Thinking differently: neurodiversity can help companies thrive

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Nancy Doyle is a Chartered Psychologist and CEO of Genius Within, a social enterprise that supports neurodiverse people with finding employment and helps companies access this untapped talent. She has recently worked with the BBC to create and deliver the TV series Employable Me 2.

Not all great minds think alike. Making neurodiversity part of your recruitment strategy could help your business realise its potential in all kinds of ways. From Stephen Hawking to many of today’s high flyers in Silicon Valley, we are surrounded by the results of innovation and ingenuity from people dealing with a spectrum of cognitive challenges.

Growing awareness of neurodiversity

Neurodiversity was a global hot topic in recruitment in 2017. Several companies made it known that they were actively seeking people with autism and Down's Syndrome, universities set up neurodiversity hubs to get students into work placements and even Harvard published a review on the business advantages of a neurodiverse workforce.

But the reality is that the majority of companies aren’t actively recruiting from this talent pool and finding work with a cognitive condition remains a serious challenge.

What we do is who we are

Jobs are part of our identity. Work affects our confidence, our resources, our social support networks, our entire lives. We live in a world that prioritises economic activity over family or friendships. Struggling to find work or to succeed at work can be isolating and this can be devastating to our general health and mental wellbeing.   

A disabling condition is a double whammy on the pressure to succeed. There are approximately 11 million people in the UK living with a disability, 6% of children and around 16% of working age adults.

Neurodiverse people often have strengths that compensate for the area where they are challenged but, understandably, can suffer from anxiety and self-esteem issues after years of disappointment and not getting the job.

The way we are treated in diagnosis and early support can affect how well we adapt and respond, yet the diagnosis process places all our attention on what is not working well, what we can’t do and what needs fixing. It’s easy to see how this can result in a reduced sense of self-worth and starts to limit ambition and confidence.

Tailoring recruitment strategies for the neurodiverse

At Genius Within, we approach each individual's cognitive issue head on, focusing on their strengths and building confidence and self-awareness. Psychometric testing can be a useful tool for recruitment and assessment, though it’s not always the best model where neurodiversity is concerned.

Psychometric testing usually sets a standard that people are assessed against, rather than honing in on the individual’s strengths and skills. Often the tests bear little relevance to the role being applied for.

For some neurodiverse people, multiple choice questions are difficult (especially those with dyslexia and dyspraxia) and these tests can mean talented people are excluded from a job or promotion.

The follow up after the test ought to be handled sensitively. Neurodiverse people often have strengths that compensate for the area where they are challenged but, understandably, can suffer from anxiety and self-esteem issues after years of disappointment and not getting the job.

Help is at hand - getting advice on reasonable adjustments

Evidence-based advice on what will help your employees access their talents and deal with difficulties is key. Access to Work is a DWP funded in-work support scheme that employees can call for a free assessment and set of recommendations if they have a disability or health condition affecting: mobility; manual dexterity; physical coordination; continence; ability to lift, carry or move everyday objects; speech, hearing or eyesight; memory or ability to concentrate, learn or understand; understanding or perception of physical danger.

Once we’ve taken care of the practicalities, we can start focusing on the strengths and talents that are so often overshadowed.

Neurodiverse people often have difficulties with memory, concentration, learning or understanding at work and therefore they qualify for support.

Small changes make a big difference

Reasonable disability adjustments can be really simple and easy to implement. Examples include:

  • A dual screen to reduce memory issues when flicking between windows
  • A quiet area to retreat to for stretching tired muscles or relaxing an overwhelmed mind in accessible formats
  • Flexi-time to manage peaks and troughs in fatigue; providing written materials in advance of training or meetings 
  • Text-to-speech software for visual impairments or dyslexia
  • Coaching or training to develop personalised strategies for communication, memory or organisation, such as colour coded diaries or questioning techniques

Lots of employers feel they are ‘treading on eggshells’ with disability and though they want to do right, they don’t know how. Here’s my advice… a small spend for tools, equipment or specialist support is a fair exchange for loyalty, a motivated team and reduced turnover/absenteeism.

Employers can take up the mantle and proactively offer reasonable adjustments – they don’t have to wait for problems to arise. Create a dialogue in which employees can ask for what they need before they are at crisis point.

Reaping the rewards of a neurodiverse workforce

Once we’ve taken care of the practicalities, we can start focusing on the strengths and talents that are so often overshadowed.

In Employable Me2, we used the positive assessment technique to undo some of the damage caused by repeated messages of deficit or difficulty, only to discover that Andy, who is a stroke survivor, has a perfectly competent verbal understanding even though he finds speech difficult. We also found out that Kerie, who is visually impaired, has a memory in the top 1% of the population!

Any employer would value such skills – these are the things that I want to see the recruitment process picking up on.


About Nancy Doyle

Nancy Doyle

Nancy is a Registered Occupational Psychologist with 15 years’ experience of assessing, coaching and researching neurodiversity at work. Nancy has always worked closely with Occupational Health, HR, Managers and individuals to ensure win-win solutions. 

Nancy has delivered on New Deal, Work Programme and the National Offender Management Service and is committed to promoting the talents of neurodiverse people as a means of social inclusion. Nancy was part of the development and delivery of the Royal Television Society's Documentary of the Year 2016, 'Employable Me'. This BBC series illustrates the difficulties that people with disabilities face in modern workplaces and how these can be overcome through Positive Assessment and simple reasonable adjustments.

Nancy is committed to evidence-based practice and has pioneered award winning research directions through her campaigning work with the British Psychological Society and her doctoral research at City, University of London. Nancy is CEO of Genius Within


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25th Jan 2018 11:16

Dear Nancy,
thank you very much for insightful content.
In particulars , I find reasonable adjustment ideas very helpful indeed. Having quiet a difficulty to articulate my needs since I have been formally diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and ADHD I can now explain my new line manger and OH advisor what I may find beneficial to avoid meltdown in the workplace.
Respectfully , Marina (DMU)

Thanks (1)