Neurodiversity and Unemployment – the elephant in the room
Neurodiversity refers to people who have dyslexia, autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and more. These conditions used to be known as ‘Specific Learning Difficulties’, or SpLD, however this is a misnomer. The conditions are not solely related to learning (but also work, personal life and citizenship) and they also confer strengths, such as visual and verbal skills or long term memory ability, which the SpLD title overlooks.
Data analysis from Amanda Kirby and Ian Smythe, authors of the Do-IT profiler, has revealed that 28% of long-term unemployed people have dyslexia. The National Autistic Society report that only 15% of people with autism are employed. The percentage of people with ADHD in the criminal justice system is far higher than the working population – 30% compared to 5%. I could go on. Neurodiverse people are often too ‘high functioning’ to qualify for disability benefits, whilst being eligible for Access to Work. Is neurodiversity a disability or not?
According to the social model of disability, the answer depends on the degree of difficulty, and the social environment in which the individual is functioning. For example, a dyslexic with poor literacy might have excellent fine motor skills, and visual perception. This individual would be an excellent hairdresser, plumber, engineer or surgeon. However, even modern apprenticeships require several months of GSCE standard English before embarking on the development of practical skills. As such, the success of the dyslexic is limited in a way that is unrelated to the eventual job performance, which requires little in the way of literacy. To take another example, a person with autism could be an excellent analyst, in law, finance or IT perhaps, but would struggle in most interview situations due to sensory overload and unpredictable questioning. In both examples, the individual is experiencing disability, but due to the interaction between their condition and the social norms of the situation, rather than an innate difficulty in performing the job role.
When neurodiverse individuals interact with employment consultants they experience the same difficulties. Concentrating in busy, loud, open plan offices; listening to detailed instructions; filling in forms: these create barriers that are often perceived as attitudinal or motivational, leading to mistrust. A further problem is that the individuals themselves do not understand the intricacies of their condition. Diagnosis happens according to medical and educational norms, and so individuals are aware of their weaknesses, but not their strengths, nor how these impact in workplaces. They don’t receive a ‘how-to’ guide to their own cognitive profile and much of the advice given is limited to schoolwork or medication.
While schemes to teach literacy have been widespread, literacy isn’t always the barrier. My own research has shown that coaching, delivered as a ‘reasonable adjustment’ through Access to Work, can significantly improve job performance for neurodiverse people, when rated by their line managers. The coaching focuses on neurodiverse specific strategies for memory and organisation skills, rather than literacy. Our evaluation samples show that 88% of these coaching clients are still employed after a year, 23% achieving promotion within this time. Current pilots of group coaching and peer workshops, delivered by Genius Within CIC in employment, employability and in custody, also hold promising results. However, the success of the coaching depends on the quality of delivery, and there are currently no benchmarking standards, quality controls or contractual evaluations built into Access to Work adjustment delivery. For the neurodiverse individual this poses a huge risk – they may ‘fail’ again, and have no way to assess if a better service might have saved their job. The British Psychological Society have published a white paper advising a series of steps to improve disability adjustments for neurodiversity, including consistent, longitudinal evaluation, to assess which type of service ‘work’.
Genius Within CIC has strived to create interventions for neurodiversity support and currently funds two PhD students, developing a more robust evidence base. We have also surveyed, interviewed and listened to our clients. Our ‘positive assessment’ service was a direct response to client needs. Positive assessments highlight the thinking skills of neurodiverse people, explaining how these are related to job roles and tasks – the missing ‘how-to guide’. We select tests that are likely to show talents and ability, depending on the client’s condition, or how they seem to us when we meet them. The overlapping venn diagram below shows the unique and shared qualities that are often associated with neurodiversity. This leads to realistic and achievable job goals, which are then further developed in workshops and through case management.
Many enlightened employers, Ernst and Young and GCHQ to name but two, have realised the benefits of selecting neurodiverse employees to their staff teams and now do so deliberately, making adjustments to the recruitment process where needed. Employability providers can promote and support such schemes with employers. Access to Work can be utilised to support new employees and ensure that induction goes well. Managing neurodiversity for the long-term unemployed needs to address the awareness of front line staff to issues such as concentration and memory difficulties, as well as highlighting strengths and linking up with reasonable adjustments before and after employment begins. This will lead to more tailored, productive support for neurodiverse customers, and a better sustained job outcome rate for a vulnerable client group, who have not yet had a clear voice in welfare-to-work.
Managing Director, Genius Within