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On the question of diversity

Just because an individual is classed as being neurodivergent or on the autistic spectrum doesn’t mean that they should be overlooked during the recruitment process

01 October 2020, at 8:40am

Take a straw poll on the high street and ask passers-by if they’ve heard of the term “neurodiversity” – it’ll be a safe bet that they haven’t.

Neurodiversity is a catch-all term which refers to the hidden differences of the brain such as dyslexia and dyscalculia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder and the autism spectrum. Helen Mitchell, press officer at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), is more direct in her description. She says that neurodiversity “is a relatively new term and it refers to the different ways the brain can work and interpret information, highlighting that people naturally think about things differently”.

The difference is more widespread than was previously thought. Tom Neil, Acas senior adviser, reckons that “a significant minority of society, often estimated at around 1 in 7 people, could be neurodivergent. And according to a November 2018 Chartered Institute for IT article, 'The rise of neurodiversity networks - and why it’s a good thing', neurodiversity affects around 15 per cent of the population with dyslexia taking up two-thirds of that number.

No matter the rate, Tom says that “employers should never assume that a team member is neurodivergent or take it upon themselves to diagnose an employee”. In fact, he recommends that employers should take steps to “make their workplace more inclusive so that it better meets the needs of all staff, whether they choose to disclose a condition or not”.

As it affects the workplace

How employers react to neurodivergence is very important to the acceptance of those individuals with associated conditions.

According to Emma Kearns, Head of Enterprise and Employment at the National Autistic Society, the term doesn’t just refer to people who think differently, “it also involves appreciating the benefits this can offer”. She adds that while “it could include people who are autistic, or with dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD or a number of different neurodevelopmental conditions… some people may have more than one condition”.

From a legal perspective, Helen Mitchell warns that “being neurodivergent may amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. This means organisations have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace, which could be removing barriers or providing extra support for a disabled worker or job applicant.”

On this Emma warns that “a failure to make reasonable adjustments counts as unlawful discrimination and could leave the employer open to a discrimination claim from the individual”.

But while some may be prejudiced against those with any form of disability – a discriminatory act which is generally illegal – Emma thinks that “those with autism have a huge amount to offer employers and many are desperate to find a job that reflects their talent and interests”.

And it appears that a growing number of employers are actively taking on people with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD and other cognitive differences. In the UK, the BBC reported in January 2019 that Universal Music UK, insurer Direct Line and even the government’s listening station GCHQ are now actively hiring the neurodiverse.

However, National Autistic Society research from 2016 – the Autism Employment Gap Report – suggests that the number of autistic adults in full-time paid work is still very low, partly due to employers' lingering misconceptions around what autism is and the type of jobs autistic people can do. As Emma explains, “Many employers say that they don't know how to support autistic people and are worried about getting this wrong.”

The reality is that when an employee has a neurodivergent condition, “an employer only has to make adjustments where they are aware – or should reasonably be aware – that the individual has a disability,” says Helen. And this goes to the nub of the matter because until an employer is alerted to an employer’s condition, they need do nothing.

Characteristics of the neurodivergent

But just as people with conditions vary in their needs, so, as Emma Kearns outlines, “each autistic person will have their own strengths and areas where they will need more support. However, when autistic people find the right role and are well supported, they may have [their own] strengths.” These include a logical or methodical approach to problem solving, an ability to focus intensely, being task oriented and persistent, possessing good accuracy and attention to detail as well as good memory, reliability, integrity, a strong sense of justice, strong visual skills and strong skills and knowledge in specific areas of interest.

Another way to look at the positivity that flows from employing the neurodivergent is that they deploy what is effectively an extra set of eyes and different thought processes.

The best roles for the neurodivergent

What roles are best suited to the neurodivergent is a natural point to consider. The problem is that there’s a depth of misunderstanding of the subject because everyone on the spectrum is different. In other words, just as anyone not on the spectrum can perform any job, subject to the right skills of course, so can those in the neurodivergent world – just differently.

As an aside, Emma adds that there’s also a misconception that some autistic people have almost superhuman abilities, which, she says, is most frequently not the case.

Reasonable adjustments

As to what the most effective adjustments are, Emma notes that an awareness and understanding of autism among managers and colleagues is best, “including what it’s like to be autistic in the workplace and the adjustments and strategies that can help”. She says that creating a supportive and inclusive culture is key.
A reasonable adjustment means adapting the working environment to enable an employee to be able to perform their job comfortably, to the best of their abilities. It’s about reducing barriers to allow access and inclusion.

With a knowledge of the law, Helen details that adjust-ments can vary depending on the individual’s condition and various factors which influence whether a particular adjustment is considered reasonable. She says that “the test of what is reasonable is ultimately objective and so employers could consider how effective the change will be in avoiding the disadvantage the disabled worker would otherwise experience, its practicality and cost, the organisation’s resources and size, and the availability of any financial support".

Moving to the practical, Emma advises that “adjustments don’t necessarily need to be expensive and can vary from making physical changes to the workplace to introducing equipment/assistive technology or adapting work processes".

Noting the same, Tom Neil also points to minor adjustments when he says that “often small, simple changes to working arrangements or responsibilities will be all that is required to enable an employee to perform at their best”. He gives the example of allocating staff a workspace away from noisy areas, speech-to-text software or the provision of dual screens to increase the visible working space.

On top of this Emma says that the National Autistic Society endorses assistive technologies that “can be programmed with helpful processes, reminders, timetables, anxiety tracking and management strategies, which can assist the user if they need help”. She says that this form of technology links the person with their manager and support network and provides an overview of how the person is progressing – “it can be really effective”.

Other things Emma also recommends management consider include reducing the level of lighting if it’s too bright or noise cancelling headphones if the sounds of the workplace are distracting – “small things like this can make all the difference for better work performance”.

But changes to work processes could benefit the neurodivergent including changing how colleagues communicate with autistic colleagues. Here Emma offers common sense advice: “Go for clarity, for instance by providing agendas ahead of meetings or by following up face-to-face meetings with an email outlining the agreed actions points and giving a clear timeframe for these to be completed.” As with many adjustments, these changes can help other employees too.

In conclusion

As we gain a greater understanding of human nature, we gain an insight into the various traits and skills that exist in people. Just because an individual is classed as being neurodivergent or on the autistic spectrum doesn’t mean that they should be overlooked during the recruitment process. With a multitude of skills and abilities that non-neurodivergent people don’t possess, employers that cannot see the value in hiring the neurodivergent really are missing out.

AUTISM IN THE PROFESSION

While there are some examples of practices making their premises autism friendly, there seems to be little in terms of proactive recruitment of those with neurodiverse conditions.

Back in 2017, Acorn House Veterinary Hospital in Brickhill worked with the National Autistic Society (NAS) under its Autism Hour campaign where shops and service providers were asked to take 60 minutes to give those with autism a break from information overload. During the event, the practice dimmed the lights, reduced noise in the waiting room, offered longer consultation slots and took on additional reception staff to provide support.

More recently, in 2019, Vets4Pets Alsager received the Autism Friendly Award, which recognises businesses that have made themselves more accessible to people with autism and their families. To win the award, the practice had to offer customer information, staff awareness, physical environment, promote understanding and the customer experience, feedback and consultation.