This article series is sponsored by DXC Technology and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
For Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, a leading autism researcher, it makes inherent sense that companies would include neurodiversity in their diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies as a business investment, a societal obligation and a basic human rights issue.
For those new to the topic, neurodiversity refers to recognizing and respecting neurological differences—including diagnoses like autism, attention deficit disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder—the same way we do other differences. Yet too few companies are embracing the opportunity to bring neurodiverse individuals into the workplace, Dissanayake told TriplePundit.
As founding director of the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre at La Trobe University, Australia’s first research center dedicated to autism, her life's work has been devoted to improving the lives of people on the autism spectrum—including in the workplace.
“We now know that brains grow differently, and that these differences represent a diversity of talents and skills which have previously not been recognized,” Dissanayake told us. “People on the autism spectrum have never had a voice—but now they do.”
Thanks to pioneering advocacy groups and researchers like Dissanayake, that voice is growing stronger. And a growing number of companies like DXC Technology, SAP, Microsoft, EY and others are making the case for why neurodiversity should be part of the way companies address D&I.
Hiring neurodiverse individuals has been shown through studies by La Trobe University and others, including the Harvard Business Review, to present a competitive advantage for companies, said Dissanayake, who has specialized in autism research since 1984.
“But not enough companies are recognizing this opportunity,” she told us. “It tends to be the big multinational companies and hasn’t really filtered into the small- and medium-sized companies and their workplaces.”
It comes down to a lack of awareness and knowledge about what people on the autism spectrum can bring to the workplace, Dissanayake said. “It’s all relatively new, and companies need to better understand the practices that would best support hiring and retaining neurodiverse people, especially those on the autism spectrum,” she told us.
The typical job advertisement and interview process is probably not the best way to attract people on the spectrum, even though this is the established way of on-boarding employees, Dissanayake explained. A typical job advertisement “is really broad," she said. "If it could be written in such a way as to really highlight the skills needed in that position, the potential job candidate on the autism spectrum could actually see themselves in that job."
Too often, however, job ads emphasize social and communication skills, such as being able to engage with other people and fit in with the team, rather than focusing on the day-to-day job a company needs done.
“We don’t see the skills that an individual can bring to the job with this approach," Dissanayake explained. "We tend to judge [applicants] by these social and communication skills, which many people on the autism spectrum struggle with. We need to open up our systems to be able to accommodate those differences, and to assess people based on their skills and abilities rather than social and communication skills.”
For a successful diversity and inclusion strategy that embraces neurodiversity, “We really need to look at hiring practices and break down what skills are actually needed to perform the job, and then bring in people who have the skills and ability to do that job," she continued. "It’s also about changing mindsets—not only that of the company as employers but also the entire workforce, the teams and direct managers. “
For Dissanayake, it is important for everyone to recognize “that we carry around inherent biases," she told 3p. "We need to be made aware of them and be explicit about them, so we can address them. It needs to work at every level: How can we change our assumptions and not only get people on the autism spectrum into a job, but [also help them] retain those jobs? In other words, not just employ them, but how do we allow them to succeed and actually build careers?”
Dissanayake has worked closely with DXC Technology, which she considers a leading company in including neurodiversity in the workplace. Since 2014, through its Dandelion Program, DXC has been working to increase technology employment opportunities for people on the autism spectrum and capitalize on their innate skills.
“What we’ve learned in our work with DXC and others who are employing people with autism is that success is about the environment and the person’s fit, making sure the person with autism is supported in the workplace, so that any issues that come up can be addressed quickly and on the spot,” Dissanayake explained.
She describes “reasonable accommodations” that can be made so that everyone is comfortable and can focus on their jobs. For example, people on the spectrum often have sensitivity to light, sound or smells, she said. “By understanding that, we can for example, suggest that one employee wear headphones, another wear a hat to block LED lighting,” or that co-workers refrain from using perfume, she continued.
“It’s not just about getting neurodiverse people to fit the workplace, but the other way around—making the workplace fit neurodiverse people."
More research is needed to advance understanding of autism at work, Dissanayake argued—“not just around the person, but understanding the ecosystem of the workplace and the elements that are needed in that ecosystem to foster inclusion," she explained. "It’s necessary to take a 360-degree view to understand all those elements.”
For example, many—although certainly not all—people on the spectrum tend to have excellent attention to detail and the ability to carry out repetitive behaviors, Dissanayake explained. “We need to understand: What are the kinds of skills that make these individuals ideally suited to STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] jobs, and what kinds of cognitive skills underlie that aptitude? Very little research has been done in this area to date.”
Further, “There needs to be an organizational psychology approach to understanding the organizational processes that can engage or disengage the employment of neurodiverse people. What are the enablers and key barriers that can help us identify the opportunities and better manage the challenges?”
Eventually, Dissanayake said she would like to see the development of a series of instruments that would assess the skills of people on the autism spectrum and examine the workplace and the environment to ensure an even better fit between potential employee and workplace.
Despite the business opportunity associated with integrating neurodiversity into corporate D&I strategies, it won’t be possible to really change the status quo for neurodiverse individuals and others with disability until the problem is tackled “at a much higher systemic and policy level," Dissanayake said. "We need a recognition that hiring neurodiverse individuals is not only a benefit to them, the workplace and the business, but also to governments and society at large. The right to work is a basic human right.”
Many countries, like France, Germany and, more recently, China, have enacted employment quota systems which mandate public and private companies to reserve a certain percentage of their positions for disabled persons. There are also penalties in some countries for employers which do not comply.
In China, when regulators introduced incentives for meeting the quota, companies were incentivized to pay attention to the law, the Financial Times reported. Companies that did not meet the quota now pay financial penalties based on how far they have fallen short of their obligations. These payments help support training and services for disabled people.
“To me, this makes inherent sense,” Dissanayake said, “that companies which do not do their share to employ people with disabilities should have to pay a tax that supports the lives of these individuals."
In conclusion, Dissanayake urged companies to think beyond the business case for neurodiversity—as compelling as it is—to consider the broad-sweeping societal impacts that underpin all D&I efforts.
“Yes, it makes sense to have neurodiverse people in your workplace and by doing so, you are making a contribution," she said. "But at the systemic level, it makes sense, too, as that person is contributing to the GDP of the nation. These kinds of incentives enhance the possibility that neurodiverse people and those on the autism spectrum have a fair chance at employment, just like the rest of us.”
Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.