At the heart of neurodiversity is the belief that everyone has different strengths. Neurotypical people have certain abilities that come naturally to them, some things that neurodivergent people may struggle with. And the opposite is also true.
One of the key benefits of having a diverse workforce is that it ensures businesses have a wide variety of skills, abilities and outlooks available to them. It is estimated that around 15% of people are neurodivergent, and that about 1% of the UK population is on the autism spectrum, equivalent to around 700,000 people.
If organisations fail to engage with autistic individuals as part of their recruitment strategy, they are closing off a pool of talented and skilled individuals.
While traditional perceptions of autism have treated it as a disease, there is a new way of thinking gaining traction. A more neurodiverse perspective looks at neurotypical and neurodivergent people as possessing different, but complimentary, ways of thinking.
These come with different strengths and challenges. Autistic people can often think logically and pay close attention to details. These traits are all highly sought after in tech fields, such as software development, cybersecurity, and data analytics.
DIGIT spoke with auticon Regional Manager for Scotland, Emma Walker, and International Training Programme Lead Maria Hamilton about the advantages that hiring neurodivergent people offer IT companies.
The Talent Pool
Autistic people have traditionally struggled to find employment, facing numerous barriers to the job market.
“At auticon, we’re trying to address the fact that only 16% of autistic adults are currently in full time employment,” Walker says. “If you compare this to the stat for disabled people, that sits at 48%.”
Founded in Berlin 10 years ago, auticon employs IT consultants who are autistic. The organisation’s consultants are then placed into client’s technology teams to work on their projects.
“The hope is that the clients will see the value that this person brings to the team in terms of their skills and abilities and, in particular, their different way of thinking,” Walker adds. “This then changes their perception about autism and acts as a catalyst for the wider organisation to bring in more neurodivergent adults as they see the value that this brings.”
This comes at a time when Scotland’s tech industry is facing a significant skills gap. Skills Development Scotland has stated that there are more than 13,000 job opportunities waiting to be filled in the tech sector. As such, the skills gap is hampering Scotland’s tech industry, holding back digitisation projects and creating cybersecurity weaknesses.
“We have a great opportunity to fill this gap by widening our talent pool to benefit from the skills of autistic individuals,” Walker notes.
Faced with a skills gap, the tech and IT sectors are increasingly seeking data science, software development skills, and people with knowledge of artificial intelligence.
“These are all areas where autistic individuals can outperform neurotypical individuals due to their cognitive abilities,” Walker notes.
For organisations looking to hire autistic talent, they offer several advantages over their neurotypical colleagues.
“Autistic individuals have a logical analytic thinking, data driven style that enables them to be great problem solvers, working on the information presented to them,” Hamilton says.
“They have deep focus, freedom from distraction. These attributes lends itself to a very high work rate and quality of innovation because they have that very niche narrow focus.
“That attention to detail and thoroughness and accuracy enables them to spot patterns in data and see trends.”
These are the kinds of abilities that are valuable for performing work with data analysis, cybersecurity, and compliance and risk, Hamilton notes.
“That ability to absorb, retain and recall facts and information in that narrow sphere of interest enables our consultants to develop into subject matter experts,” she adds.
While these strengths are highly desirable, they come with certain challenges. However, in the right environment, these can become a strength.
“Because their communication style is more direct, autistic individuals have an honest, impartial, authentic style of communication,” Hamilton notes. “Some people could see it as quite direct, but they actually get to the heart of what the issue is.
“That enables them to question the norms and allows individuals within a team to break free from groupthink because they’re the ones to put their head above the parapet and ask the awkward but necessary questions.”
In the wrong environment, autistic people may encounter trouble utilising their abilities.
“Many skilled autistic individuals are not achieving their full potential and are working in roles well below their capability,” Walker says.
As such, accommodating autistic workers and creating a supportive environment starts at onboarding. When looking to hire autistic people, it is important to remember that many have not followed a typical career path.
“Many of them have self-taught skills, may have gaps on the CV due to burnout or working in an organisation that wasn’t supportive,” Walker notes. “So some selection processes may automatically reject the application based on their CV alone.”
Furthermore, the traditional recruitment process creates hurdles for autistic people. Take job adverts as an example.
“This frequently includes a long list of skills, abilities and experience, some of which is not essential for the job,” Walker explains. “If an autistic person reads a job description with 10 items on it, they may not apply unless they feel they can really do all 10.
“It’s important for employers to think realistically about the role and only include the essential skills that that person may have, otherwise an autistic person may deselect themselves.”
With many autistic people having trouble with social cues, the interview can pose another barrier.
“Traditional job interviews are stressful for everyone,” Walker says. “But even more so for autistic people.
“The traditional conversational interview relies heavily on social and communication skills, so autistic candidates may struggle to sell themselves in an interview, even if they have the right skills.
“To get the best out of autistic candidates and accurately assess the capability, we suggest that companies replace the high-pressure formal interview discussion with a mix of skills-based assessments, informal conversations and group activities.
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Once hired, it is important to create an appropriate environment for autistic workers. Since the pandemic, flexible working situations have been normalised, and hybrid and remote working have been proven practical and workable.
As such, many organisations have the capacity to tailor their working environments and schedule to accommodate people with different needs.
“Providing a clear process for employees to disclose whether they’re autistic or have other neurodivergent conditions is key,” Hamilton notes. “Having that flexibility to work remotely or in the workplace, with the right adjustments helps people work in a way that best supports them to be the best they can be.”
“There’s a lot of sensory sensitivities that autistic people can have,” Hamilton says, “travelling to work or within the workplace itself.”
Some individuals may struggle more than others. But it’s important to remember that all autistic people are different, each with their own strengths and challenges.
“There’s a huge variety of different strengths, abilities, and challenges,” Walker explains. “Lots of people may struggle more than others. It’s important not to assume somebody needs support in one area because they could be able to function perfectly adequately in that area but may benefit from support in a completely different area.
“The best way is to actually speak to that person and ask them directly. What adjustments would you need? Do you need any support?”
Hamilton adds: “The most important action that companies can take is to really increase their understanding of autism and the other neurodivergent conditions through awareness training so that they can work more effectively and confidently with autistic colleagues.
Even if companies do not have neurodivergent employees, or are not looking to hire any in the future, there are still benefits to creating an inclusive culture. The whole success of creating a neuro-inclusive workplace is to acknowledge that people have differences in their neurology.
“It is worth creating a culture of understanding and acceptance that we’re all different. We all bring different strengths to the table, whether we have that label or not,” Hamilton says.
Furthermore, with one in seven people estimated to be neurodivergent, it is highly likely that most workforces have at least one neurodiverse person working with them.
Ultimately, everyone has different strengths and challenges. By accommodating people with different abilities, mindsets and strengths, businesses can benefit from diversity of thought in teams which can lead to creativity and innovation.