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updated on 20 May 2022
Reading time: six minutes
How neurodiversity at work initiatives got their start
Large organisations in the UK, US, Australia, and elsewhere had experimented with and seen success from what became known as disability hiring programmes – targeted efforts to recruit and retain talent within disability categories. Famous examples of such programmes include the initiative begun by Walgreens Senior Vice President Randy Lewis in 2007, hiring such talent into Walgreens multiple distribution centres across America. Lewis has an autistic son, Austin, and both Austin’s talents and struggles were key motivators behind Lewis’s programme.
Soon, Walgreens was winning awards, attracting press coverage and inspiring others to follow suit. Crucially, programmes like Lewis’s demonstrated the overlooked talent in these demographics, that hiring and supporting them was perhaps not as hard as cautious HR managers might think, and that they could deliver real results: Walgreens programme notably saw plummeting turnover and absenteeism. Even more resonantly, such programmes reported seeing benefits for ALL staff involved, notably building empathy and skills among hiring managers.
Take a look at LawCareers.Net’s Diversity Access Schemes page for a list of diversity initiatives and access schemes springing up.
Neurodiversity programmes sparked by need for talent in tech
The success of Lewis and other programme builders acted as an inspiration, too, to several large (and office-based) firms as they desperately sought tech talent during the so-called ‘war for talent’ that raged until the labour market upheaval of the covid-19 pandemic. With more than two-thirds of recruiters struggling to find talent, and organisations suffering from long-open positions, such firms needed an alternative talent source and found one in the autistic community. This demographic was long culturally correlated to the tech sector (through the often inaccurate stereotypes of the geeky programmer) but one that had not previously rarely been considered when it came to outreach, hiring or working environments.
These early neurodiversity programme builders – notably at DXC Technology in Australia, Auticon UK, SAP, EY, and Microsoft – attracted even more publicity than had Randy Lewis and his contemporaries. Here, for the first time, were some of the world’s most glamorous firms deliberately seeking the talents of neurodistinct (specifically, autistic) professionals in front-line, high-paying roles. Media coverage had no shortage of human-interest stories to highlight, as such programmes provided opportunities for young autistic adults who had hitherto struggled to find employment. Only 22% of autistic adults in the UK are in any kind of employment, according to the National Autistic Society. However, their research also shows that a significant majority (77%) of unemployed autistic people say they want to work.
Read Phil’s tips on being proud of your unique and interesting self, and how to take these aspects of yourself to an interview.
But such programmes came in for some criticism, too, and in particular from people within the neurodistinct community itself. While all praised the firms’ intentions, some worried that the programmes were largely hiring white, male techies – thus feeding stereotypes, and failing to engage with the majority of the far broader and more diverse neurodistinct professionals and job applicants.
Creating a culture of neuroinclusivity and empowered self advocacy
The most significant impact of these early hiring programmes, though, was almost certainly a positive one. In showcasing a genuine enthusiasm (typically, for the first time) for talent that thinks differently, such programmes encouraged existing neurodistinct employees to self-disclose (more confident, now, of a positive response) and to begin or continue self-advocating for the needs of existing neurodistinct staff. Thus, neurodiversity enterprise resource groups (ERGs) began to spring up, sometimes offshoots of older disability ERGs.
Read Demi Rixon’s advice on finding the right law firm for your career and disability, including factors to consider during your research.
Neurodistinct self-advocates – from Leena Haque at the BBC to Natalia Lyckowski at IBM – began to educate their own companies on the importance of neurodiversity awareness and inclusion in the form of adjustments to environments or processes, and more informed line managers.
At companies such as IBM and BBC, powerful global coalitions of staff formed, combining neurodistinct employees with HR executives and business allies. These coalitions – driven by the articulated experiences of neurodistinct employees – realised that while hiring programmes had sparked a global business interest in neurodiversity, what was ultimately needed was action to ensure neuroinclusion – a positive experience for all employees, regardless of thinking style.
‘Assuring diversity: accessibility and disability in the legal profession’ looks at the relationships between candidates and firms when it comes to diverse talent.
Neurodiversity training as a solution to biases and creating a better culture
Not surprisingly, neurodiversity programme builders – whether of specific hiring programmes or enterprise-wide initiatives – typically cite neurodiversity education as THE key piece of their initiatives, and how they got neurodiversity programmes rolling in their organisations.
“You’ve got to get your training, your awareness up to speed to know now to build a safe environment.” – Michael Fieldhouse, social impact practice leader at DXC Technology
‘How do I figure out which law firms value diversity and inclusion?’ Read LawCareers.Net’s advice in The Oracle.
The importance of neuroinclusion as a smart business strategy
With every company being, by definition, neurodiverse, and typically with many neurodistinct employees, neuroinclusion should be (and is quickly becoming) a major focus of any firm looking to attract the best talent and optimise its most expensive asset – its human capital. And as IBM’s Lyckowski and others have proved, the key architects and stewards of such change can often be found in an organisation already – people who combine knowledge of the real challenges of being neurodistinct in a particular culture or environment, with a passion for helping their company live its values and become truly inclusive for all.
I feel we’re living the motto of “nothing about us without us”, says Lyckowski proudly. “It’s really fantastic. And through that, we’ve also come up with initiatives of things that we want to do as a group and push them up through HR, through our programming and say, ‘hey, we need to do this.’ Or ‘we want to do this’. And having a lot of voices there to go through is making that done”.
Uptimize’s neurodiversity training starts with awareness and appreciation – but also extends to more role-specific, tactical instruction. Allowing key roles such as recruiters and HR to implement small, incremental process changes to drive neuroinclusion improves the whole organisation.
Read more on how firms can better support neurodiverse employees in the workplace and during recruitment in this LCN Says, written by Phil Steventon.
Ed Thompson (he/him) is the founder & CEO of Uptimize. Want to hear more from Ed? Read his article 'What is neurodiversity at work?' for more insights.