Tapping into the Neurodiverse talent pool

All businesses want to assemble the best team – but are you doing enough to consider underrepresented talent? By casting a wider net, the benefits of inclusivity are enormous. As we continue our journey of learning about conscious inclusion, we’re keen to hear from different voices and consider different perspectives. In this guest blog Mark Charlesworth provides tips on how to tap into the neurodiverse talent pool.

What is Neurodiversity?

The phrase ‘Neurodiversity’ was first coined in 1998 by Judy Singer in her contribution to the academic series on disability, human rights and society. It initially referred to those on the autism spectrum.

Autism Spectrum Condition is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how a person thinks, recites, recalls, processes, learns and retains information differently to those not on the autistic spectrum.

It has since branched into an umbrella term for other neurodevelopmental conditions that affects people in how they handle information.

The conditions also have an impact on how a person socially interacts, too. There is no correlation between a person’s intelligence and whether or not they have a neurodevelopmental condition.

In its purist sense, ‘neurodiversity’ means a diversity of difficulties, styles and strengths of thinking, recalling, learning etc. The neurodiversity ‘movement’ focuses on those who handle information differently because of a neurodevelopmental condition, which was initially autism. This has now branched out to include the conditions ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Dyspraxia, and of course Autism Spectrum.

Employment Rate Disparity

Despite in most cases having good to high intelligence there is an employment rate disparity: those with the aforementioned conditions are less likely to be employed than their peers at a rate of less than 20% of neurodiverse adults aged 16 to 64 being employed. The next rate of 37% being employed are those with epilepsy.

Once you know about a condition and how it effects a person in a given situation, you are in a stronger position to help the candidate thrive in the process and become a valued member of the team.

Despite legislation, and also a vast array of information online, well-meaning recruiters and employers are not sure how to close that employment gap. Or where to turn to for help.

Because of these two issues, both the employment rate gap and personally being excluded from the job market, I, like many other neurodivergents, have turned to being self-employed to help educate employers and recruiters to ensure that we can progress with equal opportunity.

Okay, so you want to change and close that gap, where can you start?

Firstly is to understand the basics of neurodiversity and each condition so that you have a good foundation to make progress.

Secondly is to keep the message and understanding of neurodiversity simple. If you complicate matters then the message becomes confused and less likely to be acted on. Each condition affects everybody differently so the actual details are hypothetical until you meet the candidate with a particular condition. They can then explain the details of their needs and you can fine-tune as you progress together.

Thirdly is to remember that each person has a multiple number of strengths they will bring as part of their condition. To identify what they are, you need to build trust so the candidate will open up about a very personal matter. Once you have built that trust only then is the candidate likely to open up.

Fourthly if a person does open up about their condition then you need to remember that those with neurodiverse conditions very often hide and underplay their needs. Bear that in mind.

And fifthly if a person tells you about condition A, then they may also have a comorbid condition, but not always. This condition may or may not have a diagnosis, and they may not know how to tell you or want to share with you part, or all, of their neurodiversity that actually makes them special.

What about attracting neurodiverse candidates, managing the recruitment process for neurodiverse candidates, onboarding, and retention of the newly employed neurodivergent candidate?

Candidate Attraction

The employment rate disparity, as well as the previous experiences of the neurodivergent, provide a recipe for low self-esteem in the recruitment process.

This is further exacerbated when a person with ADHD experiences ‘Rejection-sensitive Dysphoria’ as a presentation of their condition. This is where previous rejection is misinterpreted as a personal thing in that the applicant was not liked rather than a ‘not successful this time’. A lot has to be done with company image and the wording to shout loudly that as an organisation you encourage neurodiverse talent.

This encouragement is enhanced if you were to offer alternative methods of application, such as video, CV, work trials, etc. so that the barrier of an interview can be avoided for an autistic person who would be great at the job, but may otherwise fail an interview.

The wording of any job advert is key during this marketing exercise to find and talk to your chosen audience, but ideally attract them too.

Avoid words such as ‘social skills’ because these will likely cause an autistic candidate to not apply. A Dyslexic candidate will be put off for example with a role that requires lots of writing. A dyspraxia candidate too.

Re-phrase to ensure that within the advert you emphasise that you are “flexible in the process to ensure neurodivergent colleagues can produce the end goal” or something along those lines.

Job fairs are an excellent way to engage with proactive candidates who can have a conversation with you about whether or not to apply. However job fairs are noisy and have lots of people milling around which can be a psychologically distressing environment for an autistic person. Why not consider having a ‘neurodiverse hour’ at the beginning and then at the end of the fair?

Autistic people have an anxiety about approaching people and may not actually interact with any of the recruiters and employers and so have then missed out.

Furthermore, just getting to and from a location can by traumatic for a neurodivergent person. It also depends on the time of day and the location of the job fair.

To attract neurodivergent talent, why not approach the organisations that support people and let them send the role to their email list?

Recruitment Process

A person with ADHD is likely to have job-hopped and there is a high chance there will be gaps between roles. Rather than seeing this as a negative, see it as a positive. At least the candidate is being honest.

When considering the employment rate disparity would you put yourself through a process that gave continuous rejections and didn’t make reasonable adjustments?

It may be that a neurodivergent candidate struggles with writing a CV or completing an application form. Why not ask them to record a video or audio file of them self-answering your needs?

Autistic, and those with ADHD, have difficulty with off-the-cuff and open questions and so, as well as having difficulty describing themselves, despite high intelligence, this is not a negative, just part of the condition.

During the interview process be aware of the working memory difficulties that those with ADHD, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia have. When struggling to recall an answer they do know, it may appear that the person doesn’t know. The filing cabinet drawer is jammed, and we cannot pull out the file to show you. We know exactly which drawer, file and section to go to, but we need extra time.

Think of this as a positive. We don’t give ‘probable answers to fill a gap’; we continually double-check our facts to know we are correct. This is a benefit, especially in a detail-orientated environment.

Interview Stage

The STAR interview technique is fantastic from the interviewer’s perspective, but a neurodiverse candidate struggles to answer “give me an example of when you last gave great customer service?” because they always give great service and are searching for something out of the norm. Also the working memory difficulty means that examples cannot always be presented even though there are many.

Most, if not all, people on the ADHD and autistic spectrum very rarely lie, if at all. In an interview we are honest and will tell you that we cannot remember. Compared to the interview of a neurotypical who appears ‘polished and perfect’, or who have the neuro ability to fib for the purpose of an interview, the neurodiverse are at a disadvantage. Especially when you compare like-for-like. Yet neurodivergent and neurotypical cannot be compared with each other.

When interviewing a neurodiverse candidate, ask for their response to a given situation, but always try and give the questions to the candidate just before the interview so they are not nervous.

Throughout the interview it may seem that that autistic candidate is not interested. Partly because they didn’t give eye contact, or they seemed blunt or rude. By being at the interview they are most definitely interested because it takes a lot for an autistic person to gain the confidence to engage in such a social situation.

You may want then to rely on personality or psychometric tests, but you need to calibrate where your pass and fail is because many of the original test groups were neurotypical. So, this sets up failure for the neurodivergent. Are they really necessary? If not then junk them.

Humans are the best algorithm money can buy

When evolving your recruitment function for a neurodiverse application, humans are the best algorithm money can buy. By using AI you are at risk of excluding neurodiverse talent. For example when autistic people talk about ‘I’ rather than ‘we’, and you exclude the ‘I’’s. This is true of grammatical errors produced by dyslexic applicants.

Throughout the recruitment process and beyond there will be different forms of communication, whether that be a rejection, an offer, a request for further information or something else. You need to be mindful that neurodivergent people may take a little longer to respond. Chase them or give them the benefit of doubt if they miss a deadline but otherwise showed interest.

People on the autistic spectrum are flexible and open to change but the difficulty arises when there is a sudden change or stop. Introduce changes in the process, or make sure you’re letting a person down, gradually. Introduce the possibility of a failed outcome at the beginning as well as being clear on your expectations throughout.

Many (but not all) people on the autistic spectrum have a literal interpretation. Rather than asking a capability question, make sure it is a clear instruction, and always back up in an email. For example:

A: “Can you go to NRG for an interview on Friday?”
B: “You have an interview on Friday 1st May at 2pm. Go to 1 The Street, Newcastle, NE1 1AA”

A is asking if they can. If the person has a literal interpretation then they are likely to say yes because of their interpretation of the question being one of capability. Clearly B is an instruction which the candidate will follow if they are able to do so.

Onboarding A Successful Neurodiverse Candidate

The onboarding process is where the relationship begins. You’ve met a couple of times, but this is where you capitalise on the trust and confidence you’ve earned so far. It’s easy to lose, very difficult to get back.

The neurodiverse colleague needs to be shown around. They may forget who they’ve met and where they sit. So, why not put up signage and print a simple orientation map so the new colleague can be independent sooner rather than later?

To help build up knowledge of new team members you could use the game Guess Who to help identify one another.

It is essential that a workplace assessment is carried out during this process to find out what adjustments are needed. Don’t leave this to guess work and ‘that’ll do’ because that could cause more harm than good. Ideally a person who has the conditions is ideally placed for this. They are also ideally placed to help disclose their condition to the team and to help them understand. Potential friction can be avoided this way. Sadly too many organisations leave this to chance or leave it too late and lose an employment tribunal. You wouldn’t let a plumber lead HR, and you wouldn’t ask a recruitment specialist to look at the electrics, so why not get a specialist on the particular condition in question?

Those with ADHD and also those on the autistic spectrum need routine. Set out goals for the onboarding process and detail how these can be achieved.

For example, people with ADHD need items printed in front of them rather then on screen. They will need regular breaks after 20 minutes. This break could be just standing up, walking around the table and then starting again.

Repeat facts for emphasis. If the brain thinks the item is important, it is more likely to be remembered. A refresher of the induction is recommended to help with this, not forgetting that there are numerous learning styles.

Retention Of Neurodiverse Talent

Neurodivergent talent has a high level of intelligence and are very capable. They just need ongoing training and support. This includes a Line Manager checking in and keeping up the interest on a project. If the person with ADHD thinks the Line Manager has lost interest it is highly likely they will too. A quick coffee together a couple of times per week will be enough in most cases to engage with each other and be open and honest. As long as you have built trust already, of course.

Ensure that the neurodiverse person has, for each of their tasks or projects, a ‘project book’. This gives them a quick reference point to each project should they need it, relying less on their working memory. Trailing through emails and other documents can lead to them losing track when prepping for meetings.

The colleague must have a project book which has themselves as a priority, which must include training and promotion opportunities. Everybody has their own 100% so when formulating the appraisal scores this should be factored in. For example, a person with dyspraxia walks slowly through the office so they don’t stumble, which means they lose e.g. 10% of their working hours over a year. They could only ever achieve 90% if you don’t adjust for their condition. Once you adjust you realise that their 90% is in fact 100% and should be entitled to the full reward that a great appraisal brings.

Reasonable Adjustments

Reasonable adjustments should be discussed with everybody from the offset. Through open and honest conversations you will learn from each other, and these will evolve as time progresses.

When asked on a form “do you need any reasonable adjustments” this is in fact the wrong question. Unless they’ve done that exact job before, they won’t know until they’re in the role and experiencing difficulties. So, ask this question regularly.

A colleague overwhelmed with tasks is likely to say so. A neurodiverse colleague will be a people-pleaser and take on many different tasks with unrealistic deadlines. This adds to their anxiety, potentially becoming overwhelmed. A colleague on the autistic spectrum will not realise they have become overwhelmed until they are.

Not all adjustments are obvious, so ensure a workplace assessment is carried out. This should include awareness sessions with existing employees to better understand certain conditions. Awareness will reduce friction and embarrassment. Everybody can be part of the team, not just in a productive way, but in a happy inclusive way.

Be transparent and open and conversations will happen, trust will exist and retention improved, everybody achieving their own 100%.

It’s important for all members of the team to feel comfortable and to operate at their own maximum capacity. By creating an environment where authentic selves are celebrated and encouraged, talent of all backgrounds can flourish. In the end, conscious inclusion benefits everyone.

About Mark Charlesworth

Mark CharlesworthMark provides ADHD & Autism Coaching for organisations and individuals to better understand how to support Neurodiversity. He also provides masterclasses in Neurodiversity, Autism and ADHD as well as Neurodiversity Audits, Workplace Assessments and Guidance & Advice Sessions to help employers create more inclusive environments. He can be contacted via his website.