What is neurodiversity (and why it matters to your business)?

August 07, 2019

We sat down with Theo Smith, a leading expert in neurodiversity in the workplace. We picked his brains about everything neurodiversity, quizzing him on what exactly neurodiversity is and how businesses can make sure they’re supporting their neurodivergent employees.

Firstly a bit about Theo. He helps organisations attract more talent which has included global executive search, RPO, in-house and recruitment marketing. He now heads up recruitment at the National Association of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), is a member of the Resourcing Leaders 100 (#RL100) and writes and talks on a wide variety of recruitment related topics.

Read on to discover more about this often-misunderstood topic that affects you and your business.

What is neurodiversity?

First things first: we began our chat with Theo by getting to the bottom of what exactly neurodiversity is.

“Neurodiversity is variations in the human brain”, says Theo, who explained the label covers conditions such as Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, and Tourette’s.

“The term neurodiversity was coined by the sociologist Judy Singer about a decade ago, and that signalled the beginning a new way of thinking. There are now neuroscientists saying that conditions like autism aren’t disabilities – they’re differences.”

Theo went on to explain: “This is a big departure from the way the average person thinks about these kinds of conditions. For a lot of people, they would just assume that people with autism are all disabled in some way, shape, or form. Even the names of these conditions are not very nice – names like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. What you then associate is that it's a disorder.”

“The field of neurodiversity is the move towards seeing these conditions as differences, not disabilities”.

Why does neurodiversity matter to your businesses?

Theo is passionate about the fact neurodivergent employees can shine in the right environment.

Here’s why: “A lot of organisations have neurodivergent staff who are underperforming, and they don’t know how to manage them”, he says. “But what businesses really need to do is identify how these employees could perform at their optimum.” He went on to explain how businesses can really benefit from those that can concentrate deeply on a topic for long periods of time. This is a real skill that not all have the ability to do.

The fact is that the majority of organisations have neurodivergent employees, many of which may not have a diagnosed condition. Learning how to get the most out of these employees could have a huge impact on these business’s bottom line, as well as improving the working lives of their employees.

Theo also told us about how a prominent energy company were taken to court for unfair dismissal after firing a neurodivergent employee who they found difficult to manage.

It’s therefore clear that businesses need to work out how to harness the talents of their neurodivergent employees if they want the best possible results. He gave the example of people with ADHD can have excellent skills such as hyperfocus. This makes them great for jobs that require intense concentration.

How can businesses make sure their workplaces support neurodiversity?

Theo compares a neurodivergent person to Superman, as neurodivergent employees often have incredible talents if they’re allowed to operate in the right environment. But often, the traditional office environment is like kryptonite to them – they’re incompatible with it.

Theo recommends that if organisations want to get the most from their neurodivergent employees, they should “remove the kryptonite”. That means introducing flexible working options, as well respecting the fact your neurodivergent employees might not feel comfortable contributing to team meetings or can find an open office environment overwhelming.

Even within a traditional office environment, Theo recommends supporting your neurodivergent staff wherever you can. This might come in the form of allowing them to use noise-cancelling headphones so the environment isn’t too overwhelming, as well as educating your workforce on the best ways to communicate with their neurodivergent colleagues.

The alternative, which Theo feels too many businesses take, is to replace their neurodivergent employees, who could be a brilliant asset to the business in the right environment. They replace them with people who function better in a more traditional work environment but don’t have the same super powers as superman.

“This is why neurodiversity matters to the businesses, because businesses need to change, businesses need to adapt”, says Theo. “They have to – the world is moving at a rapid rate and businesses need these people, right?”.

Chatting with Theo was fascinating, and we hope this has given you some food for thought and insight into the importance of neurodiversity at work.

We've created a blog post on how to remove bias from tech recruitment. And if you’d like more information about this underrepresented topic, keep your eyes out on our blog, where we’ll be releasing more of the insights we gleaned from this conversation.

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