Thursday, 5 July 2018

Thinking differently about enterprise and employability

Anna Nibbs
Enterprise Education Developer

An infinity symbol, shaded in rainbow colours
The autism pride symbol
In 2017, I delivered a workshop with a UEA colleague at the International Entrepreneurship Educators’ Conference (IEEC) in Glasgow, entitled “Skills, Special Interests and Superpowers: Enterprise Education for a Neurodiverse World”, where we invited participants to consider enterprise education and student entrepreneurship through the ‘lens’ of neurodiversity.

I've recently been pondering over this topic again, and reflecting on it in an even wider context – I've been wondering how graduate attributes and enterprise capabilities really apply to individual graduates, and how this might be influenced by the “kinds of minds” they're in possession of.

What is neurodiversity?

The term, a neologistic contraction of “neurological diversity”, was first coined by Judy Singer as part of an honours thesis in which she presented the case for a new movement for civil rights and political engagement along similar lines to those of women, LGBT+, and BAME people to bring together the neurologically diverse – those whose brains are inherently, naturally ‘wired’ differently from the norm (Singer 1998). Michelle Swan clearly breaks down the concept:

       “neuro-” = relating to the nerves or nervous system
       “diversity” = the state of being diverse
       “diverse” = showing a great deal of variety; very different

It's become not simply a concept but a movement, but it isn't without its detractors – including some autistics themselves (Kapp et al 2013:64) – and differing opinions on scope and conception (e.g. Jaarsma & Welin 2012), but it has been increasingly acknowledged within the mainstream of psychology, psychiatry, and autism studies (e.g. Baron-Cohen 2017).

Neurodiversity and enterprise

Enterprise and entrepreneurship can be a natural fit for some who think differently. Dyslexia is suggested to have many entrepreneurial advantages (Logan 2009). Steve Silberman's Neurotribes (2015 and 2016) is littered with stories of individuals throughout history who have employed their unique combinations of autistic traits and entrepreneurial spirit to change the world.

Anecdotally, I know of disproportionately high numbers of students with specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) studying on USE’s module, ‘Making Ideas Happen’. I'm autistic, I also have ADHD, and I'm acquainted personally with a few neurodivergent (ND) enterprise educators nationally and internationally – including a smattering of formally-identified fellow autists (and a likely few who probably aren’t currently aware of their own autism).

Cartoon: a young white man with blonde hair sits at a laptop, with a pile of papers and a pen next to him. He looks confused or exasperated.
Articulating your skills the 'right' way can be hard.
How does being neurodivergent square with our formal expressions of desired outcomes for our students – their development of the skills, attributes, and competencies that may help to ensure a bright and prosperous future?

USEA’s Five Enterprise Capabilities (5ECs) were developed to connect closely with the University of Sheffield’s Sheffield Graduate Attributes (SGAs). They were informed by the original QAA Guidance on Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Education (QAA 2012), updated earlier this year (QAA 2018). It’s useful to see how the two Sheffield frameworks correlate, as well how they correspond with the language used by employers and professional bodies. There are overlaps and commonalities in some of the language used, but not always a direct correspondence (language is a common problem in the enterprise education world).

It's reasonable to anticipate that graduates who've successfully developed all SGAs – or, indeed, all 5ECs – are more likely to be desirable to employers and to have achieved standards set by their accrediting professional bodies.  I’ve certainly seen firsthand accounts from past students that back up this assertion.

There are several attributes in particular that one would assume anyone with a ‘different’ brain might have an advantage over their neurotypical (NT) peers either in already possessing, or in having an enhanced ability to acquire and develop, for example:

  • The opportunity to “experience different approaches to solving problems and appraise potential solutions” (5ECs)
  • The abilities to “think critically and creatively to generate and explore innovative ideas through an iterative process”, and “adopt creative new approaches and think laterally and imaginatively when facing challenges” (5ECs)
  • Being “a critical, analytical thinker”, “creative and innovative, and able to understand and manage risk”, and “able to translate and adapt knowledge, and apply lateral thinking in problem solving” (SGAs)

Challenges and difficulties

Positive traits and attributes notwithstanding, there are a few barriers for our ND students in becoming meaningfully employed – particularly, I’d argue, for those who are autistic.

The National Autistic Society identifies that 16% of UK autistic adults are in full-time paid employment, with only 32% in any kind of paid work. This figure is often disputed, and is likely to be unrepresentative given the high number of people who are late in receiving formal identification as having an autism spectrum condition, many of whom may be working, and many still who never reach that point of recognition. And for university graduates, the outcomes are also likely to be somewhat better than that overall 16%.  But many autistics are dramatically overqualified for the jobs they perform (Baldwin et al 2014), and problems may come in how graduates recognise and articulate their acquired skills and capabilities.

The language inconsistencies, mentioned earlier in this post, can be a problem. Many autistics are over-thinkers. Trying to untangle the intended meaning of ambiguous language can tire us out – a tough nut to crack when you’re honing a business proposal, working on a pitch, or having to tackle multiple job applications in a short space of time because you’re nearly at the end of your degree and your student loan’s about to run out.

Do you speak neurotypical?

Graduate attributes, professional competency frameworks, and the person specifications used by recruiters are likely to have been written predominantly by NT people, with a particular view of what success should look like, and how a certain skill should manifest itself.

What are “excellent communication skills”?

Are we dealing with an ability to talk at length and in-depth on a subject that you’re passionate about and have substantial expertise in, or are we concerned with the ability adeptly to manage social niceties, maintain appropriate eye contact, and correctly read and respond to the body language of an interviewer or a panel of investors?

How about “problem-solving skills”?

Must you show your working, and demonstrate, eloquently and succinctly, how you reached a potential solution, or is an innate ability to get to the end-point, without consciously articulating the process (because it wasn’t conscious), evidence enough?

If the nature of your disability makes it intrinsically more difficult for you to be “an excellent team worker who is able to manage their time efficiently” (SGAs, my emphasis), can you still achieve professional success?

How, then, does the autistic candidate acquit themselves?

Often, they must pretend to be something they are not. They must mask their discomfiting (to others)  traits; they must learn, and become fluent in, the second language of NT communication, trying to pass themselves off as a native speaker. This complex skill can’t (and shouldn't have to) be mastered by every autistic person. It also goes unrecognised and unappreciated by most non-autistic observers, and is often mastered at great personal cost.

And it’s probably not the definition of “flexible and adaptable” that many recruiters immediately have in mind...

Cartoon: A young woman of colour with braided hair in an updo, wearing business dress, takes a bow onstage, lit by spotlights in front of a backdrop of red stage curtains.
Everyone 'performs'. Have you made the right impact?
Many advocates of the neurodiversity paradigm recognise that, even as the battle for wider acceptance goes on, some ability to mask and adapt to the NT external environment is useful as a coping mechanism (Kapp et al 2013:67). Having to do so all the time, however, means that those with 'atypical' brain wiring are forever one step behind the NT competition. This makes conventional job interviews woefully difficult for some autistics.

For any job applicant or startup founder – neurodivergent or not – interviews, and investor pitches, are performances. Many autistics, however, must live a life of constant scripting, rehearsal, and performance. Performance in conditions that often aren’t conducive to feeling comfortable,relaxed, or confident.

Ways forward

It’s worth considering ways to make things more inclusive, and place less onus on the autistic person to do all the work.

There are opportunities to do things differently in education. Large-group lectures, essays and exams have their value, but they don’t suit everyone, and it’s my hope that the growth of the University of Sheffield’s programme-level approach (PLA) to curriculum design will bring about not only streamlining of assessment, but also greater diversity in methods for both assessment and teaching, and more space for staff and student creativity. There’s also a need to ensure all students have ample support and opportunity to develop skills in personal and professional reflection – vital for cultivating an ability to recognise and effectively articulate your experience and achievements.

PLA could be an opportunity to think meaningfully about accessibility and inclusion in learning, teaching and assessment. Students of all neurotypes, from all backgrounds, might then have the opportunity to demonstrate their intellect, skills, and capabilities in ways that allow them to truly shine rather than the same minority groups of learners being perpetually disadvantaged.

This doesn't, however, address the problem of full access to fulfilling employment opportunities, and this is something employers must tackle.

Recruitment and selection events could involve alternatives to interviews – activities that allow autistics and other ND candidates to showcase the skills that make them suitable for a role without negotiating the complexities and stress of face-to-face, verbal interviews – to perform in a way that's actually far more appropriate to the needs of the job. Some employers already do this, including Microsoft, and German software company SAP, working with Denmark-founded social enterprise Specialisterne – an organisation employing predominantly autistic employers, whose selection events employ activities involving Lego Mindstorm robots in place of more traditional interviews (Silberman 2016: 514-515).

These companies recognise that skilled autistic workers might be exactly the right employees for the job – good for profits and shareholders, as well as good for society.

Once your autistic employee has been recruited, it's then important for that inclusive practice to continue in the workplace – sadly this isn't often the case (Beardon & Edmonds 2007, cited by Baldwin et al 2014), but that's another story altogether. For some, conventional employment in an ill-adapted NT work environment is never going to be worth the hardship. 

So of course, there’s also an important role for enterprise and entrepreneurship, and for supporting those who go down this path.

There's a role for enterprise education in providing extensive, and diverse opportunities that enable all students to nurture and grow in their own ways as enterprising people – throughout their degree programmes (within course and extracurricular), and beyond. There’s an important role for enterprise education to play in encouraging and celebrating different ways of thinking and doing, and valuing those students and graduates who need to do things differently in order to realise their dreams.

And regardless of neurotype, those who really need to deviate from the norm – whose passions can't simply be fired by, or channelled through, conventional means of employment – should be enabled and empowered through intelligent, tailored startup development support, widespread availability of makerspaces, and inclusive online and physical communities of makers, innovators and entrepreneurs and their supporters.

Doing these things properly can help to make good things happen, and bring about real, positive change.


Baldwin, S., Costley, D. & Warren, A. (2014). Employment Activities and Experiences of Adults with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2017, 44(10), 2440-2449.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2017). Editorial Perspective: Neurodiversity– a revolutionary concept for autism and psychiatry. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 2017, 58(6), 744-747.

Beardon, L. & Edmonds, G. (2007). ASPECT consultancy report: A national report on the needs of adults with Asperger syndrome. Sheffield: The Autism Centre, Sheffield Hallam University.

Jaarsma, P., & Welin, S. (2012). Autism as a natural human variation: Reflections on the claims of the neurodiversity movement. Health Care Analysis, 20(1), 20-30.

Kapp, S.K., Gillespie-Lynch, K., Sherman, L.E., & Hutman, T. (2013). Deficit, Difference, or Both? Autism and Neurodiversity. Developmental Psychology, 2013, 49(1), 59-71.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) (2018). Enterprise and entrepreneurship education: guidance for UK higher education providers, January 2018.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) (2012). Enterprise and entrepreneurship education: guidance for UK higher education providers, September 2012.

Silberman, S. (2016). Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about People who Think Differently. London: Allen & Unwin.

Silberman, S. (2015). Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. Avery.

Singer J. (1998). Odd People In: The Birth of Community Amongst People on the Autism SpectrumA personal exploration of a New Social Movement based on Neurological Diversity. An Honours Thesis presented to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science, the University of Technology, Sydney, 1998.

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