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The Case for Neurodiversity in the Workplace

People’s brains are not all wired the same.

This should not be news to anyone. Just as we all have different physiognomies, different body shapes, different hair colours, skin tones and physical attributes, it makes sense that our brains, too, should reflect our inherent individuality.

Our experiences in work and in education tell us that people have different aptitudes and cognitive abilities that give them relative strengths and weaknesses in things like memory recall, problem solving, critical analysis, reasoning or linguistic capabilities. Just as some people have physiques which make them naturally more able when it comes to running fast or kicking a football, so others have talents in things like taking exams or finishing a cryptic crossword.

But the diversity in the way our brains work goes beyond our relative intellectual abilities, or even our behavioural predispositions, our mindsets and our emotions. It also extends into what not so long ago were generally considered cognitive disabilities, often cloaked in the catch-all euphemism ‘special needs’. This includes conditions on the so-called autistic spectrum.

The truth is, things like dyslexia, Asperger’s syndrome, dyspraxia, OCD, ADHD and many more are not very well understood. For a long time they have been treated as medical conditions, on the assumption that they represent ‘something wrong’ which can be cured. But the problem is, no one knows what that ‘something wrong’ is, or even if there is actually anything wrong in the traditional sense of a disease or medical problem.

And without an identified cause, it is almost impossible to think in terms of putting a problem right.

Plus, although some people exhibiting characteristics of the above conditions do suffer debilitating effects, others are generally able to function just fine. They might display some behaviours which are not considered ‘normal’ (whatever that is), or they might face certain challenges in specific areas of day-to-day life. On the other hand, some people on the autistic spectrum display remarkable abilities in certain cognitive areas.

From disability to diversity

So instead of ‘mental disability’ or ‘special needs’, a new term has emerged to describe these different mental traits – neurodiversity. Behind the term lies an attempt to move the discourse away from viewing such conditions as medical problems, and in the light of any better explanation, try to accept them as a consequence of a pretty fundamental fact of human existence – people’s brains just work in different ways.

The term is also intended to encourage a more inclusive, accepting view of such conditions among people in general, and within the workplace in particular. Because as long as people have viewed the likes of Asperger’s and ADHD as disabilities and abnormalities, they have proven to be significant barriers to people getting into work, staying in work, and getting on in work.

Taking the first point, research carried out a decade ago estimated that only around 15 per cent of adults in the UK with an autistic spectrum condition were in full time employment. As it is thought that around one in hundred people are ‘on the spectrum’, that equates to well over half a million adults not in full time work.

The majority of people with a spectrum condition are perfectly capable of being ‘economically active’ by working. The reason so many were not, and why moves have been made to improve the situation over the last 10 years, are more down to a lack of general understanding and awareness than the capabilities of individuals.

Someone with Asperger’s, for example, might struggle to display the conventional behaviours expected in a job interview, and therefore be overlooked for a role they could fulfil perfectly well. This is a waste, damaging to individuals and families, and a drain on the economy when people have to be supported unnecessarily through the welfare system.

Out in the open

In terms of staying in work and getting on in work, autistic spectrum conditions are often referred to as ‘hidden’, in the sense that many employers and colleagues are simply not aware that an individual has one. On the one hand, this proves the point about people with such conditions being perfectly capable of leading fully-functioning, productive lives. On the other, it speaks a lot about the stigma attached to them and widespread lack of understanding.

It is thought that ‘hidden’ conditions like dyslexia, OCD, ADHD and Asperger’s are major factors in individuals underachieving at work, or finding it difficult to hold down jobs for long periods. An individual who, for example, keeps their dyslexia hidden might understably struggle to meet expected performance levels in anything to do with verbal reasoning, report writing or so on. Someone with ADHD might struggle if the expected work culture is to sit at a desk for hours at a time without a break.

The point is not that these individuals cannot do their jobs. Indeed, going back to the idea of different people having different levels of aptitude in different cognitive areas, they might be very strong in certain areas. With the right allowances made, and the right support structures being put in place to help when help is needed, they could flourish and contribute significantly.

The CIPD has recently published a report specifically aimed at raising awareness amongst employers about the impact of ‘hidden’ neurodiversity. It aims to help more employers recognise the signs of a spectrum condition in employees, and create workplace cultures where individuals feel empowered to be open about where they need support, rather than keep it hidden.

One of the most interesting points about supporting neurodiversity in the workplace is that it encourages practices which can ultimately benefit the workforce as a whole. Getting the best out of staff with spectrum conditions is about recognising needs, providing assistance as required, and therefore enabling them to be more productive.

These are principles that can be applied to anyone. Recognising and celebrating individuality in the workplace means playing to relative strengths and weaknesses, supporting the latter so the former can flourish. The business that can do this effectively with all of its staff has a high chance of being happy, productive and successful.