What is your understanding of the word ‘Neurodiversity’?
Do you think of Rain Man, the autistic savant who can’t understand people but can memorise every card in a shuffled deck? Or TV’s ‘defective detective’, Monk – whose OCD and phobias cause hilarious hindrances, yet afford him an exceptional attention to detail? Maybe you’ve recognised ADHD in Finding Nemo’s Dory; the little fish with a big heart who infuriates others with her impulsivity but meets adversity with positivity and tenacity.
The truth is, most people who fall under the definition of ‘neurodiverse’ (including Attention Deficit Disorders, Autism, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia) do not have superhuman abilities. Nor are they tragic characters who struggle to get through the day due to their diagnoses. Neurodiverse individuals may face different challenges to those your neurotypical employees experience but there are a multitude of reasons you might want to consider hiring them.
When recruiting, it’s easy to fall into the trap of looking for what people can’t do but this could potentially rule out prospective employees that could diversify and elevate the team.
For example, would you consider it a ‘red flag’ if an interviewee didn’t smile, shake your hand, or make eye contact? Would you be likely to consider that this individual might be on the autistic spectrum, a disorder which causes significant struggles with interpreting social cues? What if this person has all the skills you’re looking for but they don’t seem like they’d be a good fit with the company culture…
Then imagine hiring this person – at their first internal meeting they get up to make themselves a cup of tea while an account director details a problem her team is facing. Everyone politely ignores her. Once that newly hired employee sits back down, they suggest a unique and creative solution to the problem nobody has thought of. This employee wears headphones during the working day and ignores office chit-chat but will focus so intensely on their project they finish in half the expected time.
If you want to know what it’s like to work with an employee on the autistic spectrum, ask my colleagues – the person I’ve described above is me, at various points in my career. I might not remember to ask how your weekend was but if you throw a swift deadline and a creative challenge at me, you can be assured I’ve got it handled. The cost to my employer? Permitting me to wear headphones, giving me clear instructions and understanding I may not comment on their new haircut.
But this is just my experience; every neurodiverse person is… well, diverse. Employees with ADHD may need to use mind mapping software to help them stay organised, but they could generate you a wealth of ideas and solutions. A colleague with OCD may reject the idea of hot desking but may be able to spot errors in data you would never have noticed. Team members with dyslexia may struggle with client-facing emails but may be charismatic presenters who would give your company a boost at pitch.
On World Autism Awareness Day, I’d encourage all employers to focus on the ‘can’ rather than the ‘can’t’ and consider that the strengths of a neurodiverse team can far outweigh the accommodations you might need to make.