Neurodiversity in the workplace can be a strength
Supporting neurodiversity in the workplace
Despite gains made in promoting workplace diversity, prejudices keep the employment prospects for neurodiverse individuals shockingly low.
The capabilities of neurodivergent people can vary considerably from severely challenged to gifted. Some are nonverbal and fully reliant on caregivers. Others have special abilities in things such as pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics. Yet even those with exceptional talents find it hard to get and hold a job
The positive contribution of human neurodiversity in the workplace can be realized with understanding colleagues and flexible work culture.
Emma can recognise patterns within complex code. James can develop several different solutions when faced with complicated problems. But it is unlikely either will find a job where they can put their specialist skills to work — or any job, actually.
Emma has dyslexia. James has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. These conditions mean communicating can be a challenge, particularly in a stressful situation such as a job interview. They may also find it difficult to work in a typical office environment with the noise and bright lights.
But often, the significant challenge is other people assuming they will be less capable or difficult to work with.
About 15-20% of the global population are “neurodiverse.” This term, coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in 1998, conveys that neurological differences shaping how people think and interact are natural variations of the human genome.
Read more: Tips for interviewing autistic candidates
Neurodiversity isn’t something to be “fixed”
Neurodiversity, therefore, isn’t something to be “fixed” but understood and accommodated.
Despite this understanding and the gains made more generally in promoting workplace diversity, prejudices keep the employment prospects for neurodiverse individuals shockingly low.
The cost is personal — denying neurodivergent individuals the chance to do meaningful work — as well as social, sending individuals to the dole queue. It also means workplaces are failing to benefit from highly valuable employees and missing the opportunity to become better organizations in the process.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is often referred to as an invisible disability and covers a range of conditions. The most common are:
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (or ADHD) manifests as inattention, distractibility, and impulsivity. ADHD affects about 4% of children and 3% of adults.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD) typically involves degrees of difficulty in communicating with others and sensory overload. About 1% of the global population is estimated by the World Health Organization to be on the spectrum, with higher rates being diagnosed among children.
Dyslexia involves difficulties with reading and spelling. There is no agreed diagnosis. Estimates of its prevalence range from 3% to 20% (with 10-15% commonly cited).
Dyspraxia involves challenges with coordinating physical movements, including muscles for speaking. About 2% of the population is severely affected, with 6-10% estimated to be affected to some degree.
Dyscalculia involves challenges with numbers. It affects up to 10% of the population, with 3-6% commonly cited.
Tourette syndrome causes involuntary physical and vocal “tics.” It affects an estimated 0.6% of the population.
High unemployment of neurodivergent people
The capabilities of neurodivergent people can vary considerably from severely challenged to gifted. Some are nonverbal and fully reliant on caregivers. Others have special abilities in things such as pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.
Yet even those with exceptional talents find it hard to get and hold a job. While unemployment estimates are imprecise, they suggest that employment of neurodivergent people in the workplace is still not accepted in the working world.
For autistic adults aged 16-64, UK statistics suggest that 78% are unemployed. This is the highest unemployment rate of any group, compared with 48% for all disabled people and 19% for all adults.
Australian statistics put the unemployment rate for autistic people at 34%. That’s still more than three times the unemployment rate of 10% for disabled people and almost eight times the 4.6% rate for non-disabled people.
Read more: Managing Autistic Employees
Supporting neurodiversity in the workplace
As Joanna Szulc and her fellow researchers at the University of Huddersfield have put it, one problem is that “management practices frequently overlook the relationship between the above-average human capital of neurodivergent employees, their subjective well-being in the workplace, and performance outcomes.”
In other words, with understanding colleagues and flexible work culture, neurodiverse individuals can reach their potential and be recognized as highly valuable employees.
One case study demonstrating the positive benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace is professional services giant Ernst and Young, which globally employs close to 300,000 people.
In 2016 it established its first “Neurodiversity Center of Excellence” as part of a pilot program to offer jobs to neurodiverse candidates.
The company says it “considered business metrics only” in evaluating the program. It concluded the neurodiverse employees were comparable to neurotypical staff in work quality, efficiency, and productivity. The bonus was that “the neurodiverse employees excelled at innovation.”
Ernst and Young also noted that "neurodiverse individuals are often technologically inclined and detail-oriented, with strong skills in analytics, mathematics, pattern recognition, and information processing — among the very skills businesses most urgently need."
"Companies are finding that autism people approach problems differently and that their logical, straightforward thinking can spur process improvements that greatly increase productivity in the workplace."
Australia’s Department of Defence has employed high-performing autistic individuals in its cyber security work. Their strengths for this work include “a remarkable eye for detail; accuracy and consistency; a logical and analytical approach to detecting irregularities; pattern-matching skills; and a high tolerance for repetitive mental tasks."
These lessons are being taken on board by others. In July 2021, Google’s cloud computing division announced its Autism Career Program, which includes training up to 500 managers “to work effectively and empathetically with autistic candidates”.
We all vary naturally. We will all reap the rewards by understanding and encouraging neurodiverse individuals to fully engage in society.