Career Conversations by The Careers Company Session 5

Jul 11, 2024

On Thursday 27th June, we held our 5th Career Conversations by The Careers Company. This time the discussion was around Neurodiversity and those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and careers. 


After going round the table giving introductions, representatives from TCC gave some information on the ethos of the company and what makes us unique. We look at things from both an individual and an organisational level, and we proudly drive the career success of diverse employee groups. Diverse employees bring a wide range of skills, experiences, and perspectives to the workplace. However, the career success of these groups is challenged. They are often under-served and under-represented in organisations. We are committed to change that by working with HR Directors, Careers Leaders and Organisational Leaders. Our vision for a diverse and inclusive workplace is one where differences are acknowledged and celebrated, and support is provided for the particular needs of different employee groups. 


The topic of neurodiversity was then introduced and discussed, including some quotes, definitions and data on the topic. We learnt that the term “neurodiversity” was coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer to provide an alternative language that describes neurodevelopmental conditions including autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We discussed how language is important but can also be confusing and different people may feel comfortable with different terminology. For example, the term “neurotypical” is seen by some as a social construct and so of limited usefulness, whereas others find the term helpful. The idea of it being a social construct helps raise the issue of the impact of the environment on a person's condition and theirs and others’ perception of it. 


One participant remarked that terms such as “neurodivergent” are coming from a position of fear of difference, and the question was posed whether this “fear ground terminology” was especially a British issue and whether other countries were more positive towards neurodiversity? We touched on politics and how all kinds of disabilities can be used as a political football, and those with all kinds of disabilities can be used as scapegoats by those with their own political agendas. However, in some areas there is more positive language emerging around neurodiversity. For example, one parent present of a child with ADHD described it as a “superpower”. 


From an employer perspective, we discussed how there can be a lack of understanding and awareness of potential employees or job applicants who are neurodiverse. For this reason neurodiverse people can feel misunderstood in the workplace, or fall at the first hurdle at the interview stage, if the interview process is not adapted to their needs. One participant who worked in HR remarked that there was a lack of simple conversation between managers and those employees who were neurodiverse, such as asking the questions “what are you good at?” and “how can we best support you?” It was felt that managers need to be equipped with a toolkit to feel able to have those conversations with their neurodivergent staff, independent of bringing in Human Resources. Such conversations are indicative of a positive work culture generally. 


One lady in the group who had recently been diagnosed with Autism described the diagnosis as bringing with it a “new identity”, with all the positive and negative associations that go with that. We discussed whether and to what degree having a diagnosis was helpful or necessary. The lady in question described receiving her diagnosis as a “lightbulb moment” which shed light on the struggles she had been experiencing, but acknowledged receiving a diagnosis can bring “mixed” feelings. It can largely depend on the relationship the individual has with their condition. Receiving a diagnosis then leads onto the question of disclosure and the challenges that might bring. 


This idea of gaining a new identity can also relate to the way and the time of life at which someone discovers they are neurodiverse. As fortunately neurodiversity is more openly talked about now, more children are being diagnosed as neurodiverse. This can then in some cases lead to their parents wondering if they too are neurodiverse and seeking to be tested. Moreover, neurodevelopmental conditions can both be present from birth and also acquired later in life. We touched on the area of mental health, and it was acknowledged that neurodevelopmental conditions can overlap with, or be misdiagnosed as, mental health problems. 


We then turned to SEND - children with special educational needs and disabilities. We discussed how an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHC) exists for children and young people aged up to 25 years, who need more support than is available through special educational needs support. The question was raised - what happens to those individuals after the age of 25? There’s no clear answer to that question. 


It was discussed that conditions can look different depending on whether they are present in males or females. Those SEND/neurodiverse individuals may feel a “social demand to fit in”, that is, they may resort to “masking” which is exhausting for the individual concerned. This continued effort to hide a big part of oneself can itself lead to mental health problems. We discussed the importance of being, and being allowed to be “your authentic self”. However, masking for some can feel like “the only option”, if they don’t know what’s “wrong” or they are demonstrating qualities and behaviours outside social norms. 


Nowadays there’s more awareness and an increase in diagnoses of neurodevelopmental conditions. Questions were raised as to whether we are now better at diagnosing conditions that always have existed? Are we in some cases overdiagnosing? Are individuals from certain socio-economic backgrounds more likely to get access to tests and therefore diagnoses and treatment? To help gain some clarity to these and other questions, we looked at some data. Black children were more likely to have been diagnosed with ADHD or a learning disability compared to white and Hispanic children (American Psychiatric association/CDC). Meanwhile white children and those of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to be both identified and diagnosed with ASD earlier compared with Black, Latino, and Asian children, as well as children from low-income families. In the UK there is a 2 year waiting list on the NHS simply to be diagnosed. 


Some of the statistics were quite surprising. The number of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) increased to 1.57 million (England) pupils in 2023, representing 17.3% of all pupils. In 2021-22, only 4.8% of adults with learning disabilities aged 18-64 who were receiving support from social services were in paid employment (UK). To us at TCC the majority of adults with learning disabilities not being enabled to work, represents “untapped potential” for the employment market. Why is this the case? There are currently hiring practices that are unsuitable for a range of neurodevelopmental conditions. There are different and unhelpful expectations or beliefs, and at times outright discrimination on the part of employers. For example, companies can overestimate the cost of any reasonable adjustments a neurodiverse employee might require, and so not hire them. Issues such as these result in unemployment or under-employment of neurodiverse people.


TCC’s recommendations to improve the representation of neurodiversity in the workplace are to do the following:


  • Improve language and accessibility in the recruitment process
  • Make the interview process flexible, focus on skills and strengths rather than gaps, provide interview questions upfront
  • Increase awareness and care of neurodiverse employees to help retention
  • Offer flexible working conditions, such as working from home, sensory-friendly spaces and clear communication
  • Foster a work culture that lets people know mistakes are OK


We wondered what role the media had in representing SEND/neurodiverse individuals, whether for good or bad. It was suggested that issues of SEND and neurodiversity are becoming more mainstream in the media, but their representation is still somewhat stereotypical. Possible stereotypical representations in the media can be countered by real life role models who are open in their lives and work about their neurodiversity. For example, figures from the past and present such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Einstein are all well known for being neurodivergent. These well known names and others show that those who are neurodiverse can be exceptionally driven and talented, and represent untapped talent pools. They may seek a different career pattern, however, which some employers may perceive as problematic. More understanding is needed.


The session ended on a hopeful note, with one participant remarking that it was good that there was increasing openness in the world of work and education about the issues of neurodiversity and SEND, but we are “not there yet.”


Thanks to all our fabulous attendees, and representatives from TCC for making this event happen. We hope to see you at our next event! 

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