Real inclusivity for the neurodivergent workforce starts at school

HR has made considerable strides in creating genuinely inclusive workplaces but if we stand back and wait to welcome the neurodiverse into our businesses, it will be too little, too late. The only way to meaningfully remove career barriers is to take the message directly to our schools.

I encountered a statistic recently which shocked me and strengthened my already significant resolve. The National Autistic Society noted that just 22% of autistic adults are in any kind of employment.

It has also previously reported the figure drops as low as 16% for full-time paid employment. This horrified me as an HR professional who is well aware of the recruitment challenges we continue to face and, like so many of you, is acutely aware of the undisputed and unique value that the neurodiverse employees bring to our workplaces.

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But my reaction to this statistic is personal too. I am a parent to a neurodivergent child and the idea that they may not have access to a deeply rewarding career is both distressing and unacceptable.

The reality is that our workplaces may now offer impressive flexibility, such as remote working, the value of which was so powerfully demonstrated during the Covid pandemic. This has allowed for the retention of staff who may have struggled with an office environment and possibly would have ultimately left employment. But it’s not enough.

The messages our children receive at school have the power to either support and reassure or dramatically hurt and hinder. How many business leaders have we heard describe both the positive and negative impact a teacher’s encouragement or dismissal has on their development?

It’s a message which stays with us because school is a crucial time in developing or undermining self-esteem. It’s especially important if you aren’t neurotypical.

It’s hard to undo the damage of stereotypes and misconceptions which shut down the dream of achieving the simple universal goals of carving out a career while being accepted for who you are.

How can you know at that point that there are very real and wonderful options available to you with an employer who will accommodate and value you?

That’s not to say that UK schools have not achieved a great deal thanks to inspiring teachers, parents and young activists in a host of communities including the physically disabled, those discriminated against due to race, gender, social class, LGBTQ+ and many others.

But with all the pressures and competing agendas our school system is struggling with, we have to recognise that they probably cannot achieve everything we would wish. Some things, and some children, may fall through the cracks and we can’t allow that to happen.

That’s why construction engineering company RSK – an employer of some 11,000 people in 40 countries – is planning to take direct action, starting in the UK where we have our headquarters.

We are committed to offering schools the opportunity to meet real examples of a diverse range of individuals who have been welcomed into the working world and who are flourishing.

We’ll do this by producing a video showcasing some of our neurodiverse colleagues talking about their careers and the journeys they had and our ND network members will also visit schools to deliver talks on careers.

They won’t present a rose-tinted glasses view of the world, it will be the warts-and-all experience but they will represent proof of what is possible. They will be accessible to pupils in schools and at career fairs, available to answer questions, offering a much-needed bridge between school and work.

We’re keen to work with companies, organisations and charities to create a UK-wide resource network for schools with a view to creating initiatives such as a training fund to support those who don’t conform.

We want to show neurodivergent individuals and their families that we have a place for them and it’s within the UK economy.

Zoe Brunswick is Group HRD at RSK