Does the Construction Sector Deserve Neurodiverse People?

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Does the Construction Sector Deserve Neurodiverse People?

Jen Blacow

10th May 2021

What about it?

Aspiedent was once shown around a few building sites run by an exceptionally large construction company. It became apparent after meeting a few characters belonging to the senior management team, that these were workplaces that had people with ‘neurodiverse’ conditions (particularly autism) working at every level. 

Neurodiverse conditions include conditions such as Autism, Dyslexia, and ADHD. 

Interestingly, Aspiedent which is run by an autistic person, Dr Elizabeth Guest, who is very practical, visual, and very logical but poor with words, got on really well with these senior construction professionals. 

This prompted us to ask the question - why might this be? 

Is it because people who work in construction tend to be more visual and less verbal and therefore she can communicate with them better? 

Or is it because in general, communication in the construction sector is far more straight to the point and less ‘politically correct’ (i.e. more leeway for people who do not fit in well socially) than other sectors such as the civil service or some parts of the third sector, for example. 

Either way, she seems to speak their language. At the construction company Aspiedent was given a tour around, the Directors got on with Elizabeth as she had little knowledge about construction but could understand them and the challenges of their job. I think it helped that she called a spade a spade, an autistic trait that is often not appreciated elsewhere. 

For sure, it was partly because construction makes sense to Elizabeth. I would argue it makes sense to her because of her ability to learn visually and see the bigger picture and detail at the same time (rare in the general population but more common in autism). This helps her to be an excellent problem solver. 

Not all autistic people fit into this category, but a good number do. 

Why construction?

One thing we witnessed when talking to people within this particular construction company was their openness and willingness to explore new ways of doing things. It is also almost as if they can see a business case for ‘neurodiversity’ much more clearly than others. 

This company had recognised that they would benefit from employing somebody who had great attention to detail and who would be able to elicit information from the various professionals and contractors involved in big building projects and then log and analyse it. 

This is so they could continuously recalculate the costs, timescales, and materials in stock for a job to be completed whilst making the most profit and not going over budget or deadlines. It so happened that we knew an autistic person who had these skills, just not a background in construction. 

It was obvious to them that they had a lot to gain from employing somebody who had highly developed attention to detail and problem-solving skills, even if they had to make some adjustments for their autism and was inexperienced in construction. It was mainly bluntness and intolerance for mistakes they would have to put up with, but as mentioned earlier, this was maybe not so much of a problem for the construction sector. 

So if this company could see this, do other construction companies see it too? Do they want to employ and tap into these talented people who are too often overlooked due to preconceptions about disability? If not, then I would argue that those companies maybe do not deserve these autistic/neurodiverse people!

Possible benefits

One of my family members is heavily dyslexic, however, he is renowned for his quality of work as a professional Painter and Decorator.

I have a suspicion that his lack of certain skills is made up for by his talents in his trade. When he paints windowsills, they are so perfectly finished that it is hard to believe that mere human hands painted them. His fees reflect this, and his finished jobs are routinely admired by his customers, colleagues, and friends. He is never short of work.

Although his perfectionism and anxiety can cause him difficulty in life, his commitment to doing a good job and his organisation and planning skills are revered. 

We have also come across another autistic business owner in the painting field who is actively looking to recruit other autistic people, as he can see the benefit in employing other people who think differently.

The 'down-to-earth' culture of the majority of construction businesses may well suit people with autism who have struggled to ‘fit in’ throughout their life. There may be more leeway for people who are naturally blunt in their communication style and who may fail to follow certain social rules sometimes (common in autism). 

In addition, many clever people end up coming out of school with no academic qualifications due to their neurodiverse condition. It may be that construction is a place that makes room for more people with neurodiversity because of the traditional apprenticeship/learning by doing way of getting into this line of work. 

People who learn by doing, visual thinkers, logical thinkers, and creative thinkers are synonymous with many (not all) people with autism/neurodiversity and the aptitudes required to succeed at jobs in construction, engineering, and manufacturing. 

Finally, there is a lot of focus on corporate social responsibility in construction as many contracts are won based on ticking boxes that commit the employer to show they are trying their best to be more inclusive and diverse. 

In a nutshell, the benefits that can be derived from employing more people with neurodiversity could enable construction companies to work more efficiently, tap into more skills (i.e. problem-solving) and make more profit. It can also be argued that people with neurodiversity often place a great deal of importance in doing a good job and take pride in their work, as they can be used to struggling in other areas of their life, for example socially or academically. 

What’s Important 

It is important not to forget that it will not all be good, and like all sectors I am confident there are bad sides to it such as unhealthy competition, lack of awareness or tolerance of some particular differences, and instances of workplace bullying. 

Historically, these male-dominated working environments have been very concerned with the health and safety of their workers and therefore their HR departments and HR Managers (in the past known as personnel departments or personnel managers), were there to look after the wellbeing of the workforce. 

More recently, in construction, there has been greater awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing in the workplace and how the culture of an industry may stigmatise and isolate workers who suffer from mental illness and/or emotional distress. 

Perhaps this is a good opportunity to introduce a new (old) form of HR that is not just focused on the management of the productiveness of a workforce but also on the health and wellbeing and healthy differences between employees within the construction sector. I would argue that a greater (real) understanding of neurodiversity would go a long way to getting this right. 

To discuss anything with us that has been touched upon in this blog, please contact us through our website, e-mail us at info@aspiedent.com or phone us on 07717 404846.

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