At the heart of the ‘neurodiversity’ movement, which advocates for the rights of neurodivergent people, is that ‘different’ does not equate to lesser than.
DCA CEO Lisa Annese, spoke with Chris Varney, founder and CEO of the I CAN Network – an organisation that empowers people on the Autism spectrum – to better understand neurodiversity and get his unique perspectives as a leader with autism successfully employing 38 employees with autism.
“Neurodiversity describes that all of us have different brains,” explains Chris. “It’s acknowledging that the diversity in the way that people process things is like gender diversity, cultural diversity, ethnic diversity. You are neurodivergent when you have an actual diagnosed neuro-processing difference.” These can include autism, ADHD, dyslexia and Tourette’s syndrome, and are often co-occurring.
Self-understanding at the heart of spiked interest
Recent media coverage of high profile employment programs and the fact that neurodiversity was one of the DCA website’s most searched terms last year, demonstrate that there is curiosity about this complex and evolving diversity dimension.
Chris agrees: “I think there’s an enormous amount of people that are understanding more about themselves. When they hear stories of people who have a neuro divergence or when they read articles on neurodiversity, it’s sparking self-understanding and understanding of a family member.”
Despite this, and the fact that neurodivergent individuals are often attributed as having many positive skills and qualities including problem-solving, hyper-focus, pattern recognition, attention to detail, commitment, honesty and loyalty to their employer, poor employment outcomes continue with 2018 ABS statistics showing declining labour participation rates for people with autism.
While we do hear the good news stories of large organisations like IBM, Westpac and the Federal Government who are implementing neurodiversity recruitment programs, these are only able to accommodate limited groups of candidates, and there is scope for many other employers to do more to capture their skills and talents.
Forward planning and acting deliberately
Regardless of their size or intention, Chris believes the main challenge for any employer in successfully recruiting and progressing neurodivergent staff is having detailed forward planning and integrating the necessary processes that deliberately match neurodivergent employees’ unique talents to opportunities within their organisation.
In consulting with a range of different employers, he recommends three main things they can do to include neurodiverse people in their workplaces.
“First thing is in your recruitment practices, provide the interview questions 48 hours beforehand to give your neurodiverse or autistic applicants processing time. The second thing is to ask your staff what their communication preferences are when you’re giving organisation wide messages. And the third thing is to run your staff training systems through organisations or experts who are neurodiverse so that you can identify gaps that might be there.”
After six years leading a team of neurodivergent staff as part of Australia’s first social enterprise founded by people with autism, he, above all, values his team’s honesty and kindness, and credits their innovation and commitment with the organisation’s survival during the challenging economic circumstances of COVID-19.
Says Chris, “You need to give your staffing groups permission to innovate and share your problems with them. And when you do, and when you can create space especially for your diverse people to contribute, I think you’ll be surprised with the outcomes you receive.”