Considering Neurodiversity

‘Neurodiversity’ is a relatively new and fluid definition for members of society with a neurological condition that includes, but is not limited to, Autism, Aspergers, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Tourettes.

As many as 1 in 3 people identify as being Neurodivergent. Yet it is not always understood, accepted or valued in the workplace and it’s about time that changed.

Different is good.

Last year I watched a BBC documentary called Employable Me. I was moved to hear the stories of people that struggled to get a paid job because of something they couldn’t control or change. Andy developed speech aphasia due to a stroke, Ryan has Tourette’s, Erica was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and Alan has high functioning autism.

In every case, they struggled to find work because employers were unable to see past a disability or neurological condition. Yet they all had something in common – they were more than capable of contributing and thriving in the right work environment, given the chance, and this was something they were all incredibly motivated to do. I remember thinking agency land was an ideal environment to embrace these divergent thinkers and that the advertising, marketing and media industries were missing a trick if they didn’t include their views and contributions.

It was this documentary that sparked my interest in this aspect of diversity and led to my attendance at the Diverse Minds 2.0 conference in March. A day filled with some of the most inspiring, emotional and humbling experiences, which truly opened my eyes to the shifts, small adjustments and adaptations that could make a difference not just to the neurodivergent employee, but to the organisation and industry as a whole.

I walked away with a few considerations relevant for inclusivity and diversity in business:

1. There is diversity within diversity

Emma Case started her talk with a caveat - ‘If you meet one person with ADHD, you’ve met one person with ADHD’. She was keen to point out that her experience is not necessarily representative of anyone else’s experience. One size doesn’t fit all.

This was something that speakers and panelists kept returning to. Neurodiversity is intersectional – across race, gender, mobility, age or sexual preference and in addition to this, there are variations of how that neurological difference may present itself, depending on the individual.

We can all do more to raise awareness, educate and inform about this part of the diversity debate, to build communities, break barriers, smash stereotypes and bring people together in support of having more ND individuals in the workplace.

2. Transparency and honesty are key

One of the themes that surfaced in many of the talks was around the benefits gained when both employees and employers are honest and transparent in the workplace and able to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work.

Several of the speakers who identified as neurodivergent placed value on being able to ‘come out’ and tell their colleagues and managers. In many cases, being open and feeling accepted regardless was an incredibly liberating experience. It was also said to be hugely beneficial for mental health and productivity, because if you stop wasting energy ‘faking normal’ or masking your true self then you can use your energy to focus, achieve and succeed instead.

Steve Hatch from Facebook was an advocate for being authentic, clear about your limitations and honest about mistakes: it’s OK to be vulnerable, to ask for help, to say what you need at whatever level. He cited a few examples of where his dyslexia resulted in some unfortunate misunderstandings on emails, but he can now rely on his team to proof and check important communications before he sends them out.

It was widely acknowledged however that employers must tread carefully. Encouraging people to disclose or seek a diagnosis can end up being more harmful and we should be sensitive to the differences and other variables that may exist within those diagnoses or experiences.

3. Challenge misconceptions, embrace difference

In her opening remarks, Judy Singer said that neurological ‘fringe dwellers’ previously faced stigma because they didn’t exhibit the personality traits or behaviours valued in society - sociable, friendly and lots of eye contact. Until relatively recently, many neurological conditions were considered a disadvantage, disability or defect.

There is now a movement of change and attitudes are more accommodating, but she talked about the need for us to continue to shift this perception and to recognise the advantages and positive differences that are on offer instead of focusing on the deficits.

We should have a lot more respect for the breakthrough ideas and technologies that originate from the neurodivergent community. As problem solvers, creatives and innovators in this industry, agencies should celebrate, accept and embrace neurodiversity to be inclusive and representative of the audience we seek to influence.

4. Greater flexibility and consideration

In reality, we are ALL diverse of mind and everyone thinks differently, so it may seem obvious to point out that when companies make modifications designed to support neurodivergent individuals, it will also be of benefit to the wider workforce.

Agony Autie, who spoke about her experiences with Autism, explained that the barriers in place for many autistic individuals are all ones which can be overcome with a little flexibility and adaptation. Things like structure, policy, attitudes, culture, the commute or office environment, are often what cause autistic individuals to overload, burn out and stim or self-harm. By understanding the triggers and supporting small changes, these behaviours can be avoided or minimised and result in a happier more engaged, loyal and productive employee.

In a workshop with Place with purpose, some of these practical adaptations were explored. Open plan, hot desking offices with lots of light, noise and people can cause quite a lot of anxiety and heighten stress. However, simple modifications to the office layout can make a huge difference; whether it’s creating a quiet area or building quiet pods (to reduce sensory exposure to noise or light), selecting the best colour scheme or textures (white walls are bad for dyslexia, muted palettes are best for autism) or helping build a sense of routine and predictability by allowing you to reserve the same desk / work area each day.

5. We need to fix the recruitment process

Several of the speakers identified issues with the selection of candidates, including parts of interviews that will automatically set up certain individuals to fail based on their neurodiversity. Whether it’s writing tests or lots of reading which puts dyslexic candidates at a disadvantage or culture-fit, personality-driven interviews which are more difficult for individuals with autism or Asperger’s – we need to consider the value of the candidates these processes are eliminating.

In a panel about rethinking recruitment, representatives challenged employers to start thinking about the skills and people you need across each team – rather than just working to fit a spot with a tick box of mandatory skills or education requirements. In an earlier talk, Helen Taylor spoke of Neurodivergent individuals having a different set of complementary skills that balance when combined with those of neurotypical individuals. So, if we think about recruitment in that framework, we can do a lot more to attract, retain and grow talent if we are flexible about what the ideal candidate could be.

At Great State we recognise some of these themes and whilst there is a long way to go to bring about real change in the industry, we are already starting to apply some of this thinking to our working lives and recruitment practises.