A review of the IASME neurodiverse training scheme in cyber security

This blog is the first of a three-part series, starting with an overview of neurodiversity and how IASME and the Community Interest Company, UK Cyber Security Forum (UKCSF), created a training scheme for neurodiverse individuals in cyber security.  We then explore how this has developed into an organisation running their own neurodiverse support programme, with support from IASME. Finally we’ll offer advice to organisations looking to make their working practices more friendly for all individuals, but particular neurodiverse people. This will all be done as part of #CyberSecurityAwareness month – find out more about it here.

What is neurodiversity?

It is estimated that between 5-10% of the UK is neurodiverse.  Neurodiversity is a term often used interchangeably with autism, but neurodiversity is an umbrella term describing the many variations of the human brain. It is used to describe several conditions including, but not limited to: Dyspraxia, Tourette’s Syndrome, Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Dyscalculia.

Typical workplaces and recruitment processes are often not well suited to neurodiverse people, which is one of the significant factors contributing to the estimate that only 15% of neurodiverse people are in employment.

Over the last few years IASME and UKCSF have worked on creating a workplace and scheme that supports neurodiverse people in finding employment and thriving whilst in employment with support, mentoring and training.

The inspiration for creating the scheme

Through family connections, Dr. Emma Philpott MBE, CEO of The IASME Consortium, became involved with a Worcester charity called ‘Aspie’. Aspie is an amazing place where adults with Asperger’s go to hang out and socialise. On some days there would be as many as 50 – 60 members there, Emma noticed that there were many members of Aspie who were long term unemployed and this was usually due to social difficulties rather than a lack of talent or skills.

The cyber security industry is an industry that recognises and acknowledges its lack of diversity, it also has a massive skills gap. Many neurodiverse individuals have a keen interest in this area of work but are not necessarily being recruited.  Reasons include poor experiences in education or in the workplace and current recruitment practices.

How the scheme developed

In 2018, Emma secured funding for the UK Cyber Security Forum, a not-for-profit Community Interest Company, to develop and deliver a training course that would prepare neurodiverse people for roles in cyber security.

The project began with just a small budget and some amazing volunteers. The classroom/group training took place at Worcester Guildhall and the online training platform, Immersive Labs, offered a free version of their training for those on the scheme. Experts who worked at high levels in the cyber security industry very much got on board with the project and travelled across the country to give workshops to the trainees. Many told stories of their own struggles with issues such as dyslexia or anxiety. The training scheme covered workplace and communication skills as well as a personal mentor program.

Yvonne Charrot, a former special needs teacher, with expertise and experience in working with autism was brought in as wellbeing and support manager for the scheme.

By the end of the first cohort of 21 trainees, employment had been found for the majority of the trainees.

After a review, UKCSF formalised the training scheme to offer a more structured learning program. The industry experts delivered the training on set modules and candidates included job centre referrals, local advocacy groups and police officers from the Regional Cyber Crime Units.

The Community Security Operations Centre

IASME worked closely with the UK Cyber Security Forum.  When IASME saw the talent in the trainees, the management team decided to recruit 14 of the first cohort to start a new service within IASME.

One of the first trainees on the scheme was Jonathan Ellwood, a 49 year old who had a late diagnosis of autism and decided to change career.  Jonathan was asked to join IASME as manager of the new Community Security Operations Centre (SOC) and became instrumental in the success of this project. A total of 14 trainees from the scheme joined the SOC at IASME and embarked on cyber security careers.

The technical lead for the new SOC project was IASME’s CTO, Tim Charrot, who brought his considerable industry expertise and experience to the program. The initiative made enterprise style solutions accessible to individuals and micro businesses with a very small budget.

Based on this experience, IASME has continued to recruit a high number of neurodiverse talent.

“At IASME 38% of the company are neurodiverse and they are a major factor in our success. They force us to think differently. Thinking differently is how you innovate and become a market leader.” – Emma Philpott, CEO of IASME

Placing trainees in the workplace

People who have a neurodiverse diagnosis are often completely different from one another, both in the challenges they face and in their strengths and overall skill set. However, if there is one thing that affects almost everyone, it is anxiety. Many of the people who went through the training scheme had already experienced a series of setbacks and difficulties either in education, work or life in general. It was important to show the trainees that things would be done differently.

The scheme offered a quiet space where people could retreat to if things became overwhelming, especially from a sensory point of view.  Many people with a different learning style, as is often the case with neurodiversity, will have experienced ‘getting things wrong’ in the past. It was an important element within the scheme to build the trust that was necessary for students to engage and risk perceived failure in order to ultimately move forward.

“Interestingly, the cyber security training is the least of it. Most of it is about helping the trainees to understand and cope with the workplace. Some have extremely high levels of anxiety and the focus needs to be on how to make them feel safe and supported” – Emma Philpott, CEO of IASME

For the duration of the scheme, IASME trained 44 unemployed, neuro diverse adults in cyber security and supported 26 of them into work. 16 of these individuals took work with IASME and others continue to be supported and mentored by IASME while in jobs with other organisations.

The employment of a large number of previously unemployed neurodiverse people has very much added to our understanding of the issues and how difficult it can be for both the individuals and employers in these circumstances.

Successful employment relies on employers being open-minded, patient and willing to make reasonable allowances to access the high-level skills that neuro-diverse people often have.

For some individuals, the IASME neuro-diverse training scheme gave them the confidence boost they needed, and they were able to put themselves forward and find work quite quickly, but for others, more support was needed.

Even some IT graduates with all the right skills and qualifications were facing barriers when it came to gaining employment, some simply struggled with the culture of the workplace.

Many organisations have the will to diversify their workforce, but are still heavily dependent on traditional recruitment strategies, workplace structures and office space environments.

Despite the skills gap in Cyber Security and the continued interest around diversity from industry, it was not easy to place the trainees into the workplace.

A pause in the scheme coinciding with the pandemic and national lockdown.

After two cohorts on the training scheme, there was a natural pause to reflect upon the outcomes of the training and the best way to continue. It became clear that there are a low number of entry level jobs for any adult wanting to work in cyber security and this is one of the challenges that needs to be addressed in parallel with the neurodiverse training.

Future plans for the re-birth of the neuro-diverse training scheme.

During the pandemic, it has become much more acceptable to work and train remotely.  This makes the workplace a more accessible place for many neurodiverse staff members and even those individuals that have self-isolated at home due to very high anxiety.

IASME has had to learn how to support all staff, especially those with neurodiversities, remotely and this experience can be used to support remote trainees too.

UKCSF and IASME are planning to partner to deliver blended cyber security training for neurodiverse adults.

In the next blog in this series, we explore how the Community SOC developed with our partner e2e-assure, who used the Community SOC as a springboard for their own neurodiverse support scheme that IASME continues to support to this day.