The other day, I was fortunate enough to have a live discussion with Kesavan Kandadai, the CEO of ishield.ai – a company that does some fantastic work in the field of inclusion. As Kesavan describes it, they are the “Grammarly for inclusive language”. He invited me to answer a few questions during the Unlearning Series on the topic of ‘Unconscious bias against Neurodivergents in the Workplace’ – a talk they host regularly to dispel myths and promote understanding about issues related to diversity and inclusion.
I thought it would be useful to share these questions and answers so that anyone working in the field of neurodiversity would find it useful. I have added more information to the answers here for greater clarity and better understanding.
- Could you give us some clarity on terminology and definitions?
A: That’s a great place to start. When we use words like Neurodiversity, Neurodivergent, Neurotypical, Neurodiverse, Neurodistinct, and Neurotype, it’s important to use them correctly to minimize miscommunication and/or confusion.
Neurodiversity is the natural variation found across human brains. It is an umbrella term that encompasses conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette’s, and so on. Neurodiversity is all-inclusive.
A neurodivergent (ND) individual is one whose neurological makeup differs from that of the majority. Individuals who have any of the conditions mentioned earlier are referred to as neurodivergents.
The majority of humans have a typically wired brain or what dominant society considers to be ‘normal’ brains – they are called neurotypicals (NTs).
Neurodiverse is a commonly misused term. It refers to a group of people and not an individual. A group is neurodiverse if there is a mix of neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals in it. A person cannot be neurodiverse. So the opposite of neurotypical is neurodivergent and not neurodiverse.
Neurotype refers to the neurological makeup of an individual. So an autistic has a neurotype different from a dyslexic although both are neurodivergents.
- What types of unconscious bias do NDs face at work?
A: Unconscious bias is when someone relies on stereotypes or prejudices to make decisions, without consciously realizing that they tend to be influenced by these thoughts. NDs face all kinds of implicit or unconscious biases at work. For example, there is a lot of ignorance about sensory sensitivities which are very common among neurodivergents. So if an ND cannot handle stimuli such as bright lights or noise or finds themselves unable to cope in crowds, it usually elicits an adverse reaction from their colleagues. The bias leads to colleagues thinking that it is an overreaction or weird behavior on the part of the NDs instead of understanding that these sensitivities are hard to live with.
There is also a bias that comes across as ableism – most neurotypicals believe that neurodivergents are simply less able than them when it comes to doing tasks or functioning at any level. Ableism makes it very tough for NDs to have collaborative relationships at work.
- How prevalent is this issue in the workplace?
A: It is very prevalent. 20% of the world’s population is neurodivergent. Statistically, you would have encountered NDs in the workplace. If you ask an ND individual about bias, they will say it is in your face more often than not! Unconscious bias colors most of the interactions that NTs have with NDs.
- What are the barriers to neuroinclusion in the workplace?
A: The barriers to neuroinclusion are many. Some examples of barriers are ableist beliefs, the inability to understand that different ways of thinking and processing actually enrich a team, the lack of workplace accommodations, the rigidity of processes that were designed for neurotypicals, the expectation that NDs have to change to fit in and NTs can continue as they are with absolutely no efforts at understanding from their side and so on.
- What do companies lose out on because of these biases?
A: There are both direct and indirect costs to companies. Direct costs occur when companies lose out on the amazing talent pool that is the neurodivergent community. This results in losing out on creativity, productivity, and innovation. Indirect costs affect the very cultural fabric of the company – so neurodiverse companies are way more resilient and adaptable than non-diverse ones. In terms of numbers, here are a few facts:
- JP Morgan found that autistic workers took just 3 to 6 months versus the usual 3 years to do the same level of work in its Mortgage Banking Technology division.
- JP Morgan Chase reports that professionals in its Autism at Work initiative make fewer errors and are 90% to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees.
- EY US & Canada report that through 12 centers, employing 200+ neurodivergent employees they saved 2.6 million hours of EY productivity time and $650+ million in quantitative ROI.
- In a survey by the Institute for Corporate Productivity, at least 86% of employers rated neurodivergent employees as good or very good in Dependability, Motivation, Engagement, and Peer Integration.
- What are some of the ways in which unconscious bias appears in the language we use in the workplace?
A: One way is by using the wrong terminology – high functioning, low functioning, etc. to describe levels of functioning instead of ‘high support’ or ‘low support’ to show different degrees of support needs.
Another way is by using words like “dumb”, “crazy”, “insane”, “lame”, “nuts”, “psycho”, “idiot”, “retarded” and “spaz” or using someone’s diagnosis as an adjective (e.g., “you’re so bipolar” or “I’m so OCD”). This has a huge negative impact. Very often these words are used freely because the ableist language has been integrated and normalized in society.
I can give you an example here of a team of neurodivergents in a company being called the ‘Crazy team’ by their manager without their knowledge. The neurotypical manager and co-workers who regularly interacted with them dubbed them the ‘C Team’. The ND team didn’t realize what ‘C’ stood for and instead thought they were like the ‘A’ team or ‘B’ team that already existed. When they found out that C stood for Crazy, they were devastated. This level of bias and ableism can only be reduced by proper training and sensitization.
- How does unconscious bias manifest in recruitment?
A: During the hiring process, unconscious biases can negatively affect recruiters’ perceptions of candidates. This would mean that ND candidates usually get rejected.
Job advertisements that ask for ‘excellent communication skills ’ or ‘great team player’ are often too generic and unclear. ND candidates shy away from applying to jobs unless they can tick all the requirements so the more specific and skill-based the advert is, the higher the chances are of attracting ND talent.
Biases can create uneven playing fields as recruiters may, for example, hire candidates that they get along with or who come from the same backgrounds as they do, even though ND candidates may have skills better suited for the role. Interviews that assess communication skills or quick decision-making are biased towards a neurotypical way of thinking or behaving. These unconscious biases can often work against neurodivergent candidates, and give them no opportunity to demonstrate their talents.
Traditional one-to-one interview processes can be highly challenging for NDs as they may find it difficult to make eye contact or answer open-ended questions. It is far better to make minor accommodations such as sharing questions ahead of time or allowing a virtual interview instead of a face-to-face one so that the stress is taken out of the interview process. Also, stereotypes about neurodiversity can make recruiters reluctant to hire them, even if they perform well in conventional interviews.
- Where do companies start?
A: Companies can start by being human. Somewhere along the way in our pursuit of success, we have lost our humanity and we need to be trained on even things like empathy which should be natural for everyone! Philosophy aside, start with training. By training, I don’t mean training the neurodivergents in a company to be more like neurotypicals. I mean well-rounded neurodiversity training at every level of the organization. Yes, NDs need to be coached on how to tackle situations at work but leaders, managers, and colleagues also need to be trained on being sensitive to and working with differences. The company needs to create a culture where inclusion is an integral feature rather than an add-on.
- Is there a company that has done a good job?
A: A lot of companies have started neurodiversity initiatives but the two names that stand out as having done so successfully and sustainably are IBM and Ultranauts. Both these companies had ND leaders in charge of their neurodiversity initiatives and that is why these programs have been successful. A neurotypical cannot by definition, know what it feels like to be a neurodivergent or understand completely the challenges they face.
At Ultranauts, 75% of the employees are neurodivergent. Marcelle Ciampi who is ND herself is responsible for architecting their universal design inclusivity in recruitment – they call it the Universal Workplace.
From Marcelle’s articles we know that (I’m quoting here)
- They ensure all practices don’t single out autistic people as doing things differently.
- Autistic individuals don’t have a separate interview process.
- They don’t have a separate onboarding.
- Everyone is treated the same, which enables them to have more privacy and dignity.
- They don’t have to disclose their diagnosis unless they want to.
- They devised best practices for engagement and learning around the paradigm of neurodiversity, with an understanding that everyone’s brains vary, and they all are of value.
- How can tech help? Can you give examples?
Tech is, in many ways, an ND’s best friend. Tech is reliable, dependable, and consistent so most of the NDs that I know, including my son, take to tech easily. Many NDs who have executive functioning difficulties rely on apps to help with time management and keeping track of medications and so on. I have heard of upcoming ambiguity-detecting tools but I haven’t come across any other technology like ishield’s that works with inclusivity in language.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anima Nair is a Neurodiversity Consultant and Advocate. She is a vastly experienced educator, speaker, and presenter.
She is also the Lead – Client Management & Content Strategy at Neurogifted.
She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
or through her social media handles below.