Ask any HR person or business owner and they’ll tell you it’s hard to find good people. It seems as if there are more openings than applicants, but what if I told you there’s a hidden pool of talent out there and they bring unique perspectives that can improve your competitive advantage. I’m talking about neurodiverse individuals.
Neurodiversity refers to variation in the brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. It applies to a wide range of conditions including autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette syndrome, and others.
Large companies like SAP, EY (formerly Ernst & Young), Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, and others have found that neurodivergent candidates possess unique skills that make them ideal for certain jobs. Better still, recruiting individuals who have different ways of looking at problems and solutions creates a richer work environment for all employees.
Creating a Neurodiversity Program
- Neurodivergent employees
- Benefits of inclusion
- Improving the hiring process
- Implementing neurodiversity programs
What Makes Someone Neurodivergent?
The term was originated in the late 1990s by sociologist Judy Singer, who identifies as a woman with autism. Although neurodiversity encompasses the neurological conditions listed above, Singer argued that all people are neurodiverse because no two people are exactly the same. It’s important to note that neurodiversity challenges the medical model of disability, the idea that certain neurovariations are pathological and require treatment and be cured.
Neurodiversity advocates believe traits that were traditionally considered disabilities are simply variations, not flaws that need to be corrected. While these neurological variations may need support or accommodations, they should be embraced as part of the normal human experience. Some disability advocates challenged this belief because they say it ignores those with high support needs and may deter some from seeking treatment.
Neurodiverse people represent at least 20% of the adult population. Each year, about 500,000 autistic individuals graduate from high school. Some studies indicate up to 80 percent of all adults with autism are unemployed and those that do secure jobs are often underemployed or working part-time, low-wage jobs with no benefits.
As an employer you can shift your thinking to view neurodiversity as a combination of traits that offer both strengths and challenges – just like any worker. For example, people with autism may have a greater ability to retain large amounts of information, focus for long periods of time, and perform repetitive tasks where accuracy, rules, and routines are important.
Likewise, candidates with ADHD often show higher levels of creativity and innovation and they tend to be very productive. People with dyspraxia, which affects movement and coordination can have improved strategic thinking, problem solving, determination, and may be highly motivated.
The environments in which neurodiverse people learn, work, and live can either facilitate or inhibit their growth, development, and success.
Much like physical variations (height, weight, etc.) neurodivergent individuals present strategic advantages for their employers. Companies who have implemented strong neurodiversity employment programs have seen increases in productivity and innovation and employee engagement. They’ve found tackling challenges in the workplace becomes easier when approached by many perspectives. Because neurodiverse employees think differently, they bring new perspectives to a company’s efforts which allows them to create value.
How can neurodivergent talent improve a company? Tax giant EY hired several employees with autism. Because they came from outside of the industry and approached problems in new ways, they challenged the company’s status quo. Seeing the company value this new perspective made other employees, including neurotypical people, more comfortable in bringing issues about management strategies to the attention of the organization, thus improving processes in the long run.
Many autistic people and other neurodiverse talent are gifted at pattern recognition, they work well in compliance, analytics, software testing, and even cybersecurity. Both Hewlett-Packard and SAP have seen teams that include neurodivergent talent generate significant innovations. In a Harvard Business Review article, software company SAP claimed one such team helped develop a technical fix worth an estimated $40 million in savings.
Hiring for Neurodiversity
First and foremost, to attract this underutilized workforce you’re going to need to analyze the hiring process at your company. Although neurodivergent workers may have average to above average IQs, they often struggle to fit the profiles sought by prospective employers and have trouble navigating the standard interviewing process.
One approach to tweaking your hiring process is to partner with agencies that specialize in matching neurodivergent candidates with careers that best suit their skill sets. This may require rewriting job descriptions, altering the interview process, and creating flexible onboarding programs.
Some neurodivergent candidates often do not make eye contact, lack social skills, and exhibit other non-typical behavioral traits, tendencies that can eliminate a candidate from consideration for a position during the typical interview process. HR and management training is often required to see beyond these quirks and overcome traditional candidate evaluation biases.
Best Practices for Neurodiversity Job Interviews:
- Ask questions that focus on the skills and qualifications for a position
- Provide a quiet, distraction free setting
- Don’t force eye contact
- Expect verbal repetition when the candidate is engaged or excited
- Offer opportunities for candidates to show skills versus describing them
Creating a Supportive Environment
A major problem that neurominorities face at work is the lack of accessibility and acceptance. Creating a neurodiverse workforce requires training for neurotypical team members. The first thing you can do to support a neurodiverse team member is destigmatize and normalize neurodiversity and trust neurodiverse people to do their work.
Many neurodiverse employees argue that in highly social and unpredictable work environments some of their differences may be seen as disabilities, whereas in inclusive workspaces their talents can come through and they can thrive. In order to meet job expectations, neurodiverse employees may need accommodations (some of which can be made available to all employees). Access to accommodations should be mentioned in interviews, during onboarding, and in employee communications.
- Soft lighting
- Noise-cancelling headphones
- Dedicated quiet spaces
- Inclusive meetings where everyone has space to participate
- Flexibility in where, when, and how work gets done
- Clear written instructions and explanations for change in routine
The communication style of neurominorities can sometimes lead to conflict. Many lack the social filters that neurotypical employees use to buffer negative feedback. As a neurotypical employee, a good thing to do is explore the differences between your own communication style and that of your neurodiverse coworkers.
For example, you or I might walk away from a heated discussion thinking everything is fine, while a neurodiverse employee could be left confused over it if there is no explicit closure. This can be resolved by saying, “I recognize that was a difficult interaction for you, but you don’t need to worry. We’re good and can move on.” By identifying atypical communication styles you’re more likely to understand and support those differences.
In addition, soft skills training can help those with neurological differences learn to communicate with their neurotypical colleagues and with each other. ej4 has courses about neurodiversity in the workplace and soft skills training that can be accessed on a schedule or on an as needed basis, which can help create an inclusive workplace where differences are celebrated.
One final note, it’s vital to maintain privacy. Not all neurominorities are comfortable with their coworkers knowing about their neurovariation. Even if they are, there may be some aspects they want kept private. While it’s okay to talk openly about workplace accommodations, it’s not okay to tie them back to a specific person or group.
When you work to destigmatize, normalize, and properly communicate with neurodiverse AND neurotypical people alike, you’re creating an inclusive support ecosystem. When implementing a neurodiversity program, all employees should be educated about what it’s like to be neurodiverse, and the best ways to work together. Specialized training about neurodiversity in the workplace that’s available to your staff can bolster their support of your efforts to become an inclusive employer.
- Elements of a Whole-Person Approach to Employee Training
- Workplace Diversity & Inclusion Training Topics
- Improve Employee Social Awareness Through Workplace Empathy