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In Conversation with Genius Within – The Social Enterprise Fighting for Neuroinclusion in Workplaces

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Helen Doyle, Community Manager at Genius Within. Genius Within is a neurodivergent-led social enterprise founded in 2011 with the aim of driving systemic change for neurodivergent people.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is something that has become more widely recognised in society in recent years. In its simplest terms, it can be described as a variation in thought processing and behaviours that differ from the norm. It encompasses ADHD, Autism, Tourette Syndrome, Dyslexia and Dysprexia, and in recent years has widened to include things like mental health, brain injury and chronic illness. To give us a more in depth understanding, Helen gives the example of Generalist vs Specialist thinkers – an idea she takes from founder Professor Nancy Doyle:

If we can imagine plotting neurotypical people’s cognitive abilities on a graph, there would be a line with only a gentle wave, where their skills in every area are generally the same and roughly in the same vicinity. But when we plot neurodivergent people’s abilities on a graph, there tends to be more of a spiky profile, meaning there is a greater variation between things they are really good at and the things that they struggle with. Just to be clear, this is not an indicator of intelligence, but it does help us to give a clear picture of why a person might struggle with some things and not with others. Helen concludes:

‘The idea is, in the history of the world we have always needed specialist thinkers – most innovation and great moments that happen are people who are very specialist thinking / focused on one particular area. Generalists are useful too, but we need both – companies need both’.

Genius Within

To improve the experiences of neurodiverse people in the workplace, Genius Within have several focuses in their work. ‘Part of it looks like coaching,’ Helen explains to me, ‘going in and providing assessments and coaching neurodivergent people – finding out their strengths, what they are struggling with, and suggesting reasonable adjustments to help. It’s about figuring out ways to help them adapt their role to their strengths.’ And it’s not just when people are already in employment that this support is offered; Genius Within also work with a number of programmes for people seeking employment, helping neurodiverse people learn how to play to their strengths, develop general job skills, and get their foot on the ladder. They also work in prisons, delivering workshops and services to inmates that aid them in figuring out how to get on the career path once they are out of prison.

Alongside this tailored, individual support, Genius Within also help companies look at where they can make everything they do neuroinclusive, so that they don’t have to wait for people to be struggling before they can get help. As Helen says, the ideal aim of this is to help ‘re-organise your business in a way that helps from the beginning. We often find the changes that benefit neurodivergent employees are actually useful for the majority anyway.’

What does the current landscape of neurodiversity at work look like?

Helen explains that, while society generally has become more aware of neurodivergence in the last decade, there are still a number of obstacles for people, particularly in the workplace.

‘On the one hand, when you look at what the common awareness of neurodiversity was 10 years ago, we’ve come on absolute leaps and bounds – so many more people know what it’s about and are interested in being more inclusive, so overall the world of work has really moved forward in understanding that there’s such a strong need to include neurodivergent people and remove barriers for them’.

But there are various factors impacting the way people view neurodiversity on a larger scale that are slipping in and effecting neurodivergent peoples experiences in the workplace. These include harmful social media campaigns that target ADHD, for example, claiming that it ‘isn’t real’, which adds to stigma and makes people afraid to disclose, and a lack of funding for services that leaves people on long waiting lists, with some people waiting almost a year for Access to Work. Access to Work is a government programme aimed at supporting disabled people to take up or remain in work. While a fantastic service, Helen notes that people are having to wait on a list when they need immediate help:

‘By the time people apply for it, they’re already struggling. If more people knew about it, employers included, then they could apply for it earlier instead of waiting for a crisis to occur’.

On top of this, neurodivergent peoples’ success in the workplace is being hindered by a social bias often prevalent amongst employers. ‘There’s this sort of strange and prevalent idea’, Helen says, ‘that the ideal employee looks like one thing’. But workforces need variance within their skill sets, and a ‘cookie cutter employee’ will not get them that. Helen discusses this particularly in regards to recruitment, where arbitrary barriers filter out neurodivergent people before employers have even met them. In recruitment processes, this looks like testing skills that are not actually required for the job.

A good example of this is eye contact. For some neurodivergent people, it can be very uncomfortable to make eye contact. Moreover, many neurodivergent people can listen and absorb information better if they are not making eye contact. But for employers, lack of eye contact during the recruitment process is interpreted as the sign of a poor employee.

‘The societal rule that not making eye contact is disrespectful or shows a lack of confidence is actually completely untrue in the case of neurodivergent people’.

One aspect of Genius Within’s work is to encourage employers to rethink recruitment rules and be more willing to talk about if a person suits the specific job they are applying to and the skills that are relevant for that role, to give neurodivergent people a better chance. For example, someone who applies for a job who doesn’t make eye contact, or is slower at answering questions –  is that relevant if they’re going to be doing data entry?

‘It’s very easy for it to fly under the radar and for people to just assume or assess us as difficult or lazy or whatever label is easiest to put on it rather than realising that it could just be a different way of doing things’.

Research published on Genius Within’s blog last year identified that there are a range of “barriers”to disclosing neurodivergence at work, including fear of discrimination. Furthermore, it was found that three fifths (65 per cent) of managers said they did not have enough knowledge to support workers, and a third (30 per cent) of employers admitted they had “little faith” in workplace adjustments.

There are a number of steps employers can take to make their workplaces inclusive for neurodiverse people. Firstly, Helen notes that the best way to start is to seek proper, professional training, because employers do not want to start their neuroinclusive journey from a place of misinformation. Experts can provide insights from a business and psychology perspective, offering training on neurodiversity and suggestions on what reasonable adjustments in the workplace might look like.

There are 3 key aspects in building neuroinclusive workplaces:

Flexibility

As aforementioned, flexibility around what an ‘ideal worker’ looks like is paramount to including neurodivergent people in your workforce. This involves acknowledging that not everyone has the same skill sets and considering what neurodivergent people can bring to the table, especially in terms of specialist thinking.

Flexibility also looks like accommodating different ways of working, including having suitable work from home options and flexible working hours. As is the case when thinking about it in relation to the gender pay gap, flexible working is fundamental to attracting and retaining diverse talent and building inclusive workplaces.

Communication

This flexibility also extends to communication styles. Helen notes that neurodivergent people can sometimes be more blunt and direct in the way that they communicate, and sometimes might need to ask more follow up questions for clarity, or find it more difficult to speak in meetings. This can often be misinterpreted in organisations that are not familiar with or trained on the diverse ways that neurodivergent people might communicate.

It’s really just about allowing for that flexibility and giving people the benefit of the doubt before judging them based on preconceived notions about what communication should look like.

Environment

Finally, employers should look at how they can make their workplaces accommodating for neurodivergent people who may experience sensory issues. Generally, any environment that is uncomfortable makes it harder for an employee to do their job, so this should be taken into account when considering what neurodivergent people might need out of a place of work.

A good way to go about this, Helen notes, is for companies to consult with all of their staff, not just their neurodivergent employees, because they’ll often find that even neurotypical people will have suggestions on how to make their workplace more comfortable. This may include reducing background noise and having quiet spaces, having softer lighting in the office, or taking into account the comfort of the uniform policy.

The Genius Finder Pro

To help employers out, Genius Within have launched two new assessment tools called ‘My Genius Finder’ and the ‘Genius Finder Pro’. The tools work by presenting a set of questions that maps your cognitive profile, for example in terms of creativity and numeracy. ‘My Genius Finder’ is aimed at individuals looking for help and can provide a list of reasonable adjustments for individuals to try in their role based off their cognitive profile. The incentive behind the tool is to give immediate support and offer a range of adjustments to people in need which will hopefully stop them from leaving their job or struggling for prolonged periods of time while they are on waiting lists. It allows users to play around with different tailored adjustments and strategies, based on years of direct work from Genius Within.

The ‘Genius Finder Pro’, on the other hand, is designed to give access to the organisational insights that allow employers to map their whole company. Employers can use the tool to identify where key skills are most apparent and where there are shortfalls that may need addressing through recruitment and training.

Genius Within also offer a range of e-learning and in person training packages for employees and managers. More information can be found here.

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