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Supporting Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Wednesday 14 July 2021

Chris Owen

Co-Chair, IBA European Regional Forum

chris.owen@penningtonslaw.com

Neurodiversity refers to people who have neurological conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and Tourette’s syndrome. In essence, the medical field of neurodiversity recognises that each brain works in a different way. According to the National Autistic Society of the UK, some estimates suggest that around 20 per cent of the population could be neurodivergent in one way or another. 

Until recently, people with these conditions are likely to have been treated in a different and unfair way, which causes disempowerment, discrimination and unequal life opportunities. There is still a long way to go in terms of tackling the stigma. However, companies are becoming increasingly aware that great minds think differently, and that employing people who are neurodiverse can be a huge competitive advantage.

Neurodivergent people are often natural problem solvers and able to deal with professional challenges as they have already had to overcome a number of barriers in their everyday lives.  They can bring unique and valuable strengths to businesses, such as diversity of thought and differences in perception, which can have a positive impact on profitability and reputation. By way of example, Bill Gates has dyslexia and the well-known British entrepreneur Richard Branson has expressed that his dyslexia is at least partially responsible for his success.

Understanding neurodiversity is not just about inclusivity, but it is also about attracting (or being concerned about failing to attract) talented individuals to a law firm. Subtle changes to the recruitment process can be made in order to make it more accessible to neurodivergent individuals, as well as to ensure that clients who may be neurodiverse are properly catered for. Relatively simple changes can have an impact: for example, the way in which questions are structured at interview can be critical. A candidate with autism is more likely to be able to answer closed questions as opposed to open ones. For example, ‘Are you OK?’ vs ‘How are you?’ Using off-white paper and specific fonts can also make a positive impact to those with dyslexia, and to others the location of a meeting room could make a difference (a quiet corner room might be preferable to a room overlooking the reception area or a meeting in a coffee shop, which could be distracting). As an industry example of such changes, Deloitte has been making headway on neurodiversity and diversity of thought within the workplace for some time and has developed its Autism@Work programme. 

Neurodivergent individuals are often diagnosed late in life and a large majority of people do not disclose a neurodiverse condition to their employer. Given its invisible nature, many find it difficult to recognise neurodiversity in someone else. By way of example, a colleague with dyspraxia might recoil when asked to take part in a sports-linked marketing event because they are acutely aware that they do not have the necessary coordination skills which may come naturally to others. They may make an excuse and appear stressed, awkward, or unwilling simply because they are afraid of disclosing their condition. 

The stigma attached to neurodivergence is not going to change overnight. It is not a box-ticking exercise, but a long-term investment forming part of a gradual culture shift, the emphasis being on educating and understanding the different types of neurodiversity and being able to discuss them openly and without fear.