Many diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives have seen improvements in recent years, but neurodiversity has not progressed at the same pace. Abigail Herron explores what can be applied from other successful DE&I campaigns to put neurodiversity firmly in the spotlight.

Read this article to understand:

  • Why better support for neurodivergent people is needed, from the classroom to the boardroom
  • What has worked well for other diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives
  • What can be learnt and applied to improve neurodiverse representation in companies and create more neuroinclusive working cultures

There is still a long way to go to make workplaces more inclusive and representative of society, particularly at senior management and board levels. This is not to underplay the progress of recent years. Legislation, public opinion and competition for talent are putting pressure on companies to implement contemporary diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) policies.

This is in large part thanks to the continued efforts of groups that have pushed for gender equality and LGBTQ+ inclusion over many decades. Since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, race and ethnicity DE&I initiatives have also met with a certain level of success, not before time.

One area that has received less attention is neurodiversity. As explained on the Diversity Project’s website, “neurodiversity refers to the diversity of human brains and considers differences of how our brains are ‘wired’ as simply another natural variation in humans”.1

While acknowledging the wide spectrum of conditions and experiences of neurodivergent individuals, this is a vastly underused talent pool that can make a significant contribution to improving diversity of thought. Between 15 and 20 per cent of the population are estimated to be neurodivergent, yet unemployment in this group can run as high as 40 per cent.2 Companies, organisations and society could benefit greatly from tapping into this talent pool by becoming neuroinclusive.

Better support needed, from the classroom to the boardroom

The UK government published a review of special education needs (SEN) in June 2022.3 This is important, as 70 per cent of neurodivergent children are in mainstream education and need adjustments or support in the classroom.

The government opened a consultation, seeking to know what parent carers, children and young people, professionals and other stakeholders thought about its proposals to shape a new SEN system. We submitted a response, our first policy intervention on neurodiversity and SEN. Drawing on the lived experiences of colleagues within our neurodiversity working group, the AvivAbility Community and Aviva Carers Community who have neurodivergent children or are neurodivergent themselves with recent experience of education, we expressed reservations about some of the proposals.

From the response we received, it is clear the new guard at the Department for Education wants to help, not least because education secretary Gillian Keegan's own nephew has SEN and she has seen first-hand the battle to get support.

This increased focus on SEN is welcome, but the government still seems to be kicking the can down the road. Some parts of the plan won’t be implemented until 2025, over six years after the start of the review. Other parts of the plan have no timescales at all.

In addition, the common thread underpinning the approach is a goal to reduce the number of education health care plans (EHCPs). Getting an EHCP is already difficult – even as a professional nagger and form-filler thanks to my day job engaging with large international institutions like the G7, I found the process baffling. Accessing support for my neurodivergent child has been fraught with obstacles: opaque systems, budget cuts, excessive bureaucracy, exceptionally long waiting lists and a lack of accountability.

The support system often ends up marginalising children more than helping them succeed

In a report published last November, the Children’s Commissioner outlined the support system often ends up marginalising children more than helping them succeed. Navigating the SEN system is often not a positive experience for young people or their families.4

Setting a goal to reduce EHCPs will make this even harder, but also seems a back-to-front way of tackling the issue. The goal should be to ensure children with SEN get the support they need, whether they need a plan or not. Any reduction in EHCPs should be a positive by-product if that support works well.

More details will come to light as the plan progresses, but the government’s proposals that would make the biggest difference to children remain on the drawing board.

All this has long-term impacts on those affected: children, their families and their futures.

EHCPs also end once a young person finishes education. As a result, many neurodivergent people struggle to join the workforce. For example, in 2021, only 29 per cent of autistic people were in employment in the UK.5 To help address this, EHCPs should include support for young people as they make the transition into employment. 

Employers must do more to improve the recruitment, retention and career progression of neurodivergent colleagues

Employers must also do more to improve the recruitment, retention and career progression of neurodivergent colleagues. Yet many companies lack any real understanding of the issues. In the meantime, it is “business as usual”, which unwittingly puts pressure on neurodivergent employees to conform to conventional ways of working. That places an unnecessary mental health burden on individuals, holds them back in their careers and keeps them from performing at their best (see Thinking outside the box: Embracing neurodiversity at work).6

Several industry-wide initiatives can help financial services firms adopt best practice, including the Diversity Project, the Group for Autism, Insurance, Investment and Neurodiversity (GAIN) and Ambitious About Autism. These offer member firms guidance, tools and community dialogue to raise awareness and understanding of neurodiverse colleagues’ experience and needs, create a neuroinclusive culture and, for Ambitious About Autism, set up working opportunities for young people with autism.

Learning lessons

There is also much to be learned from other groups’ successful DE&I initiatives. The examples that follow look at what has worked and how the lessons might be applied to accelerate progress on neuroinclusion in the workplace.

The 30% Club – increasing board representation of women7

Success: The 30% Club started out in the UK in 2010 at a time when the proportion of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies was just 12 per cent. This has now reached almost 40 per cent, and the campaign has chapters around the world, aiming to have a presence in all G20 countries over the next few years.

There is much to be learned from other groups’ successful DE&I initiatives

Strategy: Aiming for the top, the founders decided the campaign should be led by company chairs and CEOs; they should be the ones pushing through change, not only at their own companies, but also by influencing others at a national level, including in government. The third arm of the Club’s approach is to grow the pipeline of future female leaders through board-level initiatives, mentoring and executive education scholarships.

Lessons: Reach out to the leaders of companies, who have most influence in their organisations, but also have extensive networks of influence they can use to improve policy and convince other firms to join the movement. Complement this with practical initiatives to help them further the careers of neurodiverse employees.

10,000 Black Interns – creating paid summer internships for black students and graduates8

Success: Created in 2020 under the guise of 1,000 Black Interns, with the aim of securing commitment from financial services companies to hire 1,000 black interns over the coming year, the initiative was so successful it quickly expanded into other industries and with a much higher number of 10,000 paid summer internships to black students and graduates over the next five years.

10,000 Black Interns has over 700 participating companies across more than 25 sectors

As of February 2023, 10,000 Black Interns had recorded over 700 participating companies across more than 25 sectors, with over 2,500 internships completed.

Strategy: Connecting black students and graduates in the UK to paid internships. Receive pledges from companies specifying the number of internships they will offer in the coming summer, invite black students and graduates to apply and match applications with offers to send companies a shortlist of potential interns.

Lessons: The initiative’s four co-founders all hold C-level roles, one at an executive search firm and the other three in financial services. Look to build a similar combination of knowledge of recruitment processes and target companies, extensive networks and a powerful social media campaign, particularly via LinkedIn. Ensure the internships are paid so less well-off candidates can still apply.

Change the Race Ratio – increasing ethnic minority representation at board and C-suite levels9

Success: Launched in October 2020 by the CBI and 13 founding businesses to support the Parker-Tyler Review. As of 21 February, Change the Race Ratio had 110 signatories across 30 sectors, covering almost 590,000 employees.

70 per cent of signatory companies had at least one board director from a minority ethnic background

One year after launching the campaign, 70 per cent of signatory companies had at least one board director from a minority ethnic background.

Strategy: The initiative asks every joining member to make four commitments: 1) Set and publish targets for racial and ethnic minority representation on boards; 2) Set and publish targets for racial and ethnic minority representation at an executive level and minus-one pipeline; 3) Publish a race action plan and ethnicity pay gap report within two years of joining; 4) Create an inclusive culture that allows talent to thrive.

Lessons: The campaign’s fourth commitment includes a focus on recruitment and talent development processes to drive a more diverse pipeline; data collection and analysis; fostering safe, open and transparent dialogue, with mentoring, support and sponsorship; and working with a more diverse set of suppliers and partners, including minority-owned businesses.

While it may be too early to expect widespread neurodiverse representation at board and executive levels (although the head of the Institute of Directors herself is autistic),10 it is possible to start setting ambitious targets now in terms of data collection, recruitment and talent development, mentoring and working with more diverse suppliers and partners.

What comes now?

The neurodivergent employment gap represents a pool of untapped skills and talent that is being wasted for society and the economy. By harnessing the lessons from other DE&I initiatives and including neurodiversity in the breadth of ESG topics considered, we can bring neurodiversity in from the cold.

As an employer and large investor looking at talent of the future, it matters to us that both children with special educational needs and neurodivergent workers get the support they need to thrive in the classroom, the workplace and through to the boardroom.

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