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Dr. Nancy Doyle and Uzma Waseem
19th January 2021
Neurodiversity: New Thinking on Thinking Differently
An occupational psychologist by training, Nancy Doyle found that from an early age that she had a special interest in how people forge successful careers and how to make the workplace inclusive of disability. The interest in what has since become known as Neurodiversity has become the basis of her own successful career running Genius Within, a social enterprise which promotes the career success for neurominorities.
1. A different perspective on Strengths and Weaknesses
It is remarkable to think that as recently as just ten years ago there was little incentive to thoroughly research neurodiversity in the workplace and people unable to fit easily into a culture with established norms and expectations were considered unemployable. Considerable progress has been made in the past decade, building on the work of Judy Singer who coined the phrase “neurodiversity” in 1999. We’re moving on from considering neurological differences as a developmental disability to the perspective of a naturally occurring profile of strengths and weaknesses. This group, known as neurominorities, form a significant minority within the human species of up to 20%, and are aspiring to higher levels of achievement and recognition in society. Yet this hope is balanced by a reality in which neurominorities are still more likely to be imprisoned or unemployed and less likely to have successful careers than their neurotypical counterparts. We pose the questions:
Is Strategic Management in need of an overhaul in terms of inclusion?
Are we considering the perceived talent status of neurominorities?
2. Changing attitudes and providing genuine support.
Providing appropriate incentives might encourage a better approach but it won’t change attitudes and it won’t address the real issue which is that inclusion/exclusion occurs on different levels. A more effective way is to look at talent management from the perspective of talented individuals from the neurominority community. There are four stages in the development of organisational approach in respect of different “levels of inclusion”. These are
- Exclusion. No consideration of minorities.
- Compliance: Individual Inclusion
- Deliberate: inclusion within teams. Recruitment can be from diverse demographics from a wide population, however, they are very selective. Tokenistic in recruitment
- Systemic: inclusion for all. This means updating our standard HR protocols in line with Universal Design principles to ensure that unnecessary barriers are removed. Genius Within have found this results in a 25% reduction in compliance costs.
The message to be conveyed is that a homogeneous approach to staff and talent management misses leveraging a considerable opportunity. Those caught out by the Equality Act 2010 begun to look at compliance and take a “tokenism” approach, offering work, often low paid, to in narrowly defined areas, such as programming. Those realising the potential for a substantial return on investment engage in neurodiverse friendly recruitment and take the trouble to identify appropriate job specifications and try to match these to candidates with specialist, rather than generalist strengths. However, a culture of inclusion needs first to take place at a systemic level.
3. Cognitive Abilities Analysis
The cognitive abilities of neurodiverse minorities feature a common characteristic of being Specialised Thinkers: the graph for subtest scores is very spiky, with significant differences between strengths and weaknesses.
Neurodiversity inclusion is about incorporating the high performance potential of specialists as well as the competence of generalists.
The four main areas which are the focus of attention are conceptual ability, verbal ability, working memory and processing speed. Neurodiverse strengths tend to be circle around conceptual and verbal abilities. Advantages associated with the conditions might include:
- Dyslexia: leading to inventiveness and creativity
- Dyspraxia: pattern spotting, empathy and inferential reasoning
- Dyscalculia: practical ability, problem solving and intuitive thinking
- Dysgraphia: listening skills, recalling oral details
- Autism: problem solving skills and analytical thinking
- ADHD: problem solving, creativity, passion and taking calculated risks
- Tourette Syndrome: creative and energetic, acute perception
- Mental Health: sharp memory, empathy, personal strength and resilience
There is a tendency for employers to assume that people can be identified by their label with some stable characteristics which would equip them for specific skills. However, the diagnostic boundaries are “flaky” and people cannot be pigeon-holed this way. For example, ADHD can be overlayered with autism and good listening skills but this does not necessarily equip them for a customer service type role. And even if it were possible to accommodate people in this way it wouldn’t be reliable or ethical to do it. Furthermore, there is a substantial legal risk in executing recruitment based on a protected condition in which you have made assumptions about their potential in a narrowly defined function. You have to work on an individual level with people and still have to design appropriate recruitment and HR practices that include all.
Damian Milton identified a false preconception that autism equates to no empathy. In fact, autistic people frequently spend an inordinate amount of time imagining how the neurotypical world expects them to behave and then adjusting accordingly. The problem is two-ways and the neurotypical world does not reciprocate. Dr Milton calls this the “Double Empathy Problem”
For example, autistic people are acutely sensitive. It is not a matter of quirks and choices: they have a tendency see, hear, smell, taste and/or feel more intensely than neurotypicals. This means that they may find eye contact too intense. In a noisy, intense world, the autistic behaviours associated with withdrawal are actually better characterised as overwhelm, and can be supported by environments and schedules that reduce distractions.
4. Navigating the Risks
What are the risks and how can they be managed? A few suggestions follow:
- Adjustments should be tailored to the individual, not to the individual’s label, and guidance on implementing adjustments should be given by those with professional training, insurance and experience in this field
- Recruitment processes should be more flexible and work sample based, for example questioning the use of interviews when roles do not require face to face communication skills.
At a more general level, certain issues should be addressed:
- a good way to address unemployment would be to provide paid internships for the long term unemployed. This would at a stroke gather up those who have a higher prevalence of autism, ADHD, dyslexia and more. The Kickstart programme is an excellent vehicle as it is risk free to employers. This approach would be more progressive than singling out autism programs, as is currently in vogue
- HR need to learn how to be more adept and sensitive to the handling of people
- “Top Slicing” of talented individuals into specific roles without appropriate support where it is perceived they might be successful is not a solution and goes against social justice. Examples of experience with autistic people are numerous.
Adopting into practice
- Be aware of the “double empathy” problem. Neurominorities are sensitive and naturally therefore react more intensely to stress and are hypersensitive to noise, light, pain etc. (See Slide). Take steps to avoid overwhelm and deal with it respectfully, not judgementally when it happens.
- Neurodiversity is not a free pass. The concept of “reasonable adjustments” should be understood by all parties, along with a sympathetic understanding of appropriate boundaries.
- Simple actions can be taken which can make completing tasks immeasurably easier. For example people with ADHD may find time management and allocating priorities particularly difficult. Simple understanding of the issue resulting in actions, such as drawing up colour coded lists, could make a real difference when the person concerned is obviously struggling. Appropriate coaching support is very successful at improving self-directed coping strategies.
5. Is there a bigger picture?
Does talent management need overhauling? Genius Within experience and a literature search indicates that what is missing is perhaps identification of talent itself. A way of looking at this is as follows:
Perhaps the answer is to focus more on employee experience rather than raise unrealistic expectations over identification of specific talents through which neurodiverse people are expected to perform.
In short, organisations are missing out by not identifying and using talent effectively. Genius Within adjustment interventions achieve 90-95% job retention and 25% achieve promotion within one year. All employers can assume they have between 5-20% of staff with an existing neurominority condition, and so preparing to make adjustments rather than waiting for people to struggle will pay dividends in terms of productivity and inclusion.
Please click here to view the slides.