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Neurodiversity: the untapped talent pool

Neurodiverse people are typically at a disadvantage with conventional recruitment and employment practices, but employers have arguably overlooked the ‘superpowers’ this group can bring to industries such as (re)insurance

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Neurodiversity: Six things you need to know

• 80 percent of autistic adults are either unemployed or under-utilised in the workplace

• (Re)insurance industry employees who are parents/carers of neurodiverse people can also struggle in their careers without more flexible working arrangements

• Neurodiverse people typically excel in areas like data science and IT and in creative roles, and could help to fill a notable skills gap in areas like claims and InsurTech

• More neurodiverse people could be meaningfully employed with some basic changes to recruitment processes such as blind screening of CVs, gamified assessment and written tests

• Minor changes to the office environment including more considerate seating arrangements, ‘recharge’ rooms, buddy systems and software aids for dyslexic employees would make it easier for this group to engage with the workplace

• Leading technology firms such as Microsoft and SAP and organisations such as the UK intelligence agency GCHQ actively recruit neurodiverse talent, while IT consultancy Auticon exclusively employs autistic people

Hollywood loves the concept of ‘difference’ as a dramatic device for exploring stories of transformation and redemption: the troubled maths genius; the musical prodigy with mental health issues; the scientist with a debilitating genetic disorder. You’ve probably seen at least one movie that features this kind of ‘triumph against adversity' theme.

Movies of this type set out to explore an area of human experience that is either relatively unknown, largely misunderstood, or is the subject of widespread prejudice, and make its ‘otherness’ less alienating and more sympathetic to the viewer.

The problem with such narratives in popular culture, however, is that when a particular subject – autism, for example - has been explored in dramatic form, it is almost viewed as having been ‘done’. Society had been educated on the challenges a particular protagonist - and people like them - have faced, and everybody can move on.

In reality though, the challenges continue, often with little in the way of real change for those affected.

People may be more aware of neurological differences such as autism or Asperger’s. They may have heard of learning difficulties such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dyslexia. But that doesn’t mean that people with this broad spectrum of conditions, collectively described as ‘neurodiverse’ (or ‘neurodivergent’ when talking about individuals), now have access to the education, training and employment that they need in order to live more fulfilling lives.

And it may be that employers, and the (re)insurance sector in particular, is missing a trick when it comes to engaging more proactively with neurodiverse people as a talent pool.

The Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) is ahead of the game in this respect, having drafted guidelines, in collaboration with Willis Tower Watson and Aon, for employers and managers on “providing meaningful employment” for individuals with autism.

The CII notes that while around 1 percent of the global population are autistic, around 80 percent of autistic adults are “unemployed or underemployed”.

Autism charity Autistica, coming at the issue from the opposite angle, reveals that only 16 percent of autistic people are in full-time employment. Despite a willingness to work, Autistica says, autistic people nonetheless “struggle to get a job or cope with work environments, processes and cultures”.

In the CII’s view, however, autistic individuals “represent a significant pool of hidden talent” which, with the right workplace accommodations, can bring substantial benefits to any business.

The challenges of neurodiversity

It is important to recognise that neurodiversity covers a broad spectrum of diagnosed conditions, which in turn imply a wide range of experiences in terms of the challenges faced by neurodiverse people, and their parents or carers, in going about their daily life.

But it is also important to note that we are talking about people with a different range of abilities that are perhaps not as well recognised as those enjoyed by ‘neurotypical’ people.

In response to the lack of a cohesive approach to neurodiversity across the (re)insurance sector, two organisations have sprung up recently to raise awareness around the challenges faced both by neurodiverse employees and parents/carers of neurodiverse people who are themselves employed in the industry.

The Insurance Families Network (IFN) was born out of the insurance industry’s diversity and inclusion festival Dive In, in 2016, with the aim of supporting working parents and carers in the industry.

“It was about how to manage your children and your caring responsibilities with your actual day-to-day job, but also looking for career development,” says Michaela Gibson, founder of IFN.

Gibson’s eldest daughter was diagnosed in 2018 as being autistic and having ADHD which, she says, “as a parent presented challenges to me - particularly in the morning, in the evening and during school holidays”.

“The IFN now is really about helping parents and carers of neurodiverse children but also, as our children get older, being part of an initiative, where neurodiverse people’s skills are not seen as a disability but as an amazing ability that is going to add a different focus and level of productivity to the insurance market.”

Meanwhile, the Group for Autism, Insurance and Neurodiversity[GAIN], was founded by Barbara Schönhofer (who also founded the Insurance Supper Club and has spent 30 years in talent and recruitment) with the stated aimed of securing “employment in the insurance industry for autistic people to benefit individuals, employers and society”

Andrew Mercer is an IT professional and a member of the GAIN steering committee. His youngest son was diagnosed at age three as being on the autistic spectrum.

“I think all parents go through emotions about what the future is going to hold and – and you kind of get yourself educated,” he says.

“It’s difficult to generalise because every child is different – but my son is just brilliant at maths and solving problems. And the thing that strikes me about my professional life is that the world is becoming more technology-driven, so wouldn’t it be really cool to have some of these amazing abilities at work?”

However, he notes: “If you look at the statistics, many neurodiverse people are not in work and that’s a tragedy. So there is a social justice side to this, and GAIN was put together to do something about it. We want to find a win-win for the insurance industry and for neurodiverse people.”

Rachel Pears is an employment lawyer by background, who made an internal move about two years ago at law firm RPC to become the company’s inclusion and diversity lead and internal employment counsel. She is also on the IFN steering committee.

“My daughter was diagnosed with autism at three, so I had a very early introduction to the special needs world,” she recalls.

“For me it became really obvious, working as a fee-earning lawyer, that the need for a supportive organisation and work environment and a very understanding and flexible manager was absolutely essential for me to be able to stay in my career.”

Pears says she was lucky to have had a sympathetic manager and a firm that supported flexibility which allowed her to manage her job with her caring role – an approach which she says “made me a thousand times more loyal to the firm.”

The neurodiverse skillset

Pears says one thing which has prevented a wider understanding of the abilities that neurodiverse people can bring to the workplace is “a pretty bad press over the years”.

“It’s seen as quite a negative thing and a disability still, and it’s just a different set of abilities - although obviously there is a spectrum for that,” she says. “We often look at it from [the perspective of] what neurodiverse people can’t do - but there’s lots of things that I can’t do as a neurotypical person, and I’m never judged against that.”

Common traits displayed by autistic people, for example, include a highly-developed ability for pattern recognition, a very structured approach to processing information, and a strong focus on outcomes.

Indeed, neurodiverse people appear particularly well-suited to some of the roles that the (re)insurance industry in particular finds it challenging to both recruit for and to retain talent.

“Neurodiverse people have got what are often called superpowers,” says Mercer. “There is plenty of evidence that autistic people in particular are brilliant at digital - coding, programming, data manipulation, data loading, and even some of the more specialist areas like cyber security.”

Companies such as Microsoft and SAP, and organisations like GCHQ, have made a point of employing autistic people. And IT consultancy Auticon has gone one step further and exclusively employs autistic people.

According to Mercer, ADHD people typically have the ability to hyper-focus – a characteristic shared by many leaders in the business world - while dyslexic people are often highly creative.

“Autistic people are also known for their honesty - they’ll tell things as they are,” he says. “So, for example, in an area like claims handling, where there are shades of grey, they just cut through all of that and call it objectively.”

Gibson says this particular attribute displayed by people on the autism spectrum also extends beyond the claims/loss adjusting space to roles like fraud investigation and data protection – “roles where it’s all about adhering to rules and regulations and the small print”.

Pears also highlights the advantages in her profession of the extraordinary memory skills displayed by many autistic people, coupled with their ability to think logically and in sequence. “Identifying patterns is quite a common superpower amongst the autistic community,” she says.

“For our industry, and especially for Convex, data is such an important field and almost a competitive advantage these days,” says Convex group HR director Claire Ball. “There are huge gaps in terms of the data science talent pool, and I do believe neurodiverse candidates have a key role to play for organisations like ours in this space.”

Convex’s chief marketing officer Ashley Stockwell, whose youngest son is dyslexic, also references the benefits of increasing the ‘cognitive diversity’ of organisations.

“There’s a lot of research now which shows that having diverse teams can actually give you a much better and broader set of creative solutions,” he says.

“A book I’m reading at the moment, ‘Rebel Ideas’, references the code-breakers during the Second World War and the fact that they weren’t all the same sort of person - they came from different backgrounds with different ideas.”

Neurodiversity in insurance

In common with wider society, the insurance sector has some way to go in recognising the contribution the neurodiverse population can make to the industry.

While she says the underwriting community has yet to get to grips with this challenge, Gibson singles out brokers Willis Towers Watson and Aon as pioneers in the onboarding of neurodiverse talent.

Willis Towers Watson began a programme of hiring neurodiverse people, specifically those with autism, in the US in 2014.

According to the intermediary’s global head of inclusion and diversity, Jenifer Denby: “It really started when we began to think about this as an untapped talent pool and about the skills that these adults generally have. So for us it was not just the right thing to do but also about roles that we found quite hard to fill and where we thought that adults with these skills and experience could come in.”

Denby says that as part of its broader approach to inclusion, the broker also ran an awareness programme to coincide with Dyslexia Awareness Week in October 2016, which had a surprising response.

“Something like 45 of our colleagues said: ‘Hang on a minute, I think that might be me’,” recalls Denby. “Through one of our external partners we were able to get people assessed which gave them an opportunity to be formally diagnosed and then we looked at some of the support that we could put in place.”

Meanwhile, Aon’s Human Capital Solutions division has been working on the provision of ‘gamified assessment’ for recruitment, a technique which is believed to have a much more positive outcome than more traditional interviews – and especially for neurodiverse candidates.

Aon defines the approach as taking “robust, scientific psychometric tests and introduc[ing] some elements of gaming” and then applying this to elements of the recruitment process – the assessment stages in particular.

“I know in practice HS2 have used gamified assessment, and I was at an event where a lady who is Spanish and deaf gave a speech where she said she would never passed the interview for HS2 if it wasn’t gamified,” says Gibson.

At Convex, Ball says the firm initiated an intern programme last summer to target a more diverse range of candidates, partnering with consulting and recruitment firm Exceptional Individuals, a social enterprise that works with about 20,000 neurodivergent individuals.

“They advised us on how to think about attracting neurodiverse candidates in the way that we advertise, thinking differently about the way may ask questions at interview, and the kind of environment we may need if we were doing an assessment,” says Ball.

“None of the managers that were hiring knew the backgrounds of any of these candidates coming through and we were delighted to have appointed a neurodiverse candidate to that intern programme, who was so successful we offered her a more permanent role at the end.”

Making accommodations

In terms of the practical steps companies can take to make their organisations more neurodiverse, the recruitment process and workplace accommodations are key differentiators.

Willis Towers Watson’s Denby notes that the classic recruitment tool – the in-person interview – relies to a significant extent on interpersonal skills, which is where many neurodiverse candidates can fall down.

“To some extent our interview and selection processes weed out autistic people,” agrees Mercer.

Denby suggests a re-think of some aspects of the recruitment process is necessary. “That first round of interview might be a written exercise, rather than being in person,” she says.

Mercer suggests that recruiters could also “do worse than send the questions in advance – because you want people to give the best answers”.

“We recognise that a lot of adults with autism have perhaps got more gaps in their employment history than others,” adds Denby. “So where we might have said to people ‘Tell us about your experience, what about this role etc’, it involves thinking differently about what we ask people.”

In terms of workplace accommodations, simply re-thinking seating arrangements can go a long way to making the office environment more inclusive.

Neurodiverse people often have heightened senses, so locating their desks away from a window if they are light-sensitive, or away from an aisle or other noisy/busy area if they have sensitive hearing can help.

“We have offices with incredible 360-degree views of London, but if you’re a neurodiverse candidate coming into that office it could be quite overwhelming,” says Convex’s Ball.

In addition, the shift toward flexible working – accelerated by lockdown – will need to involve some accommodations for neurodiverse people if they are to thrive in the workplace.

“When we all went to agile working and hot-desking, we recognised that is something which isn’t as easy for adults with autism,” says Denby. “They like structure - they want to come in and sit at the same place very day.”

In Gibson’s view, with companies taking the opportunity flexible working offers to scale back their office footprint, “no one is going to have a fixed desk”, with desk space likely to be allocated through a booking system. “In my experience, that is not going to work for the majority of neurodiverse people,” she says.

Convex has also trained fourteen of its employees to be mental health first aiders, covering issues like how to support a colleague who is having a panic attack.

And both Ball and Mercer also cite the value of having a 'wellness' or 'recharge' room which, in Ball’s words, can provide “a quiet space for people to reflect if things do become a little overwhelming”.

And with a number of firms having introduced buddy systems to help with onboarding new employees during lockdown, Mercer highlights the value of this idea for neurodiverse colleagues also - who, he suggests “don’t pick up so fast on ‘the unwritten rules’ of the office”.

Denby also highlights some of the technological advances to help dyslexic people, who can struggle with text-heavy content. Whereas once they were supplied with coloured filters for monitor screens to aid text reading, she says there is now a range of software, including applications built into Microsoft Office, which are aimed at improving accessibility for dyslexic people amongst others.

Of course, workplace accommodations are the end result of a process which begins with education. As Pears says: “Someone once said to me that if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”

“I do still get the sense that neurodiversity hasn’t quite had its moment in the spotlight yet, compared to some of the other D&I strands,” she says.

“We’re on a journey – but we’re probably somewhere at the beginning to middle of it.”

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