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  1. (Not written by me) Where 75% of workers are on the autistic spectrum By Robbie Wojciechowski 21st October 2019 Our brains don’t all work the same way. One New York-based software company sees that as a competitive advantage. Rajesh Anandan founded his company Ultranauts (formerly Ultra Testing) with his MIT roommate Art Shectman with one aim: one aim: to prove that neurodiversity and autism could be a competitive advantage in business. “There is an incredible talent pool of adults on the autistic spectrum that has been overlooked for all the wrong reasons,” says 46-year-old Anandan. “People who haven’t had a fair shot to succeed at work, because of workplace and workflow and business practices that aren’t particularly effective for anyone but are especially damaging for anyone who is wired differently.” The New York-based quality engineering start-up is now one of an increasing number of firms looking towards autistic talent. But while programmes at companies including Microsoft and accounting firm EY are small and focused around supporting neurodiverse workers in the office, Ultranauts has redesigned its entire business around neurodiversity, changing hiring efforts to actively recruit individuals on the autism spectrum and developing new workplace practices to effectively manage neurodiverse teams. “We set out to change the blueprint for work, and change how a company could hire, manage and develop talent,” says Anandan. Neurodiversity has risen to the top of the agenda around inclusion at work in recent years, yet it is not a common term. It refers to the range of differences in individual human brain function which can be associated with conditions such as dyslexia, autism and ADHD. Research by the UK’s National Autistic Society (NAS) shows that the figures around employment of people with autism in the UK are still very low. In its survey of 2,000 autistic adults, just 16% were in full-time work, despite 77% of people who were unemployed saying they wanted to work. The barriers to work for people with autism can still be huge, and Richmal Maybank, employer engagement manager at NAS, says many factors contribute to this. “Job descriptions can often have core tick-box behaviours, and can be quite general,” she says. “Forms look for ‘team players’ and ‘staff with great communication skills’ but lack specific information.” Terms like these – or interview questions such as ‘where you see yourself in five years’ – can be too general for people with autism, as many with the condition can find vague questions particularly hard to decipher. Additionally, people can feel uncomfortable disclosing their disability or feel challenged by open-plan workplaces, where they may feel they need to socialise or absorb uncomfortable levels of noise. Five years in, 75% of Ultranauts’ staff are on the autistic spectrum – and one reason for this is its innovative approach to hiring. In other companies, assessing candidates often focuses heavily on communication competencies, which means neurodiverse voices can be excluded. But at Ultranauts there is no interview process and applicants don’t need relevant experience of specific technical skills. “We have adopted an approach to screening job applicants that is much more objective than you’ll find in most places,” says Anandan. Instead of using CVs and interviews, potential employees undergo a basic competency assessment in which they are evaluated against 25 desirable attributes for software testers, such as the ability to learn new systems or take on feedback. Following these initial tests, potential staff undergo a week of working from home fully paid. Potential recruits also know they can choose to work on a DTE (a desired-time equivalent) timetable, meaning they can take on as many hours as they feel comfortable managing, rather than being tied into full-time work. “As a result, we have a talent screening process to take someone who has never done this job and at the end of that process have a 95% degree of confidence… whether people would be great at this,” says Anandan. The competitive advantages of ‘neurodiversity’ Studies by Harvard University and BIMA have shown that embracing and maximising the talents of people who think differently can have huge benefits for a business. Having a neurodiverse workforce has been shown to improve innovation and problem solving, as people see and understand information in a range of different ways. Researchers have also found that accommodations made for neurodiverse staff members such as flexible hours or remote working can benefit neurotypical staff, too. The NAS say they have seen a rise in organisations reaching out to them to find out how they could better recruit autistic talent and neurodiverse workers, especially outside the IT sector. NAS offers suggestions for small changes, such as ensuring every meeting has an agenda. Agendas and similar tools can help neurodiverse staff focus on the relevant information needed and help people plan things in advance, making the meeting more accessible. “The things we suggest are good practice for any company, not just people with autism. They aren’t expensive, and are often easy quick wins,” says Maybank. “Employers need to recognise cultures in their organisation and to understand the unwritten rules of their organisation, to help people navigate that.” Maybank, who has been working with autistic people for the last decade, says she’d like to see more mandatory training for managers around neurodiversity and more buddying programmes to help people create better social links at work. She also feels employers should look at different progression routes for employees who may not want to become managers. But she says increased awareness of neurodiversity has improved understanding in workplaces. “People are becoming way more open about recognising different strands of autistic and neurodiverse behaviour,” she says. “People have a pre-conceived perception of what autism is, but it’s best to ask that person. People may be opposites of each other despite having the same condition.” Tailoring new technology Yet it’s not just increased awareness; remote working and new technologies are also helping to support workers who may previously have struggled to enter the workforce. Workplace tools including instant messaging platform Slack and list-making application Trello have improved communication for staff who may work outside a standard office environment. These tools can have additional benefits for people on the autistic spectrum, who might find things like face-to-face communication difficult. Ultranauts has made use of these technologies, as well as creating its own tools to suit staff needs. “A couples of years ago, a colleague on our team said they wished people came with a user manual,” says Anandan. So that’s exactly what they created, a self-authored guide called a ‘biodex’ which gives colleagues at Ultranauts all the information they need to find the best ways of working with a particular person. Being flexible about workplace set-up and tailoring company behaviours to cater for autistic needs has been a huge success for Ultranauts, which is beginning to share its experiences on best practice with other companies. Anandan says he’s learnt that making a workplace inclusive for neurodiverse colleagues hasn’t added friction or inefficiency, but allowed people who have largely been ignored by society to show their true talents. “We’ve shown over and over… that we’ve delivered results better because of the diversity of our team,” he says. Source: BBC Worklife 101
  2. (Not written by me) Understanding the benefits and challenges of neurodiversity in tech Neurodiversity is severely lacking in the tech sector. In light of the skills gap and the moral value of diversity, it's time organisations create more welcoming and productive work environments for neurodivergent employees According to a 2018 report from Tech Nation, 83% of the tech community in the UK believe their biggest challenge is accessing skilled workers. While some employers are quick to argue it’s a simple case of demand outstripping supply, some claim it’s because too many talented people are going unnoticed by recruiters. This realisation has spurred many businesses to become more diverse and inclusive. As such, in recent times, there’s been a lot of discussion around how to effectively attract staff of all ethnicities and genders. However, there’s a growing view emerging that more needs to be done in the area of neurodiversity. Research from the National Autistic Society found that just 16% of autistic adults are in full-time work and of those who weren’t, 77% wanted to be. Autism affects more than one in 100 people, which means over 700,000 people in the UK are autistic. That’s a huge pool of underutilised people that could be contributing to workplaces in many sectors that are currently being overlooked. What is neurodiversity and how can it help tech? Proponents of neurodiversity argue that in the same way we acknowledge a diverse range of sexualities, philosophies and cultures, we should accept a range of different modes of thinking as part of the human condition. At the same time, we should not pathologise those who experience the world in a different way but learn to embrace and include these different perspectives and modes of thought. Speaking with Information Age, Catherine Leggett, an employment consultant with the National Autistic Society, argued the problem is that autistic people tend not to be diagnosed on their strengths; they’re diagnosed on their difficulties. According to her, there is now also a growing body of academic research that suggests neurodiversity has tangible benefits for businesses. While no two people on the autistic spectrum are the same, people with autism often have desirable qualities for employers, particularly in tech, such as having high levels of concentration, strong mathematical abilities and excellent memories. As such, there’s a growing number of big firms who are keen on accessing neurodiverse talent; such as SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Microsoft, Willis Towers Watson, Ford, EY and DXC Technology. How enterprises can be neurodiverse One of the most challenging things about becoming neurodiverse is that there is no one size fits all approach to hiring people with autism. As the esteemed professor and autism advocate Dr Stephen Shore put it: “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.” However, according to Leggett, it’s essential to recognise that certain recruitment procedures often inadvertently create barriers for autistic people. The good news: there are numerous minor adjustments that businesses can make to their hiring process that will help autistic candidates demonstrate their skills. First of all, Leggett suggested organisations use clear and concise job descriptions when hiring. According to her, job descriptions often include skills that are not essential for the job to be carried out effectively. Qualities such as ‘excellent communication skills’ or ‘good team player’ are often included as default skills, even if they are not necessary – and many autistic people will not apply for jobs demanding these attributes. Organisations should also adapt their candidate selection process. “Many autistic applicants may not have achieved the kind of minimum educational qualifications or standards that are required, and this can be for a number of reasons,” said Leggett. “Perhaps they’ve got a later diagnosis and have been unsupported, or they might have conditions like dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, which all affect academic performance too. So be flexible about your criteria for education and particular skills and experience. “A lot of autistic graduates start their careers much later in life than non-autistic people and may have patches or gaps in their employment records.” Where neurodivergent people struggle is obtaining a job in the first place, added Leggett, since they can fall short on the requirements for strong verbal and nonverbal communication skills typically needed in a traditional job interview. Autistic candidates often struggle to ‘sell themselves’ in an interview, even if they have all the right skills. As such, organisations should offer job trials instead. If you would like to take this approach, NAS’s Employment Training Service can offer support and advice. Maintaining your neurodiverse workforce According to the BIMA Tech Inclusion and Diversity Report, neurodivergent employees are more likely to be impacted by poor mental health, 84% vs 49% for neurotypical workers. This suggests that beyond attracting neurodivergent talent, businesses need to be paying better attention to the quality of their working conditions. “Businesses need to be looking for what could be causing anxiety and working with their employees to put an adjustment in place for them,” said Leggett. “Often with younger people, it’s travel training and things like that. With older people, it could just be overwhelming sensory inputs, and that’s exhausting. “It could also be that they’re working in a highly social workplace; without adjustments in place they’re going to really struggle to meet those kinds of social expectations.” Is tech accepting of neurodiversity? According to Leggett, while a lot of work needs to be done, there is a lot to be optimistic about. She said: “We are now being approached by employers who want to do autistic intern programmes, apprenticeships and work experience. They know that’s where the talent is. “However, while it might be business needs driven at the moment, the actual motivation we would hope would be that it’s a moral and a social one. Everybody needs a chance at work, it’s so important for your identity, your independence, even just to make basic choices in life. “Neurodiversity produces this really positive kind of workplace cultural shift in how people are valued. Your clients and your service users are also neurodiverse so it can only be a good thing really. The more diversity you have, the more creativity and innovation you have, but also you’re demonstrating to your customers that you’re reflecting the world as it is.” Source: Information Age
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