April 4, 2023

Autism Awareness Month: Understanding the Inclusion of People with Neurodiversity in the Workplace

An interview with Sarah Mjidou, our Senior Director, Digital Transformation, Information Technology

As part of our commitment to being an inclusive employer, we are doubling down our efforts to develop a more inclusive and collaborative culture. As such, we are marking Autism Awareness Month. Over the past few years, we have launched several initiatives, including the implementation of a pilot partnership to welcome people with autism into our teams. Sarah Mjidou explains the importance of taking into account neurodiversity within the company and the challenge of integrating people with autism into the workplace.

Why is Ivanhoé Cambridge involved in Autism and Neurodiversity Month?

Sarah Mjidou: Our vision as an employer is to create an inclusive future. We are making diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) a priority and a business imperative. When we launched our DEI strategy two years ago, one of our goals was to be more open-minded about disabilities, including neurodiversity conditions. With this in mind, we want to provide the best possible accommodation for employees with a neurodiverse condition so that this subject is no longer taboo. And in fact, disability is still a taboo. We are in an ongoing education and awareness phase with all our teams in order to make Ivanhoé Cambridge an inclusive employer. For this reason, speaking out during Autism and Neurodiversity Awareness Month sends a strong signal about our commitment to changing mindsets. We are also committed to implementing tangible actions to ensure the inclusion of neurodivergent people. Another of our objectives is to support our teams in the process of integrating these autistic or neurodivergent people.

What is neurodiversity?

Sarah Mjidou: Neurodiversity is a very broad term that refers to the diversity or variation of cognitive functioning in humans. In this sense, neurodiversity is the collection of different profiles that correspond to this natural neurocognitive variation: it therefore covers the entire population. Among the so-called neurodivergent profiles, there are, for example, autism, the so-called “ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder)” profiles, the “dys” profiles (dyslexia, dysorthographia, dyscalculia, dysphasia, dyspraxia) and the Tourette Syndrome profile. Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by significant changes in two areas: persistent social interaction and communication challenges, and restricted or repetitive behaviours, activities and interests. These changes therefore represent a continuum from mild to severe, and limit and impair daily life. As changes may vary from person to person, each person with autism is a unique case: it is thus impossible to have a general definition of autism.

Why is the subject of neurodiversity personally important to you?

Sarah Mjidou: Several years ago, in a previous work experience, I hired a young man with autism who had just left school. This was a very interesting experience for me, although at the time I had no knowledge of autism. Within the first few minutes of the job interview, I noticed that he was avoiding my eyes, that he was answering my questions awkwardly even though his CV and academic records were excellent. So, I adjusted by deciding not to follow the traditional job interview pattern. I went outside the box and gave him a technical test which he completed in just a few minutes with perfect results. My role after that was to coach this young man through his career in our team and our organization. This first experience with autism enabled me to learn how to better work with people living with a neurodiverse condition. Today, I am also the mother of a little boy, aged nine, who has an autism spectrum disorder. This personal experience has allowed me to learn more about this disability, to understand the social exclusion that can victimize people with autism.

How can we support our teams in the inclusion of a neurodivergent person?

Sarah Mjidou: There are both benefits and challenges to accommodating an autistic or neurodivergent person. Being very open-minded, attentive and responsive, and highly adaptable are essential. For example, we may have to reconsider certain social behaviours that are automatic for us, but that may not fit at all with the way a neurodivergent person functions. Every neurodivergent person is unique. As part of a pilot partnership at Ivanhoé Cambridge, we are pleased to include people with autism on one of our teams. Training was provided internally. We also use a coach, known as an adaptive coach, whose role is to work with the team to exchange about best practices and to answer questions.

What is your assessment of the neurodiversity initiatives implemented in recent years?

Sarah Mjidou: In the past two years, we published an article raising awareness about neurodiversity and also organized a webinar that included Auticon, a company that specializes in recruiting people with autism, and Mathieu Giroux, an expert and teacher who is himself autistic and who shared his experiences. These initiatives have given Ivanhoé Cambridge’s employees the opportunity to speak out and have sparked a growing interest among our teams in learning more about neurodiversity, and especially autism. We are proud to be taking tangible actions and seeing real openness and engagement within Ivanhoé Cambridge’s teams. Thanks to these initiatives, the diversity spectrum is broadening within Ivanhoé Cambridge. Our actions are paying dividends. However, we are continuing to work consciously to create an environment where everyone can flourish and contribute to Ivanhoé Cambridge’s success, authentically and by being themselves.

What are the next steps?

Sarah Mjidou: We must continue our awareness raising, education and teaching work. We must continue to talk increasingly about this subject in order, I hope, to break down taboos and assumptions. Above all, people need to dare. We have people at Ivanhoé Cambridge who are neurodivergent and don’t dare talk about it yet because they fear that they will be labelled, that they will be less trusted. So, I hope that in a few months, a few years, this subject will no longer be taboo, and that people will no longer be stigmatized. I dream of the time when neurodivergent employees will have no qualms about talking about this subject as freely as possible. However, the battle is still far from being won and we still must break down many misconceptions.

What place do you think should be given to neurodiversity at work?

Sarah Mjidou: We are more open-minded about this today. However, in Silicon Valley, for example, there have been specialized recruitment programs for 10 or 15 years already. The unemployment rate for autistic people in Quebec is very high, mainly because of the traditional job interview process, which is a major obstacle for these people. In Quebec, we know that one child in 66 is diagnosed on the autism spectrum. These children represent the talents of tomorrow, so it is imperative that we be prepared. This is a far-from-trivial subject. We know that people with a neurodiverse condition can be a competitive advantage for an organization. These are therefore talents that we should be accommodating and integrating in the best possible conditions, to enhance our workforce.

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