business,” he continues. “To get the most out of people, take the time to get to know and understand them as individuals, give them the chance to say, ‘I will perform better if we do this’, then make those adjustments.”

He acknowledges the “inherent conflict between wanting to treat people as individuals and wanting to treat people equally” but concludes, “we’re going to have to deal with it as best we can if we want to create a truly diverse workplace.”

Different elements of diversity have the power to catalyse change within organisations, he believes. “If you have a more neurodiverse workforce, it challenges and improves people’s approach to communication, management and teamwork. For example, if a team member requires concise, unambiguous instructions and task allocation, people will start to pay more attention to their communication generally.

“There are a lot of ancillary benefits to bringing neurodiversity into a team and you will raise the game for the entire team,” he argues. “Also, if you have autistic people doing what they do best, you also free up neurotypical people to do what they do best. It’s a winwin, provided you approach it in an open and inclusive manner, where people are confident to speak out about where they have strengths and shortcomings.”

Social purpose

Would he advise organisations to begin recruiting neurodiverse people directly into their teams? “I think this can be perceived as difficult,” he says, highlighting concern around the potential to do harm to individuals with autism and to undermine future messaging around neurodiversity, where implementation is flawed.

“That’s why we set up auticon as we did. It’s hard for us to make a big dent in the employment statistics, as a small business, but with our clients, we can make a difference. If we are step one (helping to drive knowledge and positive messages) and the catalyst for businesses to start building their own more neurodiverse workforces, that’s how we achieve our social purpose.”