It’s Time to Stop Underestimating Neurodiverse People’s Superpowers

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Greta Thunberg is a phenomenal person, who at the age of 16 has hit global headlines and has got everyone talking about global warming. It’s not just that she is young which has surprised many, it’s also that she is autistic – something that some social media trolls have leapt upon. Both in society and in the workplace there is still a stigma around autism and neurodiversity more broadly – the BBC article I was told ‘Dyslexia is the long word for stupid’ reveals how prevalent this attitude still is. But as Greta shows, neurodivergent people are capable of incredible things, and shouldn’t be dismissed by the public or employers.

Neurodiversity refers to people whose brains are wired differently in some way. This umbrella term includes Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Autism, Dyspraxia, and ADHD. In really simple terms, people with Neurodiversity are born to think differently. There are many other examples of where such thinking leads to creativity and innovation – Steve Jobs, Jamie Oliver, Steven Spielberg and Richard Branson were/are dyslexic and Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein were autistic.

The best teams are built around diversity, so it is encouraging that the spotlight on the issue has increased in intensity in the last five years. In general, equality of opportunity has improved but there is clearly still more to do. Neurodivergent people have many superpowers we have still yet to properly tap in to. Indeed, if the premise of diversity is that different thinking drives better performance then why wouldn’t you be particularly focused on people whose brains are fundamentally wired differently.

Finding neurodivergent talent

The biggest challenge that people with neurodiversity often face is getting in the door in the first-place.

Being neurodiverse frequently remains a taboo subject and unfortunately traditional recruitment processes often inadvertently put those with these conditions at a disadvantage, testing them in ways that don’t reveal their true capabilities. For companies looking to overcome this it’s all about recognising that there isn’t a one-size fits all approach. It’s about creating a level playing field through reasonable adjustments.

It’s easy to over-generalise but the route towards creating an unbiased process might include being open minded about giving extra time for timed exercises or potentially replacing component parts of the process with something that is more suited to let the neurodiverse candidate shine. Very specifically, psychometric tests can be a problem. Moreover, they often don’t really relate directly to the core accountabilities of a role in the way that a different type of task might.

Once within roles, neurodiverse people can flourish as long as the business remains committed to appreciating their differences and tapping into their ‘superpowers’, enabling them to be the best version of themselves. 

How could neurodiversity benefit your company?

There are great examples in our business, particularly in the analytical space. We have started to recruit via Auticon for particularly challenging technical roles. Auticon specialises in placing highly talented people with autism but do so via unconventional means, dispensing with CVs and interviews and instead matching task and talent via skills tests.

In one example, a consultant completely rebuilt our approach to data processing for one of our products. Prior to this, a team had been working on an equivalent project for over six months, however, this person completed a first draft of the build in less than two months.

It is not just the analytical space where neurodivergent people thrive – I’ve seen first-hand with my daughter (who is dyslexic) how she can do amazingly creative things that many people would find impossible. For example, she created a new genre of “eye art” that has given her a burgeoning Instagram following. Yes, there are some things she struggles with that others find easy, but this should not eclipse the counterbalancing upsides.

It is up to marketing leaders to ensure everyone within the team is empowered and supported to contribute their own unique skillset, building whole-brained marketing teams in aggregate. At Direct Line, we’ve seen success with this through one of our core values, which is to “bring all of yourself to work”. This value was adopted in 2012 long before the diversity conversation had come to the fore. We’ve deliberately created a culture where personal experience is as highly valued as professional expertise; where ideas and thinking are recognised and rewarded, as evidenced by our company-wide Ideas Lab which has generated thousands of suggestions to date.

What can your business do?

Below are some things we have learnt since taking a more positive and proactive stance at Direct Line Group around neurodiversity:

  • Keep raising awareness internally – people often feel reluctant to reveal they have neurodiverse conditions, when in fact it should be seen as a potential advantage. To help with this we have several internal and external speakers share their inspiring stories, often citing their success coming because of their neurodiversity rather than despite it. This really helps to normalise the conversation and shift the wider conversation to a more constructive place.
  • Support People Managers – it is true in general that People Managers need to adapt their approach to the needs of their team to enable them to thrive, and this is equally true for managing people with neurodiversity. Sometimes a slightly different environment, set of tools, or even simply an acceptance of different working styles can mean that exceptional talent can be unearthed. However, given that most managers don’t know what they don’t know when it comes to their teams, this is very much about encouraging the right conversation between the People Manager and their direct reports.

Greta is clearly an exceptional individual. But imagine how many more incredible people and their superpowers we could be harnessing by embracing neurodiversity more fully. It is time to take action to make inclusivity integral to your business – it will help it to flourish

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