Diversity in the workplace is much discussed. Often this public discourse relates to gender, ethnicity and physical disability. It’s rarer that the debate focuses on issues surrounding neurodiversity. Despite the fact that neurodivergent individuals can offer new ways of thinking to organisations looking for creative problem-solvers.

Different, not less

Neurodiversity relates to the way our brains process information. Australian social scientist Judy Singer coined the term in her 1998 honours thesis. It mapped out the emergence of a new category of disability that, until that point, had not been named.

Broadly speaking, the term takes in autism, attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and other neurological conditions. Proponents of neurodiversity, led most prominently by autistic adults, argue that while neurodivergent people are different, they are not less and that their rights should be given the same weight as those of so-called neurotypicals.

Recruiters are only now becoming more aware of the benefits neurodivergent people can bring to the workplace and the relatively minor accommodations needed to help them successfully navigate the recruitment process.

Many, for example, may fail at interview stage simply because they are reluctant to make eye contact or cannot get through psychometric or personality tests.

While data on the neurodiverse population is sparse, figures on autism and employment paint a picture of residual bias. According to the UK’s National Autistic Society, just 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment. In the US, 85% of autistic graduates are unemployed, compared to the national unemployment rate of 4.5%.

Huge advantages

That such a rich vein of creative talent is not being mined by industry and business is particularly depressing when one looks at the huge advantages neurodiverse thinking can bring to a company.

Jane Griffith, Partner and National Diversity Leader at Odgers Berndtson in Toronto, believes neurodiverse individuals can provide new perspectives.

“People on the autism spectrum, for example, are often very intelligent and are able to process data and see patterns. They have a great work ethic and the ability to focus when accommodations are made,” she says.

Solving problems in a different way

Nicole Radziwill, a VP at Intelex Technologies in Toronto, is an executive advisor to C-suite leadership and an internal consultant to the rest of the organisation. She is also autistic.

“I’m the keeper,” she says, “of a whole discipline’s worth of information for my company. Salespeople come to me for help and advice on how to position their demos because I can draw from hundreds of different examples stored in my head. And if I don’t have an appropriate example, I can mine the research literature and find an answer pretty quickly.”

Most workplace neurodiversity programmes focus on autistic people, but there is no reason they cannot extend to those with dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and other neurodivergences.

A number of these programmes cover STEM subjects or areas where systemising is important. There tend to be fewer for the softer areas of business or creativity, such as human resources or marketing.

Marie O’Riordan is a Senior Public Relations and Communications Manager at PFS, one of Europe’s top FinTechs. O’Riordan is a savant, meaning she was born with an eidetic/photographic memory and auditory recall. She finds the world highly mathematical and can focus in on minute details. “We [neurodivergent people] literally see the world differently and are natural-born problem solvers. This can only be an advantage in a highly disruptive industry such as FinTech.”

Authentic selves

Roxanne Hobbs, of the Hobbs Consultancy, is an inclusivity coach and works with companies to highlight the importance of diversity and inclusion. She is a strong advocate of ‘people turning up as their authentic selves in the workplace’.

She, too, believes now is the time for greater neurodiversity at senior levels across business and industry.

“Most neurodivergent people have spiky profiles,” she says, “which means they might be brilliant at some things and have other things they struggle with. Inclusion of neurodiversity makes sense to me when you’re thinking about the intelligence of a system. If you have people in it with spiky profiles then the intelligence of the system will be greater. By bringing in neurodivergence, the system works better for everyone.”

Griffith adds: “As much as we hear the need for normalising female leadership or leadership from people of colour, I would argue it’s the same for neurodivergent people. People will see it’s possible and say ‘that person has done it, so I can do it’.

“We all filter things through our own experience. If we have people sitting on the board or in a leadership position that have lived experience they will have a better appreciation and knowledge of the types of accommodation that would work.

“The standard recruitment process is set up in a really colonial manner, with processes geared to abled, white men. Anybody outside needs a change to the process.

“We know, for example, that men will apply [for a position] when they have met 60% of the criteria; women won’t apply until they have met 100%.

“If there are neurodivergent people who aren’t comfortable with interviewing because, say, it involves eye contact, our job as recruiters is to accommodate them with a process that is able to bring out their skills. We need to be testing and finding people’s skills, not the potholes that are going to sink them. We want them to be their best.”

Accessing neurodivergent talent

A more positive sign of change is that a growing number of companies are keen to access neurodivergent talent and have made changes to their HR processes to facilitate it. Among them are Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Microsoft and Ford.

Goldman Sachs is specifically targeting autistic candidates. It is launching an eight-week paid internship programme for those who identify as neurodiverse and aims to reach a point where 1% of its employees are neurodivergent.

Maureen Steltman, Head of School at Fraser Academy in Vancouver, who is herself dyslexic, believes that with the right accommodations anything is possible.

“People with differences are not well suited to a traditional work environment, but they still can find their way and prosper in a company, by knowing themselves and understanding their needs.

“If you’re looking at it from an employer’s perspective the most important question is: do they have the ability to reflect on their own needs and do they have the ability to ask for the accommodations they’ll need? We call it self-advocacy.”

This article is from the latest ‘Culture’ edition of the Odgers Berndtson global magazine, OBSERVE.

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Jane Griffith

Jane Griffith is a Partner in Odgers Berndtson’s Toronto office, focused on the recruitment of senior leaders in the academic, not for profit and broader public sectors. Her clients include some of...

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