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The rise of job centres for neurodivergent people

In the UK, fewer than three in 10 autistic people are in work. But increasingly, specialised employment agencies are drawing attention to the benefits of conditions such as autism

In the UK, fewer than three in 10 autistic people are in work. But increasingly, specialised employment agencies are drawing attention to the benefits of conditions such as autism

Matt Boyd isn’t the first person to visit the jobcentre and think: ‘There has to be a better way.’ Diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, he had always struggled with spelling and reading but made it to university nevertheless.

“I got a lot of support for my dyslexia at uni,” said Boyd. “It took me from quite low grades to graduating with a first, something I never thought possible.”

Once he left, that help disappeared and Boyd (pictured) struggled to find work. “I quickly realised that it wasn’t just me that needed this kind of positive, strength-based approach with employers,” he said. “There were thousands like me out of work.”

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So Boyd started Exceptional Individuals in 2015, a recruitment company that supports neurodivergent job-seekers. It offers impartial workplace needs assessments, mentorships, neurodiversity career programmes and a jobs listing board for common types of neurodivergence such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and autism.

Several similar agencies have now sprung up, including Enna in the UK and Passwerk in Belgium. There’s also Divergent Talent, an agency that represents neurodivergent actors, writers and creatives. Boyd doesn’t mind the competition. “There’s a lot that needs doing,” he noted.

As many as one in seven people is neurodivergent, meaning they process information differently. UK government figures show that fewer than three in 10 autistic people are in work. In April 2022, the government launched a review to boost those numbers.

As Tom Pursglove MP, minister for disabled people, health and work, has pointed out, this is often down to employers lacking the tools to support autistic people.

I quickly realised that it wasn’t just me that needed this kind of positive, strength-based approach with employers

Exceptional Individuals has helped the likes of HSBC, Aviva and market research company Kantar become more neuro-inclusive. “First, we make sure employers are set up to take on neurodivergent people,” said Boyd. It can take around a year to do the consultancy and get the right processes in place.

The team can then recruit suitable professionals. An autistic person, for example, may suit being a web developer due to having good attention to detail, or a person with ADHD might make a great graphic designer due to their innovation and creativity.

But Boyd is keen to move away from a tendency to view neurodiverse people via generalisations. Everyone is different – and being neurodivergent isn’t a superpower either. “A person might be a genius and have autism,” he said, “but they’re not a genius because they have autism. They’re unique human beings with different experiences. That means the job opportunities they get depend on the individual.”

Someone who has used Exceptional Individuals’ services is Lydia, a family practitioner with dyslexia and dyscalculia, who struggled to work during the pandemic. “I have had workplace needs assessments that have been extremely shallow,” she said. “I’ve felt that the people doing them were reading from a script and didn’t take the time to understand my neurodivergence.”

She found Exceptional Individuals different. Staff there offered Lydia one-to-one coaching and software to help her work from home. “It took me years to accept that I have dyslexia,” she added, “but now I feel more empowered to explain to people what I need so that I can thrive.”

Main image: Matt Boyd portrait. Credit: Emma Croman

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