Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Autism awareness day is an annual global event taking place April 2nd. The day not only helps to increase understanding of the daily challenges faced by individuals with autism, it also celebrates their unique skills and talents. Businesses are now awakening to the fact that this diverse group have expertise which could be useful to them. Skills and thought processes such as attention to detail, precision, dependability, and consistency that have, until recently, been overlooked by businesses and possibly going to waste. In this article psychologist and psychometrician Elaine White draws on her research that tested the usability of the Good&Co app for adults with autism.

Companies promoting neurodiversity

Some companies are capitalizing on the skills of autistic people. The IT company, SAP, for example, started its Autism at Work campaign in 2013, and now has more than 140 employees on the autistic spectrum. The company argue that the increase in diversity of thought has had a positive impact on innovation.

Auticon, another example, is an IT consultancy that solely employs adults on the autistic spectrum, who are matched with clients based on their unique skillset.  Linklaters, a city law firm, is one such company, which have recently hired a consultant from Auticon to work in their London office. Another notable venture is Deutsche Bank’s paid internships for graduates who are on the autistic spectrum. These are just a few companies who are ahead of the curve in realizing the diverse talents available among adults with autism.

Such ventures are a huge breakthrough – but it’s a drop in the ocean. In 2016, the National Autistic society (UK) found that only 16% of autistic adults were in full-time employment. A year later, the charity called upon the UK government to be more ambitious in addressing the autism employment gap. The situation is little better in the US, where around half of young autistic adults remain unemployed or un-enrolled in higher education.

Why does the autism employment gap exist?

When it comes to job-seeking and onboarding, autistic adults face many specific challenges. The interview stage alone, dependent on a level of social competency has its own set of frustrations.  As a result, autistic adults have a tendency to be over-represented in casual employment, overqualified for a role, and under-represented in senior organizational roles. This is despite higher than average education levels and enhanced performance on certain tasks compared to the general population.

Part of the reason is that in spite of initiatives such as Autism Awareness Day, there’s still a lack of understanding generally in society regarding the issues faced by autistic adults. People may have heard of savants, those who despite having an intellectual disability,  have unprecedented skills in a specific area, such as Stephen Wiltshire, who has the extraordinary ability to draw city skylines accurately from memory. At the other extreme, people might also be familiar with autistic individuals who exhibit difficulties in motor, speech and language, which impact learning ability and behavior. But these are extremes. While some overlap exists with learning disability, approximately 60% of individuals with an autistic spectrum diagnosis are known as ‘high-functioning’ (i.e. without intellectual disability) and have average or high levels of intelligence.

Another misconception is that those with autism struggle to understand figurative language. While this may be the case for anyone with a language impairment, research has shown no difference in figurative language comprehension between individuals with and without autism who had the same levels of language abilities. Likewise, when we at Good&Co tested the usability of our workplace personality app for adults with autism, we found that it was equally well-received by adults both with and without autism, even though we use figurative language and idioms extensively.

In which areas do adults with autism need support?

A general lack of awareness regarding autism not only leads to a bias against employing autistic adults in the first place, but can also foster a lack of support within the working environment for those who do find employment. Autistic adults particularly need support in social competency. Some may exhibit unusual or repetitive behaviors, whereas others are likely to find social interactions challenging – sometimes overwhelmingly so.

Sensory overload may also be an issue, so support may need to include being able to wear noise-cancelling headphones, adjustments to lighting or even having a quiet space to recharge. Flexible working may also be necessary to accommodate long, intense periods of focus offset by down periods to allow for a recharge. Companies that have embraced a more neurodiverse workforce, however, claim the benefits far outweigh the adjustments necessary to accommodate the needs of autistic employees.

Another aspect of support could include simplifying processes, making them more straight-forward. Our research showed that the group diagnosed with autism particularly liked the simplicity and brevity of our app with comments including, “it was quick”, and “easy to use”. Ease of use might be more important for adults with autism, who are possibly already subject to a high cognitive load, in other words, having to apply extra effort to absorb and process information. People with autism have more difficulty processing and filtering out information and can find it overwhelming. Keeping job roles more clearly defined and guidance more direct, with clear and simple instructions, cognitive load would be reduced for those on the autistic spectrum.

What can companies do when hiring with neurodiversity in mind?

To obtain the unique skillset and diversity of thought available from potential employees with autism, companies could benefit by understanding workplace personalities. Companies can then make the necessary adjustments needed to create a more inclusive and accessible environment.

While the autistic community are a diverse group and specific needs should be catered for on an individual basis, our research highlights a few areas where some broad adaptations can be made:

  • Simplify processes so they are easy to navigate. Keep processes straight-forward and unambiguous without increasing the cognitive load unnecessarily
  • Present information in a way that doesn’t induce sensory overload
  • Make adaptations to the environment so employees can use headphones if need be to shut out noise, and adjust lighting, or at least provide a space where employees can escape for a while if need be
  • Allow some flexibility in working hours/structure to be more accommodating. The 9 to 5 structure and 5 days per week, might not work for individuals who like to work alone, and perhaps intensely for several hours at a stretch
  • Try and make it fun and engaging – work doesn’t have to be dull whatever your neuro type
  • Use regular engagement surveys, such as Good&Co, to be sure everyone on your team feels taken care of and happy in your organization

Many of these recommendations will likely also help improve the working lives of all employees, not just the neurodiverse.  As Sara Harvey, Founder at Agony Autie says, “If we make these changes for this sub-group of people, we will revolutionize the way you treat your workforce because you’ll start treating them as people.” By opening their doors to neurodiversity, companies will tap into skills and strengths they had previously only dreamed of.

Elaine White is a psychologist and psychometrician working at the workplace personality platform, Good&Co, which empowers people with the information they need to make better, more informed career decisions, while also helping companies build happier, more productive workplaces.

This post was written in collaboration with Recruiting Brainfood.

Dr. Kerry Schofield

Dr. Kerry Schofield

Dr. Kerry Schofield is co-founder and Chief Psychometrician at Good&Co. Kerry graduated from the University of Oxford in 2003 with a degree in psychology, followed by an MSc in research and statistics, and a PhD in experimental psychology. Wearing her academic hat, Kerry is a visiting researcher at King's College, London, and a co-director of the MILES educational outcomes project. Kerry lives in Devon with her partner, Dr. Nic, and spaniel, Captain Jack.

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