May’s Federal Budget committed $1.2 billion to the Digital Economy Strategy in support of our Nation's post-pandemic recovery, targeting ‘investments that will underpin improvements in jobs, productivity and make Australia’s economy more resilient’. Part of this commitment is designed to facilitate training opportunities for 750,000 people without work. Against this backdrop, recent forecasts indicate that the $26 billion overall cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) will increase to $40.7 billion by 2024-25, with escalating costs forecast to outstrip medicare by billions. At the intersection of this opportunity and challenge is an emerging recognition that we need to extend our search for future tech talent amongst the hidden demographics represented within these NDIS statistics. Let's talk about neurodiversity.
In Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 screenplay, ‘The loneliness of the long-distance runner’, the key protagonist, Smith, uses running as a way to deal with the harshness of the world through physical effort. Smith’s journey towards elite athleticism serves to isolate him, from peers who resent his differences and from his coach who would exploit them. Sillitoe’s narrative draws a metaphor between endurance running and life, one to which many who find themselves categorised as ‘neurodiverse’ will identify.
Neurodiversity is the variation of neurocognitive functioning across our entire species. Some definitions focus on a population or group, rather than a species. Whichever definition, neurodiversity is a spectrum, and we can attribute individuals to a place on that spectrum. Many of us will wonder if our quirks indicate placement. Many of us will embrace our quirks and not wonder at all.
I was not one who wondered. It was in my 40s, having long since ticked the normative boxes with qualifications and a sustained career journey, that I sought a diagnosis. I knew I had differences; ‘I can’t work out if you are really smart or really stupid’, I’d been told during my master’s degree. It wasn’t the first time I had received such comments; comments which brought back the milestones of my long-distance run.
My earliest memories, which indicated difference, recall the struggle to concentrate in class as the lines on the blackboard drifted and sentences merged. Eye tests confirmed healthy vision, no glasses required. So, I lived with it. I hated reading aloud in class, the fast heart rate and sweaty palms. But, I worked hard and stayed ahead of the curve on my way to senior school.
Moving to senior school, I sought to attain full marks in everything except sport, where I was known to be clumsy and uncoordinated. But the extra hours of effort to achieve top grades became unsustainable as I progressed towards my final school years. Exams were excruciating. I still read the questions whilst others turned over their written responses. My note taking was erratic; portrait, landscape, upside down, interspersed with doodles. My undoing came when the loose paperwork escalated, with the expectation we could maintain order. Chaos reigned, and I began the slide.
The milestones of my run passed by, heralded by frustration, anger, self-loathing, then rebellion, and finally, I dropped out of school. That period was a kind of nothingness, a hollow echo. I watched my peers progress to university and leave their childhood homes. I didn’t like failure, remaining unemployed and spinning in my sense of worthlessness. That failure became my turning point.
I developed a new self-awareness. It was a time of trial and error, whilst seeking adaptive ways of learning. I’d recognised that whilst I did not join the dots the same way as others, the way I joined them revealed new patterns. A key to achieving increased self-awareness came with investing in my body with as much conviction as my mind. I was a rock climber, not clumsy and uncoordinated, but lean and powerful. At the nexus of accepting my own differences and of body, brain and cognitive reframing, I found a new capacity for learning. I walked through the gates of University at 26 years old, a mature student, ready to continue the long-distance run.
The run was not without challenge. I was never able to write notes in lectures. Classmates would roll their eyes at the end of term when I would take their folders to the photocopier one more time (returning them with papers in disarray). However, my learning had transformed. I had unlocked a capacity for critical thinking, three-dimensional problem solving, with a clarity that cut through complexity. I had tapped into a creativity that had always been there but never recognised by others.
Neurodiversity encompasses many neurological conditions, such as autism (including Asperger’s Syndrome), ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia, amongst others. However, the neurodiverse offer much to our teams and workplaces. According to the Harvard Business Review, neurodiversity can be a competitive advantage; ‘Many people with neurological conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia have extraordinary skills, including in pattern recognition, memory, and mathematics. Yet they often struggle to fit the profiles sought by employers’. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the largest primary disability category for the NDIS. However, only 28% of NDIS participants with autism spectrum disorder aged over 25 have a paid job.
While Australia laments its future skills challenges, we need to identify hidden potential. Organisations such as Specialisterne Australia are blazing a trail in this respect: ‘…Participation in the workforce is important for social inclusion and economic independence, however people with autism spectrum disorders often encounter barriers to entering the labour market, largely due to the traditional recruitment process’. In order to harness the huge potential of neurodiverse employees, we must go beyond the recruitment process and an open mindset. Many neurodiverse individuals have needs to be accommodated in order to reap the competitive advantage they can bring. I like to call this ‘adaptive employment’.
Adaptive employment might include a blend of organisational and environmental factors. We might include culture, work mix, technology, toolsets, peer support and physical environment. For the neurodiverse, wellbeing and productivity benefit from collaborative work task definition; for example, I have hyper-focus, a type of all-consuming absorption in tasks that interest me, but find that I’m easily distracted from routine tasks. In this case, adaptive work design might include supportive technology, reduced admin overhead, or selective administrative support.
Environmental considerations are another important element of bringing the neurodiverse into your team. Traits and needs vary in the same way that neurodiversity is a spectrum with an infinite permeation of characteristics. However, some traits are more common. For example, many neurodiverse have sensory issues. This might be a hypersensitivity to touch, smell, sound, light, etc. In one workplace experience, I sat at a desk elbow to elbow with colleagues, face to face with others across the open table. That team had a par chant for crunching boiled sweets at their workstations. A seemingly innocuous environmental stimulant can send a sensory overload to the hyper-sensitised. Rather than undergo the humiliation of an explanation, I resigned.
A workplace that seeks to leverage the competitive advantage of neurodiversity, is well placed to allow individuals to optimise their output flexibly; work from home, wear earbuds, screen a desk, receive support in routine administrative tasks, etc. Embracing unique skills requires flexible employers and redefined frameworks replacing normative performance assessment.
May’s Australian Federal Budget has highlighted that skilling our population is a necessary dependency for our National Resilience and economic growth. We need a pipeline of STEM talent, to deliver the ambition for Australia ‘to be a leading digital economy and society by 2030’. Australia’s neurodiverse community is a good place to explore an opportunity already embedded in our society.
The neurodiverse long-distance runners, like Sillitoe’s long-distance runner, might be the ones who do it differently, but they can deliver extraordinary results given the scope to find their own right way; like Sillitoe said; "you can play it by rules... or you can play it by ear– what counts is that you play it right for you”.