Neurodiversity at Work

Supporting Employees Across the Spectrum

Neurodiversity at Work - Supporting Employees Across the Spectrum

© GettyImages

Discover how to help neurodivergent team members to flourish.

Study after study shows that diverse organizations are more innovative and generate higher profit. [1] [2] While diverse teams can be great at coming up with new ideas, neurodivergent employees, literally, think differently.

It's why firms such as Microsoft, Google and SAP run neurodiversity-at-work initiatives. [3] Let's explore what neurodiversity means – and why you and your organization should embrace it.

What Is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity refers to the different ways we think. That includes having different interests and motivations – and being naturally better at some things than others. [4]

Most people are neurotypical. In other words, they process information in a similar way and as society expects. With neurodivergent people, the brain functions, learns and processes information differently.

The Spectrum

Most people experience neurodivergence along a "spectrum" of characteristics. And these traits vary for each individual.

What's more, professor and campaigner for neurodiversity Amanda Kirby explains that all neurodiversities overlap with each other. That includes the strengths and weaknesses associated with each neurodiversity. A person with dyslexia, for example, may also be dyspraxic. Or an autistic individual may have the creative skills usually associated with dyslexia. [5]

So, it's important not to stereotype according to characteristics. But it's still helpful to be aware of the common traits of neurodivergence. The following are common terms that many people identify with:

  • ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) affects an individual's ability to focus. Someone with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) may also be hyperactive and impulsive. People with ADHD are often good at completing urgent tasks and overcoming setbacks.

  • Autism (which includes Asperger's Syndrome) impacts how you perceive the world and interact with others. People on the autistic spectrum may have difficulty "reading" other people and socializing. But they can also be highly knowledgeable in specialized fields.
  • Dyspraxia (also known as Developmental Coordination Disorder) affects physical coordination and the ability to collect thoughts. People with dyspraxia may have difficulties with tasks that require organization. But they are often more creative and empathic. [6]

Other forms of neurodivergence include dyscalculia, dysgraphia and Tourette's syndrome. Each can present its own difficulties and strengths.

Why Encourage Neurodiversity in the Workplace?

To Meet the Needs of Your Workforce

Approximately one in seven people in the U.K. is neurodivergent. In the U.S., around 70,000 teenagers with autism enter adulthood each year. [7] So, it's more than likely that large organizations already have neurodivergent employees.

By creating a supportive workplace, you'll help to reduce the stress and stigma that neurodivergent people may experience. Not only can this improve mental health, but it can also drive employee engagement.

An HBR study of top organizations with neurodiversity programs found that engagement levels rise when employees find their work more meaningful. They also report higher morale and loyalty with reduced staff turnover. [8]

To Plug Skills Gaps

It's estimated that global talent shortages are at their most acute since 2007. Around the world, 40 percent of employers struggle to fill open positions. [9] What's more, unemployment runs as high as 80 percent for neurodivergents. And when they do land a job, they're often underemployed. [10]

Significantly, Europe is facing a shortage of IT workers. This will dent areas such as data analytics which are a great match for many neurodiverse candidates.

As such, many companies are now looking beyond traditional talent pools. Take software company SAP. It actively recruits autistic individuals for tech roles that require high levels of concentration and the ability to find patterns and make connections. In just four years, SAP's Autism at Work program has helped boost productivity, quality, innovation capabilities, and employee engagement.

And neurodivergent people don't just excel in software testing. They have also proven their worth in areas such as product management, HR and customer support.

To Improve Team Processes

Another firm snapping up neurodivergent talent is DXC Technology. Director Michael Fieldhouse says neurodivergent hires don't just fill roles; they "... sharpen up some of the thought processes amongst the teams."[11]

Autistic employees often have difficulties with nuance, irony and colloquialisms. As a result, many organizations have adapted to speak more directly, which can help to improve communication all round. [12]

As Sean Gilroy, Head of Cognitive Design at BBC Design and Engineering, says, "Since managing and working with someone who is neurodivergent, I have become more acutely aware of different communication methods (verbal, written, pictures and images, face-to-face, structured, etc.) and make sure I understand preferences in communication styles. I've since been able to employ this new way of thinking to everyone that I support." [13]

To Attract More Talent

Studies show that a diverse workforce is attractive to prospective candidates looking for jobs. [14] For example, two-thirds of Millennials consider a company's social commitments when job seeking. What's more, 64 percent only want to work for an employer with a strong social corporate responsibility policy. [15]

Boost your authenticity with meaningful company values, and use tools like employer branding to attract top talent to your team.

To Improve Customer Service

Customers prefer socially inclusive companies, too. And an organization aware of neurodivergence will communicate better with – and offer better service to – customers on the spectrum.

That's just what happened at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). Its neurodiverse software testers spotted that one client's projects always hit "crisis mode" before a launch. The testers helped to identify the problem and redesigned the launch process. It may come as no surprise that HPE's neurodiverse testing teams are 30 percent more productive than their neurotypical colleagues. [16]

The Financial Impact Is Minimal

A survey by the U.S. Job Accommodation Network found that 59 percent of workplace adjustments for neurodivergent employees cost nothing. [17] That could be allocating extra time in recruitment assessments, or giving people a desk by a window. And the price of providing tech such as noise-cancelling headphones, dimmer lighting, and speech-to-text apps is relatively low, especially when weighed against the many benefits of neurodiversity to your organization's success.

How to Support Neurodivergent Employees

1. Adopt Inclusive Hiring Practices

Many employers ask candidates for a broad level of competence in areas such as communication skills, emotional intelligence and persuasiveness. But conforming to the standard effectively screens out neurodiverse talent.

Companies such as SAP see the flaws in traditional hiring. Instead, SAP looks for people on "the edges" who see things differently. As Silvio Bessa, SAP's VP of digital business services, says, neurodivergents "... offset our tendency, as a big company, to all look in the same direction." [18]

Many neurodiverse candidates also struggle with interviews. Autistic people, for example, often avoid eye contact, take conversational tangents, and can be overly honest about their weaknesses.

To assess neurodiverse talent effectively, SAP swaps interviews for "hangouts." These laid-back gatherings last half a day and let candidates demonstrate abilities in casual interactions with managers. At the end of a hangout, selected candidates move on to further assessments, which include building Lego robots.


"Hangout" interviews may not be suitable for all neurodivergent people. Discuss with each candidate how best you can accommodate their needs, and be prepared to tailor your interviewing process accordingly.

2. Focus on Strengths

Explore the full range of people's abilities – both existing members of your team and potential new hires. And don't let someone's neurodivergence blind you to the unique things they may have to offer.

Rather than searching for skills gaps, appreciative enquiry lets you consider what people do well. Then find ways to apply these strengths to other parts of their job. [19]

Organize frequent catch-ups to learn an individual's strengths. That way, you can review what's working and what isn't and make any adjustments. Praise can also be powerful for neurodivergent employees who may have low self-esteem from negative experiences at work.

Once you have the right mix on your team, you should play to these strengths. Neurodivergent team members may find parts of their role trickier or easier than their colleagues. To allow everyone to perform to their strengths, be flexible with roles.

To help teams come together, HPE places new neurodiverse employees in "pods" of 15 people. There, they work alongside neurotypical colleagues, managers and consultants. In this safe environment, they build skills to perform well and transition into more-mainstream jobs. [20]

3. Lead From the Top

You can champion neurodiversity by sending a positive message to your staff and future talent. Be a visible part of your organization's programs on inclusivity. If you have a personal connection to neurodiversity, then share it at company meetings, in blog posts or via the press.

Don't worry if you're not an expert! Top organizations team up with "social partners" – government or nonprofit organizations – that help the differently-abled get jobs. They can help you to navigate employment regulations, source neurodiverse talent, and mentor new employees.

By embracing neurodivergence, you can bring extra creativity and different perspectives and expertise to your organization.

As Paul Shattuck, professor at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, says, "This is not a charity act to do something nice for a person with autism; this is about having a more inclusive workforce because we value diversity in our society." [21]

And the advantages exceed reputational benefits. HBR discovered that organizations with neurodiversity programs enjoy better products, services and bottom lines from lower defect rates and higher productivity. Innovation spikes, too. An autistic employee at SAP developed a technical fix worth $40 million in savings. [22]

Key Points

Neurodiverse people see and process information differently. Some may struggle to understand other people's emotions, while others may find it difficult to stay organized.

However, neurodiverse employees can also hugely benefit their organizations – by spotting patterns that neurotypical colleagues haven't seen, for example, or working quickly in high-pressure situations.

By playing to their strengths, supporting them through their weaknesses, and leading from the top, you can help your neurodivergent employees to thrive. In return, you will reap the rewards of a more diverse and agile workforce.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

Rate this resource

Comments (0)