Diversity in the workplace is widely accepted as being of huge benefit to both businesses and consumers. But while many companies have embraced the concept of building teams that include people from different genders, ethnicities, religions, sexualities and disabilities, some employment experts believe the practice of diversity in the workplace still hasn't fully included those with neurological conditions such as autism. In other words, many workforces have yet to become neurodiverse.

Neurodiversity is a relatively new term for those with autism as well as other conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and ADHD. According to The National Autistic Society, there are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK - the equivalent of more than 1 in 100. But only 16% of adults with autism are in full-time paid employment in Great Britain. This compares with 47% of disabled people and 80% of non-disabled people.

A lifelong developmental disability, autism affects how you communicate with and relate to others, as well as how you experience the world around you; everyone on the spectrum has difficulties with social interaction, social communication and social imagination, explains the National Autistic Society.

But in a guide to employing people with autism the charity argues many have much to offer the workplace, including skills and abilities that can benefit a diverse team. Indeed, some believe famous figures in history may have been on the autism spectrum, including Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, Mozart, Michelangelo and Charles Darwin.

Tasks and skills

The National Autistic Society suggests some people with autism may also excel in particular tasks and have above-average skills in some of all the following areas:

  1. Problem-solving skills and attention to detail
    People with autism tend to prefer logical and structured approaches to their work, and often think in a very visual way. They may enjoy problem solving and can bring new ideas and take fresh approaches to their job
  2. High levels of concentration
    People with autism may often find focusing on detailed work rewarding, and can tend to work persistently and without being distracted, paying great attention to detail
  3. Reliability and loyalty
    People on the autism spectrum can be very conscientious and committed to their work, often with good levels of punctuality, honesty and integrity. For example, employers say they notice that absenteeism is lower
  4. Technical ability and specialist skills and interests such as in IT
    People with autism may develop highly specialist interests and skills, which can be very valuable in the workplace
  5. Detailed factual knowledge and an excellent memory
    People with autism may develop highly specialist interests, which will mean that they develop very detailed factual knowledge in that area
  6. Retention
    People with autism have a preference for routine and once settled in a job will often stay in that role considerably longer than others
  7. Resourcefulness
    People with autism may also have had to find ways to overcome challenges and so can be resourceful

Benefits of having a neurodiverse workforce

The potential benefits of having a neurodiverse workforce, according to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), include creativity, lateral thinking, bringing a different perspective, development of highly specialised skills and consistency once tasks are mastered. Businesses, says ACAS, may even have competitive advantages by having employees who think differently.

Chartered Psychologist Nancy Doyle, in an article for ACAS, further suggests that innovative thinking has become an indispensable business asset, and that many neurodiverse people are at the forefront of innovative thinking. "A person with autism could be an excellent analyst, in law, finance or IT perhaps," she says.

Meanwhile the National Autistic Society claims many people with autism have a variety of skills that may help them thrive in roles ranging from sales assistant to computer programmer and journalist to statistician, to name a few. The society's employment service Prospects has also reported supporting people with autism into many types of jobs, including the following:

  • Librarian
  • School science technician
  • Community Support Officer
  • IT support
  • Software tester
  • Business analyst
  • Data analyst
  • Visual merchandiser
  • Traffic warden

Changing attitudes to workplace diversity

The good news is that an increasing number of employers - including large companies such as Microsoft, the BBC and multinational software firm SAP - are actively recruiting neurodiverse people for the skills they bring to the table. And according to the National Autistic Society's employment training manager Emma Jones, the benefits to businesses are clear: a recent HR magazine article quotes Emma as saying: "It's anecdotal but we've found that lots of organisations find their productivity increases if an autistic person is in the right role."

For lots more about autism in the workplace, including information for employers and details of how to assess your office's autism-friendliness, visit the National Autistic Society's website. The website also offers valuable support to adults with autism who are looking for work as well as information for autistic people in work.

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