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Conservation & Neurodivergent Me

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By Alister Harman, Park Ranger

Canoe safari (Alister Harman)
Canoe safari (Alister Harman)

I truly adore what I do. Weaving all those threads of nature to create something special for wildlife, the climate and people is a magical process. It’s an art, science and craft that, like many, took a great deal of blood, sweat and tears to achieve such necessary skills. Like anyone else I expected to be judged on my merits and passion at any interview I went for.

Yet, while I’m a capable Ranger and human being I’m also Autistic-Dyslexic, which in translation means no matter the wisdom and experience I’ve garnered, I’m frequently judged for my non-conformity first and capability second, as is the case for many like myself.

One startling statistic from MIND shows only around 25% of those with mild to moderate learning difficulties are employed. If you look only at those with Autism, the National Autistic Society says it goes down to 16%. I therefore recognise just how lucky I am to be doing a job I have such passion for.

While Autism and Dyslexia are somewhat better known, don’t forget there are many individuals with cognitive differences such as Dyspraxia, ADHD, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Tourettes, and many others. It’s quite common for many to show signs of a combination of conditions. Some may appear to have similar differences in the way they process the world around them but, their experiences, skills and character will be unique.

So why are the recruitment statistics so poor?

Conformity is a massive problem for the neurodiverse, and this is often picked up on in interviews instead of suitability for the role. Having previously been judged in interviews due to lacking certain social graces I find this incredibly alarming, especially as the combination of social anxiety and confinement to a highly inflexible situation can cause real harm.

Learning to dry stone wall at Longshaw (Alister Harman)
Learning to dry stone wall at Longshaw (Alister Harman)

I have too often received humiliating comments under the guise of “feedback” from interviewers who think it appropriate to make personal remarks on my micro-behaviours; completely irrelevant to my ability to carry out the role advertised. Such remarks evidence a complete lack of understanding of adjustments that need to be made to enable me to bring my talents and gifts to the workplace. Having my best efforts thrown in my face because the interviewers believe it appropriate to comment on my micro-behaviours, and pass judgement, is not just harmful and rude, it’s discriminatory under the 2010 Equality Act.

I also struggle with dealing with new people, so being forced to impress numerous strangers in an interview setting isn’t ideal. Even engaging in small talk is a difficulty, something I don’t always do well with people I’ve known for years, so as you can imagine with complete strangers it’s highly frustrating. Yet, I’ve engaged the public in nature conservation and taught for many years. In that time I’ve been called an excellent teacher, insightful, and patient in my approach. This happens when I’m allowed to quietly connect with people on my own terms. This again evidences how unnatural the interview process can become.

All this pressure, and more, from our neurotypical peers often leads to individuals with mental differences ‘masking’, where behaviour is altered to fit in. Masking is exhausting and uses an incredible amount of emotional and mental resilience. This results in tiredness, with reduced room in our heads to engage. Hardly a good place from which to be interviewed!

Forestry bushcraft volunteering (Alister Harman)
Forestry bushcraft volunteering (Alister Harman)

Being neural-diverse provides me a range of talents which offers great advantages in a range of areas to employers. For instance, I absorb information very fast, have a highly imaginative mind and an ability to make plans and connections at a pace and level of detail possible due to intense levels of focus and a strong long-term memory. In my Ranger life, my talents enable me to hyper-efficiently plan and execute my work, although unfortunately I’m rarely enabled to take full advantage of this talent. I’ll come back to this later.

So, now I’ve explained that discrimination continues to exist in the recruitment process I feel it is only fair to give some guidance on how to make the process fairer.

Firstly, ask for any adjustments I or others like me need to fairly partake in the interview process. It’s socially difficult for me to approach a complete stranger who I have yet to build any relationship of trust, and so it needs to be the prospective employer who instigates this conversation of adjustments with all candidates and to build the foundations of that trust.

Then, follow those adjustments as they’ve been agreed.

One thing that’s particularly irksome is how often I ask interviewers to put me right if I’ve taken the wrong meaning from a question. Instead I’m later criticised for not saying something at interview that was never picked up on or even asked about at all. I don’t have the headspace for mind games at interview, so interviewers being forthright and precise in what is expected helps a lot throughout the process.

Eco-Park fence repair (Alister Harman)
Eco-Park fence repair (Alister Harman)

Finally, I’ll likely need flexibility to achieve my potential in the new workplace. This can often be a long-term process, as it’ll take time to settle in but also identify my needs in this specific style of working.

Earlier I mentioned how the place I work can’t keep up with me. Well this is an example of where the sensitivity and determination of neurodiverse candidates may well be pointing to weaknesses in the workplace’s method of working. Yet there’s an opportunity there to challenge and adapt working practices, which through better communication and efficiency will benefit the whole team.

I’ve avoided some of the specifics, such as questioning why persist with a written task when you have a Dyslexic at interview?’ That’s because I’m actively encouraging you to engage individual candidates, and not to make assumptions about the adjustments they need.

If anyone would like to discuss this with me further, feel free to contact me via Amy Worley on amy@countryside-jobs.com





References:

BBC

BBC #2

People Management

GOV UK

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Posted On: 26/04/2022

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