This article was first published in the February 2016 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

When EY senior partner Iain Wilkie started out in accountancy more than 30 years ago, he chose to join Arthur Young ‘because I knew I’d never stammer on the letter A; I didn’t join Deloitte because I knew the letter D was a nightmare for me.’ Wilkie’s stammer may not have held him back, but how have attitudes, perceptions and recruitment processes at accountancy firms changed for those with neurological conditions such as stammering, autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia?

In fact, EY could be held up as a paragon of neurodiversity. Wilkie is among the growing ranks of professionals at the firm who have excelled in their roles despite their condition. He heads the ‘Stammering and Speech Network’ at the firm, where those who stammer can openly share their experiences and help others understand any issues they face. 

The firm also has networks for those with autism and dyslexia, for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and for mental health, wellbeing and mobility, all under the ‘Ability EY’ umbrella. ‘What we’re trying to do is identify the strengths and superpowers of those with neurological conditions,’ says Paul Scantlebury, head of recruitment for the Middle East and North Africa and co-chair of Ability EY. ‘Some people with dyslexia, dyspraxia and Asperger’s syndrome are among the top 2% in the country for certain skills. We want to draw out these skills – whether it’s someone with attention to detail that might be suited to our assurance business, or technical capabilities for our IT team – and give them all the support they need to thrive.’

It’s a similar story at KPMG, where the Disability Network has streams for conditions including stammering and autism. Claire Harvey, senior diversity and inclusion consultant at KPMG, explains: ‘Within these streams, the members support each other, share best practice, provide training for managers, and produce toolkits for our “people leaders”. We also have events where we bring in speakers and clients to talk about relevant issues.’

Open process

However, many firms have shied away from actively or consciously recruiting people with neurological conditions, choosing instead to stress that they have an open recruitment process, accept a diverse range of people and encourage applicants to disclose any condition. 

‘Disclosing a disability to an employer is a personal decision. Understandably, people worry about possible negative effects. However, this information can be used to help them and it’s really important that people think of that angle too,’ says Angela Cooke, a diversity, inclusion and employee wellbeing consultant at PwC.

Caroline McCague, senior HR manager at Baker Tilly, agrees. ‘We encourage people to share what they’re going through. People with dyslexia and dyspraxia tend to be more open and specify what they need so we can set up appropriate support for them in the recruitment process. This could mean things like giving them more time on psychometric tests and case studies.’

EY also adopts this approach. Wilkie says, ‘I encourage our recruitment teams to regard people with different conditions as bringing different qualities, positive attributes and strengths, having lived through a condition or disability that they’d perceived as a weakness. Those with a stammer, for example, are often more resilient, arguably more patient, better listeners and very creative, having spent their whole lives finding alternative ways to do things and communicate.’

Active programme

EY actively recruits autistic people through an ‘Autism at Work’ programme, in partnership with Specialisterne, a social enterprise that brings autistic candidates and employers together. There have been a few teething problems and the numbers coming through have been pretty low, but the intention and desire is there. 

‘Fundamentally, we are trying to fill that void between the pool of talented autistic individuals who can’t find work – currently a staggering 85% of those with autism – and the employers looking for the skills they have,’ says Tom Brundage, general manager at Specialisterne. ‘A big part of what we do is educating employers about the skills that group possesses. In particular, matching their talent to the relevant role, helping accommodate their needs, and supporting them to make the adjustments necessary so they can perform effectively and thrive in their role.’

Once the candidates are on board an organisation, Specialisterne conducts an autism awareness session for the managers and teams who will be working with the person. They’ll explain what autism is, issues pertaining to autism in the workplace, necessary reasonable adjustments that need to be made, and provide a ‘how to’ set of tutorials. Each recruit is also assigned a buddy, and designated managers can flag up any problems to Specialisterne.

The autism spectrum is, of course, extremely varied, which is why it is so important to identify the strengths and challenges of each individual. Bringing in outside help can be beneficial.

‘We provide one-to-one sessions with autistic people, including those with mild forms of autism, known as STEMs – scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians – often to address any social communication issues they’re having with colleagues,’ explains Emma Seward, a consultant business psychologist. ‘Normally when we’re coaching, we won’t tell people what to do, but with STEMs we often need to explain simple things like greeting your work mates when you come into the office. We also talk with their colleagues so that they understand that the person isn’t being rude, they just process information and communicate differently, and can find it hard to empathise.’

There can be an obsession in business with social and emotional competence, asserts Sally Moore, director at Top Stream Coaching. You only have to look at some of the job adverts specifying the need for ‘good interpersonal skills’, and ‘team players’, she says. But actually, if you ‘reduce social expectations and accommodate differences in approaches, companies find they can get the best out of their autistic employees, managing challenges and avoiding vulnerabilities’.

The same goes for those with other conditions. At Deloitte, for example, employees with dyslexia are offered a variety of forms of support to help them excel. For example, they are given access to an occupational health colleague and a private internal social network group for dyslexia and dyscalculia where people can share ideas, tips, challenges, resources and the like, as well as access to workshops, dictation machines for recording conversations, mind-mapping software to assist with collecting ideas, constructing reports or presentations, and more.

Understanding the difference

All the contributors to this article agree that appreciating and valuing different perspectives and abilities can only be a good thing. Steve Williams, head of equality at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, agrees that ‘Sometimes adjustments might need to be made in terms of resources, clearer communication and strategies. For example, some autistic people don’t like ambiguous information, such as “I’ll get back to you later”, without specifying a time, or changing meeting times at the last minute. But actually, clarity on these issues can benefit all employees.’

Autistic people are also increasingly being considered and hired for a greater variety of roles within organisations. ‘I’ve worked with and spoken to autistic people in a variety of departments and roles, including social media experts, human resources and finance,’ says Emily Swiatek, employment training consultant at the National Autistic Society. ‘They can do any job that matches their skills, just like anyone else. It is wrong to pigeonhole them into technical roles.’

Brundage at Specialisterne insists that a lot of the doors he’s pushing on are open already, with firms increasingly aware of the autism advantage. ‘It’s a case of getting enough clients into the funnel so it drips down over time. There’s no such thing as walking through the door of a large company, talking to one person, and getting someone with autism starting the next week, or month even. But we’re getting there.’

Chris Evans, journalist