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Rethinking our approach to neurodiversity in the workplace

By Dr. Nancy Doyle, Chief Science Office, Genius Withiin

Businesses are panicking about neurodiversity. The volume of employees who identify with potentially disabling conditions such as Autism, ADHD and dyslexia have mushroomed. We need to focus and regroup, with a focus on practical adaptations. Neurodivergence has always been in our gene pool, but it hasn’t always been disabling. Before the printing press, literacy difficulties weren’t a barrier to careers. Before factories and mass education, sitting still all day wasn’t a requirement. Before industrial levels of housing density and commuting, being highly perceptive in our senses wasn’t overwhelming. Our goal should be to develop a world that is more conducive to human functioning, not to medicalise the variety of human cognition. 

Maturing Neurodiversity Initiatives

Technology, Finance and Defence industries have led the neurodiversity conversation for the last twenty years. Since SAPs ‘pilot’ Autism at Work program started in 2007, we’ve seen a proliferation of specialist hiring and a welcomed narrative that neurodivergent thinkers bring creativity, specialism, problem-solving and innovation to their roles. Our problem is how to integrate this to our everyday working structure, rather than continue to treat it as an occasional blip for a special programme.

Technology has also led the inclusion revolution. We don’t need to spell, thanks to predictive text and specialist checkers. We don’t need to work in one space, sat down, thanks to smart phones. We don’t need to commute, thanks to cloud storage of data. But human resources haven’t caught up, and we’re still designing jobs for the average Joe, rather than the full variety of human potential. Pop psychology says that we only use a small potential of our neurological processing power – but we also only use a small potential of our collective species wisdom. 

Allowing Employees to be Specialists

Imagine if we designed career paths that promoted technical geniuses to senior management without having to wallow in the quagmire of line management for ten years first. Imagine if we promoted people managers by automating report writing and disseminating assistive technology throughout the business. Neurodiversity is teaching us that our species has specialists and generalists, yet our education and workplaces are designed for only the generalists. We can do better.

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Part of this is removing the diagnosis stigma and the diagnosis barrier. Rather than wringing our hands over the growing number of people seeking labels, we should be signposting to common affordances and flexibilities in work design and appraisal, tools and techniques. In a study with an Occupational Health partner, they compared the medical gateway model to the adjustments first model and found that the cost per person was cut by more than 50%, that more people received a service, but that the overall costs was still 29% lower with adjustments first compared to gateway. From my research over twenty years of practice with thousands of neurodivergent adults, my observation is that adjustments are remarkably predictable and common across the conditions, we’ve been using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Diagnosis versus Cultural Change

Diagnosis is an overly medical way to explain the different possibilities of thinking style. We only need them in the current world because we are so wedded to conventions established in the industrial revolution. As the world evolves and our mass communication becomes remote, instant and video based we need a new formula for training, hiring and managing talent. The age of the all-rounder is over, the future of work is a balanced, diverse team. Our investment and development should be focused on how to understand themes and categories of divergent thinking, how to blend these in complementary ways, not creating yet more “us versus them” labels.

Managers ask me at every talk I give, “how to I raise it with an employee if I think they might be autistic or dyslexic?” My answer is always the same – don’t. Focus on what they do well, and what they need to develop, in balance, and be prepared to make adjustments. You can safely discuss the difficulties in reading pace or email communication without turning it into a drama. “I’ve noticed that it takes you quite a while to get through the meeting preparation reports, have you tried assistive technology? Do you want to spend a couple of hours on Thursday working from home if it is easier to concentrate there? How can we support you to work at your best?” These are the conversations to have if you want to encourage positive change.

Neurodiversity inclusion is a cultural change, we are moving from the idea that flexibility is scarce and needs to be restricted to only those who possess the golden ticket of a diagnosis, to the idea that flexibility is omnipresent, built into everyday technology and essential to facilitating high performance for all. Let’s build a culture where we ask all students, “how can we support you to work at your best?”

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