Do Indian workplaces need to be more neurodiverse?

Provided with the right workplace environment, people with cognitive conditions like dyslexia and autism can be an asset to the company, claim neurodiversity advocates

“There’s one type of diversity we’ve spent less time considering: diversity of thought.”

Universal Music UK CEO David Joseph’s words find place in the company’s Creative Differences handbook. Brought out early this year, it sought to address the need to make workplaces more ‘neurodiverse’, kick-starting a conversation around the phrase.

So what is neurodiversity? A growing movement in socio-political and mental health advocacy, it refers to the notion that seemingly ‘impaired’ cognitive features, characteristic of developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, fall into normal human behavioural variations.

What it means

The movement pushes forward the idea that along with autism, other cognitive conditions such as Asperger’s, dyslexia, and dyspraxia among others, are not always impairments or diseases that need to be corrected.

“The term neurodiversity is used by the autism community to distinguish persons with autism from the neurologically typical,” says Merry Barua, Director, Action For Autism (AFA) and the National Centre for Autism in New Delhi. So those falling outside the spectrum become neuro-typical, and not the so-called ‘normal’. “It is based on the understanding that people are neurologically diverse versus being ‘lesser’ or ‘abnormal’.”

Instead, if people with these conditions work in an environment favourable to their personalities, their condition could prove an advantage.

Shot of a handsome young designer listening to music with his headphones while working in the office

Shot of a handsome young designer listening to music with his headphones while working in the office   | Photo Credit: AJ_Watt

For instance, research has shown that people with autism often outperform others in auditory and visual tasks, and do better on non-verbal tests of intelligence. A study by University of Montreal found that in a test that involved completing a visual pattern, people with autism finished 40% faster than those without the condition.

“Ideally, they would be employed in fields that don’t require constant group meetings, like programming, software developing, scientific research work or music,” says Ritika Aggarwal, consultant psychologist at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre.

What neurodiverse persons may lack in social skills, they can make up for with other talents such as attention to detail, the ability to stick to a routine, and to recognise patterns. A person with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), for example, can bring in creativity and innovation, and not get tired easily.

“When you bring in these other perspectives to the organisation, your company is more likely to succeed,” she says. It is a way to innovate, and that requires fresh perspectives.

How workplaces can help

The Universal Music UK’s handbook advises making these changes to the workplace environment: use of light background memos that make it easier for people with dyslexia to read, accepting a person’s incapability to be extroverted at social gatherings, and so on.

“For companies to be accommodating of neurodiversity, they can make accommodations in their job interviews. Such as having the job applicant with autism demonstrate work skills that she is being interviewed for, rather than asking her where she sees herself 10 years later (something that might be difficult for someone on the spectrum to answer),” says Merry.

Other accommodations such as providing flexible work hours, and giving instructions in writing over email or voice recording can also help. “Managers need to have frank conversations with their employees about their expectations. Sarcasm and passive hints could be hard to understand for them,” adds Aggarwal.

She further says that there are NGOs who work in tie-ups with certain companies to train neurodiverse people for hiring. The hospitality sector in India has seen many such employees.

Do Indian workplaces need to be more neurodiverse?

Ruby Singh’s Assisted Living For Autistic Adults in Bengaluru has been helping people with autism get hired in workplaces for over a decade now. In her experience, Ruby finds that people with autism get disturbed with sensory overload. That could mean maintaining a low-noise and fragrance-free environment. “Offices can allow neurodiverse employees to play light music, or use headphones while working. They can build corners where employees can go when they need to calm down.”

But perhaps the most important of all is educating other neuro-typical employees of the needs of the neurodiverse ones. Aggarwal recalls one of her clients who had to deal with corporate jealousy, and allegations of favouritism. “He needed to wear headphones to concentrate, but as a principle, the others did not. So one of his colleagues complained to their manager, and the manager had to explain the situation to him.”

You could even employ a buddy system, explains Aggarwal, “It would help someone who gets too involved in their work, and forgets to take breaks. Their buddy could call this person along if he is going to have coffee. Basically make the person feel like he is part of the group.”

The very question whether a neurodiverse person is too low functioning for a job comes from the kind of prism through which neurodiverse people are viewed, believes Merry. “I would do terribly if I were placed in a job in the IT sector. No one would presume that therefore women, or Bengalis, or Indians are not suited to IT. All of which I am,” she says. “We have to first get rid of our assumptions about neurodiversity, and find the right person for the right job based on individual strengths and interests.”

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Printable version | Jul 12, 2020 11:39:32 AM |

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