Outside the box: neurodiversity and the changing workplace

Apr 06, 2022 7 mins

Outside the box: neurodiversity and the changing workplace

author

Andrea Schwam

Translator and writer

As the world of work drastically changed over the past two years, we can now see how workers want the future of work to look like: more flexibility and more robust work-life balance. Many high-profile companies are keeping their hybrid schedules, such as Hubspot, Amazon, and Salesforce.

However, one voice stood out from the crowd. In an op-ed for CNBC, David Aspinall, CEO of Auticon US, a company where two-thirds of employees are autistic, said that his neurodiverse workforce was better prepared to thrive working remotely than a purely neurotypical one.


What the pandemic has shown us, is that the office will never be the same. With 32% of workers preferring exclusively remote work and 59% preferring a hybrid schedule going forward, this could be welcome news for neurodiverse employees in particular. We spoke to three neurodiverse professionals about their experiences in the workplace and about making the office a better place for everyone.

What is neurodiversity?

Definitions…

The term “neurodiversity” is relatively recent. Attributed to sociologist Judy Singe and popularized by journalist Harvey Blume in his 1998 article for The Atlantic, it is an umbrella term that describes a wide range of conditions affecting how the brain works.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, Neurodiversity is “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways.” They also urge that “there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning, and behaving.” A key aspect is that these differences are not deficits to their ability to have a fulfilling professional career. Neurodiverse conditions are described as occurring along a spectrum. These conditions are made up of characteristics that vary with each individual and can even change over time. They can link and overlap as well. Most people think of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in this context. Still, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and Tourette syndrome are all part of the neurodiversity spectrum.

“there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning, and behaving.” A key aspect is that these differences are not deficits to their ability to have a fulfilling professional career.

…and labels

Neurodivergent conditions are sometimes referred to as “invisible disabilities,” which brings up another debate. Not everyone with a diagnosed condition is comfortable identifying with having a disability, while some disability advocates fear that the neurodiversity movement overshadows challenges faced by individuals with more severe cognitive challenges. This concern about terminology is especially strong with respect to ASD.

For Ashley Peacock, a neurodiverse software developer and founder of digital agency Passio, labels are a necessityboth for employees and their employers. “Society as a whole, at the moment, requires us to focus on labels…I need to have a label so I can get the support that I need,” she said.

Aaron Mountford, an engineering consultant, realizes that having ASD and an atypical form of dyslexia “means I’m different, both in the way I act and how I’m seen.” That difference gives him a unique perspective. “It doesn’t define me as ‘disabled’,though, and that’s a big distinction. Usain Bolt’s competitors aren’t disabled because they can’t beat him in a race, so why should I be defined as disabled because my mind works differently to yours? I am as I am, as you are as you are,” he said.

Neurodiversity and the law

Neurodiverse employees have long struggled to have their talents recognized. In the United States, studies show that around 85% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed, compared to 4.2% of the overall population. Despite most companies ramping up their diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in the workforce, many neurodiverse employees are overlooked in this diversity category. According to the UConn Center for Neurodiversity and Employment Innovation, neurodiverse people are often left out of the workforce or are forced to work lower-skilled jobs. This is due to “non-inclusive hiring and retention practices, lack of employer education and training, absence of support ecosystems on the job, and skill differences or needs that often do not align with standard business operations.

In the United States, studies show that around 85% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed, compared to 4.2% of the overall population.

Workplace discrimination towards people with a disability is illegal in the US. The two primary federal nondiscrimination statutes that address employment-related issues for individuals with disabilities are Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The Americans with Disability Act is a federal U.S. law that provides civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities. The ADA has classified autism as a disability covered under this act. The law guarantees autistic people equal employment opportunities, government services, access to education, transport, and more. However, it was only until 2008, when Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), that neurodiverse people, including dyslexia, ADHD, etc., were broadly covered. Despite these improvements to the ADA, the numbers clearly show that the workplace is not designed for neurodiverse employees. Also, the ADA protects an employee’s right to keep their diagnosis from being shared, yet neurodiverse individuals might be hesitant to speak up. Therefore, ensuring workplace support could also mean divulging highly personal information at the recruitment stage.

Workplace challenges

To disclose or not to disclose?

For Peacock, the question of whether to disclose her condition came up early in her career. She has a diagnosis of ADHD as well as delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD). As a result, the traditional 9 to 5 can be a major obstacle.

Peacock was thrilled when she landed an interview for her dream job, designing a reading app for people with dementia, at a top London university. But her excitement turned to trepidation when the interview was set for 9 am. She asked if the interview could be later in the day, but they replied that it was difficult to arrange and wondered if her commute across London was to blame. Peacock recognized a great excuse when she saw one, but decided that divulging her condition was a better option. “If I don’t get the job because they think I’m not capable, that’s okay because I’d much rather work in an environment where I knew people would be accepting of who you are,” she said. Mission accomplished: Peacock worked there for two years and built up her experience, which enabled her to launch her own company.

Sadly, not all employers are as inclusive. Mountford took his first step into engineering at a multinational. He initially chose not to disclose his condition, but it came up during informal discussions with HR. “When they said they wouldn’t have hired me if they had known I was neurodiverse, it made me very wary of divulging that information in any hiring process or workplace from then on,” he said.

Getting support

Asking for support can be equally daunting. Some individuals may not know their rights and what support they could receive through the ADA in the first place. Junior IT consultant Jason Winstanley works in the London offices of Auticon. Having previously worked in both the public and private sectors, he has come to realise that asking for support and getting it is “a mixed bag”.

“Companies want to put in place adjustments to the workplace, and they want to publicize that they have a neurodiverse workforce, but when it actually comes down to it, the onus is on the employee to know what adjustments they need or want, and then there’s a long process to getting them put in place…and in some cases, reasonable adjustments are declined,” he said.

Flexibility and inclusivity

For Peacock, being upfront helped when she needed to request a personalized work schedule. “The university had a general policy that you had to be in by half ten, but they adapted it for me,” she said. Peacock brought a similar approach to her role as CEO of Passio. At first, employees were surprised. “Daily team meetings start at 11 am so that individuals with atypical sleep cycles won’t be at a disadvantage,” she said.

Flexibility is also about having the right support systems in place, explains Mountford. It can be a super difficult thing to face, realizing you’re neurodiverse. For some, it can switch on a light and make things click into place… for others it can be a really lonely and awkward realisation that you’re almost on a separate path to everyone around you both professionally and personally. Having a support network, or even the option to access professional support, is really helpful,” he said.

Life during COVID-19

Passio’s flexible approach helped employees transition to remote work and ensured that the company continued to flourish. Winstanley has also had a positive experience working remotely for Auticon. Before COVID-19, a focus on individual needs created an inclusive working environment based on mutual understanding—despite the vast differences among the workforce. “People don’t think you’re being demanding for no reason, they understand that it’s not something you have control over,” said Winstanley. “Everyone in the office either knows and understands what you’re facing, or faces similar problems, so nobody ever complains or gripes about things…and if we are complaining and griping, usually everyone joins in and rallies behind the cause!”

Winstanley appreciated the positives of remote working, but he feels that the lack of social contact is “a real blow.”“Auticon has done a lot to keep us connected, putting on virtual social events and keeping us regularly informed via email newsletters and such. It’s been great to keep in touch with friends made in the office, and seeing everyone else soldier on through these times is heartwarming!” he said.

New ways of thinking—and working

The challenges that Covid-19 has brought to the workplace have inadvertently transformed the landscape of our workplace, probably for good. For Peacock, remote working has been so successful at Passio that she plans to continue this work style. She also believes that the future of the office has changed. “The office space is going to be more geared towards being adaptive because it benefits every single person, not just people who are neurodiverse,” she said.

New DEIB approaches in the workplace seek to break down the stereotypes about neurodiverse employees, such as the misconception that everyone with autism is a maths genius or IT whizz. As Winstanley said, “A neurodiverse workforce has the capability to cover many more experiences than a neurotypical one and gives a more representative view of the world. With a neurodiverse workforce, we can make many more achievements than we can compare to a non-neurodiverse team.

Photo: WTTJ

Article updated

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