The term neurodiversity has only been in use for a short period of time, but it gives an account of facets that have been around for as long as humans. Neurodiversity describes diversity of the brain. It recognises that we are ‘wired up’ differently and don’t all process information in the same way or learn in the same way. As a result we do not all think alike or problem-solve in the same way. Typical examples of neurodiversity are dyslexia, ADHD, autism and dyspraxia.
All organisations will have adults who fit under the term neurodiverse, but because of their lack of a diagnosis, or fear of repercussion from disclosure, they may not be recognised as such by HR.
Neurodiversity in the Workforce
Consider the fact that at least 10% of the UK population is dyslexic, 5 -10% are thought
to fit the profile of ADHD, around 5% are dyspraxic and approximately 4% are on the autistic spectrum. Then consider if your organisation has anywhere near those levels of reported neurodiversity. You need to add to this the likelihood that these statistics are probably underrepresenting neurodiversity in the adult population. This is because when current workers were at school, the education system was inefficient at picking up all but the most obvious examples of each neurotype.
Unfortunately, even though, dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and autism are better recognised now, it is still the case today that unless a condition impacts significantly on schoolwork and attainment, causes disruption in the classroom or creates obvious personal stress, then it is likely to be missed by professionals, parents and even the individual themselves, remaining undiagnosed. However a lack of a diagnosis or label does not mean that it is not impacting on the adult - on their work, their stress levels and their ‘fit’ within an organisation.
Some examples may help to describe how that lack of ‘fit’ may be a growing issue in modern organisations:
- Characteristics of the autistic spectrum, such as limited ability to make meaningful social interaction and a limited social imagination, may not fit in well with the current recognition of the importance of emotional intelligence. The values placed on building relationships, teamwork and flexibility are growing, but may be harder for autistic adults to keep up with.
- Dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD may be at odds with the convention that everyone in the workplace should be organised, attentive and able to communicate quickly and effortlessly in an ever-changing and diverse range of ways.
So if there is such a potential lack of ‘fit’, then why should organisations be celebrating, or even employing neurodiverse adults in the first place?
Research has shown that positive attributes such as creativity, tenacity, pattern recognition and lateral thinking bring a different perspective to problem solving often required in modern organisations (see Thomas Armstrong’s book The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of your Differently Wired Brain). This set of specialist skills have been recognised and positively recruited for by marketing firms, the British government’s intelligence and security organisation GCHQ and software companies such as Microsoft. Concentrating on the negative aspects of neurodiversity is clearly not good business.
So what can your organisation do to celebrate neurodiversity and reap the rewards that it brings?
Three suggestions of how your organisation may harness the positive traits:
1. Make sure that your organisation has flexibility in roles rather than a rigidity in job functions. This will allow individuals to play to their strengths and make use of their specialised skills and for your organisation to capitalise on the comparative advantages. If you place a strong emphasis on employees being ‘all-rounders’ you may miss out on the benefits of divergent thinking and create an atmosphere of stress and anxiety, which fails to get the best from anybody. Be prepared to adjust roles and take advantage of competences rather than punish for lack of ability in specific aspects of a role.
2. Raise awareness of neurodiversity amongst staff, especially managers. As you have seen earlier in this article, many may not be aware that they and/or their colleagues are neurodiverse. They may fail to understand why some tasks are stressful and difficult and the simple ways of getting round such difficulties. Making it easy to disclose difference and get appropriate support without stigma is useful for all concerned.
3. Make sure you are an inclusive organisation where talk of difference is knowledge-based through a specialist-led awareness training programme. Disclosure of neuro differences should be met with the correct support and understanding. Neurodiverse conditions are commonly misunderstood and misreported. This is too important to be left in the hands of staff to Google.
From an organisational perspective, celebrating neurodiversity is not just a matter of social conscience. Rather celebration is about being reaping the benefits and competitive advantages brought about by creating a stress-free atmosphere where people are encouraged to think differently.