A Personal Insight into Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Zhane Charles writes...

As a person with a neurodivergent condition, I have faced many challenges in my professional life, especially finding and maintaining employment. I’d like to share my insight into the challenges neurodiverse people face and how some small changes offered by employers can make a huge difference.

For those unfamiliar with the term neurodiversity, it is a neurodevelopmental disability that includes conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Tourette Syndrome, Developmental Speech Disorders, and Autistic Spectrum conditions.

It should be noted that the word neurodiversity is an umbrella term, and not everyone with a hidden disability is diagnosed with the same thing, and even if they are, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they share a similar experience. For example, someone with autism may struggle with speech and self-expression, whereas another person with autism may not; symptoms may differ with each individual and manifest itself in different ways.

Unfortunately, many don’t truly understand the concept of an “Invisible disability”, especially in the workplace. This can lead to neurodiverse employees feeling marginalized and alienated by managers and colleagues for being ‘different’ and find themselves unable to integrate into a work environment. It is no surprise therefore that unemployment rates for neurodiverse individuals is far higher than ‘neuro-typical’ individuals.

Over the last few weeks and months, I have read numerous articles about workplace neurodiversity, with most of the emphasis on the challenges neurodiverse individuals face. However, very little thought has been given to the role employers play in making workplaces more neurodiverse friendly. Whilst often an individual with a neurodiverse condition can learn some ways to adapt to different environments, they cannot fundamentally change their condition. Therefore, the power to make positive improvements sits with their employer.

There is significant empirical and anecdotal evidence that demonstrates that there is much to be gained by hiring neurodiverse talent. As Harvard Business Review’s excellent article ‘Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage’ points out, neurodiverse talent can be highly creative, innovative, focused, productive and be particularly skilled in certain important functions. There is also evidence to show that by ensuring a working environment is inclusive to individuals with neurodiverse conditions, it impacts the whole team positively, regardless of their neuro-profile.

Many neurodiverse people don’t even realise their potential. In my experience most consider their condition to be a problem; a burden that makes life harder. The world doesn’t feel designed for us, and we need as much support as we can get to feel like we’re adding value. But when that support is in place, we’ve got so much to offer. I am loyal, hardworking, contentious and I can offer a different perspective to neuro-typical colleagues (not better, not worse, just different – combine neurotypical and neurodiverse thinking and that’s where innovation lives!). I can also hyper-focus on certain tasks which increases my productivity and I enjoy working in a structured way. My pattern recognition skills are high, and I can often spot trends that aren’t immediately obvious, so analytical work suits me well.

I’m currently a student at Birkbeck, University of London. They run an annual program, called ‘Ability’ which aims to find work experience for students with disabilities. The program is funded by the wonderful Ian Karten Charitable Trust. I was excited to hear about the program and thought that I would benefit from the work experience. I hoped that I would learn new skills, boost my confidence, and improve my social skills.

I was placed at an organization called the Wells Tobias Group / Inventum Search & Consulting, which is an inclusive talent advisory group. They have 2 main parts to their business, a talent consultancy where they advise organisations about how to become more diverse and inclusive, and an inclusive recruitment and search division where they help organisations connect with diverse talent.

Given their understanding and interest in my condition and the type of work I would be doing, which was not client-facing and suited my needs, I felt very pleased.

It surprised me that I really enjoyed my time at the Wells Tobias Group. Everyone was very understanding and didn’t make me feel uncomfortable or awkward. One of the company directors who was overseeing my placement also has a neurodiverse condition, and he helped a lot. We spoke about the work I would find interesting, and how my skills and abilities could help them. My desk was in a quiet part of the office, next to the director. I wasn’t expected to make small talk, I was encouraged to use my headphones at any point if I found the environment overstimulating, and they were keen to understand what changes they could make that would help me feel more comfortable. My hope for the future is that I will find employment with an organization that doesn’t care about my peculiarities and differences, but rather focuses on the things I can do.

Below are some of the things that I will look for in an employer;

  • Understanding that my condition can be a significant benefit if utilized and supported

  • Structures in place to support neurodiverse and other disabled people

  • Open to different communication - sometimes I’d rather not talk and will email you even if you are sitting next to me!

  • A focus on including everyone, regardless of ability, background and diversity

  • An environment that welcomes diversity of thought

The corporate world is starting to realise the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace, but there is a long way to go. It all starts with understanding - what these conditions are, how they manifest in individuals, what support is required and what the potential is. In a world that is rapidly evolving and changing, thinking differently is a key component in the drive for innovation. Those of us with a neurodiverse condition think differently by nature, and can help look at challenges and opportunities through a different lens.

Zhane Charles