Around 700,000 people in the UK are ‘neurodivergent’ – which means they suffer from conditions such as autism, Asperger’s and dyslexia. There is also evidence that an increasing number of women have these conditions. Which means that countless numbers of people are suffering unnecessarily, and British business is wasting a lot of talent…

By Mark Richards.

Let me start this article with a simple question. What do Steven Spielberg, Richard Branson and the late Steve Jobs have in common?

And for your bonus point, what linked Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Mozart?

A large pile of money? Famous people? It goes a little deeper than that. Branson and Spielberg are both dyslexic, as was Steve Jobs. Newton, Darwin and Mozart were all believed to be on the autistic spectrum.

Today conditions such as autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, dyspraxia and dyslexia are grouped under the term ‘neurodiversity’ – a term you are going to hear more and more as it becomes increasingly important to both employees and their employers. In the workplace, neurodiversity covers people who do not tick the ‘conventional employee’ box – and there are now 700,000 people in the UK who don’t tick that box.

It used to be thought that conditions like autism and Asperger’s were almost exclusively a male preserve – but more and more evidence is now emerging of the number of women with such conditions. These are often being diagnosed later in life, often after the people concerned have suffered problems in both education and work.

Why is neurodiversity important to employers?

As always in business there is a shortage of really talented people – a recent report in CityAM quoted a survey showing that salaries in the City of London had increased for 75 consecutive months: more than six years.

So companies and organisations need talented people and, increasingly, they need the unusually talented people that see the world differently. One very obvious example is GCHQ, which openly advertises the fact that it is looking for neurodivergent staff.

Problems in the workplace

You would think then, that all employers would be rushing out to find and employ neurodivergent staff – after all, as the world becomes more specialised, so you need people who are very good at very specific tasks. In fact, it is not that simple, which explains why many employers continue to miss out – and why many neurodivergent staff find the world of work far more difficult than they ought to.

It starts with the interview…

People who are neurodivergent may not be straightforward to interview  – candidates with Asperger’s, for example, may have difficulty looking directly into an interviewer’s eyes. Similarly, neurodivergent people may be overly honest about their weaknesses. We have all conducted interviews – or been interviewed – where there have been a certain amount of ‘glossing over’ weaknesses. To have someone come straight out and say, ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I can’t work if…’ may come as something of a shock to an interviewer who is not properly prepared.

Some psychometric tests may also disadvantage neurodivergent candidates: for example, someone with dyslexia should be allowed extra time to complete a test, as they would have been in an exam at school.

After the interview

Neurodiversity: Different Folks need Different Strokes

The problem – for both staff and employers – is that neurodivergent staff not only see the world differently, they sometimes react to the world differently as well and that can be difficult to accommodate in the workplace, especially for companies who have a relatively small team.

As an example, neurodivergent members of staff may only be able to process one instruction at a time. They may be performing some tasks spectacularly well – but not know where to start with others. So managers need to accept that they are working with ‘specialists’ and that time spent on the traditional approach of strengthening weaker areas is simply going to be time – and money – wasted.

Managers should also be aware of social situations – neurodivergent staff may well feel very uncomfortable with some of the traditional company ‘team building’ events.

They may well also require more input from their managers – who will need to put policies and procedures in place that they have not considered before. Individual support, working environment and proactive management are all key to getting the best from neurodivergent staff – as is understanding the refreshingly candid feedback they may give.

So it is understandable if some companies have previously decided that the potential rewards of employing neurodivergent staff were not worth the extra effort involved. But with an ever-increasing number of people being diagnosed with such conditions they may have little option than to change their mind – especially as it now looks like the previous assumptions about neurodiversity being an almost-exclusively male condition were wrong.

An increasing number of women…

Saga Noren - The Bridge

hoto by Særún Norén – © 2011 – Filmlance International AB

Many people reading this will have watched the Scandinavian drama The Bridge, in which Sofia Helin plays Saga Noren, a woman detective widely diagnosed by viewers as being on the autistic spectrum. Let me declare an interest here: I am in love with Saga. Her refreshing bluntness appeals to me. “Would you like the recipe?” asks her boyfriend’s mother, having cooked an excruciating dinner for the woman she sees as a potential daughter-in-law. “No, thanks,” replies Saga, “It wasn’t tasty.” And there goes another relationship…

But what the TV series has done is highlight the number of women with similar conditions who struggle in the workplace, with Sofia Helin reporting that she has received countless letters from women with the condition.

Quoted in a BBC article, journalist Laura James revealed that she was not correctly diagnosed until the age of 46, having previously been thought to be anorexic, when, in fact, “I simply forgot to eat.” She suggests that women are better at hiding such conditions than men and/or learning how to live with them.

But with estimates of the male/female neurodiversity ratio now as low as 2:1 according to some researchers, it means that thousands, possibly millions, of women are suffering unnecessarily – and that British business is almost certainly not making the most of some very talented people. It may not be just GCHQ that needs to re-think its recruitment policies…