Why we (still) need to talk about neurodiversity (a lot louder)
A view from Ali Hannan

Why we (still) need to talk about neurodiversity (a lot louder)

Despite the industry's well-documented diversity drive, neurodiversity remains the elephant in the room and change is overdue.

This June, Sam Phillips, Chief Marketing Officer at Omnicom Media Group UK, Managing Director OMG Ethnic and Assistant Dean of Omnicom University tackled diversity’s ‘elephant in the room’: neurodiversity. The response was overwhelming. The term defines a range of people who have difficulties with organisation, memory, concentration, time, direction, perception and sequencing.

Ahead of National Inclusion Week, Ali Hanan, founder of the newly released Creative Equality Standard, talks to their training partner, Roxanne Hobbs, founder of The Hobbs Consultancy and Phillips, about why it’s the topic we still have yet to put top of the diversity agenda.

Q: Sam, your article sparked a torrent of conversations. What ignited it?

A: When I responded to the question: ‘What isn’t adland talking about?’ as posed in the most recent Campaign A-List questionnaire my response was: ‘where are all the disabled people?’ The canvas was very blank indeed as the subject of neurodiversity - or learning disability - is so rarely a topic for discussion in our industry. And yet it’s part of real life. It’s a part of the Britain that - that you and I - live and work in. The response to my writing was extraordinary with clients, colleagues and competitors lining up to ‘thank me for making them think’. 

Q: Roxanne, what stops the industry talking about neurodiversity? 

A: The fact is diversity and inclusion has been focused around gender and BAME, but I believe that’s because this is a visible issue. There’s no doubt there is such a long way to go on these targets, particularly on BAME (this has dropped by 1%), despite adland’s rhetoric. Gender and race are the first things we notice about people, yet a lot of our differences run under the surface. Some of these are invisible at first.

Q: What sparked your interest in the area, Roxanne?

A: I have a confession. I’ve worked in the D&I arena for five years now and it took me until this summer to start talking about this topic. The prompt for me was a personal one – my son was diagnosed with high functioning autism. I started to worry about his future employment prospects while simultaneously witnessing his extraordinary gifts. He might find it hard to understand social interaction, but his memory, his understanding of systems and his general knowledge are already extraordinary. He’s five. Sam, like me, also has a 14-year old with special needs – Down’s Syndrome in his case.   I love what she said in her article: ‘My world got bigger, not smaller, when I got thrust into the world of disability, to the extent that I have been known to jest since that every family should raise a child with a disability so they too can unfold more of life’s less-explored but fascinating layers.

Q: Sam, what challenges do neuro-diverse people face 

A: Ultimately, we have to face the fact that people like to employ ‘people like me’ (affinity bias) and that people can feel ‘awkward’ around someone who isn’t. Recruitment is a real challenge. Many companies employ from established partners and are not up to speed with special needs employment programmes, like for example St George’s Hospital’s brilliant Project SEARCH initiative, which takes adults aged 18-24 with learning disabilities and helps them into the workplace. Our industry could be recruiting from here or taking advantage of a programme from Mencap, who coined the concept of "job-carving", where the more repetitive elements of a job spec are ‘carved off’ to match the needs of someone with a learning disability.  By starting to consider what people who are neurodiverse can do…as opposed to what they can’t do all manner of opportunities open themselves up.’ 

Q: Roxanne, what are the advantages of neurodiverse workforces?

A: Some people are on the spectrum – though  some have an incredible attention to detail and approach problems in very different ways. Companies are starting to take notice. For example, Ultra Testing is a US-based company who test new websites for bugs. They employ testers who are on the autism spectrum; not because of any altruistic reasons but because of the tendency of some people with autism to obsessively focus on detail, giving the company a competitive advantage.

Q: Roxanne, how can workplace cultures adapt?

A: With heightened awareness of a unique potential contribution, must come an awareness of the challenges that people face in the workplace. Ultra Testing have made some unique changes to their culture so that those on the spectrum can firstly get through the door and, secondly, can go on to thrive. Microsoft, again in the US, are holding an Autism @Work summit next Spring in Seattle having already introduced third party experts to help demystify autism and job coaches to support the transition from training to work. We need to open the door for these talents in – then make them feel welcome.’

Neurodiversity is one of the diversity aspects covered by the new Creative Equality Standard, which enables neuordiverse staff to hand-raise and provides a road map for how recruitment practices, policies and workplace cultures to adapt. Creative Equals, The Hobbs Consultancy and OMG UK are hosting a breakfast at on the 28th September. Join Creative Equals to answer the question, ‘How can we make our industry more accessible to those that aren’t neurotypical?’