Why MAD Abilities matter!

MAD abilities matter! Cracking the Neurodiversity Enigma

Written by Theo Smith

Theo is a Welsh Wizard. After leaving his Celtic land he set out on a journey to help organisations attract more talent. This has included global executive search, RPO, in-house and recruitment marketing. He now talks on a wide variety of recruitment related subjects. He is also the podcast host for Neurodiversity – Eliminating Kryptonite & Enabling Superheroes
Just FYI → MAD stands for Moving Attitudes to Diverse 

For some time now I’ve been trying to crack the ‘Neurodiversity Enigma Code’. Trying to understand how to help organisations attract candidates with a greater diversity of thought. But specifically, those with spiky profiles.

And ultimately how to keep them and accelerate their performance in the role.

If you want to know more about these spiky profiles you should look no further than Professor Amanda Kirby and her Do-It Profiler page which is a key element of what we will be looking at in this article.

Amanda and I are writing a business book on ‘Neurodiversity at Work’ and this article will give you a snippet of what to expect in the upcoming book, which will be published in early 2021 with Kogan Page. Available to pre-order on Amazon.

Spiky profiles – What are they?

People who think and act significantly different from others due to the makeup of their brain and many thousands of years of human evolution. Like people who are ADHD, Autistic, Dyslexic… often have spiky profiles.

So, what does that mean?

Well, they have skills in very specific areas, but it can be at the cost of other abilities.

Most people, or the ‘average’ brains, remain quite close across all cognitive abilities. Not veering too far from the average IQ level.

But for those people who are neurodiverse, it is often recognised that their cognitive abilities can be off the chart. Either significantly above or below the average IQ level.   

Here is a great example of this from Nancy Doyle CEO of Genius Within.

MAD abilities matter! Cracking the Neurodiversity Enigma

So why is this important? And what should we consider when thinking of how we get the best out of these MAD abilities?

Let’s talk about MAD – Abilities

Namely mine! (this is where I get personal)

Below we have three images, each showing diagrams for my cognitive abilities and challenges.

There are more than these available, but for the purpose of what we are discussing today, I’ve selected three to focus on.

The first shows my spiky profile for speaking, listening and understanding (courtesy of Do-It Profiler App)

So, something to pick up on is that I have significant strength in conversing with others. I’m a ‘people person’.

On the other end, I have some challenges around listening to others. Which is to do with noisy environments or where many people are speaking at once. It isn’t that I do not like to listen to others, which would clearly conflict with being a ‘people person’.

I also struggle with social nuances, like understanding jokes, I never really did get comedians!

However, it doesn’t mean I don’t ‘get’ people. My ability to read people’s emotions based on their facial expressions is very high. For example, I scored a 100% for this via a gamified psychometric assessment.

Technology and assessments broadly aren’t the single problem. We just need to get them working for those who are neurodiverse.
MAD abilities matter! Cracking the Neurodiversity Enigma

Next, you’ll see a much spikier profile. I’m happy (positive), manage change well and I’m empathic.

MAD abilities matter! Cracking the Neurodiversity Enigma

The flip side of that is that I’m very rarely relaxed (very energetic). Believe it or not, my confidence isn’t always as high as you’d think, and I can be quite impulsive.

We also see this in many Actors. Where I started out my career. They perform on stage, on film and attend large events, but actually they struggle socially and are not as confident as you’d expect. They are just brilliant at their job.

The risk here, as we’ve seen with exceptional actors like Robin Williams who was likely ADHD and Bi-Polar, is that they can hyper-focus. On camera they are exceptional, but they struggle with the highs and lows of life. The balance between their incredible unique strengths and their extreme challenges are a constant struggle.

My Dad actually once met Robin Williams at a NATO meeting. He tells the story of how Robin Williams walked around the table introducing himself to many of the attendees from across the globe in their own language and managing to make each one laugh.

My Dad to this day doesn’t know what he said to each individual, but he was shocked when he spoke to him in Welsh, which as you can imagine is not a widely spoken language. His ability to make people laugh using languages he’d never spoken was incredible.

This is what Mad abilities can look like.

Unfortunately, it can come with challenges, this is why it’s so important that we focus on individual strengths.

Knowing these things about yourself can be key to having a successful life and career. Not knowing these things can lead to challenges with mental health, wellbeing and questionable career choices: in extreme sports risking life and limb… or prison!

Prison? Does it sound like I’m scaremongering!

Well, it’s believed that c.35% of prisoners are ADHD. In several studies in prisons across the world including one at Chelmsford prison in the UK, over 50% of the prisoners were identified to be dyslexic.

So understanding your brain as early as possible and having the right support network at home, in school and beyond is vitally important.

Having a parent, teacher, partner, manager who understands your skills/strengths can be the difference between being understood and supported in life and in the workplace, rather than being misunderstood and placed at risk, because you are forced to ‘play’ to your challenges, rather than to your significant strengths.

MAD abilities matter! Cracking the Neurodiversity Enigma

The final image above is the spikiest of the three images. Therefore it’s really important to harness this strength because if it’s not utilised effectively, it is surrounded by so many potential challenges.

‘Memory, vision, auditory skills and senses’, if harnessed correctly and given the space to be used, ‘creativity’ at a spikey level is a powerful ace card to have in any team or organisation. It is the ability to see around corners and to combat against ‘groupthink’.

Let’s analyse the above.

Clearly, I have many challenges, as do other people who are neurodiverse or who have spiky profiles.

However, I have several areas that are positively spiky. These are:

Empathic. Positive (happy). Creative. Problem Solving and Managing Change.

What are all organisations currently going through?


And what do organisations need in times of change?

Creativity, Problem Solvers and Change Agents!

While teams and customers? What do they need during times of change?

Empathic and Positive team members/leaders!

You can see where I’m going with this…

The reality is that people with MAD abilities have an incredible amount to offer. But unfortunately, we very rarely tease out these super abilities. Instead, we often allow the challenges to come to the forefront of our minds.

How are we ever going to enable neurologically diverse minds to apply and succeed within our organisations if we don’t significantly change the way we approach; attract, assess, and importantly support those who think differently?

That is without even considering that a higher proportion of people with neurodiverse minds end up in prison. Or face significant challenges in academia, that then goes on to create additional barriers to entry to work.

Now I’m one of the lucky few. Through the work I’m doing to promote Neurodiversity and my ability to focus and harness my known super abilities. I’m not the one we really need to focus on here!

Why aren’t we currently hiring people successfully with spiky profiles?

Part of the challenge is that our traditional process for attracting and selecting candidates is broken. Or at the very least entrenched in archaic evidence-based research that is now being challenged.

So, what am I talking about?

Psychometric assessment. Interview structure and questions. Job descriptions, adverts… I could go on.

Let us just take the psychometrics as an example. The approach around psychometrics is old at best, but potentially discriminatory to those who are neurodiverse.

It’s not enough to allow candidates more time and to use red/green filters or screen readers etc… The assessment itself provides plenty of opportunity for biases around a person’s capabilities. It also flags areas of risk/weakness but without the context of what’s actually going on in the individual’s brain and the fact they are neurodiverse, this is where it can fall down.

Assumptions are made based on research and data that has been built broadly around neurotypicals and not the neurodiverse community. It is then open to the risk that the people empowered with this data (which often shows a ‘skewed’ profile of the individual) use and apply it in an unethical manner.

I have had this happen at least twice in my career. I was told at a leading communications company after graduating that I was too empathetic based on the results of a psychometric test, for a customer service job I was already employed to do for them.

They were testing new psychometrics on their current employees and my manager said we would not have employed you based on your psychometric results.

Have you ever heard such nonsense? Too empathetic for a customer service job!   

Needless to say… I didn’t stay.

My other experience is where two managers during a gruelling 3-hour third stage interview, where the HRD had as much as given me the wink the job was mine, used the psychometrics results to show me why I wasn’t a good fit for the job, rather than using the results to understand how I could best be supported to play to my strengths.

But hey, this isn’t about bashing anyone forms of assessment, we’re getting it wrong across the table.

There must be a better way, a simpler solution.

For example, I recently did some work with a gamified assessment company. While I think this could potentially be a good option to help, we have to consider the implications of the results of those who are neurodiverse and how it will be interpreted.

We already know that a computer and/or AI making decisions, is currently doing so based on the information it’s been fed, and if that information is the same information that feeds into traditional psychometrics, then we are just digitising an assessment method that’s broken.

Time for change; Time to change

So, as I recently spoke about at TA Global Gathering, a brilliant event with c.5000 attendees. I mentioned we needed to rethink the whole piece and we need to provide the time to ourselves, hiring managers and candidates to be able to solve this conundrum.

Bill Boorman and I had this exact discussion on my podcast recently Neurodiversity – Eliminating Kryptonite and Enabling Superheroes.

We agreed that time is what is required more than anything else.

Well even though I don’t have much time with a very busy job, two children under 8 and a new poodle puppy, what was I thinking!

Luckily, my ADHD brain doesn’t sleep or switch off to work or life, and that can have its benefits.

Namely, I spend more time thinking about things than your regular person and at a speed with which most brains would get dizzy at the thought.

Also, with a bit of creativity thrown in, hopefully, we’ll get closer to how we solve this problem.

Time is after all a social construct. We can recreate it in any way we like. We can and should find the time, for the much-needed change we require!

We need simple solutions to complex problems 

It is enough already that the problems around diversity and specifically around neurodiversity, seem so complex and so challenging that the mountain is just too high to climb.

Or is it?

Eat an Apatosaurus one spoonful at a time! Maybe we are just overcomplicating matters.

We have two specific user groups that we need to consider in my mind:

  • Hiring Managers and/or Recruiters/HR
  • Candidates
Hiring Managers and/or Recruiters/HR

What do Hiring Managers need to know to support those with spiky profiles?

They need to know what MAD abilities they have.

Now they could find this out via the interview, maybe the candidate is empowered enough to know and share with them what their MAD abilities are, but perhaps not. Furthermore, (as a result of pre-interview testing methods) the interview could focus solely on the candidate’s perceived ‘weaknesses’; thereby giving them no forum to show their strengths.

So how can we help hiring managers and recruiters, help themselves? How can we ensure they see the best in people and get the right person for the job?

And, how do we do it simply and at scale? As job applications are going through the roof, this is going to make it even more challenging for neurodiverse candidates.


The reality is that candidates unfortunately often don’t know or don’t get the opportunity to express their spiky profiles, their significant strengths and abilities.

Either they never make it through the recruitment/hiring process, or when they do, they join an organisation that has little understanding or appreciation of their strengths and challenges.

Neurodiverse candidates also can suffer from a lack of confidence due to the way the recruitment process and feedback works. It can leave them with a lot of anxiety and confusion around their abilities.

How do we fix it?

Well, it would be amazing for every candidate to come fully prepared with the knowledge of their MAD abilities.

So maybe if everyone just went and did the Do-It Profiler App, that would help, but let’s be more realistic and identify the solution at the point of need: at the application, interview and onboarding stage.

The art of good referencing 

The art of good quality referencing has suffered.

HR only providing the most basic of information as guided by legal teams and employment lawyers to mitigate the risk of being taken to court.

Also, the lack of structure around them and the fact most of them are templates that have been downloaded from Google doesn’t help.

It is a poignant truth, that organisations would benefit greatly from a good quality reference that is well structured and adds value.

Imagine the value of very specific feedback that could highlight candidates’ MAD abilities by those people who benefited from them most: the organisations, managers and co-workers.

The power of candidates owning references

Here is where we close the loop.

Background/reference checking that empowers the candidates with the data, is a potential big future disruptor and where we go with this could eventually shake up the referencing checking industry.

As a passionate believer and advocate for neurodiversity, I think reimagining the way we take, ask for, and use references could create opportunities for those that don’t fit into the current recruitment systems and structures and who don’t trust or struggle with psychometrics as an example.

They could be empowered by the referencing information they hold, which could come from a variety of sources, not just the last manager… It would allow them to build a profile that they could take to organisations that could inform/support the recruitment and assessment process.

It’s important that managers are able to fully understand a candidates’ MAD abilities so they can fully support them when onboarding and allocating work.

Empowering candidates to get the job

However, we still have the issue of how the candidates get the job in the first place. Candidates often lack the information needed to help them in their job search.

They’ve probably never seen a reference that’s been written about them because generally, companies don’t share it with candidates and employees.

So, imagine if the candidates were empowered with this information!

What would it do for their confidence?

What would it do to help them frame their MAD abilities in a positive and powerful way?

Could references provide a very simple solution to a complex problem?

Or at the very least, could it be one of the factors that can come into play to help those who are neurodiverse display their super abilities and provide the much-needed confidence that they need?

This could equally work for those from underprivileged backgrounds and/or those who suffer due to their prior history or lack of real-world work history. Like those who’ve been to prison, or been out of work for sustained periods of time. Or those who now have GCSE’s or A-Levels or… ‘the class of 2020’ whose validity of their scores may now be questioned.

For example

A reference history that goes beyond the last place of work could show, an individual’s journey, through real feedback from those who had the pleasure of seeing them in action.

Recruitment panels often use psychometric data/guidance to inform interview questions and/or probing questions. Surely, they could instead or as well as, use real feedback to help structure the interview around their strengths?

This of course would be much cheaper than Psychometrics and therefore make it more accessible as a tool to support the recruitment and assessment hiring decisions.

It also wouldn’t need to be analysed and have a specialist or tech/AI to make sense of the psychometric data, because in short it would focus in on very specific experience like skills and/or tech. It would also highlight the new skills they’ve built over the years, not just in the last job!

The assessment paradigm

I’ve found some people with dyslexia can be very focused and detail orientated around their writing and it’s accuracy through fear of being ‘found out’ and through years of building mechanisms to help with their challenges around spelling. So dyslexia doesn’t necessarily = poor grammar and spelling.

Psychometrics wouldn’t necessarily see this, it has the potential to make assumptions and or be miss-interpreted. Feedback from a past manager or lecturer would be very different and rather than saying this person has an area of weakness (potentially disorganised), they may just put ‘Detail Orientated’ as one of their skills!

Now arguably you could say wow we want to know that they’ve overcome their challenges around spelling, that’s a real positive. But really that’s bullshit, most people who need somebody who is detail orientated, if they get a sniff through psychometric feedback or any other feedback, that they are not, end of story.

So this is where we hit the wall. This is why we still struggle to get people who think and act differently into work.

It’s why c.84% of people who are autistic are not in full time work and arguably those that are in work are not in meaningful work. (Stat: National Autistic Society)

It’s why more people proportionally who are neurodiverse are filling up our prisons.

The barriers are too high, the assessment is too limited and antiquated in it’s approach!

It’s for these reasons I desperately feel we need to look at alternative ways to solve age-old problems around bias and misguided tests and assessments.

I believe tech could be the answer!

We’ve got to start trialling and testing new methods, we cannot sit and wait, debate discuss and hope governments or charities or academia will make the difference.

They haven’t yet and I’m not going to sit around and wait for them.

Let’s be bold. Brave. Disruptive. And challenge the status quo.

And let’s not use time and history as an excuse for social, economic and workplace neurological inequality.

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