It is now accepted by all progressive organisations that diverse teams are business imperative - and advancements in HR processes reflect the near universal desire to better engage with underrepresented groups to boost cognitive diversity. But there is one demographic which is still slipping under the radar of the vast majority of talent acquisition heads – neurodiverse individuals.
According to the Autism and Neurodiversity Exploring Diagnosis research team at the University of Exeter, neurodiversity is the differences in people’s brains that affect how we experience the world. The neurodiversity movement (NDM) argues that forms of ‘neurodivergence’ such as autism, dyslexia, and ADHD are inherent and valuable parts of the spectrum of human variation and that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to develop. There is no ‘normal’ brain. While these are 'spectrum differences’, with a wide range of characteristics, they nevertheless share some common features in terms of how people learn and process information.
While every person is different, there are specific strengths which are commonly associated with neurodiverse conditions. Some autistic candidates, for example, can demonstrate above-average levels of concentration, reliability, conscientiousness and persistence, as well as paying incredibly close attention to detail - skills that every business could benefit from. Similarly, in the book The Dyslexic Advantage (2011), authors Brock and Fernette Eide outline the many traits that dyslexic workers are likely to display including skills such as big-picture thinking, lateral reasoning and problem solving. Visual strengths and an intuitive understanding of how things work are often the hallmarks of successful dyslexic people.
Individuals on the neurodiverse spectrum also typically have superior spatial-reasoning skills and the ability to view an object or event from multiple perspectives – to quickly get the ‘gist’ or big-picture context surrounding an event or idea. Others who fall under the umbrella of being neurodiverse have a strong ability to learn from experience and to reason well in dynamic settings when the facts are incomplete or changing. So, why are we not doing more to engage with these individuals?
The truth is that rigid legacy recruitment processes, particularly within large organisations, do not always support the needs of these valuable groups. And in the so called ‘war for talent’, this is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.
The most forward thinking companies are already putting in place strategies to access neurodiverse talent. Award-winning IT and compliance consultancy, Auticon, for example, is the first enterprise that exclusively employs autistic adults as consultants. Strengths that the organisation has identified among this group include an innate knack of ‘bottom up processing’, intuitive recognition of hidden patterns in mass data, unconditional honesty and above-average attention to detail and concentration, even in lengthy or repetitive tasks. What’s more, as Ray Coyle, CEO of Auticon points out, bringing neurodiversity into a team drives far more effective communication in general. Auticon is not alone in seeing the benefits of engaging with neurodiverse talent, with EY, GCHQ and Microsoft all exploring ways to best tap into this rich talent pool. However the fact that members of this group often struggle with social interactions means that neurodiverse individuals may require a different approach to engagement.
HR leaders should consider how they can best support neurodiverse candidates through the recruitment process and beyond if they are to reap the benefits of a truly diverse workforce. Adjustments in recruitment, for example, should reflect the social challenges that individual neurodiverse candidates face. It is only by asking each person what scenarios they find difficult – whether it be shaking hands, making small-talk or social exercises during on-site assessment – that processes can be tweaked accordingly.
As Ray Coyle at Auticon notes, “Rigid thought patterns can be very difficult in a fluid, ambiguous, complex workplace where there are lots of unspoken rules.” With this in mind, once in work, HR leaders should determine how to best support individuals to enable them to perform at their best.
Small changes to the workplace can make a big difference. Accommodating adjustments for people with autism, for example, may include ensuring they have a quiet space to work in, giving them clear and succinct written or verbal instructions and avoiding hypothetical or abstract questions. Organisations that we work with have reported success once they understand the ‘basics’ like building routine, providing an unchanging work environment and being aware of unwelcome stimulants such as noise and lighting. Leaders should also seek guidance around communication style and how to describe deadlines and deliverables when working within a neurodiverse team.
Offering tailored support to candidates and employees not only creates opportunities for often misunderstood talent pools, it also makes perfect business sense. Teams which are made up of a diverse mix of individuals, which more accurately reflect a businesses’ consumer base, have the benefit of a wider range of skills, ideas and perspectives.
It’s essential that no talent pool gets left behind or forgotten.