Neurodiversity: Three barriers to seeing true potential
One in ten people in the UK are neurodiverse.
However, despite the prevalence of neurodiversity, employers in the UK and around the world are still a long way from understanding neurodiverse individuals’ unique strengths.
Take a look at the statistics…While 77% of the UK’s neurodiverse population wants to work, ONS research shows that up to 40% are unemployed. There have been improvements in recent years – neurodiverse unemployment topped 60% ten years ago - But it’s clear that UK employers have a lot of work to do to create truly inclusive working environments that, in turn, harness neurodiversity’s gifts.
So, what’s holding them back? And what’s keeping UK employers focused on the supposed pitfalls of neurodiversity, while hiding the positives?
In this article, which has been written in partnership with Arctic Shores, we explore three key barriers to change: mindset, disclosure, and approaches to selection.
1. Mindset & misconceptions
When looking at neurodiversity, mindset and misconceptions can’t be ignored.
A survey of 500 companies found one third wouldn’t knowingly hire an applicant with a learning disability. Much of this comes down to the perceived training required. In fact, 79% of respondents felt that neurodiverse candidates take more training than their neurotypical counterparts.
Not only is this incorrect in many cases, it also overlooks the unique benefits neurodiverse people bring to the table, from productivity and creativity to attention to detail. Instead, it’s rooted in a rigid narrative: that there’s only one way to get things done.
Let’s look at communication as an example.
Communication & active listening: a quick case study
An employee (let’s call him Amir) is doing some training on communication and active listening. He’s also on the Autism spectrum.
Most training materials paint an archetypal picture of what active listening looks like: strong eye contact, nodding with intention, etc. However, because of Amir’s Autism, none of these come naturally. That doesn’t mean he’s not a good listener.
For Amir, good active listening might actually look like fidgeting, or wandering eyes. But, because this doesn’t fit the accepted model, it’s often assumed that neurodiverse people can’t listen intently, can’t focus, and are perhaps even rude. Of course, these assumptions could not be further from the truth, and stem from a set of inflexible definitions and expectations.
The answer is to shift our focus from appearances to outcomes. Removing any rigid definition of how an individual should act and focusing instead on their ability to deliver within a framework that works for them. In the case of communication, employers should prioritise the shared meaning of a message (“Did Amir understand?”) rather than the visual shortcut (“Did Amir look like he understood?”).
With this approach, it’s easier to spot the benefits of neurodiversity, and to dispel the myths. Otherwise, we risk further entrenching unhelpful expectations.
The second significant barrier for neurodiverse individuals is disclosure. Many neurodiverse people don’t feel safe disclosing their neurodiverse condition at work.
Let’s look at the stats:
At the application stage of a job, just 23% of neurodiverse individuals disclose this information. This breaks down further to:
- 6% at the interview stage
- 6% after the offer but before starting the job
- 46% disclose only after starting the job.
Once in the job, things don’t necessarily change either. Once in a role:
- 10% of people still don’t disclose
- 55% disclose only to some people at work.
This reluctance has a double impact on you and your teams:
If neurodiverse employees don’t feel psychologically safe enough to disclose their condition(s), they’re likely to suppress signs of those conditions. In short, they mimic what they see to be ‘normal’ behaviour. This is called camouflaging.
Coming back to our communication example, Amir might camouflage his Autism by overly focusing on eye contact – even though this makes him uncomfortable. We know that this kind of difficult behaviour, repeated over time, can lead to burnout and illness. So it’s a problem for the individual, and, eventually, for your wider team.
In addition to causing stress and burnout for neurodiverse individuals, there is also a very real impact on productivity. Just think, if a neurodiverse individual is focused on trying to look like they’re listening in an stereotypical manner, they aren’t able to focus as well on the actual point of the interaction.
Lack of adjustment
The second impact on your teams by not creating a safe environment for disclosure is a lack of adjustment for neurodiverse candidates that will enable them to perform. If your candidates don’t feel comfortable disclosing their neurodiversity in the application stage, they won’t get any reasonable adjustment. This means that they’ll be disadvantaged in any assessment process or working environment, and your odds of surfacing neurodiverse talent will be low.
3. Selection process barriers
This brings us to our third barrier – the selection process. And, in particular, the typical toolkit of CVs and interviews.
We know a CV focused hiring toolkit hinders diversity. Neurodiverse people will often be suitable for roles – but they’ll be far less comfortable talking or writing about why they’re suitable. What’s more, studies have repeatedly shown CVs don’t predict performance. So, why are we relying on them so heavily?
That’s why it is important to champion a more holistic approach.
But how? Let’s take a look…
Review your criteria
For each role, you’ll often start with a long list of desired qualities. Try whittling this down to the essentials – and forget ‘nice to haves’. This is where job analysis can help you see which behaviours are truly essential, and challenge assumptions about what ‘great’ really looks like.
Review your selection methods
Consider how you can move away from an over reliance on CVs. Integrate more inclusive approaches like measuring candidates’ workplace intelligence and/or skills like creativity and resilience, etc. With the right accommodations, this means you’ll give every candidate the same shot at success.
Accommodate, accommodate, accommodate
To level the playing field for neurodiverse candidates, it’s essential to ensure their needs are accommodated. However, a big misconception is that ‘accommodation’ just means ‘extra time’. In reality, it’s a much broader conversation that should, where possible, be based on each candidate’s unique circumstances. Consider:
- ‘Comorbid’ conditions: Many conditions occur together. For example, one in two Autistic people also have ADHD.
- Spectrums: Nearly all learning conditions are on a spectrum. Where does your candidate fall on that spectrum, and how does it affect their accommodations?
This means there’s no cookie-cutter approach to accommodation. Instead, the easiest way to understand a candidate’s needs is to talk to them. Remember that, according to the CIPD, 57% of accommodations are totally free.
So, what can businesses do?
Ultimately, the answer to this question depends on where each business is in their journey with neurodiversity. Just like making accommodations for neurodiverse individuals, there is no one size fits all approach to building an inclusive environment for neurodiverse individuals.
For all businesses, the most important thing is to start addressing issues. Take inspiration from the world of tech and take a test and learn approach:
- Question processed and structures at every stage of the employee lifecycle
- Act through changes and improvements
- Reflect by gathering feedback and analysing employee experience data
- Iterate by learning from feedback and implementing further improvements.
- By embracing this approach, businesses will be able to see what really improves the employee experience for neurodiverse individuals and what doesn’t.
The end result will benefit everyone. Neurodiverse individuals will feel more comfortable at work, and able to be themselves, which in turn will result in stronger results for businesses as they are able to harness neurodiversity’s unique strengths. Arctic Shores Director of Professional Services, Jill Summers, highlights this perfectly:
“A recent report by JP Morgan Chase found that neurodivergent employees were 140% more productive in certain roles than neurotypical employees. As employers navigate the skills crisis in a post-pandemic and economically challenging environment, it is more important than ever to broaden your talent pool and optimise the value of diversity. The first step in achieving this is to recruit candidates based on their potential to do the role, not based on experience or academic achievements. Using tools that avoid hiring bias, like our Arctic Shores assessment, can bring this potential to life and help neurodivergent candidates to shine.”
There is a long road for businesses to go down before they reach a point that is truly inclusive for neurodiverse individuals. But it is essential that we all start this journey, only then will it gain the momentum, creating shared knowledge and understanding that allows us to support every single employee.