Neurodiversity. It's not a term that exactly rolls off the tongue, and I suspect it's not widely understood. For me, it's the recognition everyone's brain works differently, and in particular the minds of those with autism and other conditions.
As a parent of an autistic teenager and someone who has worked with autistic people (via the excellent Auticon), I have some knowledge in the area, though I do not claim to be an expert.
Recently, I came across a post from Kate Forbes, Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Finance, endorsing a report from Skills Development Scotland calling on the Scottish technology industry to expand its talent pool to include more neurodiverse people. I fully support this and strongly encourage you to read it.
What comes to mind when you think of someone with autism? Firstly, it's important to realise autism is a wide-ranging condition that affects people in different ways. And while it is a recognised disability, it shouldn't be thought of as an illness or disease – there is no 'cure'.
In my experience autism can form a large part of someone's personality, and would you really want to change that?
There are numerous traits of autism which can present themselves differently in different people. These include:
Communication difficulties. An autistic child may take longer to develop language, or remain non-verbal. They may require time to process information and misunderstand ambiguous or non-literal language (“Your boss exploded?”). My son watches television with subtitles despite having no hearing problems. I believe it's because he can process written information better than speech.
Difficulties with social interaction. Some autistic people prefer their own company or find social situations difficult.
A preference for routine, repetitiveness, and resistance to change. Many autistic people like to plan and take comfort in knowing what to expect. Changes to routine, particularly if unexpected, can cause distress.
A deep interest in topics. Autistic people develop subject interests which may seem obsessive, from trains or dinosaurs as a youngsters to computers or a particular TV genre as an adult.
Sensory difficulties with, say, noise, light or smells. My son won't open my spice cupboard, and needs to wear ear-defenders around loud music.
If we can start to look beyond what makes autism a disorder and focus on how autistic traits can add value to our workplaces then we can become more socially inclusive while improving our businesses with a unique perspective and skillset.
An autistic person with computers as a special interest will have the knowledge. However, there are many other qualities that can be an asset to your business, particularly in technology.
A tendency to be repetitive and unambiguous can translate to an effective, thorough tester. The preference for routine is often paired with an ability to think logically and recognise patterns, key qualities for a developer or analyst. Attention to detail is often strong. This is by no means a conclusive list, but I trust it makes my point clear.
So, it's sad to note that unemployment amongst autistic adults is as high as 85%. As a society, we can and should do better.
Workplaces need to be suitable, and given the nature of the condition, the adjustments need to be focused on the individual. If an autistic colleague is sensitive to noise, then they are better seated in a quiet area of the office. More generally, ensuring instructions and other communications are clear, unambiguous, and literal will be of benefit your autistic colleagues.
Beyond the workplace, education must do more to get the best from our autistic population. Skills Development Scotland highlights a deficiency in technical skills in the labour market and suggests this can be filled by autistic people. While this is indeed true, it's also true many autistic people are let down by the education system. We need to ensure they have appropriate skills.
Many young autistic people attend additional support-needs schools, where the curriculum is delivered at a slower pace and may focus on employability rather than academic results. My son's school run a commercial bistro and laundry staffed by senior pupils, and he also studies horticulture and construction. However, there is little focus on IT.
Other autistic young people attend mainstream schools and, in some cases, receive additional support. Like the workplace, schools should ensure their environment can bring out the best in their pupils. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case - a lack of understanding can lead to an autistic person struggling to learn, being bullied or becoming disruptive.
I wrote to Kate Forbes to highlight my concerns in education and received a response from a policy advisor. I am reassured they are taking steps in the right direction.
Only time will tell if things improve - but I'm quietly confident that they will.