John Levell is an interim CTO, fellow of BCS The Chartered Institute for IT, and former non- executive chair of the British Dyslexia Association. He writes for Tech Monitor as part of BCS president Rebecca George’s guest editorship.
Neurodiversity is the celebration of the variety of ways in which human beings think. To promote neurodiversity is to recognise the potential of people with dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, dyspraxia (DCD) and other attributes, and to ensure that society accommodates the way their minds work and is receptive to their perspectives.
Awareness and understanding of neurodiversity has grown significantly in recent years. This thanks, in part, to prominent individuals such as Richard Branson, Jamie Oliver, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and others who have spoken positively about their own experience of neurodiversity on the public stage.
After spending more than 25 years working in technology, it is apparent to me that there is a large number of highly skilled and capable people within the sector whose “different thinking” is a major asset, whether their neurodiversity has been officially recognised or otherwise.
The IT sector has long recognised and drawn on the capabilities of neurodiverse people. Back in the early 2000s, technology companies including SAP, HP and Microsoft began to consciously seek autistic people to recruit. In 2018 Professor John Stein wrote an article for BCS explaining “Why dyslexics make good coders”. From personal experience, I can confirm he is right, and I would argue that they make even better architects.
To make the most of these talents, organisations must consider both the employee experience they offer and their recruitment processes. At a time when society needs new ideas about how we live and work, now is the time to start.
Creating a positive experience for neurodiverse employees
Employers have legal duties to people in these groups, such as the obligations of the Equalities Act in the UK. However, more importantly, creating a working environment that properly supports neurodiversity will pay dividends for the organisation, for the individuals and society.
Many organisations have taken positive steps to change the employee experience, far beyond the minimum action needed to meet their legal obligations. They have supported the creation of staff neurodiversity networks, changed recruitment processes, made reasonable adjustments readily available through frictionless processes and others have gone much further. GCHQ, the UK’s communications intelligence agency, has introduced a Neurodiversity service to promote the recruitment and engagement of people including those with dyslexia and dyspraxia.
However, while there are certainly some excellent examples of good practice out there, there is no simple playbook that is guaranteed to deliver a fully neurodiverse-friendly world. So, while there are positive signs and a generally positive direction of travel, there is still a long way to go. The following are measures that can be taken to better accommodate neurodiversity in the workplace.
The right role: The application of a simple label, like “dyslexia”, implies some level of homogeneity to the experience of individuals to whom it is applied and perhaps the availability of a quick “fix” to address the issue. However, neurodiversity is more complex, and it impacts people in different ways and throughout their lives. This makes self-knowledge particularly important and having a role that plays to the skills and capabilities of the individual is vital.
Performance measurement: Due to the number of staff, many larger organisations have to adopt generalised performance measurement and management processes. These often assume each employee should aspire to a “rounded” performance profile across a range of areas. For the neurodiverse, this is not always possible. Measurement and management must have the flexibility to work even for those with a particularly “spikey profile”.
Technology: For many neurodiverse people, the simplest of business processes or poorly designed technology can prove to be huge barriers. Access to assistive technology may also be vital and for some, a locked-down technology environment can prevent them from long-held coping strategies that would make them most productive.
People and culture: Ultimately, this is the hardest. The culture of an organisation can empower the neurodiverse to simply get on with doing a brilliant job, seeking the help they need when they need it. A positive “tone from the top” helps, but it needs to be backed up by individual behaviours all the way down the organisation.
As a result, even within the most accommodating organisations, individual working relationships can have a huge impact. For example, a manager who prefers to give step–by–step verbal instructions to their team without explaining the goal is unlikely to get the best out of dyslexic team members who may need a sense of the big picture and perhaps visual cues.
Recruitment and retention of neurodiverse people
Earlier this year, BCS produced an excellent Diversity Report highlighting the fact that the neurodiverse can face many challenges in recruitment and retention. The steps needed to make recruitment more accessible will vary substantially from organisation to organisation. However, in many these changes will include things like:
- Taking neurodiversity into account in job design.
- Advertising vacancies in a way likely to attract the neurodiverse
- Avoiding application forms or processes that lack accessibility.
- Structuring interview and assessment processes that work for different groups.
- Ensuring that selection criteria and testing embrace the non-neurotypical patterns of strengths and weaknesses.
However, it starts with making the workforce generally aware of neurodiversity and of the value that it can bring. Ideally, this is achieved by demonstrating a direct connection between the strengths neurodiverse thinking brings with the objectives and strategy of the organisation or its customers and clients. Microsoft is an example of a company that has achieved this brilliantly.
Taking a more strategic view, organisations should actively consider how to unlock the latent talent in this group by redesigning the way they work to provide more opportunity for the neurodiverse. HP, SAP and Microsoft, to name but a few, have started autism hiring programmes. They have entirely changed the recruitment process, redesigned office environment and role definitions. This has provided business benefits, letting them access a capable talent pool that might not otherwise have reached the interview stage.
The value of diverse thinking in times of change
The pandemic has effectively pressed “fast-forward” on some parts of the technology sector and is creating demand and new opportunities for technologists – neurodiverse or not. However, many sectors have been decimated and businesses and individuals are being faced with stark economic choices with livelihoods being put at risk on an almost daily basis.
There will be many casualties of the pandemic – neurodiverse and neurotypical. For some neurodiverse people, the journey back to employment and prosperity will be very bumpy. This will be particularly so if organisations find they do not have the resources to go the “extra mile” in recruitment and retention.
However, there is another more hopeful perspective that will certainly apply to some. The neurodiverse see the world through a different lens to others, often able to bring new perspectives and new ideas. The work of Dr Helen Taylor highlights the benefit to societies of using different thinking to navigate in times of change. At a time when society needs fresh ideas, can we afford to exclude the diversity of perspectives that humanity has to offer?