Breaking Myths About Neurodiversity in the Workplace

The benefits of cognitive diversity at work

The term neurodiversity is a relatively new concept at work. Although challenging, establishing a neurodiverse workplace offers significant benefits. 

Neurodiversity is a relatively new expression that refers to variations in how a typical human brain responds to sociability, learning, mood, and other mental functions. It’s a viewpoint that sees brain differences as normal rather than defects. Neurodiversity is usually discussed in the context of children, but it’s relevant to adults and even more so in the modern workplace.  

Neurodiversity is associated with people who experience dyslexia, autism, dyspraxia, ADHD, and other similar neurological conditions. They’re known as “spectrum” conditions that cover a wide range of characteristics but share similarities in how people with these conditions learn and process different kinds of information. 

Many organizations fail to support neurodiverse employees. This is party because working with neurodiverse employees can be perceived as challenging.

In this guide, we’ll explore the benefits of a neurodiverse workplace. We’ll look at some of the competitive advantages of neurodiversity and the legislation surrounding it. Finally, we’ll end with advice on making neurodiversity a workplace strength by supporting neurodiverse employees.  

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What is neurodiversity in a workplace setting? 

Neurodiversity has historically been met with a negative response in workplace settings. Research has shown that neurodiversity is ignored by seven in ten employers, and few will make reasonable adjustments to support neurodiverse job applicants. Despite this, there are many characteristics in neurodivergent people that benefit the workplace. 

Challenges and benefits 

Neurodiversity has long been seen as a negative in the hiring process. So much, around 81% of adults with autism are either unemployed or underemployed. Organizations tend to shy away from hiring people on the spectrum. This sentiment seems consistent across most industries and is typically seen when looking at job descriptions. These descriptions list many desirable traits - such as solid communication skills, emotional intelligence, and sociability – but these traits are not strong points in people who are on the spectrum. Even a traditional job interview can be a significant barrier for neurodiverse job seekers. 

But there are many benefits to establishing a neurodiverse workplace. Here are just a few:

  • Neurodiverse individuals make up a large pool of talent that remains untapped because of the stigma attached to neurodiverse people. As such, there is an opportunity for businesses to fill in skill gaps by hiring from this large pool of potential talent. 

  • People with dyslexia are often seen as having more creative problem-solving skills. This allows them to approach problems with unique and innovative solutions. While there is no reliable data to show this right now, researchers are studying the topic and are asking important questions about what factors and experiences determine someone’s creative thinking skills. 

  • Neurodiverse employees can bring unique experiences to your workplace. Individuals who may have been stigmatized in the past understand both the challenges and benefits of working with neurodiversity. As such, they can be excellent consultants to help establish business practices that are friendly towards the neurodiverse population. 

  • The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity reports that people with dyslexia have high levels of creativity because it takes them more time to explore new learning methods. In a workplace, neurodivergent people are more likely to find more efficient and effective solutions and challenge pre-existing processes.  

  • Some people on the spectrum may bring an enhanced sense of rule-based thinking. These logical approaches to problem-solving may be what a company needs to make breakthroughs in its products, services, and even technology. 

  • Diversity is a strength regardless of the industry or workplace. It brings different creative minds to the same table, allowing for more innovation that can increase a business’s competitiveness. More diverse mindsets and backgrounds create unique perspectives and ideas that your brand can build on. 

  • Neurodiversity has been proven as a strength in the workplace. It allows companies to outthink and outperform competitors due to their diverse ideas and talents. 

  • Lastly, diversity in a team setting is always positive. It allows employees to learn more about people from different backgrounds, share skills among themselves, and improve their personal growth thanks to the inclusive nature of a diverse team. 

Businesspeople brainstorming with creative ideas

A competitive advantage? 

As of now, neurodiversity is still being explored for its competitive advantages. In fact, many companies are actively seeking out neurodiverse talent. 

JP Morgan Chase, for example, has its own “Autism at Work” program that aims to find top tech talent that will help the company be more competitive. Between 2015 and 2018, the company hired more than 70 employees with autism. 

The head of the program mentioned that people on the spectrum are far less likely to be distracted by social interactions. As such, they can achieve anywhere from 48% to 140% more work than their colleagues. This can be a massive competitive advantage for some companies, producing extremely capable and confident employees. 

Similarly, the multinational software corporation SAP also has an Autism at Work program. The company focuses on creating a neurodiverse workplace and is proud of its 90% retention rate of hires on the autism spectrum. 

The company boasts a “ground-breaking” program launched in 2013 to leverage the unique abilities and perspectives of people on the spectrum. Their goal was to foster innovation and tap into an underutilized source of talent.  

These are just two examples of companies that use neurodiversity to their advantage. It’s clear that neurodiverse people bring unique skills and perspectives to the table, making them valuable assets that would otherwise be overlooked and underutilized. 

Changing attitudes through legislation 

Progress is being made to help neurodiverse people in the modern workplace, with some regions already establishing legislation whose aim is to support neurodiverse employees. 

A great example is the U.K.’s Equality Act 2010. This new act came into force on the 1st of October, 2010. It pieces together over 116 separate pieces of legislation into a single act, including the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 that makes it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people in connection with employment. This now extends to people with hidden disabilities, including some types of neurodiversity. 

In addition, these acts also require employers to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that neurodiverse people are not discriminated against once hired. For example, they could offer multiple assistive technologies, offer extra in-house training and support, or even get funding to help adjust a company’s workflow and technology. 

In comparison, the U.S. doesn’t offer protection for conditions such as autism. TheAmericans with Disabilities Act protects people with chronic medical conditions and mental health issues but doesn’t help people who are neurodiverse. In particular, the neurodiverse community has had little success lobbying Congress to help remove the negative stigma against those who are neurodiverse.  

Much work needs to be done to support the neurodiverse community worldwide. While some countries have taken a step in the right direction, there is little legislation that protects the rights of those on the spectrum.  

Street portrait of a young businessman holding a cup of coffee

Approaching neurodiverse hiring 

When hiring, it’s important to make job descriptions as clear and concise as possible. Separating skills into “must-have” and “good-to-have” sections makes it very easy for the neurodiverse community to clearly understand what is expected of them in the role. The clearer your job descriptions are, the easier it will be for neurodiverse people to approach you about hiring them. 

In addition, it’s a good idea to approach interviewing your applicant differently. Interviews have long been considered the final test before you decide to hire someone or not. However, for neurodiverse people, the interviewing process can be extremely intimidating. They may find it challenging even to attend an interview, let alone look their interviewer in the eye while answering their questions. This has historically put people on the spectrum at a disadvantage.   

So, what can we do to change the interviewing process and support neurodiversity? 

  • Don’t surprise your candidate with anything. Give them a very clear description of what the interview will entail, what is expected during the interview, and potentially any questions that you may ask. 

  • If the candidate asks for a list of questions beforehand, don’t hesitate to offer it to them. This will give them some time to prepare and think about their answers instead of being pressured to come up with a response on the spot. Even if they haven’t explicitly asked for it, you may want to be accommodating and make the suggestion. 

  • Don’t make your questions vague. Be as clear and concise as possible when asking questions, and don’t hesitate to reword things if you think they’re unclear. You may want to look over your questions before the interview date so that you can get more precise answers that tell you more about the candidate. 

  • Don’t rush your candidate. Give them some time to think of a response, and don’t pressure them. Let them take the interview at their own pace and try to make them feel comfortable. 

  • If they have notified you that they are on the spectrum, then you should make an effort to ask them about any specific accommodations that will make them more comfortable. Making your candidate feel at ease is a must if you want to unlock their potential. 

  • While it can be time-consuming, you may want to consider different ways to interview and assess your candidate’s skills. For example, you may want to consider a remote interview over a video chat program. This will allow your candidate to be more comfortable at home. In assessing one’s skills, you may have success in developing different tests or simply asking for samples of their work instead of pressuring them into a timed examination at the interview location. 

  • Lastly, avoid associating their performance in the interview with skills not necessary for the job. For example, if their position will mostly take place in a solo environment, eye contact and a lack of interest in small talk are not relevant to their success and should not be considered negatives. Similarly, if they are not expected to interact with customers, then an unusual tone of voice or stuttering speech should also not be seen as negative. 

Whether your company decides to create a different hiring process for neurodiverse candidates or adjust existing practices to make the interview stage more accommodating, there are many ways to make your company more attractive to people on the spectrum. This can help you find these talented individuals and create an advantage over your competitors. 

Supporting neurodiverse employees 

There are several ways to support neurodiverse employees in the workplace. 

Increasing awareness about neurodiversity 

It’s recommended that you increase awareness about neurodiverse employees. Because there is usually a  stigma against neurodiversity, you must educate your staff on respecting their neurodiverse peers and what kind of boundaries they should set. 

If they treat your neurodiverse talent the same as their colleagues, it can create friction or problems that will lead to difficulties. By educating your staff with neurodiversity training, they will become more accepting of neurodiversity in the workplace and will better understand how to work in a team with colleagues on the spectrum. 

Provide greater flexibility 

Creating a workplace that supports and encourages neurodiverse employees can be challenging. However, one way to approach this is to be more accepting of flexible conditions. For example, if someone in your workplace finds interactions uncomfortable, it may be preferable to offer alternative forms of communication or find a mediator to help them. 

Flexibility in working conditions can also help. For example, offering neurodiverse employees the opportunity to work remotely can help them be more productive. If they find that their working conditions are a little more comfortable at home or when they’re away from others, then you can use those conditions to your advantage by supporting flexible working arrangements. 

By working with neurodiverse employees, you can develop more flexibility in your work processes which ultimately leads to more productivity and efficiency in the workplace while also taking advantage of the unique qualities of neurodiverse employees. 

Supporting neurodiverse individuals 

It’s also important to tailor support to individuals who are neurodiverse. Businesses may eventually develop their own strategies that incorporate neurodiverse talent, but here are a couple of suggestions to get you started: 

  • Be patient with neurodiverse individuals. Building a group of talented neurodiverse employees can be difficult, and their individual challenges may require some time to overcome. Take it slowly. 

  • Be as clear and concise as possible when communicating with neurodiverse individuals. Whenever you share with neurodiverse talent, it’s best to communicate without ambiguity, and it’s important to give plenty of notice when there are changes. This ensures that your neurodiverse employees are prepared for changes and have time to make adjustments. 

  • Don’t leave anything up to assumption. This coincides with the previous point about being as clear and concise as possible. 

  • Understand the benefits of having a neurodiverse workplace, but don’t expect them to work miracles. They may have qualities that help them excel in certain positions, but it’s important not to overestimate what they can do.  

  • Identify challenges that a neurodiverse employee might face and work collaboratively to solve them. While communication may be difficult at times, it’s vital that you work together to solve any issues that arise. 

  • Be willing to accommodate. Neurodiverse employees may ask for certain processes to change or for you to approach them differently.  

It can be challenging for workplaces to make adjustments that support neurodiverse employees. However, with the right approach, any business can make changes to their workflow that ultimately supports the addition of a neurodiverse pool of talent. 

Neurodiversity has always been around, but we’re only just starting to realize how we can support neurodiverse people and take advantage of their skills. While we shouldn’t necessarily hunt for neurodiverse talent and forget about other talented hires, we should certainly be open to the idea of building a neurodiverse workplace. There are some clear advantages to hiring neurodiverse workers, and depending on your workplace, there may be positions that are well-suited to them. 

There are plenty of resources available to help us better understand neurodiversity in the workplace. Companies should be more open to neurodiversity and take advantage of the many unique benefits. It may take some time to adjust, but it’s not difficult to make your business more accommodating towards this growing pool of untapped talent.  

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