Forefront by TSMP: Of Extraordinary Attorneys and Rain Men

CLOSE

Directory

Thio Shen Yi, SC

Joint Managing Partner

Litigation

Stefanie Yuen Thio

Joint Managing Partner

Corporate

Derek Loh

Partner

Litigation

Jennifer Chia

Partner

Corporate

Melvin Chan

Partner

Litigation

Ian Lim

Partner

Litigation

June Ho

Partner

Corporate

Kelvin Koh

Partner

Litigation

Ong Pei Ching

Partner

Litigation

Mark Jacobsen

Partner

Corporate

Felicia Tan

Partner

Litigation

Jeffrey Chan, SC

Senior Director

Litigation

Prof Tang Hang Wu, PhD

Consultant

Litigation

Prof Hans Tjio

Consultant

Corporate

Kenneth Chua

Director

Litigation

Mijung Kim

Director

Litigation

Tania Chin

Director

Litigation

Leon Lim

Director

Corporate

Nanthini Vijayakumar

Director

Litigation

Nicholas Ngo

Associate Director

Litigation

Kevin Elbert

Associate Director

Litigation

Timothy Yong

Associate Director

Litigation

Eugene Neo

Associate Director

Litigation

Benjamin Bala

Associate Director

Litigation

Vu Lan Nguyen

Associate Director

Litigation

Stephanie Chew

Associate Director

Litigation

Ernest Low

Associate Director

Corporate

Elizabeth Tan

Associate Director

Litigation

Crystal Tan Shi Ying

Associate Director

Litigation

Brenda Chow

Senior Associate

Corporate

Heather Chong

Senior Associate

Corporate

Nicole Lee

Senior Associate

Corporate

Tay Quan Li

Senior Associate

Litigation

Lyn Toh Leng

Senior Associate

Corporate

Angela Chai Rui Min

Senior Associate

Litigation

Arthur Chin Yen Bing

Senior Associate

Litigation

Joshua Phang Shih Ern

Senior Associate

Litigation

Chow Jian Hui

Senior Associate

Corporate

Jeanne Goh Enchi

Senior Associate

Litigation

Lau Tin Yi

Senior Associate

Corporate

Phoon Wuei

Senior Associate

Litigation

Terence Yeo

Senior Associate

Litigation

Juliana Lake

Senior Associate

Litigation

Kashib Shareef bin Ahmad Hussain

Associate

Corporate

Goh Min Yi

Associate

Corporate

Sherlyn Lim Li Xuan

Associate

Litigation

Vanessa Cheong Shu Qi

Associate

Corporate

Lee Shu Zhen

Associate

Corporate

Nikita Garg

Associate

Litigation

Annabelle Lee Jia Xin

Associate

Corporate

Ang Kai Le

Associate

Litigation

Glenn Ng Qiheng

Associate

Litigation

Isaac Tay Zhuo Yan

Associate

Litigation

Markus Low Yu Wen

Associate

Corporate

Nicholas Fu Wei Jun

Associate

Litigation

Krisly Aw Jiaxin

Associate

Corporate

Shawn Tan Yi Wei

Associate

Corporate

Stasia Ong Pei Qi

Associate

Litigation

Sarah Kim Mun Jeong

Associate

Litigation

Forefront by TSMP

6 September 2023

Of Extraordinary Attorneys and Rain Men

Unlocking the power of neurodivergent talent in the workplace holds immense potential for businesses, despite the challenges involved

By June Ho, Ian Lim

Cover photo credit: Rupert Britton / Unsplash

Apart from business acumen and an uncanny ability to spot future trends, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and Pokemon creator Satoshi Tajiri share another commonality: they are all widely believed to be on the autistic spectrum. Gates is known for rocking in his chair, speaking in monotone, and avoiding eye contact. Musk is famous for his blunt statements, regardless of their reception. And Tajiri’s childhood obsession with collecting insects laid the foundation for his Pokemon universe.

Many neurodiverse individuals, such as those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), could already be our colleagues. Some, like Gates, Musk or Tajiri, may even be our bosses. Yet, discussions of diversity and inclusion in the workplace tend to centre on gender and racial issues, leaving neurodiversity under-addressed.

What is neurodiversity?

Harvard Medical School describes neurodiversity as “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.”

It adds that the term is “often used in the context of ASD, as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities”.

In Singapore, data from the government’s third Enabling Masterplan reveals that one in 150 children has autism, surpassing World Health Organisation’s global estimate of one in 160 children. Various studies suggest that about three to five per cent of children worldwide have ADHD. (In Singapore, it is likewise estimated that three to five per cent of children have ADHD.) After including conditions such as dyslexia and dyspraxia, a British Medical Bulletin article found that around 15 to 20 per cent of the world’s population can be considered neurodiverse.

As testing for neurodiversity becomes more accessible, businesses are increasingly recognising its importance in the workforce, with a considerable chunk of society expected to identify as neurodiverse. Yet, globally, only about 20 per cent of persons with autism are employed. The rate is probably higher for those with other forms of neurodiversity, but the overall number remains low.

SG Enable, a government-established agency dedicated to Persons with Disabilities, helped to place over 3,500 persons with disabilities (including the neurodivergent) in employment between 2014 and 2021. In 2017, an employment service program by not-for-profit charity Autism Resource Centre (Singapore) placed about 120 individuals with autism in open employment. While these efforts are commendable, the statistics show that more neurodivergent individuals are unemployed than those employed. Could we do more? Should we do more?

The importance of inclusivity

Netflix’s Extraordinary Attorney Woo offers a glimpse into the neurodivergent world, portraying a rookie solicitor with ASD working in a top Korean law firm. Initially deemed strange and blunt by her neurotypical peers, she eventually wins them over with her exceptional legal skills, which in turn are thanks to her keen intelligence and eidetic memory. Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning portrayal in Rain Man had already introduced the concept of the autistic savant to the previous generation.

Research has shown that individuals with autism often exhibit special skills in pattern recognition, memory or mathematics, and some possess higher-than-average IQ. A neurodivergent workplace can yield tangible benefits, as neurodiverse individuals can contribute in ways the neurotypical cannot.

Employing people who are cognitively different should not be seen as a form of charity. It could actually be a sound business move. People who think and function in ways that neurotypical people cannot may bring much value to organisations, as they see solutions and do things outside of the usual box. In the process, they can help avoid the danger of the workplace becoming an echo chamber or falling prey to groupthink.

That said, the neurodiverse (just like their neurotypical counterparts) do not thrive in all roles. Those with ASD are less likely to do well as relationship managers or in frontline sales roles, for example. To realise positive impact, organisations need to understand the “diversity of neurodiversity” in order to effectively craft roles. It’s no different from the usual employee assessments and feedback that companies already do, or should do for each employee, to ensure resources are well distributed.

Once the unique strengths of neurodivergent staff are recognised, employers can effectively provide a role for them and support their needs.

Paradigm shifts

As an economy and a business, we don’t want to miss out on great talent just because they don’t fit in in the usual ways. The business leadership and HR teams must work together to determine the new or existing roles that neurodiverse individuals can thrive in or that make the best use of their skill sets.

Traditional notions of what constitutes a “good employee”, such as communication skills, being a team player and high EQ (Emotional Quotient), systematically disadvantage and screen out neurodiverse individuals.

To create a neurodiverse-friendly workplace, businesses must adjust their recruitment processes and career management programmes. No two neurodivergent individuals are the same, so employment practices that seek to just tick the boxes or conveniently pigeonhole them into neat easy categories will not work. Employers need to take the extra step to support neurodivergent employees by designing tasks and functions tailored to their strengths, which may be outside the usual job descriptions.

For this, assessment processes should be modified to include non-interview assessments, such as written tests and informal evaluations over longer periods, to allow candidates’ capabilities to surface. And perhaps this should be implemented across the board, not just for those who are neurodiverse.

The world doesn’t neatly divide along neurodiverse and neurotypical lines, and certainly not all neurodiverse realise that they in fact are. Written tests can and should be developed for the workplace to spot the more neurodiverse, so that the appropriate steps can be taken to hire, engage and properly assess them.

For example, traders are already highly valued in the workforce for the profitability they can add to companies that employ them. And many neurodiverse individuals actually do well in trading roles, with their superior pattern recognition and mathematical skills. Surgeons, with their ability to hyperfocus, are another much admired role in which the neurodiverse can thrive – as portrayed in ABC’s The Good Doctor. Some chefs are renowned for their attention to detail. Might they also be leveraging their neurodiverse qualities?

Perhaps it’s time to stop expecting people in such roles to always play nice with others, and not mark them down or even end their employment when they do not? Is it possible to design these roles another way to accommodate the neurodiverse who fill them a bit better? And is it possible to design other roles, or adapt existing ones, to allow the neurodiverse to fully thrive, to the benefit of both them and their employers? The answer must be yes.

Whole of society effort

In Singapore’s February 2023 interim report on the anti-workplace discrimination laws set to be introduced next year, the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness recommends affirmative action in favour of the elderly and disabled. That’s great, but HR policies and philosophy can be tweaked to look at inclusivity more holistically. And the neurodiverse should not be seen as a disabled class. Rather, management should consider how all types of skills and personal traits can and should be integrated into the work force.

And for neurodiverse individuals to truly be successfully integrated into workplaces as adults, conversations surrounding the integration of persons with special needs must start when they are children. This is already happening, with the Singapore Government introducing initiatives to cultivate more collaborations between mainstream students and those with special needs, and specialised training for selected mainstream teachers to be trained to support students with special needs. The pace needs to be picked up and more needs to be done though, specifically for the neurodiverse.

Ultimately, society ­– not just individual businesses – needs to be mobilised for neurodiversity in the workplace to succeed. It starts with abolishing “othering” neurodivergent individuals. Just as all women – not just the brilliant ones – should be part of our workplace, it is also not merely the Good Doctors and Extraordinary Attorney Woos who should have meaningful careers. We could all benefit from that.