Neurodiversity and STEM careers
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Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for several conditions, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette’s syndrome, acquired brain injury, and mental health disorders.

Recognising neurodiversity means accepting differences in function are normal. Neurodivergent people experience, interact with, and interpret the world in unique ways.

Did you know many scientists, including Stephen Hawkings, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sally Davies, Carol Greider, John Gurdon and James Dyson are known to be/have been Neurodiverse (ND) (ie have dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD or autism).

The UK economy suffers a loss of £1.5bn per year due to STEM skills shortages with a reported gap of 60,000 graduates per year in the sector according to Engineering UK. Forty-six percent of employers admit to facing difficulties in recruitment. The UK Commission for Employment & Skills has found that 43 % of vacancies in STEM are hard to fill due to a shortage of applicants with the required skills and experience – almost double the UK average of 24 per cent.

Although STEM-related industries are often assumed to need and employ logical and analytical individuals, the industry also needs ingenuity but is rarely associated with ‘creativity’.

It is creative flair that brings revolutionary ideas to fruition. Therefore, education must move away from the fallacy that there is one right answer and enable learners to explore multiple solutions (even the incorrect ones).

According to Siena Castellon, a 16-year-old award-winning autism advocate, makes the case for why diversity should be expanded to include neurodiversity. Companies are beginning to recognise that there are significant benefits to having neurodivergent employees. For example, GCHQ employs more than 100 dyslexic and dyspraxic “neurodiverse spies” to harness their ability to decipher facts from patterns, their increased 3D spatial-perception and their creativity. If universities, companies and organisations are going to benefit from having neurodivergent students and employees, it is important to create summer programs and work placements for neurodivergent students that are specifically designed to support autistic students and students with learning differences.

Daisy Shearer is a PhD candidate in experimental condensed matter physics at the University of Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute. She’s also autistic, a writer and speaker, according to Daisy “Neurodiversity is all about embracing the neurocognitive variation within our species. It makes sense to work together on problems as the more different perspectives we have, the more likely we are to arrive at an innovative solution. For me, I think that being autistic has quite a few strengths that help me as a physicist. For example, my autistic brain is very systematic and I have a lot of attention to detail. I am also great at pattern recognition and repetitive tasks that are sometimes needed in the lab. I can also hyperfocus on a task for a long time.”.

Neurodiverse workers are known to provide a different viewpoint and thinking on problems, helping firms be more innovative and dynamic. They can also help firms improve productivity. In fact, a recent report found that neurodivergent employees in certain tech roles could be up to 140% more productive than neurotypical colleagues.

While definitions can be helpful as a way into trying to understand neurodivergence, what is becoming clear is that people experience it very differently individually. This has been best exemplified in naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham’s recent BBC series Inside Our Autistic Minds. A pioneer in forging a greater understanding of neurodiversity and divergence, Chris has spoken not only about his own experiences as someone with Asperger’s syndrome but has also given a powerful platform to other neurodivergent people to communicate their own experiences of living in a neurotypical world.

Embracing neurodiversity at university is important & entering higher education can be stressful for neurotypical people, it can prove particularly challenging if there is little or no understanding of their needs. What is needed is a system based on inclusive practices.

There are measures to help make universities more neurodiverse-friendly that would especially benefit STEM faculties.  According to the Engineer for neurodiverse students to be heard and listened to, staff need training to enable them to understand what they can do, such as making sure they’re using the correct language and avoiding out-of-date terms. Ensuring they avoid ambiguity and are specific when it comes to assessment details and expectations and can respond sympathetically to requests for more information can help make education more inclusive. .

Did you know? It is estimated that up to 40% of employees in the STEM fields have not told their employer about their neurodivergent traits or are uncomfortable doing so. This has to change as the benefits of neurodiversity in STEM are unlimited! STEM is naturally a meeting ground of new ideas, creative thinking and specialist knowledge and skills, all of which are areas that neurodivergent people excel in.

Digitnews gives us their top six considerations for welcoming and celebrating neurodiversity in the workplace.

  1. Six considerations for welcoming and celebrating neurodiversity
  2. Start with transparency, clear expectations, and room to develop is key. This can look like:
  3. Establish patterns: Plan and execute work in iterations of a consistent time frame.
  4. Define success: Determine how the team will know when an item is acceptable and done.
  5. Create transparency: Share the backlog of work items by making it visible to the team, empower them to determine how they will do the work, and hold them accountable to decide on how much they will achieve within the iteration.
  6. Meet daily: A brief standing meeting held at the same time and place each day increases communication and allows the team to assess progress and adapt plans as needed.
  7. Inspect and adapt: Identify room for improvement by retrospectively analysing as a team on the successes and the struggles of previous projects, and plan an experiment that could make things better during the subsequent one.
  8. Build bonds: Be intentional about connecting and developing as a team; encourage trusting relationships to develop and persist; changes to team makeup should be rare.

The engineering and technology community need to work together to generate enthusiasm for the discipline by nurturing learners at every stage. Everyone in STEM can do something to support education institutions to better consider the knowledge and creativity neurodivergent students possess, which will benefit us all.

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