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Neurodivergent interviewees: Tips for conducting fair and thorough investigations

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Investigators typically follow the same process in every investigation. We gather evidence, usually through interviews, we use that evidence to make factual findings, and we analyse those findings to determine whether a breach of policy has occurred.

What is different in every investigation is the people involved. As an external investigator, it is rare to interview the same person more than once. Every investigation interview is a unique experience. While uniqueness means that investigations are never boring, it comes with its challenges. This is so, because each party is entitled to a reasonable opportunity to share their evidence, and to have their credibility assessed based on relevant, as opposed to extraneous, factors. It is important, therefore, for investigators to recognize when they need to adjust their processes based on who is being interviewed, to ensure that their investigations are thorough and fair to all the unique parties involved.

As an example, many investigators have been trained to conduct trauma informed investigations and understand the need to adjust their style of questioning when interviewing someone who has experienced trauma, and to exercise caution when assessing credibility.1

As another consideration, special care should always be taken when preparing for interviews with children. Research suggests, for example, that children under a certain age find “why, when, and how” questions difficult to answer. Given this, investigators should prepare for these interviews, so they can avoid asking younger children these questions.2

Importantly, investigators also need to be informed about biases, such as cultural and racial biases, that can affect their perceptions of the evidence and their assessment of interviewees.3

Another complexity that investigators may encounter is a neurodivergent interviewee. It is estimated that between 15 and 20% of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence.4 Many neurodivergent individuals are undiagnosed, or they choose not to share their diagnosis. This means that any investigator who conducts a lot of investigations will, at some point, interview a neurodivergent individual. In fact, you may already have, and not know it.

What is neurodiversity or neurodivergence? 

The term neurodiversity or neurodivergence refers to:

…variations in an individual’s brain and cognition. These variations can include sociability, learning ability, attention, mood, and other mental functions. Neurodiverse people, as opposed to those considered neurotypical, are those with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, speech disorders, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, and Tourette’s syndrome.5

It is important to emphasize that many conditions fall under the neurodivergence umbrella. Across these conditions, and between individuals, there is a vast amount of difference in how people will think, communicate, and behave. As such, whether any supports will be required for an interviewee, and the nature of those supports, will depend on the needs of the specific individual.

The research-backed view, which has emerged in recent years, is that people who are neurotypical and those who are neurodivergent speak different, but equally valid, social languages. As such, it is important that investigators take steps to bridge any communication gaps to ensure that an investigation that includes a neurodivergent interviewee remains fair and is thorough.6

Adjust when necessary 

Neurodiversity can lead to variations in how an individual processes information, interacts, and communicates during an interview. A neurodivergent interviewee may experience a heightened stress reaction in unfamiliar situations, such as an interview. They may react to the situation in ways that some investigators might be inclined to categorize as signs of deception. For example, they may appear agitated, avoid eye contact, struggle to focus, and experience challenges with memory or communication.

Since an investigator may not know that they are interviewing a neurodivergent individual, it is recommended that investigators incorporate into every investigation, communication strategies that are designed to alleviate stress and improve communication generally.

Importantly, investigators must also avoid relying on “signs” of stress and innate challenges with communication when assessing credibility.

Suggested communication strategies for investigators

Investigators should be proactive and use the following communication strategies with all interviewees.

    • Communicate with interviewees using clear and unambiguous language. This avoids unnecessary misunderstandings or confusion. Investigators should also avoid using legal or technical terms, euphemisms, acronyms, and sarcasm.7
    • Engage in active listening. This means being fully engaged, withholding any judgment, and checking in throughout the interview to ensure that your questions are clear and that the answers provided are clear to you.8
    • Remove potential environmental distractions.9
    • In advance of interviews, provide interviewees with a written notice that includes important details about the interview process, so they will know what to expect beforehand.10
    • If you know in advance that your process includes a neurodivergent interviewee, ask them how they prefer to communicate and be prepared to consider options. For example, providing questions in advance may allow an interviewee an opportunity to process questions more thoroughly, organize their thoughts, and express themselves with more clarity during the interview.
    • Offer to schedule time for breaks, to limit the length of the interview, or to break the interview into multiple shorter interviews.11

It is important that investigators be aware that approaching every interviewee in the same way may, in fact, be counterproductive, and that awareness of differences in how people process and convey information can be a valuable tool in an investigation.

1 For a discussion on trauma-informed approaches to investigations, please see this interesting blog by my colleague Dana J. Campbell-Stevens.

2 For insights on how to prepare for an interview involving a child, check out this blog.

3 For an interesting discussion on the importance of investigators understanding critical race theory, I encourage you to read this blog by my colleague Tola Olupona.

4 JD Goulet, “Stop Asking Neurodivergent People to Change the Way They Communicate. Neurotypical people can do more to close the communication gap” (October 5, 2022), online: Harvard Business Review <https://hbr.org/2022/10/stop-asking-neurodivergent-people-to-change-the-way-they-communicate>.

5 Deb Muller, “Neurodiversity in the Workplace: Rethinking Investigations Processes. Interviewing neurodivergent employees may require new approach” (August 30, 2023), online: Corporate Compliance Insights <https://www.corporatecomplianceinsights.com/neurodiversity-workplace-investigations/>.

6 Ibid., note 4.

7 Ibid., notes 4 and 5.

8 Ibid., note 4.

9 Ibid., note 4.

10 Ibid., note 4.

11 Ibid., note 4.

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