“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Dr Stephen Shore, an autism advocate who’s on the spectrum
So, why can’t many businesses meet the individual needs of neurodivergent workers?
Actually, that’s if they’ve employed any staff on the spectrum at all.
Because despite at least 20% of the adult population being neurodiverse, as many as 80% of these individuals find themselves unemployed (Harvard Business Review).
Sound like a lot? It is.
Research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that autistic people had the lowest employment rates out of any group – disabled or otherwise. And further studies suggest this isn’t a choice either; National Autistic Society data shows that despite less than a third of autistic adults being employed, over three-quarters of unemployed autistic adults want to work.
And it’s not like there aren’t vacancies to fill.
With with 47.4 million jobs left voluntarily last year, the remote-working world’s great resignation should be providing more opportunities than ever.
So, what’s going on?
Perhaps it’s the remote part that’s causing the problem.
Artificial I just doesn’t have the emotional intelligence
With face-to-face interviews becoming less commonplace throughout the pandemic, AI (Artificial Intelligence) recruitment software seemed like a sensible solution for employers. In fact, the adoption of this technology is growing so fast that it’s predicted to replace 16% of recruitment jobs before 2029.
That’s because AI screening tools can do it all; review job applications, generate reports on a candidate’s “soft skills” and even read their emotions and body language.
Sounds good, right?
Not if you’re neurodiverse.
Susan Fitzell is a leading expert on neurodiversity in the workplace and has identified numerous issues around AI screening and hidden biases. These include:
- Being forced to disclose a “disability” or neurodivergent condition. Not everyone wants to do this if they’ve spent years being defined by a label. Essentially, it’s a violation of their privacy.
- Facing biased conclusions based on their body language, tone of voice or facial expressions. AI tools can disqualify candidates on factors that have nothing to do with their ability to fulfil the role.
- AI assessments don’t consider the visual, cognitive or sensory needs of neurodivergent job candidates. Understandably, this often affects the mental state of applicants and leads to “poor” performance.
“AI filters out and excludes countless neurodivergent workers who simply don’t fit the traditional moulds that these tools are programmed to prefer. Unfortunately, many of the AI options are simply not inclusive enough for a neurodiverse world,” she says.
A world that’s rapidly being filled by Gen Z jobseekers – around 61 million of them, in fact.
But even this “tech savvy” generation is falling short when it comes to AI screening.
“If the computer sees my eyes moving, it denotes that as someone who’s not interested and can’t focus, and can’t engage in conversation for long periods of time,” says Olly, 24, who’s autistic and has ADHD, when speaking to the BBC.
This is particularly problematic for Olly as he finds it difficult to maintain eye contact for long periods of time. Consequently, he’s been rejected from several job’s post-video interviews.
“It’s very difficult to show your true-self and true skills that you believe you have, because you’re within this state of overthinking, am I saying too much? Then there’ll be a break in your speech and as soon as there’s something the computer doesn’t like, that’s that.”
Olly’s not alone in his frustration. His generation has been particularly vocal about the importance of diversity in the workplace (DEI) – and that includes adequately supporting neurodivergent employees.
Wake up: Gen Z see through empty promises around neurodiversity
According to a Tallo survey of over 1,400 Gen Zers, 99% of respondents said workplace DEI is important. Furthermore, 87% of respondents said that it’s actually “very important” to them.
Perhaps unsurprising for a generation that’s regularly described as “woke”.
However, what employers should consider is that nearly 20% of the participants didn’t apply for a job because the company had a weak track record around diversity. What’s more, 80% said they’d be more likely to apply for a job at a company that made space for the neurodivergent workforce.
“This generation have grown up on YouTube, they know the difference between a showy, corporate token gesture and authentic, ethical practice. They know they have to check the sources and probe for conflicting advice, they are natural critical thinkers and can spot incongruencies at twenty paces,” says Nancy Doyle in ‘Get Ready For Gen-Z In Neurodiversity: Collaborative, Authentic, Intersectional And Ethical. Or Else.’ for Forbes
So in this remote-working world, how can employers ensure they’re doing more than just “ticking boxes” from afar?
Supporting the needs of every worker on the spectrum
For Simon Coles, co-founder and CEO of Amphora Research, it’s about understanding that everybody works a little differently. And that’s OK.
“We have some people who are on the autistic spectrum,” says Coles. “We don’t expect them to look at people’s faces when having a video call. Instead, they can hide the video of people’s faces throughout the meeting.”
But this goes beyond personal preferences with technology; it’s understanding that neurodiverse workers may need a completely different managerial style.
“We manage them carefully,” says Cole. “So if we have a facilitated discussion and go into breakout rooms, we may not put the autistic individuals in there. Or, if we do, we’ll ensure there’s somebody there that will help carry the discussion for them.”
Coles and the management team at Amphora Research do a lot of what he calls “What do you need to be working at your best?”. This is a leadership style that Alan Price, CEO at BrightHR and COO at the Peninsula Group agrees with.
“Managers should be trained and encouraged to offer 1-to-1 support for employees,” he writes in ‘Neurodiversity And The Workplace’ for Forbes. This helps facilitate open and honest discussion whereby they can identify each person’s preferences and enable appropriate avenues of support to be implemented.
Price suggests simple adjustments such as:
- having a dark mode on screens and apps to help alleviate vision strain
- providing technology that adjusts for different ways of reading, e.g. colour filters for screens
- including breaks and minimising the use of chat functions in online meetings. This can help ensure participants don’t become overwhelmed.
But supporting neurodiverse workers in these ways isn’t just the right thing to do; it can create huge benefits for businesses, too.
Neurodiversity can mean new and exciting ways of thinking
We’re constantly being told that innovation is the answer in navigating issues such as the pandemic and climate change. But this all-too often stops at looking at new technologies like AI to solve the world’s problems.
And AI can’t solve the problem of an undiverse workplace – not yet, anyway.
“Not only is it difficult for neurodiverse people to get employment, but it’s even tougher for us to keep gainful employment because we think differently and therefore behave outside what most people might think of as ‘usual’,” Rick Rowley, a neurodiversity advocate, told the NZ Herald.
If innovation is all about doing things differently, then why not embrace those more “unusual” perspectives of autistic employess?
Essentially, catering for neurodiversity means welcoming new ideas – and that’s a win win for businesses. Because research from a 2018 Deloitte report found that companies with inclusive cultures were six times more likely to be innovative and agile.
“When companies embrace neurodiversity, they gain competitive advantages in many areas — productivity, innovation, culture and talent retention, to name just a few,” argues Alan Price at Forbes.
So why not hire that one person with autism intsead of getting AI to ask all the questions? You never know, they might just have the answers you’ve been looking for all long.