In 1998, a young Australian Sociologist named Judy Singer first coined the term ‘NEURODIVERSITY’ in her thesis concerning ‘Mother Blaming’ in Autism.
But first, what is Diversity anyway?
It is surprisingly difficult to find a definition of the concept of Diversity, let alone Neurodiversity. No wonder the general public is confused. It all becomes much clearer when you realize that Diversity is a measurement of the degree of variability of a variable in a given population or place. It is measured by terms like high/medium/low degrees of diversity.
Neurodiversity is built on the idea that just as conserving biodiversity is necessary for a sustainable, flourishing planet, so respecting neurodiversity is necessary for a sustainable, flourishing human society. Neurodiversity is to humans what biodiversity is to life. It is a subset of Biodiversity.
Judy Singer coined this word as a political term, like biodiversity, to argue for the importance of including all neurotypes for a thriving human society.
Neurodiversity refers specifically to the limitless variability of human cognition and the uniqueness of each human mind. In simple language, we could say that neurodiversity refers to how we perceive, receive, process, and transmit information. How we think, move, and communicate among other things. These conditions reflect about 20% or more of the global population.
Over the years, the term Neurodiversity has become an umbrella term representing a range of neurological conditions like ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia, Hyperlexia, Tourette’s Syndrome, OCD, etc. including of course Autism.
Each condition comes with variations in abilities. An individual may likely have more than one condition and associating comorbidities creating a unique set of conditions in that individual. Again, every individual is unique.
When we compare the Cognitive Ability Profiles of NEUROTYPICALS and NEURODIVERGENTS, we find that there are clear differences in the different abilities or capabilities of these individuals. Neurotypicals might be good or not so good with some tasks while neurodivergents may be found to be extremely good with some tasks while needing external support or accommodations with some. We call them spikey profiles.
Yes, the strengths are worth tapping into, but they may come with some challenges brought out by the way we have traditionally organized and structured our workplaces. These challenges can be overcome by enabling suitable accommodations. The cost for such accommodations is negligible for employers as the benefits of having a neurodiverse workforce far outweigh the risks. And also any Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging initiative is incomplete without Neurodiversity at its core.
Organizations are now flipping the narrative. The focus has shifted from the deficits of neurodivergent talent to the strengths that they bring to the organization. Neurodiversity Initiatives are now looking more at the immense possibilities and benefits of hiring neurodivergent talent.
For an organization, building a neurodiverse workforce is advantageous because neurodiverse people possess the skills particularly needed right now as businesses adopt more advanced technology. There is no one better placed to help them do this than the seasoned facilitator who understands the process and neurodiversity well.
Implementing a Neurodiversity initiative requires sustained engagement with a client, professionals with expert subject knowledge, participation of the neurodivergent community and all levels of organizational leadership, and the tact and finesse of seasoned facilitators to accomplish the job. Core Facilitation practices and skills are essential for any neurodiversity initiative to succeed in the long term.
Implementing a neurodiversity initiative typically involves 9 phases, from the Planning Phase, then building the Business Case, getting the buy-in from all levels, engaging with the local community, developing Resourcing & Employment models, Reconstructing and adjusting hiring practices like sourcing, interviewing & selection processes, training & onboarding and then building an internal support system within the organization for better retention and career development.
One of the most common questions is: How do we get started? There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Every company culture is different. So is its approach to recruiting, interviewing, onboarding, and developing talent. However, we’ve found that many of the core questions and building blocks are similar.
In the planning phase, consider these five key questions to guide your efforts:
- Why are we doing this?
a) How does this fit our culture and values?
b) How does this align with our strategy?
- Who can help?
a) Who will champion this effort on the executive level?
b) Who will carry it out at the operation level?
c) What existing internal and external entities can help us?
- How do we make the business case?
a) What is the program’s value proposition?
b) What are the costs of the program and the ROI?
- Where do we start?
a) How do we scope the program initially?
b) What does a pilot look like?
c) Where do we find/source talent?
- What does success look like?
a) What are the KPIs?
b) How do we iterate and grow the program?
c) How do we continue to support the development of candidates hired through the program and their managers?
In my own experience, I have used various facilitation processes like Textra, Appreciative Inquiry, ORID, Design Thinking, Empathy Mapping, 6 Thinking Hats, and World Cafe to name a few, to help an organization build its business case and mission statement, identify potential job roles, create an internal support system, sensitize and train staff, etc.
While awareness building, sensitizing, and workplace enabling are some challenges, special focus is needed for some areas like redesigning the interview process for example. The traditional interview process eliminates NDs from qualifying. Only those like me, with low support needs, stand any chance of making it through these interviews. Microsoft created its ND-friendly interview and selection process. Details are available on their website.
We enabled our client organization by bringing all the stakeholders together for brainstorming and learning & sharing sessions. We enabled conversations between the organization leadership, HR/Recruiters/Consultants, ND Community (Parents/Guardians), NGOs/Social Workers. This also helped us redesign their entire talent sourcing and recruitment process. We had to rework their JDs to attract neurodivergent talent. The interview process itself was designed to make it accessible for NDs.
In the case of some candidates, we shared the interview questions beforehand, allowed some others to see pictures of what the interview room would look like to reduce interview stress, shared profiles of the interviewers with candidates, and gave step-by-step guidelines about accessing the facilities, where to find the toilet, or get photocopies, or find a quiet place to recover from sensory overload, used ND friendly fonts and colors on the computers and printouts, adjusted sound and light elements, intensive training and sensitizing of interviewers, the list is endless. In the end, it was only a matter of intention. The cost was not a factor.
That was 2 years ago. We ended up hiring nearly 30 candidates from this exercise. The current retention rate is 84%. The internal support system has evolved spectacularly. The company has since opened up more job profiles and is currently building on its long-term plans for neurodiversity inclusion.
The point I’m trying to make is that we, as facilitators are probably best equipped to enable organizations to implement ND initiatives successfully. As facilitators we are agents of change and how can we miss such a noble, and valuable opportunity as this?