Obstacles neurodiverse people face in our workplace

By Alexia Russell for The Detail for RNZ

Estimates suggest up to 50 percent of neurodiverse people are unemployed - a figure eight times higher than the general population. The Detail finds out about the obstacles they face in the workplace.

Just about every sector in the New Zealand workforce is short of skilled staff – retail, hospitality, construction, trades, logistics – you name it.

At the same time, there's a part of our community that has unemployment levels of between 35 and 50 percent: the neurodiverse community.

Life is hard for people on the autism spectrum, with ADHD or dyslexia or dyspraxia, and for people with brain injuries.

Finding work – and keeping it – is really hard. When you're different, you often don't fit into the office culture, don't work the same way as your colleagues, and you spend time trying to hide your condition.  

Now there's an organisation trying to address work issues with its Brain Badge certification – it's a bit like the Rainbow or Green Tick programmes, but encourages companies to support their neurodiverse staff. It launches in a couple of months and is being developed in conjunction with three big corporate supporters – The Warehouse Group, Kiwibank, and Auckland Transport.

Newsroom business editor Nikki Mandow has written about the programme and the difficulties neurodiverse people face in the workforce.

"Practically everybody you talk to, when you say you're doing the story, they say 'ah my niece, or my son, or my sister or brother'…there are so many people who are touched by neurodiversity and particularly in this area of not being able to find work," she says.

Despite the fact neurodiverse people probably make up about 20 percent of the population, there's very little help for them, or awareness of the issue.

"I think we are nowhere [on this]," says Mandow.

She'd like companies to look beyond simply pigeon-holing autistic workers as high-processing tech geniuses and using those hiring practices to say they’re doing their bit for diversity.

"But that's about as far as any companies seem to go." 

It's hoped the Brain Badge can follow the success of the Rainbow Tick as a corporate idea.

Mandow believes the current skills shortage may help the cause, with companies forced to make accommodations to keep their neurodiverse staff.

Brain Badge advisor Rich Rowley was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 42. He tells The Detail about why he got involved with, and is driving, the project.

"I'd never seen my diversity as something that would add value at all," he says. That was until he worked for an employer who encouraged him and nurtured his differences.

Three of Rowley's four children are like him, and he wants to improve the world for them.

"We've only really just started the conversation [about neurodiversity]," he says.

"It's kind of where the pride movement was in the '70s. It's so far behind. And I've had enough and I just wanted to do something about it."

The Detail also speaks to prize-winning flash-fiction author Jack Remiel Cottrell, who has ADHD, which he describes as a combination of both distractibility and hyperactivity, and also dyslexia.

One of his many former jobs was working in a busy, loud newsroom - a difficult experience for him.

"I didn't quite fully understand just how difficult I was going to find the job," he says.

"Not because it was inherently beyond my capabilities, but because the way it was all structured – I felt I was working as hard as possible and was just not getting what was expected of me done – and what everybody else in the team seemed to be able to manage."

His love of writing has been the motivator to work very consciously to get better at spelling and grammar, something that didn't come intuitively to him.

Cottrell didn't necessarily try to hide what was going on, but says it was more like he knew not to mention it.

"People didn't really find it particularly something that they understood. There was this kind of thing that, if it gets around and I want to stay in media, maybe people in the future will go, 'oh, he's got ADHD', or 'he's been difficult to work with and that's why he's difficult to work with'. It's a small industry."


Obstacles neurodiverse people face in our workplace