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About one in seven of us has a condition that causes us to think differently – it’s called neurodiversity. What does it mean and how can organisations make the most of neurodiverse employees?

Consider your favourite sports team – it will be built around a group of people with different but complementary skills. Each team member has been recruited for their unique strengths, which are seen as something that makes the overall team better. When working alongside others who also have their own individual skillsets they can achieve amazing things.

Think of your team at work in the same way. Each team member doesn’t need to have the same skills in the same measure – the different strengths they bring to the table are what makes a team thrive.

Understanding neurodiversity

Our personal qualities each sit on a spectrum, and we describe people who are at the extremes of certain ways of thinking as neurodiverse. Neurodiverse people are identified by their different ways of thinking, and this relatively new term covers conditions like autism, dyslexia, attention hyperactivity deficit disorder (ADHD), and dyspraxia. Those who are not neurodiverse are called neurotypical.

Neurodiverse conditions were once seen as medical conditions to be mitigated or cured, but we’re now aware that they represent natural forms of the diversity of human thought and behaviour.  A CIPD report into neurodiversity at work says it best: “For too long, neurodiversity has been poorly understood, stereotyped, and even ignored – thinking styles such as dyslexia or autism have been characterised only by deficits.”

And although some managers might think they don’t have anyone in their organisation who is neurodivergent, they’re probably wrong. About one in seven of us – over 15% of people in the UK – are neurodivergent. Plenty of people are neurodivergent without even knowing it. Some get diagnoses when they’re young, others as adults, and others will go through their whole careers, or indeed their lives, having never received a diagnosis.

Neurodiversity and employment

But despite how widespread neurodiverse conditions are, in 2018 a CIPD poll showed that just 10% of HR professionals in the UK were considering neurodiversity in their people management practices.

The business world is now recognising that a neurodiverse workforce is more creative, innovative and productive, and one in which people with a range of strengths, backgrounds and viewpoints contribute to success. However, the unique assets that the neurodiverse bring to work could be drowned out by neurotypical ways of recruiting, communicating and designing workplaces.

The statistics for neurodiversity in employment are stark, with the National Autistic Society reporting that only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time employment, yet 77% of unemployed autistic people say they want to work.

Writing about her job hunt, autism advocate Amy Walker describes the frustration she experiences: “I felt like I was on the scrap heap of society, with no prospects.” She says there “are many barriers preventing young autistic people from accessing the world of work – from careers advice that isn’t up to scratch, to rigid interview processes and inflexible working practices of some organisations.”

Yet employers who are neurodiverse-friendly see big benefits from this approach. Auticon is an IT consulting business that exclusively employs autistic consultants. The company says that “Autistic adults often have extraordinary cognitive abilities, yet many find it difficult to secure or maintain mainstream employment.” Its approach has resulted in significant growth in both its revenue and workforce, and the company is now prioritising a major recruitment drive in the UK.

And Airwave, a large public safety operator, saw benefits for the whole workforce when they ran an intern recruitment programme with a local college for young people with disabilities and additional needs. The three interns hired in the first wave of the programme exceeded performance expectations, and their placement resulted in an increase in positivity and motivation in the teams they were part of. The company has seen its value of inclusivity embedded into the way they do business, and has plans to continue the internship programme.

So how can you ensure neurodiverse people are comfortable in your workplace?

Make disclosure comfortable

There’s no legal obligation for neurodiverse people to let anybody at work know about their conditions, and some prefer to keep it private or aren’t even aware that they are neurodiverse. Leaders, managers and HR should focus on creating an environment where diversity and inclusion are priorities and are communicated to the workforce as such. People who are neurodiverse are more likely to feel comfortable disclosing their condition or needs in this environment, which opens up the conversation around how you can ensure they’re happy and productive at work.

Raise awareness

Labels like ‘autistic’ or ‘dyslexic’ can only go so far – people who have these conditions are unique candidates or workers, just like any neurotypical person. Leaders should be familiar with some common characteristics and conditions, but shouldn’t expect all neurodivergent people to have the same strengths and weaknesses.

Utilise internal communications, training days, campaigns and workshops to create an environment where staff are comfortable talking about diversity in all of its forms, and are better able to understand and support neurodiverse colleagues.

Leaders, managers and HR would benefit from more in-depth training on neurodiversity awareness and inclusion to help them champion diversity and sensitively handle any challenges that might emerge when managing a diverse workforce.

Open up adjustments

Employers are required to provide reasonable adjustments or accommodations in the workplace for people with disabilities, but we advocate for adjustments being offered to all employees regardless of disability – or neurodiversity – status.

Neurodiverse staff might need adjustments to their work space, but so too might someone who has a bad back or just finds it hard to focus with lots of noise around them. Research shows that democratising adjustments raises productivity, decreases sick leave and leaves staff feeling more engaged, valued and loyal.

It’s time for businesses to think about the ways they can be more explicit in their approach to neurodiversity,  taking account of neurodivergent needs in everything from recruitment to onboarding, to business as usual. As Auticon’s UK CEO, Ray Coyle, says, “rather than trying to fit square pegs into round holes, companies should create environments in which pegs of all different shapes and sizes can thrive.”