Neurodiversity – Vive la différence

Multiple studies have reported that more than a year of juggling homeschooling, family commitments, social distancing and seemingly endless Zoom meetings have sent anxiety levels soaring, sending us online to search for mindfulness podcasts, scour the Internet for a new family pet or sign up for endorphin-boosting fitness classes to help us cope with ‘the new normal’.

Yet we all respond differently to stress. What delivers relaxation or stimulation for one person can act like nails on a blackboard to another.

This ‘no one size fits all’ approach holds equally true for how we approach our working lives as well as the ways in which we absorb new information, or acquire new tools and techniques. Our team at Esteem Training is acutely aware of different learning styles, and we have therefore developed an array of no-fuss adjustments and additional support which some candidates might need in order to succeed.

To further expand our knowledge, and identify additional ways to provide learning support, we recently undertook a series of specialist Neurodiversity training workshops with Barbara Borthwick, Access to Work Manager at Concept Northern, Scotland’s leading assistive-technology specialists. The company provides expert advice, equipment training and support for people with additional support needs – for example dyslexia, autism or visual impairment.

Neurodiversity looks at how – just as humans have different personalities, can look and act differently depending on culture and environment – we can differ in the ways in which our brains work. Many of us are familiar with this concept, having friends or family members who’ve been identified as on the autism spectrum or may even have received specific diagnoses for conditions such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia, dyscalculia or Tourette syndrome.

Perhaps less well known are the many famous creative people who have been identified as neurodiverse. For example, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Albert Einstein, serial inventor Thomas Edison, former ballet dancer Dame Darcey Bussell, prolific authors Agatha Christie, F Scott Fitzgerald and Irvine Welsh, award-winning international architect Richard Rogers, and Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates. Also singers Billie Eilish, Florence Welch and Solange Knowles, actors Darryl Hannah, Emma Watson, Jennifer Aniston, Keira Knightley, Daniel Radcliffe, Dan Aykroyd and Jerry Seinfeld. It’s a remarkable roll call of creativity and achievement.

Far from being ‘unfortunate problems’ affecting the few, conditions that fall under the neurodiversity banner are extremely common. For example, did you know that around 10% of the UK’s population struggle with dyslexia, while Dyslexia Scotland estimates suggest that approximately 20,000 Scottish construction workers could be dyslexic? Also that dyslexia is a hereditary condition and the most common among the specific learning needs identified to date. Far from being careless or inattentive, people with dyslexia can have real challenges with reading, writing or spelling, memory or organisation, or problems retrieving or processing information.   

Our team therefore places considerable emphasis, during our onboarding process and throughout the candidate’s journey, on identifying whether that person may have additional support needs to be accommodated, particularly since experience has shown that additional issues can exist that may require further support. Such ‘co-existing’ challenges can include dyscalculia (difficulties in understanding numbers), dyspraxia (challenges with motor co-ordination) or dysgraphia (a neurological disorder that can impair writing or fine motor skills).

We like to instil a different mindset regarding the kind of additional support we can provide. Rather than seeing a candidate’s specific needs as a form of deficiency, we prefer to view them as particular strengths in certain areas, and ongoing research would now appear to support that viewpoint. For example, should you have been identified as being on the autism spectrum, you may have better-than-average levels of creativity, problem solving skills or attention to detail which could prove valuable assets to your employer and colleagues, reaping real rewards when appropriately harnessed.

And we like to help identify simple, easy-to-implement ‘workarounds’. For example, it’s widely accepted that individuals with dyslexia can find reading extremely tiring – so should all work or tuition materials exist only in written form? Could they perhaps be generated in audio format – possibly as podcasts or voice files? Should they need to remain as written documents, can these be designed in line with the Dyslexia friendly style guide issued by The British Dyslexia Association?

Help is also available for writing challenges, through a number of ‘assistive technology’ apps and online resources. For example, Dragon (speech recognition software which converts the spoken word to on-screen text), Texthelp (software that helps users to read and write more efficiently, including having passages of text read aloud using a range of different voices). Livescribe smart pens can record everything we hear, say and write, then link those recordings to our notes and allow playback at a later date.

We hope it’s abundantly clear that Equality, Diversity and Inclusion are vitally important concepts for our team. Key values that, in our view, need to be actively promoted across every sector of the Scottish economy to end discrimination in all its ugly forms, while maximising our collective potential and ending the counterproductive crushing of dreams and aspirations. Thankfully, many committed human resources (HR) departments are already attuned to the important role of identifying potential employees’ possible ASN (assisted support needs), with many already achieving this through sensitive questioning, observation and reassurance.

Sensitive questioning, observance and reassurance is also the Esteem Training approach, with additional support and accommodations tailored to address each individual’s needs and contributing to our consistent 94% candidate success rate. We want every candidate to reach, even ultimately exceed, career goals they might previously have thought only possible with luck and a fair wind. In practical terms, this translates into providing information in advance of support sessions; ensuring that we issue clear, concise instructions in written form backed up by video meetings and tutorials, online toolkits and templates, and that our portfolio of learning materials, and social media channels, reflect a diverse range of ethnicities, abilities and genders.

Accelerated Learning forms the cornerstone of everything that we do – from our learning materials to candidate meetings, and use of colour to basic structure. All are geared towards maximising candidates’ success. We’re proud to have supported multiple neurodiverse candidates, along the way implementing a range of tailored adjustments to help overcome their reticence, communications challenges, anxieties or lack of confidence. In several instances, these candidates have proven themselves some of our most dedicated and talented learners. It’s incredibly rewarding to watch them prove that any previous negative experiences around education are simply that – memories that belong in the past, and bear little resemblance to their true talents and future potential.

If we’ve provided food for thought, making you feel that you’d like a refresher on Britain’s legal protections designed to shield against discrimination in the workplace and wider society, then the Equality Act 2010 could provide a helpful starting point.