Neurodiversity: all in for engineering

Online event free 
Thinking about neurodiversity? With one in seven people worldwide thought to be neurodivergent, and an estimated 820,000 neurodivergent engineers working in the UK alone, neurodiversity in the engineering community is something we should all be talking about. This webinar is an opportunity to harness our community for change, to draw from expertise, experience and positive initiatives to address diverse needs and to better understand the contributions that a neurodiverse community makes to engineering. We know that the voices of the Engineering Academics Network members have the power to address inequality in, and exclusion from, engineering education for those who think differently. If you want to be part of a ground swell for change, come along, share your experiences, be inspired and unleash your passion. This webinar is only the start of EPC’s neurodiversity in engineering commitment. Help us design an inclusive campaign with, not just for, the community.

Join the movement

Neurodiversity is a movement, a language for recognising and valuing difference.

By engaging in the discourse, we are all part of the neurodiversity movement. The EPC is committed to enabling EAN members work together in the interests of everyone in HE engineering; whether neurotypical or neurodivergent.

To be part of the conversation, come with us on our journey for change.

Are you already championing work in this area? To help us understand how the EPC can help in this space, we're collecting people before data.

If you would like to be part of an inclusive EAN community and help define what's next, please provide your details below.

The Dyson Institute

Director of Neptune Energy, the ENF project sponsor. Ishbel Inkster is currently Director of Employee Experience at Neptune Energy where she has a global role supporting all aspects of employee engagement, reward, talent, HRIS and HR operations – making Neptune a great, safe, place to work for everyone. Prior to Neptune Ishbel has held a number of global HR roles, working internationally, in companies including General Electric, Wood Group and Hewlett Packard. She holds a first class honours degree in Business Studies and a post graduate diploma in Human Resource management and outside of work uses her time to mentor others and support local charities.

Jane is the CEO of the global charity Foothold, The Institution of Engineering and Technology Benevolent Fund, which strives to increase the well-being of engineers and their families worldwide. Formally a nurse of 25 years with a strong history of working with national and local charities, one of Jane’s key strengths is matching the needs of the community she is serving with the aspirations of funders and developing solutions that support both. At Foothold this has led to the development of the Wellbeing Hub in partnership with Matchtech which supports the health and well-being of engineers and their families. Working with Neptune Energy, the “Differently Wired Hub” focuses on the needs of neurodivergent engineers and those who support, employ or care about them and provides specific assistance through the “Funding Neurodiverse Futures” programme for engineering students and apprentices who feel they may be neurodivergent and are struggling to fund a diagnosis.

Dean & Head of School of Engineering, UWE Bristol and founder of the Framework for Neurodiversity Inclusion in Engineering

Student and Autism ambassador, UWE

How can we empower both aspiring and established engineers – and those who support them – to thrive, both personally and professionally? Need access to a wide range of online resources? Hear from Foothold’s Engineering Neurodiverse Futures (ENF) programme which provides accelerated diagnosis and treatment, mentoring, counselling and coaching, to neurodivergent individuals.

Meet the panel who, chaired by Beverley Gibbs, Director of The Dyson Institute and a member of the Engineering Neurodiverse Futures (ENF) steering group, will discuss some of the barriers and enablers in engineering education to raise awareness and reveal some pathways to full potential.

Featuring:
• Fliss Rook, My Foothold, the IET Benevolent Fund
• Ishbel Inkster, Director of Neptune Energy, the ENF project sponsor
• Prof Lisa Brodie, Dean & Head of School of Engineering, UWE Bristol and founder of the Framework for Neurodiversity Inclusion in Engineering
• Thomas Dixon, Student and Autism ambassador, UWE

There will be an opportunity to ask questions, consider practice, share lived experience and positive practice.

The hashtag for this event is #EngiNeuring

Beverley Gibbs: What we know and what we don’t know

When we talk about neurodiversity we’re acknowledging that there are innate differences in the way that humans think, learn, process information, and communicate. Some individuals have ‘spikier’ – less consistent – profiles of executive functions such as verbal skills, working memory, visual skills and processing speed. Just as a biodiversity supports a thriving ecosystem, support for inclusion and flourishing of neurodiverse people benefits society.

When we talk about neurodiversity we are usually talking about developmental conditions such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, Tourette syndrome, autism, and ADHD. But, we may also be considering acquired neurodiversity through, for example, traumatic brain injury.

So, do we know how many neurodiverse students we have on engineering courses?

No, we don’t. We do know that the prevalence of each of these conditions in the general population varies up to about 10%. Some are more frequent than others, and overall – combined – around 15-20% of adults are thought to be what we would call neurodiverse. However, HE students are not the general population. And the university student population – across all subjects – shows, for example, elevated levels of ADHD and autism – 15% vs a general population level of maybe 5%.

And what about engineering?

Well, we have good reason to believe that the engineering workforce has higher proportions of neurodiverse individuals. Dyslexia is thought to be 3 x more prevalent amongst engineers than in the general population (30 vs 10%). Engineers are most likely to suffer from the symptoms of autism-related disorders than any other profession.

Pro rata, there could be 12-15,000 neurodiverse students entering UK engineering courses every year, but we don’t have a reliable number. Twenty years ago in the US, neurodiverse students were under-represented in engineering education, with the vast majority of students studying other subjects (3% ADHD students, 5% autistic). Have things changed in the last 20 years and if so what has driven that? IS the UK a different context to the US? Or are changes to diagnosis revealing a population that was already there? We don’t really know.

Do engineering students thrive?

A growing body of literature highlights the range of strengths that neurodiverse individuals bring can be particularly valuable in engineering: divergent thinking, risk-taking, three dimensional visualisation skills, pattern identification, systems thinking. So pronounced are these strengths that some companies have evolved to deliberately hiring neurominorities as a talent strategy rather than a social responsibility project.

Despite these strengths, some US studies show that rates of recruitment and retention of neurodivergent students has historically been low, but we don’t have a systematic understanding of what the contemporary experience of UK engineering students is.

How do we support neurodiverse engineering students?

Well, what we know is that this spiky profile of cognitive function I talked about earlier brings challenges.  Information overload, sensory experiences and social life can be real challenges, but we are still working out what that means in engineering HE. We also know that if you’re – say – dyslexic, you’re not the same as the next person who is dyslexic.

In the UK, if we rely on capturing this data in disability declarations, at the broadest level we know that those declaring a disability are under-represented in engineering.  But, of those who do declare a disability, ASD and learning difficulties are overrepresented in engineering, but still far smaller than the arts, languages and humanities.

Some people experience or consider these differences as disabilities, some do not. And sometimes, even if you don’t consider yourself disabled, the easiest way to get accommodations or particular support is to pursue a process that treats you as if you have a disability. This isn’t simply a matter of pragmatism.   We’ve seen that traditional pedagogical methods and accommodations that reinforce the idea of disability or weakness are not environments in which neurodiverse students have thrived.

As educators, do we really understand the implications of our mental model – and the model of our university environment –  being strength-based, vs one of accommodation and accessibility? Which models most benefit student confidence, sense of belonging, and access to support?

So, by way of introduction I’ve dipped a foot in the difficult waters of what we do and don’t know about the prevalence of conditions associated with neurodiversity, their presence in engineering, and the challenges of effectively supporting students in an HE context.

To explore these questions and many others, we are joined by a fabulous panel today who will share their experiences and work in this area – students, academics, professional bodies – and we’re all aiming for a lively discussion with our panellists, and with you all tuning in online.  First, we turn to our co-costs, and Fliss Rook from IET Foothold who will talk about their Engineering Neurodiverse Futures programme.

References

Chrysochoou, M., Zaghi, A. E., & Syharat, C. M. (2022, November). Reframing neurodiversity in engineering education. In Frontiers in Education (Vol. 7, p. 995865). Frontiers.

Clouder, L., Karakus, M., Cinotti, A., Ferreyra, M. V., Fierros, G. A., & Rojo, P. (2020). Neurodiversity in higher education: a narrative synthesis. Higher Education, 80(4), 757-778.

Doyle, N. (2020). Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. British Medical Bulletin, 135(1), 108.

IMechE (2104) University of Cambridge test shows engineers are most autistic profession. Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 22 April 2014. Available online at https://www.imeche.org/news/news-article/engineers-score-highly-in-autism-quiz-220414-1

Nuske, A., Rillotta, F., Bellon, M., & Richdale, A. (2019). Transition to higher education for students with autism: A systematic literature review. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 12(3), 280.

Syharat, C., Hain, A., & E Zaghi, A. (2020, June). Diversifying the Engineering Pipeline through Early Engagement of Neurodiverse Learners. In 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference.

Panellists:

  • Beverley Gibbs, Director, Dyson Institute of Engineering & Technology (Chair)
  • Fliss Rook, My Foothold, the IET Benevolent Fund
  • Ishbel Inkster, Director of Neptune Energy, the ENF project sponsor
  • Professor Lisa Brodie, Dean & Head of School of Engineering, UWE Bristol and founder of the Framework for Neurodiversity Inclusion in Engineering
  • Alex Jenkins, Engineering student, UWE Bristol

 

Beverley Gibbs opening remarks: Beverley Gibbs introduced the webinar by discussing that there is a prevalence of people with neurodivergent conditions in engineering. Neurodivergent learners bring fresh perspectives, hyperfocus, and creative solutions. Catering to a neurodiverse community of learners also brings challenges. Traditional pedagogical and accommodations that reinforce the idea of disability are environments that aren’t conducive to the success of neurodiverse students. Do educators understand the implications of their mental model and model of their university environment as strength-based vs accommodation and accessibility? Which models benefit students’ sense of belonging and support?

 

EPC’s initiative: The EPC is embarking on an initiative to champion neurodiversity and how best to ensure its benefits are fostered by supporting neurodivergent individuals and neurodiverse ways of working. You’ll be hearing more from the EPC on this over the coming months and years.

 

EPC’s call to action: The EPC is committed to enabling EAN members to work together in the interests of everyone in HE engineering; whether neurotypical or neurodivergent. Are you already championing work in this area? To help us understand how the EPC can help in this space, we’re collecting people before data. Please navigate to the ‘Join the movement’ tab to get involved.

 

Fliss Rook – My Foothold, a scheme run by IET Benevolent Fund / Engineering Neurodiverse Futures Programme: Foothold is an independent charity supporting IET members and the wider engineering community for 133 years. It is funded by and for the engineering community. Foothold offers grants and holistic support including care, disability support, mental well-being, neurodiversity, and online & digital support.

In late 2021, they recognised a surge in requests for neurodiversity support and realised the need to expand their offerings to reach more individuals. Foothold often heard that students and apprentices faced challenges in obtaining assessment and diagnosis due to long waiting lists and expensive private options. Fliss noted that although formal diagnosis is crucial for receiving support, those who did get diagnosed were not receiving the appropriate assistance. Foothold spoke to Neptune Energy about improving support for neurodiverse students. Neptune Energy supported Foothold to launch The Engineering Neurodiverse Futures Programme (ENF) programme last year.

The ENF Programme is for students and apprentices aged 16-25 on a first engineering course exploring a neurodivergent diagnosis. It offers fully funded assessment and diagnosis, and support throughout their course and 12 months after. Students are assigned a case worker who assists them in accessing program benefits such as counselling, talking therapies, assistive technologies, mentoring, and career coaching.

 

Ishbel Inskter, Director of Neptune Energy, the ENF project sponsor: Neptune Energy, an oil, gas and energy organization with several engineers, wanted to help Foothold as their work aligns with Neptune’s goals. Neptune Energy embarked on a diversity and inclusion mission to define its purpose, promote inclusivity, and establish a welcoming workplace for all. Collaborating with Foothold helped Neptune grasp neurodiversity, its benefits, and challenges, and gain insights for future improvements. Initially, Neptune aimed to raise staff awareness around neurodiversity and the team enthusiastically embraced learning. Neptune then offered exposure opportunities for neurodiverse candidates through placements, internships, and mentoring, enabling Neptune to develop expertise and build lasting relationships with candidates. This helped Neptune begin to think about how they could refine their recruitment and selection process, office layout, and offshore work to be more inclusive. Neptune’s partnership with Foothold led to these changes and increased employee awareness.

 

Professor Lisa Brodie / Alex Jenkins, UWE Bristol: The lived experience of students at UWE Bristol and the work their department has been conducting in terms of accommodating neurodiverse students. Professor Lisa Brodie, Dean & Head of School of Engineering observed that UWE has been dedicated to improving the inclusion of neurodiverse students in their engineering schools for 4 years.

Alex Jenkins, an engineering student at UWE Bristol, shared his viewpoint on the ongoing efforts at his university. Alex explained the struggles he has faced with understanding test purposes, achieving perfection, and anxiety in academic and non-academic situations. Alex outlined that he found it difficult to understand comments such as “I’m sure you’re fine” from lecturers, which demotivated him and made him reluctant to ask for help. However, Alex appreciated the support from UWE, such as mentoring, prompt email responses from lecturers, and clear communication using simple language. From Alex’s viewpoint, mentors asking whether he was up to date with things was challenging as he did not want to acknowledge failure. Alex proposed that better questions could have been asked. Alex suggested changes for improved communication, a deeper understanding of how work is marked and how it relates to the real world, a clear weekly schedule with topics and workload, a campus visit prior to term start for accommodation assessment, and project groups with a better makeup.

Professor Lisa Brodie stated that based on Alex’s feedback UWE has made several changes. For example, UWE offers a summer school for students to familiarise themselves with their environment before starting their programs. They support students throughout their journey from application to graduation. UWE has regular multidisciplinary meetings to review student performance and make necessary adjustments. UWE appointed champions and autism ambassadors. Lecturers accommodate by taking time to respond to questions and offering mentorship. UWE also supports neurodiverse colleagues by implementing aspects such as; allowing cameras off in meetings and flexible workspace options. Until people disclose their condition, universal accommodations are being made to make the workplace inclusive to everyone.

 

Important links

 

Event summary by Crystal Nwagboso (Engineering Professors’ Council)

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