Improving Neurodiversity in the Tech Industry
Ashleigh Wilson is an educator at Coder Academy’s Brisbane campus. She is also a meetup organiser, an accomplished speaker, and a neurodiversity advocate.
At the WomenTech Global Conference 2021, Ashleigh shared her thoughts on the ways Australian and international companies could work to increase awareness around neurodiversity, and the ways we can encourage neurodiverse thinkers to use their unique approaches and ways of seeing the world to benefit their workplaces.
Neurodiversity can refer to conditions that are life-long and those that can develop throughout life, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyscalculia, dyslexia, dyspraxia, intellectual disability, mental health, Tourette syndrome, and acquired illness or brain injury.
The term and the concept emerged through the work of Australian sociologist Judy Singer, who wished to express that humans are diverse and that that diversity will naturally include neurodiversity. Neurological differences in the human brain need not be seen as disabilities or even divergences from the “normal” brain, but as natural variations within humanity.
Ashleigh was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as a three-year-old, and she has developed a passion for spreading awareness about both the importance and the benefits of creating neurodiverse workplaces, especially in the tech sector where she works. And Ashleigh is far from alone in her belief that neurodiversity should be seen, not as something to be overcome, but as a workplace strength.
Organisations including Ernst and Young, Google, and Australia’s Department of Defence are all implementing programs to hire neurodiverse candidates. Ernst and Young found that their neurodiverse employees surpassed others when it came to innovation, while the Department of Defence valued the logical and analytical approach and remarkable attention to detail of autistic individuals engaged in cyber security work. Technology companies Microsoft and Dell have also implemented autism hiring programs. Unfortunately, these programs aren’t yet the norm, in the tech industry, or anywhere else.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the labour force participation rate was 38 per cent among the 94,600 people of working age (15-64 years), living with autism spectrum disorders. This is compared with 53 per cent of all working-age people with a disability and 84 per cent of people living without disability.
So, what can companies do to increase awareness around neurodiversity? And how can the tech industry encourage neurodiverse thinkers to use their unique approaches and ways of seeing the world to benefit their workplaces?
1. Embracing and developing an acceptance of neurodiverse workers
Long before a job applicant is given the opportunity to prove themselves in a new role, they may encounter barriers in the hiring process. Just as someone in a wheelchair could either thrive in a role, or never make it to the interview if accessibility is not considered.
Rethinking the hiring culture and considering neurodiverse perspectives whenever we think of accessibility in the workplace can be beneficial for everyone.
2. Developing continued pathways for neurodiverse people to thrive and develop
Fixing the hiring process alone won’t be enough. Often the issue is not that neurodiverse candidates don’t have the skills required for the job, but that the role wasn’t designed with them in mind. Neurodiverse people can thrive and develop in workplaces that consider neurodiversity as normal in the workplace, and not as an abnormality that will hold people back.
3. Creating ways for workplaces, schools, universities, and colleges to openly accept those pathways
Embracing neurodiversity at all levels of education and employment helps to keep pathways open and to ensure neurodiverse individuals don’t face further barriers to opportunities.
4. Embracing workplaces to find means to implement better inclusivity programs in their current organisation, and fostering a neurodiverse workforce
This could include developing resources akin to the Universal Music UK handbook, Creative Differences, published with the intent of embracing neurodiversity in the creative industries. Similar initiatives can be embraced in the tech sector and other industries.
5. Inviting organisations to embrace and navigate neurodiversity in the workplace
As advocates like Ashleigh continue to break down misconceptions surrounding neurodiversity while showing businesses how to improve inclusivity, diversity, and accessibility, workplaces can benefit from the strengths and skills of neurodiverse individuals, and individuals can find pathways to engage in fulfilling careers in the tech industry.
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