Neurodiversity: From awareness to action
By Jo Faragher on 03 May 2022
In March, numerous organisations held events to support Neurodiversity Celebration Week, a global initiative founded in 2018 by Siena Castellon that now has around 300 workplaces and thousands of schools on board. As a teenager with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia, Castellon wanted people to move their focus away from the challenges of neurological diversity and embrace talents and strengths.
But how far have organisations come in moving from celebration to purpose? Dan Harris, CEO of the newly formed Neurodiversity in Business industry forum, argues that the awareness piece is hugely important. “It’s easy to dismiss something like an awareness week as just one week in the year, but if organisations can coalesce around the issue, and if this becomes an ongoing programme of awareness, then that improves our chances of leading towards increased acceptance. However, obviously that is a big if, and we have to continually work towards the next stage,” he says. “We’re seeing a significant increase in self-disclosure in organisations where there are ongoing awareness programmes, for example. If this is something being talked about at the top table, it’s something people will be happy to share with their employer. They will feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work.”
Harris adds that supporting neurodiversity is not just about increasing the representation of neurodivergent employees in the workforce. “Your existing workforce may be underserved or under supported, so think about an initial assessment of the end-to-end employee lifecycle. Look at the whole gamut of experiences from recruitment, assessment and onboarding to performance management and promotions,” he says. He points to the work of occupational psychologist Dr Nancy Doyle on this, who specialises in neurodiversity inclusion. The key is to not just create inclusive environments that neurodivergent people feel attracted to work in, but “once they are in it is critical to ensure that they are fully supported to thrive rather than just survive”, says Harris. “There’s a massive war for talent, I’ve not seen it this fierce in more than 20 years. Yet there are still people out there who are excluded from the employment marketplace – a unique talent pool that could deliver significant outcomes for clients.”
Aidan Healy, CEO of neurodiversity consultancy Lexxic, argues there should be a “transformative approach”. Neurodiverse employees are “people who experience the world differently; who see things differently; and think differently,” he says. “We can create more diverse, stronger, and more innovative teams, who bring unique perspectives to problem solving, who bring creative thinking and different ideas to the table. This means organisations can bring innovative solutions to market for clients, outthink and outperform competitors, and ultimately elevate their business success.” However, in too many organisations, recruitment processes adversely impact neurodivergent individuals, he adds, or standardised workplace procedures limit employees’ unique abilities. Lexxic employs a Smart model with clients to work out how they can be more neuro-inclusive and get the best out of their talent.
Adam Hyland, co-founder and director of accessibility and inclusion at Diversity & Ability (D&A), says the momentum for change was set by the pandemic. “The pandemic normalised different ways of working, now we need to normalise conversations about what individuals need to help them do their work,” he says. More of us are using technology to meet with colleagues or carry out tasks than ever before so organisations need to embed using assistive technology as standard. “We don’t see someone wearing glasses as assistive technology, or Google Maps, but that’s what these tools are. There are tools for digital mind mapping or text to speech that help neurodiverse people but can also help others,” he adds. “If tools are already in place, people don’t have to go through the emotional energy of having to put their hand up to ask for support – it’s already there.” That said, Hyland reminds organisations of the importance of listening to employees’ lived experiences rather than assuming what they will want. Furthermore, it helps to remove medical ‘labels’ and language and look at removing barriers regardless of someone’s individual diagnosis, he advises.
This is what happened at BP’s innovation arm, where there have been recent changes to how the business is set up. “During the reorganisation, we took the time to listen to employee groups and neurodiverse employees. If we’re moving to flexible working and more hot-desking, for example, that can be hard for someone who is used to going to the same desk every day,” explains Ben Sutton, senior vice president of people and culture in the digital team (innovation & engineering). This included aspects of the hiring process, such as how interviews could be adjusted, wording changed in guides to be more inclusive of neurodiverse applicants, and not expecting neurodiverse candidates to network at assessment centres. He adds: “This is why feedback is so important. My own personal objective is to learn more about neurodiversity, because it’s those micro-actions that really help people.”
Healy urges employers to educate themselves on the practical steps they can take to become more neuro-inclusive. “By not providing the right tools and support, you could unintentionally be restricting potential that could see you taking your organisation to the next level,” he says. “Neurodiversity should be part of every talent strategy and agenda, but for many organisations, this is currently an oversight that can cost a business its competitive advantage.”
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