Neurodiverse talent representation disappoints in 2021

The government has made it clear that it will be putting skills front and centre of its new legislative agenda to help the country overcome the damage caused by the pandemic.

Among the list of promises is aid in learning and skills development, which is welcome news to those adults that have found themselves needing to retrain and re-enter education in order to ensure a more stable career in future.

What’s more, the post-pandemic outlook is finally starting to look a little brighter with the nation also experiencing a renewed sense of what is important in life. Last year not only made us aware of the fragility of life from a health standpoint, but brought to attention some of the injustices in the world that are often a result of unconscious or institutional bias.



With this in mind, perhaps there is a very real prospect of the country being able to ‘build back better’ simply because of increased awareness and willingness to make changes.

While we are all hopeful that this will be the case, there is still some way to go in ensuring equal opportunities. One area that remains consistently under-represented and under-supported is neurodiversity. The concept of neurodiversity isn’t new, but it’s something that still isn’t widely understood.

The recent decision by Network Rail to change the colour of their site to grayscale as a gesture to Prince Philip’s death highlighted this lack of understanding to me. There tends to be the assumption that learning difficulties only affect a small percentage of the population.

On top of this, it’s often assumed that these difficulties are identified and supported at a young age, therefore unlikely to pose any barriers to gaining skills later in life.

But our own data has uncovered the extent of neurodiversity among adult learners across the UK; one in three have a learning difficulty which, for the majority of individuals, has been unidentified and therefore unsupported throughout their earlier education.

There still also seems to be stigma attached to having a condition or a cognitive weakness, which stems from the way education is delivered. We are all forced along the same path and taught in batches of 30 with little appreciation of the fact that we all learn and process information in different ways.

Slow progression is equated with laziness or low intelligence and labelled as such, and quips are still often made with regards to those that find social situations difficult.

When it comes to applying for jobs or apprenticeships, neurodivergent individuals can be immediately put off by certain language and a lack of accessibility and support tools can pose additional barriers. Even seemingly minor decisions such as the colour palette of a site and methods of getting in contact can have consequences.

When we reviewed the application processes of the UK’s top 50 apprenticeship providers, we found not only a huge lack of representation of neurodivergent learner success but a lack of things as basic as an accessibility statement - something that is now required by law among public sector companies.

Software such as screen reader functions and captioned videos were few and far between, and of those companies that lacked an accessibility statement, the ability to access documents in alternate formats was non-existent – as was any mention of neurodiversity support tools. We also discovered that less than half (49%) of the providers in the research were disability confident.

Given the need for the country to rebuild and 'better’ it is crucial for organisations, particularly those that provide apprenticeships, to continuously assess online user experiences and application journeys and make improvements in line with best practice recommendations.

From profiling the cognition of over 100,000 brains, we can see that actually no two brains are the same. Every single person applying to a job or an apprenticeship will fit on a spectrum of eight key domains within the brain that make up cognitive function and have weaknesses in some areas, alongside strengths. It’s crucial to start raising awareness of this and celebrating the fact that diversity of thought is entirely normal – not to mention highly beneficial to an organisation’s team structure.


Louise Karwowski is head of science at Cognassist