Around one in seven of the population is thought to be neurodivergent, yet only a small percentage are employed. How can that be changed?
One in seven people in the UK are estimated to be neurodivergent. Neurodevelopmental disorders include autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, developmental language disorder and attention deficit disorder (ADHD). Being neurodivergent can make learning more difficult for various reasons. Some of the main struggles include reading, writing, difficulty in speaking and hearing and lack of focus and of organisational skills.
Dyslexia and dyscalculia mainly have to do with difficulties in spelling, reading, memory, organisational skills and time management. In addition, people with dyspraxia might struggle with verbal communication, motor control and finding directions. The autistic spectrum is very wide and can affect the way people communicate, behave or interact with others.
ADHD is clinically defined by its three symptoms: hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention. The first two include being unable to sit still, fidgeting and being unable to concentrate on tasks or to wait for your turn. The latter is more related to having a short attention span, appearing forgetful and struggling with listening and following instructions. People with ADHD can find emotional regulation challenging, getting extremely angry or sad, and it can affect their working memory.
The difficulties they might experience in a learning environment when they are younger and any lack of support and understanding is then projected into a working environment, often limiting their job opportunities.
In 2016 the National Autistic Society launched a campaign to close the employment gap. They commissioned a research report on more than 2,000 autistic adults. The report showed that less than 16% of these adults are in full-time paid work while four in 10 said they had never worked. However, 77 percent of those unemployed want to work.
There are different ways that neurodivergent people can be supported in the workplace, but first employers need to understand neurodivergent conditions. It is important to recognise that neurodivergent employees are as capable as any other worker, even if their working methods might not conform with standard ones.
Lack of understanding of the condition, and how broad of a spectrum it can be, is also one of the reasons why many neurodivergent people choose not to disclose their condition to employers if this is not necessary.
One challenge for people with ADHD is that until the mid-1990s, it was believed that children diagnosed with this disorder would grow out of it once adulthood was reached. However, research shows that over 75 per cent of adults continue to experience significant symptoms.
As a result, this neurodevelopment disorder was often overlooked by employers. People diagnosed with ADHD can show either the inattentive or hyperactive type, or a combination of both. “The main challenges for people with ADHD are organisation, time management and dealing with forgetfulness,” says Kirsty Lauder, an organisational psychologist who looks at how to support people with ADHD in the workplace.
Although the hyperactivity symptoms decrease in some adults, the inattentive traits persist and they can have a strong impact on people’s private and working lives. This discovery highlighted the demand for ongoing support for people with ADHD who would usually drop out from all services after turning 18.
“For some ADHDers administrative tasks can be difficult, as well as sitting down for long periods of time, and not getting distracted,” explains Lauder.
Turning up on time, answering emails, participating in meetings and being consistent are all tasks and skills usually required from someone working in an office. However, they can be extremely challenging for workers with ADHD without the right support.
Understanding employees’ needs is crucial for any business to function and for employers to be trusted and consequentially retain talent, but when it comes to supporting neurodiversity many companies are still far from putting that understanding into action.
Following an autumn 2019 report from an inquiry by MPs it was revealed that 42% of autistic adults said they need employment support, but only 12% receive it.
Over a third said that the support or adjustments made by their current or most recent employer were poor or very poor. Being able to have a one to one conversation with their employers would help neurodivergent people to open up. Trying to fit in can be extremely exhausting for them as they often find it difficult to recognise their limits.
Having a better understanding of neurodiversity could help more employees in disclosing their condition as well as helping to bridge the employability gap.
As discussed for workers with physical disabilities, employers should not expect neurodivergent people to change; rather they should modify the environment so that they can thrive.
Sometimes, it could be as simple as offering dimming lights or quieter rooms. Spreading meetings over the week and avoiding unnecessary ones so that people are not too overwhelmed, and reducing strict deadlines when possible, could help with managing work better.
Also, the interview process could be reevaluated as some might struggle with social or communication skills, especially for jobs in which these are not required.
Offering flexibility to contracts could also be a great incentive for neurodivergent workers. For some, it could be difficult to travel at busy times and being able to commute at quieter times could decrease anxiety and related exhaustion.
For others, being allowed to work from home could be a better solution if the office is not the right setting or they need certain medical attention which could disrupt their job if they need to waste time commuting back and forth.
Also, some days could be easier than others so having a flexible schedule could help people perform at their best and reach their goals, probably at an even faster pace, without having to compromise their health.
Being allowed to have breaks or working hours that better suit their productivity times as well as working with an understanding employer who does not question the adjustments required could help many workers.
Finally, one-to-one conversations could greatly help with employability and workers’ wellbeing. An employer willing to listen and support their employees could provide a life-changing opportunity for many who have been denied work before. Also, this could have a wider impact, attracting more neurodivergent people to certain organisations and roles.