Neuro-inclusion at work: Why it pays to have more diverse minds
Neuro-inclusion at work is becoming one of the most talked about areas of business, HR and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), but are we doing enough to act on these conversations and support the neurodiverse talent we hope to attract?
There are some excellent Neurodiversity Programs taking place, usually at the largest companies like Microsoft, Deloitte, JPMorgan Chase, IBM and SAP.
But neuro-inclusion programs should not be exclusive to big corporations.
With a huge number of specialised neurodiversity recruitment agencies and talent resource companies expanding in the last ten years, it’s clear the desire to bring neurodiverse talent on board is there, but what about retaining neurodiverse talent?
Neurodiversity is not just a buzzword, it’s a movement.
A movement, led by Judy Singer and others like her, that has gathered pace since the 1990s, and one that questions previous assumptions and raises awareness of our understanding of neurological differences.
Historically, the medical model within clinical psychology and neurology was focused solely on the ‘deficit’ or ‘disorders’ of different ways of thinking. However, neurodiversity is a social paradigm and, like the social model of disability, it argues that many of these challenges come from barriers and lack of adaptations within society. Remove these barriers, and different ways of thinking become less ‘disordered’ and simply exist as another perspective in our diverse and complex world.
Benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace
Diversity is our greatest asset, and it’s not just us saying it.
Let’s take a moment to highlight and celebrate some of the strengths that a different way of thinking can bring.
“Our conventions and biases so often blind us to new ideas (you may well have heard the phrase ‘neurons that fire together wire together’ – in other words, our thinking becomes habitual).
“This is where [neurodifferent] individuals have an advantage – because of the variations in their neurological make-up they literally ‘think differently’ – seeing past the conventional frameworks[.]” (C. Griffiths and C. Medlicott, 2022)
Creativity comes from considering different perspectives and ideas.
Groupthink is a concept that captures the phenomenon of when our desire to conform outweighs our creativity and critical thinking, sometimes leading to misguided or even dangerous decision-making. Where others might seek to conform, neurodiverse teams help to avoid habitual thinking.
“Having the right amount of cognitive style diversity is important for team performance. Teams with too little cognitive diversity may lack the cognitive capacity to tackle tasks that require different ways of encoding and processing information[.]” (I. Aggarwal and A.W. Woolley, 2015)
Problem-solving requires us to connect and manipulate information in our minds. Our cognitive diversity references the different ways we process information through visual, verbal, logical and memorisation capacities.
Our differences in these areas can help organisations to create effective and interesting ways of problem-solving to approach new challenges from multiple perspectives.
Loyalty and work ethic
“At SAP, the Autism at Work program is proud to have a 90 percent retention rate of hires on the autism spectrum because it creates a system of support around those employees.” (SAP, 2019)
Autistic adults are highly underrepresented in the workforce, so retention rates like those reported by SAP are a huge win for the benefits of neurodiversity programs.
Some key statistics you’ll also often hear spoken about in business circles are from JPMorgan Chase.
In a message from JPMorgan Chase, James Mahoney, Executive Director and Head of the Autism at Work program, was vocal about the program outcomes, “We saw after a period of six months, the autistic peers were equal in quality to their typical peers who had five, ten, fifteen years of experience. But the autistic individuals were 48% more productive.”
Many autistic and ADHD adults will talk about hyperfocus as a strength, where they experience these intense periods of concentration at work or during certain day to day tasks. However, it’s important to balance this by making sure people are taking the breaks they need.
Neurodiversity and inclusion
Neurodiversity, and everything it stands for, seeks to balance the scales and show that there are benefits to different ways of thinking.
But it also seeks to see more than token gestures towards neuro-inclusion, and this requires a rounded view of neurodiversity in the workplace.
The barriers in the workplace don’t only occur when accessing work, they can occur in the day to day. The small interactions with colleagues, the meeting cancelled last minute, the management of tasks and timelines, the relationship with a manager. All these areas and more are aspects of work that we must all think about to sustainably maintain the thriving and diverse workplaces we’re all desperate to take advantage of.
And here is the serious crux of it. Are companies taking neuro-inclusion seriously enough?
We can talk about the benefits of diverse teams. The increase in productivity, risk prevention, creative thinking, problem-solving and innovation – the well-documented evidence is there.
But investing in neurodiverse talent means investing in individuals, not investing in the benefits you hope a group of people will bring.
There’s a useful saying, which autistic comedian, Hannah Gadsby, and author and autism advocate, David Mitchell, have both paraphrased in interviews, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”
Even within the same diagnostic label, people can experience different traits and characteristics to varying degrees. This idea can be expanded to all diagnoses that fall under the term of neurodiversity, including developmental differences like ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, Tourette’s and acquired differences like cognitive challenges in memory and speed of processing from injury or age-related impacts.
Every person has their own unique strengths and challenges
Sticking with autism as an example, you might be looking to hire more autistic staff in your IT or engineering teams; however, not every autistic individual will be gifted in maths or computer technology in the way that is often stereotypically represented.
Effective neuro-inclusion is about getting to know individuals, and that is what many of the established neurodiversity programs are achieving.
An example from one of Microsoft’s Aspire Programme’s success stories said, “I had to tell many people in my life, but my manager’s response was the best. He simply said, ‘Thank you for telling me, Cecilia, I don’t know anything about this disorder, but I’d love to learn,’” she says.”
One of the best things employers can do for neurodiverse staff is to have a culture of compassion and acceptance. Even when staff may not feel informed about some of the differences their colleagues are experiencing, they can approach this situation with open consideration and a positive mindset.
‘What strengths do I see in this person? How can I work with them to deliver on their potential?’ These are the types of questions we can think about.
Neurodiversity and mental health at work
Co-occurrence and intersectionality are common terms within neurodiversity.
Co-occurrence is when different traits or even diagnoses can occur simultaneously or overlap. For example, 60% of individuals with dyslexia will also have difficulties with maths related to dyscalculia (British Dyslexia Association).
Intersectionality is about understanding that multiple forms of discrimination and inequality can compound the challenges we face. For example, Black women are more likely to be misdiagnosed or diagnosed later in life (C. Joseph, 2021).
These compounding characteristics and challenges can take a toll if they’re not properly recognised and supported in the workplace. Meaning that workplace wellbeing is another aspect of embracing neurodiversity.
Theo Smith, who is a neurodiversity public speaker and co-author of the book Neurodiversity at Work, spoke to Cognassist in our podcast series, Neurodiverse Life.
He didn’t shy away from this topic, “Not supporting individuals with their neurological differences, the challenges that they may face in work that seem invisible, has a detrimental and negative impact to their mental health and wellbeing, which has a detrimental or negative impact to business performance, productivity, innovation and creativity.”
Understanding neurodiversity in the workplace: the whole picture
So how should one approach neurodiversity at work? Is there a right or a wrong way to advance this important aspect of EDI?
Oh, how easy life would be if we had such straightforward answers for complex and pivotal topics.
Where neurodiversity is about taking the full context of an individual, neurodiversity at work is about taking the full context of an organisation. Every organisation will need to think about how they want to implement support, where training is required most and the internal processes which will enable high engagement in new initiatives.
As with any things of this nature, a one size fits all approach won’t work.
It’s vital to understand where to begin and consider the tools at your disposal and how to implement these to provide the most value and support for neurodiverse talent.
So how do you make a workplace more neuro-inclusive?
Roughly one in seven people in the UK are neurologically different. Considering these figures, you probably don’t need to be running a Neurodiversity Program to gain neurodiverse talent, you likely have some already!
Theo Smith also spoke about the legal aspect of neuro-inclusion causing fear for organisations and what they can do about it, “There are tangible things you can do that are not highly risky, that you can just put in place tomorrow, that you can do as individuals, not as organisations. And that’s not to say that we want people running off, trying to fix people or fix things.
“But we can have people look at the way they write job descriptions or the way that they write internal documentation and think ‘is that accessible? Do people understand it?’
“Do we ask people the question, ‘How can I help you?’
“Often, a lot of this just comes down to not having the conversation and that’s what we want to enable – HR leaders, managers and employees to be able to open up. Those organisations that were doing really good stuff had opened up the dialogue, or employees had forced the conversation, and then the organisation put in the structure to ensure that they’re protected and enabled.”
You can’t see neurodiversity, so you have to talk about it.
Maybe now is the time to ask yourself, How neuro-inclusive are your hiring practices?
The more organisations encourage this conversation early on in the employee journey through different means and evidence-based tools, the more people will feel confident, supported and valued at work.
Employee confidence in disclosing neurodiversity
In the modern world, data is everything.
But people need to feel like they can trust organisations with this personal data, and for many neurodiverse staff that trust still isn’t there.
Research by Birkbeck’s Research Centre for Neurodiversity at Work looked at barriers to disclosure and found that 65% of neurodiverse employees fear discrimination from management, 55% also feared discrimination from colleagues and 40% said that there aren’t any knowledgeable staff to help (A. McDowell and N. Doyle, 2023).
However, when it comes to workplace adjustments, it becomes difficult for employers to implement support if employees aren’t willing to talk about their needs. The same Birkbeck research looked at barriers from the employer’s perspective as well and found that 69% of employers said that the lack of disclosure was a barrier to making adjustments.
It’s a vicious cycle that doesn’t benefit anyone.
When neurodiversity disclosure is an issue, it becomes more important for employers and managers to understand more about neurodiversity, the types of differences people can experience and how to support these.
The term neurodiversity is most commonly associated with specific diagnoses like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and more.
But what do these diagnoses mean?
They are collections of common human traits that some people experience to different degrees, and the threshold of a diagnosis is often based on the impact these differences have on our daily life.
Within these broader labels there are trans-diagnostic aspects of psychology that help to define these broader neurotypes, including:
- Behavioural differences
- Social differences
- Cognitive differences
- Personality differences
- Associated mental health challenges
It’s useful to consider any workplace adjustments in light of these differences, whether someone has a formal diagnosis or not, as it can help you to better understand each person’s experiences and potential workplace needs. Doing so will also ensure that you can take targeted action and put support in place before someone may be ready to disclose a diagnosis.
For example, assistive technologies are cognitive augmentations tools, if someone experiences cognitive differences in verbal reasoning, literacy or reading decoding, you could support them with both speech-to-text and text-to-speech software.
For areas like behavioural differences, it’s important to consider what might be underlying certain behaviours and if you need to adapt your existing procedures and policy to be more flexible when needed.
Supporting neurodiversity at work is essential if you want to attract and retain diverse thinkers.
Employer neuro-inclusion is a two-way street: now you know how a neurodiverse team can benefit you, what are you going to do to benefit your team? If you want a helpful list of workplace adjustments to support communication, workplace environment and personal development that you can start implementing tomorrow, look no further…