Neurodiversity is a concept that has gained significant traction in recent years, challenging traditional notions of neurological differences and advocating for a more inclusive and accepting society. Coined by Australian social scientist Judy Singer in the late 1990s, neurodiversity is the belief that neurological differences, such as autism, ADHA/ADD, dyslexia, and more, should be recognized and respected as natural variations of the human brain, rather than as disorders that need to be cured or corrected.
Neurodiversity is based on the fundamental premise that the human population is naturally diverse when it comes to neurological functioning. Just as we accept and celebrate the diversity of physical attributes, such as eye colour, skin tone, and height, we should also acknowledge and embrace the diversity of cognitive and neurological traits. This perspective challenges the medical model of disability, which views neurological differences as deficiencies or disorders to be fixed.
Key Neurodiverse Identities
Neurodiversity encompasses a wide range of identities, including but not limited to:
- Autism: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. People with ASD often have problems with social communication and interaction, and restricted or repetitive behaviours or interests. People with ASD may also have different ways of learning, moving, or paying attention. Autistic individuals often possess unique strengths such as attention to detail, pattern recognition, and intense focus, which can be valuable in various fields, including technology and the arts.
- ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder): ADHD is a neurotype characterized by traits inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. People with ADHD may excel in creative endeavours, problem-solving, and high-energy environments. Their ability to think outside the box can lead to innovative solutions.
- Dyslexia: a condition of neurodevelopmental origin that mainly affects the ease with which a person reads, writes, and spells. Individuals with dyslexia may struggle with reading and spelling but often excel in areas like creative thinking, oral communication, and visual-spatial reasoning.
- Tourette’s syndrome: Tourette Syndrome is a condition of the nervous system. It causes people to have “tics”, which could be sudden twitches, movements, or sounds. Tourette’s is often characterized by involuntary vocal and motor tics. However, many individuals with Tourette’s also display exceptional talents and creativity.
Embracing Neurodiversity in our use of Psychometric Assessments
Psychometric tests are normed and standardised against people in general rather than focusing on the individual’s strengths and skills. Often the tests are irrelevant to the job that the person is working on or applying for. However, if we approach each individual’s cognitive issue head on, focusing on the ways they can contribute positively to the organisation and build confidence and self-awareness, individuals can thrive and we can embracing neurodiversity in our use of psychometric assessments.
Testing conditions may not be ideal for some neurodiverse individuals and these people may find they are excluded from a job and/or promotion based purely on their psychometric test results. This is not to say that they are not later able to prove their specialist skills to rise in their chosen careers.
The follow-up or feedback from the potential employer after testing can also have a negative impact if not handled properly. Most neurodiverse people have a lot to offer, though they often, understandably, suffer from self-esteem issues around employment after years of constant rejection and disappointment.
Once a neurodiverse individual joins a team, companies need to make some adjustments to support them. This may include some staff training and a few additional resources, such as voice recognition/text-to-speech software for dyslexia/vision impairment, dual screens for enhanced memory retention (sometimes useful after head trauma), quiet areas for stretching/decompressing (which can be useful with cerebral palsy, Tourette syndrome and autism), and providing materials ahead of meetings in accessible formats. Once the practicalities of adapting the workplace for a neurodiverse employee are taken care of, everyone can start focusing on the strengths and talents that so often get overlooked.
Autism as an Example of Neurodiversity in the Workplace
Psychometric tests themselves are not inherently discriminatory against autistic people. However, the way these tests are designed, administered, and interpreted can sometimes pose challenges for individuals with autism, potentially leading to outcomes that may appear discriminatory. Here are some reasons why psychometric tests can be challenging for autistic individuals:
- Social and Communication Differences: Many psychometric tests assess social and communication skills, which are areas where autistic individuals may have differences or challenges. These tests may not account for or accommodate these differences, which can lead to lower scores for autistic individuals, even if they possess the skills required for the job.
- Sensory Sensitivities: Some autistic individuals have sensory sensitivities, such as sensitivity to bright lights, loud noises, or crowded environments. Psychometric tests conducted in environments that do not account for these sensitivities may result in heightened anxiety or discomfort, affecting test performance.
- Cognitive Flexibility: Some psychometric tests assess cognitive flexibility and the ability to adapt to changing situations. Autistic individuals may have strengths in specific areas but may struggle with tasks that require rapid shifts in focus or multitasking.
- Lack of Understanding: Test administrators and employers may not have a full understanding of autism and may misinterpret behaviours or responses during testing, leading to biased judgments.
- Standardization and Norms: Psychometric tests are often standardized on a neurotypical population, meaning they are designed and validated based on the performance of individuals without neurological differences. This can result in tests that are not culturally or neurologically inclusive.
- Anxiety: Many autistic individuals experience heightened anxiety in new or unfamiliar situations, including test-taking environments. This anxiety can negatively impact performance on psychometric tests.
- Verbal vs. Non-Verbal Assessments: Some psychometric tests heavily rely on verbal communication and language skills. Autistic individuals who have strong non-verbal communication skills may not perform as well on tests that do not adequately measure their abilities.
To address challenges and promote fairness, it’s important for test designers, employers, and testing administrators to consider the following:
- Accessibility and Accommodations: Offering reasonable accommodations, such as extended time, quiet testing environments, or alternative ways to demonstrate skills, can help level the playing field for neurologically diverse individuals. However, these should not provide unfair advantage and should be used with caution.
- Validity and Bias: Continuous research into aspects such as validity, reliability, bias should be done to ensure there is no discrimination against any specific group, including neurodiverse individuals.
- Awareness and Training: Creating sensitivity and understanding of neurodiversity and its impact on test performance can assist in more accurate assessments.
- Alternative Assessment Methods: Consider possible alternatives for assessment when potential challenges may be identifies. These should focus more on job-related skills and abilities rather than social or communication skills, when appropriate.
Benefits of Embracing Neurodiversity in Psychometrics
- Innovation: neurodiverse individuals bring unique perspectives and cognitive approaches to problem-solving. Their unconventional thinking can lead to groundbreaking innovations in science, technology, and the arts.
- Enhanced Collaboration: inclusive workplaces that recognize and accommodate neurodiversity often foster a culture of collaboration, where diverse minds come together to tackle complex challenges.
- Talent Pool Expansion: by acknowledging neurodiversity, organizations can tap into a broader talent pool and harness the skills and talents of individuals who might otherwise be overlooked.
- Reducing Stigma: embracing neurodiversity helps reduce the stigma associated with neurological differences, promoting acceptance and understanding among individuals and society as a whole.
- Personal Empowerment: for neurodiverse individuals, the concept of neurodiversity can be empowering. It encourages self-acceptance and allows them to embrace their unique abilities and perspectives.
Challenges and Considerations
While the concept of neurodiversity has gained considerable support, there are still challenges to be addressed:
- Accessibility: society must ensure that individuals with neurological differences have access to the resources and accommodations they need to thrive.
- Education: schools and educational institutions should adopt neurodiverse-friendly teaching methods and environments to support students with varying cognitive styles.
- Employment: creating inclusive workplaces requires proactive efforts, such as providing reasonable accommodations, fostering an inclusive culture, and educating employees about neurodiversity.
- Public Awareness: raising awareness about neurodiversity is essential to dispelling myths and stereotypes and promoting acceptance.
Here are some important aspects to consider:
- Explain to test takers from the beginning of the recruitment process what is expected of them. This allows each person to decide if they are going to be negatively impacted and to what degree.
- Encourage open and psychologically safe communication that allows them to feel comfortable to disclose information that may be relevant. Don’t force candidates to take an assessment if they express discomfort.
- Don’t disadvantage a person because they chose not to take the assessment.
- Reassure candidates that neurodiversity, or other disclosed challenges (mental/physical/emotional) will not negatively affect their application by indicating that adjustments to decision making and interview processes may be made in individual cases.
In the case of Meier vs British Telecommunications PLC, the situation may have been avoided had clear communication and best practice principles be applied to each and every individual case to ensure fairness and non-bias in the recruitment process.
The main takeaway is that we cannot be sure how neurodiversity will impact assessment takers, and this highlights the importance of making adjustments on a case-by-case basis. Neurodiverse people have a lot to offer, though they often suffer from self-esteem issues. Not all great minds think alike. Diversity in the workplace is important. It can reflect a company’s customers, increase innovation, productivity, staff retention and loyalty. Neurodiversity is a paradigm shift in our understanding of neurological differences, advocating for acceptance, inclusion, and celebration of the diverse ways our brains work. By embracing neurodiversity, we unlock the potential for innovation, collaboration, and personal empowerment.
While employers don’t necessarily intend or knowingly discriminate against neurodiverse individuals, it can happen. Of vital importance is how the use of psychometric tests is implemented in the recruitment process. Never should tests be the sole reason why someone should or should not be successful in their application. Individuals should not be minimised to numbers and all efforts to determine an individual’s strengths and challenges should be considered in each and every case. Decisions should always be made with the role in mind, and should the impact of a person’s challenge create organisational risk, this too should be considered.
There is a responsibility from the employer to use fair recruitment strategies and also a responsibility from the neurodiverse individual to disclose their neurodiversity, particularly if it may have an impact on their competence within a role. Human resources need to ensure they acknowledge and consider this disclosure in relation to the role demands, and that they use their discretion in applying their knowledge in a fair and indiscriminatory manner. Ultimately, the goal should be to create a more inclusive and accommodating assessment process that allows all individuals to demonstrate their skills and abilities fairly.
Final message: use psychometric tools and results as a guideline rather than a rule. ALWAYS INTERPRET RESULTS IN RELATION TO THE ROLE AND ORGANISATIONAL NEEDS.