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Thinking differently about neurodiversity

Diane Lightfoot, Business Disability Forum

If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you are already believe that employing disabled people isn’t a “nice to have” or just the right thing to do. You’ll know that diverse teams perform better and, to remain competitive, business needs disruptors: people who think differently. Of course, we all think differently: we all have different life experiences and backgrounds which shape how we see the world. But people who are neuro-diverse actually do think differently and are wired differently and it is great to see a growing recognition amongst the organisations that we work with that attracting neuro-diverse talent is vital for their business.  But as we launch our new Neurodiversity Toolkit, let’s take a brief look at what that actually means in practice.

When I talk to employers who haven’t really thought about disability, many of them immediately think about wheelchair users. And of course, physical access is vitally important – the fact that we don’t routinely include accessibility into building design in 2020 is simply not good enough. But it’s also really important to remember that over 90% of disabilities are not immediately visible. So, you almost certainly already meet more disabled – and more neuro-diverse candidates – than you realise.

What do we mean by neurodiversity?

One definition of neurodiversity in relation to inclusion is a world where neurological differences are as recognised and as respected as other human variations. People who think differently to the “norm” may term themselves as neurodivergent or being in a neuro-minority. Whichever term people prefer, neurological differences can bring many strengths, whether that is in terms of being able to think in three dimensions, long-term memory and recall, being able to grasp concepts very quickly and genuinely see “the big picture” in a way that others may not, or conversely, having an eye for detail and the ability to spot patterns and trends. These are all skills and traits which are an asset to any business.

Removing barriers

But to tap into this diverse and valuable talent pool, it’s vital that employers remove the barriers that neuro-diverse people often experience. This can mean challenging norms – both in terms of how we do things and what we value. Some time ago I had a conversation around dyslexia and the fact that in education we tend to value accuracy – being able to spell correctly and construct grammatically accurate sentences, for example – over creativity and conceptual thinking. Similarly, we too often value style over substance and risk missing out on brilliant, talented people; this might be about marking down a ground-breaking report on the basis of “poor” presentation from a student with autism or focusing on delivery rather than content when talking to someone who stammers.

What does that mean for recruitment? Even in the current climate with Covid-19, businesses in many sectors are still recruiting – and at pace – and many are recognising that they need to attract the widest possible talent pool to find the best person for the job. At interview stage, ask every candidate in advance about any adjustments they might need, not whether they have a disability.  Remember that people may not what sort of adjustments are possible, so give examples where you can; for neuro-diverse candidates this may include more time for tests or sending the interview questions in advance.

Clarity in our communication

Thinking about how you communicate is vital. I recently heard disability described as “mismatched human interactions”. To illustrate that point, a while ago I was speaking at an engineering and technology event, and during the break, one of the delegates came up for a chat. He told me that he had recently recruited a graduate with autism. This new recruit was doing a technically brilliant job, but the rest of the team were saying that he “doesn’t fit”. On further discussion, it transpired that members of the team would show this employee their work and ask him what he thought. And he would tell them – sometimes extremely bluntly! So, I suggested that the manager talk to this employee and together explain to the team that he is just answering the question they are asking – and that if they want a different answer, they need to ask a different question. “Please can you tell me this piece of work is wonderful, and if it isn’t, please tell me really nicely?” is probably the question.

Clarity in an interview situation is even more important. At interview we too often ask candidates to “tell us about yourself” – and I have heard candidates with autism answer that question by giving their entire life history – when actually what we want to know is “tell us how your skills and experience match this job?”.

The important message for people managers reading this is that you don’t need to become an expert in neurodiversity – and indeed, you shouldn’t try to be. Certainly don’t try to diagnoses a condition! But if someone reacts differently to how you might expect, take a moment to consider: might there be something else going on? A moment’s pause and reflection can make all the difference in making those human interactions match after all.

You can view a sample from BDF’s new neurodiversity toolkit here.

Diane Lightfoot, CEO, Business Disability Forum

The full Neurodiversity Toolkit is a BDF Member benefit and can be accessed on our new-look Knowledge Hub. To find out more about how your organisation can become a member, please click here or email



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