In coining the term neurodiversity in the late 1990s, the American journalist Harvey Blume wrote: “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favor a somewhat autistic cast of mind.”
For a long time, it has been recognised that people who are autistic, dyslexic, show traits of ADHD or have other conditions that now fall under the neurodiversity umbrella, are capable of intellectual and academic brilliance, often focused in certain fields. But although this has challenged the assumption that cognitive difference automatically means inferiority, this has singularly failed to filter through into the workplace.
People with autism, for example, remain chronically underrepresented in the workplace, even when they are educated to degree level and beyond. It certainly isn’t ability that creates barriers to having more neurodiverse workplaces. What employers shy away from is making the necessary adjustments and allowances for people who might communicate and interact socially in ways that diverge from the norm (whatever that is), and accommodating specific behavioural traits.
What Blume touched on 20 years ago was that this inability to accommodate differences in the workplace means employers risk missing out on skills that could really add value to their business. It is revealing that he mentioned ‘cybernetics and computer culture’ – even two decades ago, it was recognised that many autistic people show an extraordinary aptitude in technical skills. In today’s digital world, surely these are abilities every business should be looking to tap into.
Making a difference
We are starting to see clear evidence for the real difference neurodiversity can make in the workplace. After a recruitment initiative which saw the bank employ autistic staff in its Mortgage Banking Technology division, JP Morgan reported that after six months, the new recruits were performing above and beyond the level it typically took people three years to reach, providing a 50% uplift in productivity.
IT and Data Consultancy firm Auticon, meanwhile, has been making waves partly because all of its employees are on the autistic spectrum, but also because of the outstanding results it is achieving. A recent article in The Telegraph highlighted the impression one of the company’s consultants made on a project working for Direct Line, going dramatically above and beyond the expected deliverables in terms of thoroughness and attention to detail.
Why might this be the case? Because the cognitive differences which can make communication and social interaction more of a challenge for autistic people also lend themselves to enhanced capabilities in pattern recognition, logical analysis, concentration, attention to detail and so on. Academic studies have found that autistic people are up to 40% faster at problem solving than those not on the spectrum.
We all know the Rain Man example of Dustin Hoffman’s brilliant outsider. But the point is, cognitive difference shouldn’t make you an outsider. Everyone’s brains work in different ways, we all have our own cognitive strengths and weaknesses. For businesses not to be making every effort to harness those divergent capabilities across their workforce is a simple waste of available resources.