By Dr. Saundarya Rajesh
Suguna (name changed) was a favorite in my maternal home, several decades ago. She was the daughter of Muthu, the gardener and we knew she was different. She would not laugh at the jokes and she would never meet your eye. She had dropped out of school, but when she was given the job of drying the washed utensils in the large kitchen of the joint family that I grew up in, she turned out to be a surprisingly energetic worker. When she got married, even my grandmother (the matriarch of the family) attended – a rare occasion indeed. To celebrate her new social status, Suguna was promoted to chopping vegetables. For the next several years, till she, her husband and son, moved to another town, Suguna landed up every day at the exact same time, worked diligently, and was part of the bustling community. Yes, there was something different about Suguna. Now, I know that she had ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).
Studies state that at least one child in a hundred, in India, has a neurodevelopmental condition – ADHD, Asperger’s, Dyslexia, Cerebral Palsy, or Autism. In the days gone by, people whose patterns of thought and behavior differed from the majority were called by names that were not only unkind but were steeped in bias and did little to create better understanding. Today, the term is Neurodiversity, as against people who are neurotypical. Autism, specifically, is a spectrum disorder and hence no two people are alike. Persons with autism could range from being somewhat different (possibly like Suguna) than a neurotypical person, to someone whose IQ is off the charts (referred to as savants), to someone who will, all her life, be incapable of managing herself. The hard fact is that, approximately, over 20 million people in India are on the spectrum.
I am glad to tell you that things are changing. Extensive research has proved that Diversity – in all its varied glory – be it gender, culture, region, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or ability, is an anchor for organizational development. And businesses that wish to enjoy the presence of a diverse talent pool utilize the levers of Inclusion – the active inculcation of behavioral norms that promote such diversity, and Equity – the creation of enablers that help people with diverse identities and needs, to belong fully.
For the past decade and a half, organizations in India, enlightened companies with leaders who believe that the enterprise is a microcosm of society and one that can deliver positive, empowering change, have been employing persons with neurodiversity. The Working Mother & Avtar Most Inclusive Companies Index has over 59% of companies that have a regular program to hire persons with ASD. Companies such as JP Morgan, Capgemini, Cisco, and Dell have inspiring, well-thought-through programs that result in creating employment for hundreds of persons with ASD. Accenture offers financial support for treatment, while EY India has put together a unique assessment and selection process for recruiting neurodiverse candidates. Organizations such as Enable India, Atypical Advantage, and Action for Autism are deeply involved in influencing a sensitive and enabling ecosystem.
At the heart of a successful program of Autism inclusion is something a lot more intuitive. It is the description of a job. When Avtar first pioneered the concept of return to work of women professionals in 2006, one of the key factors which helped us promote the careers of over 50,000 women, was our insistence that organizations create accurate job descriptions. Companies that invested time in identifying jobs matching the specific requirements of women, their caregiving responsibilities, commuting time, et al, were able to ensure a near-perfect selection. This resulted not only in the women delivering outstanding work but also in them stayed engaged for longer periods of time. It is this practice that we advocate for the employment of persons with neurodiversity.
Many a time, job descriptions are written keeping the large neurotypical majority in mind. We are happy with adding skills like “People’s person”, “Sense of humor”, “excellent communication skills”, etc, which end up actually having a detrimental effect. Most autistic people, if they have access to education or training, are able to perform functions across a range of industries including retail operations, software coding, food packaging, quality control etc. But when skills are loaded onto a job description and included as default, they confuse both the interviewer and the candidate.
When a well-thought through JD is written, it serves as a valuable guide to determine whether the candidate can perform the key deliverables. It could take a reasonable investment of time, but in the end, such a JD helps the interviewer to assess the autistic candidate from a place of reasonable accommodation. While it is important to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment for diverse talent to flourish, the first step to a neurodiverse workplace would be to put together JD’s that assess an ASD candidate for what she is and not what she is not. And Suguna is testimony to this!
(The author is Founder-President, Avtar group. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)