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Neurodiversity interview with Ed Thompson

We spoke to Ed Thompson, CEO and Founder of Uptimize, who provide training and consulting services about neurodiversity to organizations around the world.

Just to set the scene, what is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity relates to the fact that we all have different brains and brain structures. Typically, people aren’t educated about neurodiversity at school. As a result, the processes and environments at workplaces are usually designed to cater to the brains of the majority, which can make people with less common thinking styles feel marginalized. It is interesting that some of the top businesspeople of our age have different types of brains and that’s why their businesses have succeeded. Neurodiversity is good for both organizations and the people working there.


What would be the most typical problems that neurodivergent people face in the workplace?

I think both getting a job and being in the job are full of potential pitfalls. When applying for a job, there are many hurdles to overcome, such as complicated processes, application forms, group exercises, and psychometric tests. Even interviews typically suit some people far more than others. Some people find it difficult to make eye contact, while others may struggle to process information under such circumstances.

Despite the hurdles faced in the job application process, the biggest issues often occur in the workplace itself, perhaps due to cultural ignorance. Unfortunately, colleagues and managers may not understand that some individuals have brains that work differently and require different formats to perform their jobs effectively. When these individuals disclose their unique traits, it can sometimes lead to incredulity or even hostility towards them, creating a vicious cycle. Recent data indicates that only one in ten neurodivergent individuals disclose to their colleagues. I believe that the biggest barrier to improving inclusion and understanding is the lack of understanding among colleagues and managers.


Are there any simple things that companies can do to be more inclusive to neurodivergent candidates?

I believe that recognizing neurodiversity as a fact is a good starting point. Let’s say you are a recruiter and have 25 candidates. Although you may have your preferences for how they communicate over the phone or email, it’s important to recognize that those candidates all think differently. Not many recruiters think about people with different brains and simply judge candidates based on their perception of what is “normal.”


Arguably many companies have biases when assessing employees. They may promote individuals who are naturally confident communicators and feel the most comfortable in their environment, while undervaluing quieter, less confident employees who perform well. Do you think this is an issue for neurodivergent employees?

Totally. Also, unconscious biases play a part in it – such as assuming that CEOs are white men of a certain age, or believing that autistic or ADHD people can’t be managers because they lack social skills. These are all nonsensical beliefs. While there is a misconception that neurodivergent people cannot be leaders, there is also a lack of a rewarding career path for those who don’t want to pursue management but whose achievements should still be recognized and rewarded internally. It is the organization’s responsibility to consider how to fulfil the different ambitions of all their employees.


How much influence do you think role models can have in encouraging a more inclusive environment?

A lot. I talked to someone for my book about neurodiversity who is dyslexic and they had talked about having had very few role models to look up to. I think this is a particular challenge for neurodivergent individuals since appreciation of human neurodiversity is relatively new, and there are very few historical figures known to be neurodivergent for people to celebrate. Every minority group, whether it is based on gender, ethnicity, or neurodivergence, has fewer role models. You can imagine how small the numbers are. How many people of colour with ADHD, for example, do we see in prominent leadership roles?

However, I have noticed changes in organizations recently. They have started to celebrate specific neurodivergent hires, and more C-suite level individuals are talking about their neurodivergence, which is definitely a good thing.


“Every minority group, whether it is based on gender, ethnicity, or neurodivergence, has fewer role models. You can imagine how small the numbers are. How many people of colour with ADHD, for example, do we see in prominent leadership roles?”


Tell me about your company Uptimize and what you do?

We realised most organizations were not aware of the concept of neurodiversity and its importance. We discovered that many companies are looking for ways to access more diverse talent and become a place that attracts and retains talent, rather than losing them to competitors. Our mission is to help organizations embrace every type of thinker. We need to begin by overcoming ignorance and building basic cultural awareness, whether in recruitment or management. Communication, collaboration, and management are the pivotal activities that shape culture on a daily basis.


How long does it typically take to make a real change in organizations?

I think it’s quicker than people think. The biggest change occurs when organizations start discussing this topic. The big thing we do is to make advocates in the organization and help them transform the whole organization. At first, they may feel alone and think that no one else cares, but once they find allies, champions, or even senior leaders who disclosed as neurodivergent, it can bring about significant change. The biggest change is often seen when people recognise neurodiversity as a fact of the organisation and start to talk about it.


Many companies have quite traditional social activities such as going out for drinks after work. This may not appeal to people from diverse backgrounds. How can we ensure that neurodivergent individuals feel included in the prevailing culture?

There are neurodivergent people who enjoy that and want to be part of it. Some people may not enjoy socializing in a pub, and others may like socializing but not the noisy environment. It all comes down to whether everyone, including neurodivergent colleagues, feels recognised and valued in team meetings and events. People experience the world differently, and their behaviours reflect that. For example, if Simon doesn’t attend the end-of-year drink, it may not mean that he hates his colleagues; he may simply not enjoy that environment.


“People experience the world differently, and their behaviours reflect that.”


There have been a lot of misunderstandings and stereotypes about people with psychological conditions. If I am a neurodivergent person, should I reveal that in the workplace? How should I approach the issue?

There are two questions to consider here: how we, as a community, approach the issue, and how individuals who are neurodivergent approach whether to disclose or not. This is a personal and contextual decision, perhaps similar to coming out. It is their business to decide whether they disclose their conditions or not. What we do is to create favourable environments that help them be their natural selves.

We must be conscious of the complexity of this issue and resist the desire for oversimplification. For instance, we cannot create a single solution for all dyslexic employees in a company by identifying what they are good and bad at and what roles suit them. It’s like trying to determine what British people are universally good or bad at – you can’t make such broad generalizations. When we created a focus group in the community, we quickly noticed the variations. For instance, an organisation we spoke to described having three dyslexic employees and having asked them about their needs. It turned out that they all had different answers.

We approach this from two major directions: Universal Design and person-centred support. Universal Design is a term used in architecture originally. The fundamental concept is to proactively create designs that can benefit as many people as possible. It is about creating a space that makes everyone feel comfortable and you can apply those principles to business as well. Recruiters can proactively ask candidates how they like to receive information. This is an example of universal design in action – a desire to include everyone and improve processes accordingly. You can apply that across culture, environment, policies and so forth.

What we combine that with is person-centred support. By definition, Universal Design doesn’t solve everything, and we need someone who is there to say to recruiters or managers that they have certain challenges that require change in the organization. That is why we need what we call a ‘person-centred conversation.’ Let the person who needs the change drive the change, and let us help them meet those goals. The last thing we want to do is to stereotype each form of neurodivergence.


If I am a manager and not aware of anyone in my team who is neurodivergent, how can I identify these individuals and support them?

I think the point is not about diagnosing people, but acknowledging that they are not the same. Many people may be neurodivergent without having received a formal medical diagnosis. How individuals identify themselves and whether they choose to disclose this information is their own business. What you should do is acknowledge they are not the same.

During meetings, there may be individuals who are more reserved or vocal, or who request a note afterwards to reflect on the discussion. Being conscientious and offering individuals the opportunity to ask for support if they are struggling is the key to creating an environment that allows everyone to contribute in ways that suit them best.


What are the benefits to a company of having neurodivergent employees?

By acknowledging that people think differently, companies can optimize every aspect of people and talent management. Better retention is an immediate benefit of this acknowledgement. During one of our conversations with groups of neurodivergent employees, they told us that they have persuaded a neurodivergent colleague to stay with the company, rather than resign. The colleague was worried that nobody understood them and their manager thought they are lazy.

We use the sense of belonging as a key metric. One in three or four people leave corporate jobs every year, and CEOs unsurprisingly see this as a critical issue. We believe that there is more innovation where diverse thinkers can contribute in ways that suit them best, rather than an environment that only suits some of them. From a recruiting perspective, if you want to hire the best people, you shouldn’t exclude neurodivergent candidates by putting up hurdles to prevent them from joining your company.


To find out more about Ed’s business Uptimize and how they can help drive more neuroinclusive recruitment, visit their website here


Neon River is a headhunting firm that specializes in working with internet, software and games companies. If we can help you, don’t hesitate to get in touch