While diversity and inclusion in tech and in business have been hot topics in recent years, with much discussion of how to effectively hire and retain staff of all genders and ethnicities, there is still work to be done on raising the agenda of the neurodiverse. And there is now also a growing body of academic research that proves neurodiversity has tangible benefits to the performance of businesses.
I recently attended the European Women in Tech conference in Amsterdam, where Viola Sommer, COO of Auticon, spoke on the benefits and challenges of neurodiversity, something I hadn’t heard a lot of people talk about before. Auticon is an international IT and data consulting company in which all the consultants are on the autistic spectrum.
“Why is a company that’s made up of exclusively autistic people so successful and growing so quickly?” Viola asked to a full house in Amsterdam. “It’s because certain cognitive skills are more prevalent in the autism community.” These enhanced cognitive skills include pattern recognition, attention to detail, sustained concentration, logical analysis and error detection.
In a nutshell, neurodiversity refers to the way that each of our brains are wired slightly differently, which results in different ‘cognitive styles’. Some of the more frequent diagnoses in the neurodiversity spectrum are autism, ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia. Traditionally these kinds of diagnoses are seen as impairments, but in recent years people have started to recognise the benefits of cognitive diversity, though there is still a way to go to get the message out.
Neurodiversity is similar to any kind of human diversity and is certainly not something that should invite stereotypes, or something that needs to be fixed.
About 1% of the population are estimated to be on the autistic spectrum, and as Viola pointed out, a lot of people are very good at compensating for any differences in thinking that they might experience. Everyone has most likely met or come across someone on the autistic spectrum, even if you unaware of it. This applies to autistic women in particular. Women tend to go undiagnosed with autism and when diagnosed it is often later in life. It is thought that autistic woman may be better at masking their symptoms, but there is also much more research, understanding and public perception of autistic men than women.
Autistic people tend to have IQ in the average or above average range. So why is it that only 16% of autistic adults are estimated to be in full-time employment in the UK?
According to Viola “there’s a huge pool of untapped potential here.”
Left: neuron of a non-autistic brain, right: neuron of an autistic brain
In the picture above you can see the autistic brain’s neuron (right) has a little bit more going on, it’s more detailed, and has more local connections.
“One of the more prevalent theories of autism is that the autistic brain is more connected than the non-autistic brain. They perceive and process more at any point in time than a non-autistic person. When you think about that cognitive style, that can bring about the amazing gifts that we see in many autistic people, but it can also be quite disabling in everyday life.”
“Diversity is who we are, inclusion is how we work”
The cognitive style can be described as constantly thinking in algorithms and logic, which makes social situations difficult to navigate as they are highly illogical and human reactions unpredictable. This, however, does mean as Viola put it “those thinking styles can be incredibly valuable in areas that are systematic, that are structured and logical – like tech.”
If this intelligence and ability to hyper-focus can’t be communicated through traditional hiring processes, personality-based interviews, and recognisable ways of working, then companies may well be missing out of the aptitude and neurodiversity benefits of employing people on the autistic spectrum.
Making your business neurodiverse
The most challenging thing about hiring people with autism is that there is no one size fits all approach or single adjustment you can make to make your company ‘neurodiversity friendly’. And because many people with neurological disorders can be good at somewhat compensating for many things they find difficult, it’s quite easy to forget that they might need reasonable adjustments to assessment. Big companies may struggle to input these changes, which can create an advantage to smaller nimbler companies to reap the benefits, if they recognise the cognitive strengths that can benefit a business.
1) Switch up your interviewing game to find hidden skills
Autistic people may communicate differently to people that are not on the spectrum and experience different feelings, or thoughts in social situations. For this reason standard job interviews may not be the best way to find out who has the relevant skills for a technical role because they’re predominantly an assessment of a person’s social skills.
Viola offers “at Auticon we have a completely different recruitment process that is just purely numbers and skills-based, because the other way is not a fair assessment for people on the neurodiversity spectrum.”
2) Spend time getting to know your colleagues (especially their support requirements)
The amount that autistic people perceive and process can lead to sensory difficulties or ‘hypersensitivity to sensory input’. Autistic people as well as those with ADHD and other disorders might prefer to sit facing a wall to limit visual distractions, wear sunglasses or wear headphones while they work. These are all fairly simple adjustments that require just a bit of understanding and flexibility so that employees can focus on their work.
3) Educate your team (and yourself)!
Avoid misunderstandings and provide ongoing support by educating the whole team about neurodiversity, why it is beneficial and what to expect. If people are around neurodiverse colleagues and aren’t aware, differences in communication style might cause things to be perceived as rude; for example an autistic colleague may not want to attend social activities, or may not make eye contact when speaking to you. They often lack social filters and can come across as blunt. This can be useful in business too of course, as you can be sure of an honest opinion.
4) Be a considerate manager
Autistic people need things that make sense, so be clear and straightforward with your instructions and feedback, listen when they tell you what support they need and be understanding of any differences, and you will be able to get the most out of your employees.
If you do these things and really nurture the talent, you will see the benefits of neurodiversity and bring those cognitive strengths to your business.
These changes might sounds like a hassle, but the potential rewards are rich. As Linklaters said of Auticon’s services, “our experience has been that any adjustments we need to make are far outweighed by the extraordinary abilities and skills they bring to the firm.”