For the neurotypical among us (which is almost 98%) the challenges we face in the workplace are ordinarily ones that come with the territory. Despite the existence of the neurodiverse population, most places humans come to earn the money they need to feed and clothe themselves are designed so that they can achieve just that with little heed given to the fresh hurdles those within the autistic community might then have to contend with. Last July Emocto spent some time listening to speakers who champion a neurodiverse workplace and found the issue more nuanced and the debate more lively than we could have guessed. Recently we spoke to a Medical Doctor & Clinical Research Associate at the University of Kings College, London, Dr Hester Velthuis to get a richer understanding of an urgent topic which recently seems to have come to a boil.
For a broad overview, what are the principal challenges those who are not neurotypical face in the jobs market?
I think this can be divided in challenges from their disability and challenges from society:
- Challenges originating from neurodivergence: disturbing or avoiding social interaction, communication difficulties and misunderstanding others, planning / organisation, keeping track on tasks/time/deadlines, focus, concentration, hypersensitivity for sound/visual stimuli (e.g. lights, colour contrasts)/tactile stimuli (e.g. temperature, textures of furniture), coping with stress and finding ways to calm down at work, balancing between internal-external stressors.
- Challenges imposed by society: discrimination, stigmatization, bullying, exclusion, neglect, avoidance.
What, historically, have been the attitudes to having a neurodiverse workforce- how far have things come?
Neurodiversity means that a population (team or workforce) represents the whole societal population, including minority groups that are neurodivergent (e.g. individuals with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, tic syndromes, etc). Historically, several types of minority group have been discriminated against and were underrepresented within the (paid) employment sector. Currently, I believe that there is a better inclusion and diversity in the workforce of gender, ethnicity, and physical disability. I get the impression that there is,to date, little inclusion and diversity of neurodivergent individuals in the workforce but that more and more support institutes and slowly employers themselves are trying to improve this.
Is the campaign for a neurodiverse workplace specific to those on the autistic spectrum or are those with dyslexia and dyspraxia, for example also included?
Neurodiversity means inclusion and representation within a population of all people, also those who are neurodivergent. Neurodivergent means the people who have different strengths and skills than most ‘neurotypical’ people based on neurological, developmental (in short: ‘neurodevelopmental’) differences. Clinical/medical diagnosis that are definitions for neurodevelopmental disorders are: autism spectrum, attention-deficit hyperactivity, dyslexia, dyscalculia, Tourette’s Syndrome and several more. But not everyone who is neurodivergent has a neurodevelopmental disorder.
Are there unique challenges that make it problematic for those with ADHD, for example, to attain and retain jobs?
The answer to this question is probably somewhat similar to my answer to question 1. I think you can divide the challenges to attain and retain jobs between the challenges coming from the neurodivergent brain from the individual themselves; they have often different cognitive functioning and different strengths and strategies to work – which makes certain tasks much harder for them.
On the other hand, the typical/traditional workforce is shaped by ‘neurotypicals’ and research outcomes that are based on the neurotypical population. Therefore, the neurodivergent population will have to push very hard to get the same outcomes and follow through the same step-by-step work processes that are simplified for neurotypical brains but probably harder for neurodivergent brains. In example: someone with ADHD can find it hard to organise a clear CV and plan job interviews, someone with dyslexia struggles reading through job packages, picking out the key words and writing a covering letter, and for someone with autism spectrum disorder it may seem impossible to physically attend a job interview.
What is the difference between the challenges facing those on the autistic spectrum and those with ADHD when finding and retaining work?
Firstly, I would like to point out that the latest research estimates 50% of individuals with an autism spectrum disorder to have comorbid ADHD or several ADHD traits. Vice versa – individuals with autistic traits among the ADHD population, this percentage may be lower but still significantly higher than what we expect to find in the overall population. The key point is that every neurodivergent individual, with autism or ADHD or other, is authentic in their set of strengths and skills. It is therefore difficult to apply workplace adjustments that work for one individual with autism/ADHD to another individuals with autism/ADHD. This will need to be assessed with every neurodivergent individual again. I would like to add to that, that also every workplace is different, and each team or company has a different ‘philosophy’. It is key that both the employee and employer sit down together to define what their needs and wishes are.
Do you find certain professions suit a more neurodiverse workforce, but others do not?
It is a question I am thinking of a lot. I am unaware of research on this topic, because I assume that indeed there will be professions that suit better a type of neurodivergence (e.g. hyperactivity, hyperfocus, repetitive work). It would be great if we would have more social scientists and employers linking their forces to have this type of research done.
Is it common for those who are not neurotypical to leave employment or be forced out due to others prejudices?
Yes. It is more common that those who are not neurotypical leave employment as a result of the difficulties they face when employed, or that they are forced to leave employment due to the behaviours of their co-employees/employers.
What can we do, generally, to create a fairer hiring process?
- Generate awareness and educate – everyone in employment (from the top to the bottom of the people working in an enterprise) about neurodiversity, how to recognize it, how to nourish it and why it is beneficial.
- Get the neurodivergent population involved – in the whole hiring process and the retaining of neurodivergent employees.
I believe that every company should have a Diversity & Inclusion lead who is actively working on getting and retaining neurodiversity in their company.
- Motivate the neurodivergent population to speak up; and listen – it is important that those who consider themselves neurodivergent let us hear their ideas and opinions. They are the ones that know best how we can improve neurodiversity in employment, how to shape a fairer hiring process and what tools can help to improve a neurodivergent-friendly work environment.
Do you think attitudes towards the autistic community are changing positively?
My ideas about this are subjective, but I have the feeling that indeed attitudes towards the autistic community are becoming more positive than they were. However, many people still believe that they understand ‘autism’ when they have read, studied or met someone with an autism spectrum disorder. But it has to be repeated: if you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism. You cannot generalize that example to the autistic population, every person has an individual set of traits and skills. For the neurodivergent population, this may be even more outspoken than for the neurotypical population.
What are the assumed challenges of having a neurodiverse workplace?
In a neurodiverse workplace, everyone will have to accept that each individual is authentic and that one wa
y of working does not fit all. Therefore, employees are people and not numbers. They have to be approached in a personal way and be listened to. This asks for a more flexible way of working and is expected to be the key for more creative and excelling outcomes that overdraw predefined expectations.
Are the concerns and these perceived challenges worth giving any credence?
Definitely. Approaching (potential) employees with empathy and interest gives better results in terms of; retaining employees, functional activity during work hours, reduction of sick leave, vertical communication and flagging risk situations. Giving credence to neurodiversity in a workforce is allowing a team to be a sustainable ecosystem where every individual makes use of their strengths and is supported in activities they are less skilled in. It should not be forgotten that many teams have already employed neurodivergent individuals who are very talented, but who have not declared their difficulties or disability.
Are any industries particularly suited to working with the neurodiverse and do you find that those industries are the most compliant in terms of recruitment?
There are several disabilities defined as neurodivergent: autism, spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, tic syndromes, apraxia. Each of these disabilities fall into another category and are ‘coloured’ by the individual who is living with the neurodivergent trait(s). Some people find great coping strategies that turn their difficulty into a talent, think of a comedian who has ADHD. People with autism spectrum disorder can particularly enjoy mechanics or coding and become very skilled mechanical engineers or computer coders – but it is a generalization to say that most individuals with autism spectrum disorder are suited to these roles only.