Neurodiversity at work: Where we’ve been and where we’re Going

Work Psychology Group's internal event featuring Nancy Doyle as a guest speaker on the topic of Neurodiversity at Work

As a team, we love to come together for learning and development. We regularly invite experts for informal “wine and wisdom” sessions to enhance our wider understanding of psychology in the workplace. Recently, welcomed Professor Nancy Doyle, Founder of Genius Within and Co-Director of the Centre for Neurodiversity at Work at Birkbeck University for a session titled, “Neurodiversity at work: Where we’ve been and where we’re going”.

The working world is gradually moving towards an understanding that not all employees are neurotypical, and Nancy shared key insights into her current work and research.

It was an informative and entertaining session. There was much to discuss, and we flooded Nancy with questions to better understand the impact of her work on what we do at Work Psychology Group, especially when we consider workplace assessments.

After the session, our team shared their key takeaways.

Neurodiversity in the workplace is a topic that is rising to the forefront

The reality is that neurodiversity has always been in our gene pool, but it’s something we only really started talking about in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. It is no coincidence that this coincided with the Industrial Revolution when the population became city, office, and factory based. It’s at the point that we standardised education and workplaces that we began to name neurodiverse conditions.

Now, over 100 years later, there is the neurodiversity movement, yet only 22% of autistic people are employed.

Autism at Work programmes definitely made people sit up and notice, but Nancy shared that we’ve learned the wrong lessons. As well as realising that a certain group can be very successful given the right environment, we should be questioning why our recruitment processes have excluded people that were really good at their jobs for so long.

Neurodivergent people are not a homogeneous group

Nancy highlighted that Autism at Work programmes tended to group autistic people under one workplace intervention, whereas actually, we need to adopt a more individualistic approach. Much like any other workplace equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives, approaches need to look at the whole person, rather than make assumptions based on specific things.

Furthermore, when conducting qualitative research, researchers need a broad enough sample to gain wide neurodiverse perspectives.

This served as an important reminder for the WPG team when it comes to our own preparation and delivery of workplace assessments.

Research in this area is still early stages

There currently is not enough information out there to inform decision-making when it comes to neurodiversity in the workplace.

As this is research at its most early stages, and qualitative rather than quantitative, there is only so much automation that can occur. AI, for example, is not ready for HR use in this context.

Data tends to be collected with hidden biases. To collect enough high-quality data at a large enough volume there needs to be more interrogation of the research processes. This is something that Nancy and her team at Birkbeck are working to change.

Context matters

Nancy’s work with Genius Within and Birkbeck gives us part of the picture, but should not be used to diagnose neurodivergent people. Assessment tools are just a small part of a rigorous diagnostic process and employers should not be using this information alone to create a picture of their employees.

Nancy highlighted that some markers of neurodiversity, such as a spiky profile (not a generalist worker but someone with huge strengths and also things they find particularly challenging), can be markers of other things such as brain injury, thyroid problems, long Covid, and MS. Without this context, assessors and psychologists can make errors.

There were unexpected links to our work at WPG

Founding Director of WPG, Professor Fiona Patterson, saw synergies in some of the work she has been doing with race and ethnicity in workplace assessments.

It was clear that there are many of the same issues, simply in a different context, unconscious biases and a tendency to group heterogeneous groups together.

What this shows is that sub-groups are not well defined in ethnicity or neurodiversity and that it’s important, moving forward, that research gets this right to inform practical outcomes.

Nancy’s talk certainly gave us all a lot to think about and will inform our practices as an organisation moving forward. Our team has agreed to a number of practical applications when it comes to workplace assessments:

Ensure we involve neurodiverse individuals in the design of our assessments

It is clear from Nancy’s research that a focus group approach with a breadth of neurodiverse minds will provide the best possible context when designing assessments. Much like the work, we are doing around race and ethnicity, this will provide another key part of our processes moving forward.

We must consider what we’re assessing

Many assessment formulas are biased in favour of neurotypicals, and sometimes we are assessing for skills, e.g. communication and time management, that are not relevant to certain roles. We should always contextualise our assessments and focus on the work output of the employee rather than certain irrelevant markers of professionalism.

We must also consider that markers such as communication and compassion are actually very culturally loaded qualities that vary wildly depending on age, gender, location, ethnicity, and by neurotype.

It’s a reminder to ask ourselves, “is this a quality that is important for this specific role?”

It is clear more research is needed and as outlined by Nancy, this research needs to be a collaboration with those that have a lived experience understanding of neurodiversity at work, researchers and those trying to implement things in practice.

We look forward to continuing our work and research in this area and informing the work we do for our clients with the most up-to-date information.

 

Work Psychology Group is an organisational psychology consultancy that collaborates with organisations around the world to help improve performance, communication, job satisfaction and fairness in the workplace.

Professor Nancy Doyle is the Founder of Genius Within and Co-Director of the Centre for Neurodiversity at Work at Birkbeck University.