With DE&I (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) being a strategic priority for HR, the inclusion of neurodivergent employees is often overlooked. Despite being highly skilled, educated, and motivated, they are noticeably underrepresented in the workplace.  

With the war on talent and the currently recognised ‘Great Resignation’ (with the hiring landscape being candidate-led), by accommodating the needs of neurodivergent individuals, HR can have access to a large, untapped pool of talent.  

What is Neurodiversity? 

Neurodiversity refers to the natural differences between people and portrays the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways – there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as shortcomings. The neurodiversity movement emerged during the 1990s, aiming to increase the acceptance and inclusion of all people while embracing neurological differences. Through online platforms, more and more autistic people were able to connect and form a self-advocacy movement. 

Neurodiversity was coined as a term in the late 1990s by Australian sociologist Judy Singer. Singer’s work on autism and neurodiversity became widely known as a result of her chapter “Why Can’t You be Normal for Once in Your Life?” based on a thesis published in the UK in 1999. In 1998 American journalist Harvey Blume further popularised the word in an issue of The Atlantic, stating, “neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will be best at any given moment?‘  

Neurodiversity places people into two groups, i.e. those who are neurotypical and those who are neurodivergent. If someone is neurotypical, their brain works in a way that is considered ‘normal’. Therefore, it is more than probable that someone who is neurotypical has never considered whether they see or experience things differently from those around them. On the other hand, when someone is neurodivergent, their brain functions differently from those considered neurotypical, which means that their brain functions, learns and processes information differently. 

Neurodivergence refers to a community of people with cognitive differences and is used in the context of neurological or developmental and learning conditions. These conditions include Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Down syndrome, Tourette’s and others that impact how someone experiences the world around them. However, there are many crossovers between these conditions, and people frequently have more than one neurodivergent condition. There are many ways to learn, think and behave, and no one way is the “right” way. Neurodiversity highlights the value in this difference. 

Between 30% and 40% of the population are considered neurodiverse. It has also been estimated that around one in seven people in the UK (more than 15 per cent) are neurodivergent

The Impact of Mental Health 

The mental health of employees is a significant focus for HR and has become increasingly important since the pandemic and the rise of remote and hybrid working. Mental health is, however, not the same as neurodiversity, and these terms are often mixed up, with the difference between them being misunderstood. While it is common for neurodevelopmental conditions to occur with co-occurring mental health conditions (e.g. ADHD + bipolar) due to poor awareness, it is also common for neurodevelopmental conditions to be misdiagnosed as mental illness.  

Embracing diversity 

Neurodiversity is not always obvious and can easily go undetected and undiagnosed. These conditions all exist on a scale; severity differs from person to person and are not typically visible. Therefore, an employee base may often include more neurodivergent people than HR will be aware of. Thus neurodiversity-at-work programs can potentially deliver greater inclusion and provide some employees with the opportunity to discover more about themselves and develop new strategies for being more productive and comfortable at work. 

The shift towards neurodiversity is part of the larger movement towards embracing and seeking to support all types of diversity, particularly in the workplace. By understanding neurodiversity, HR can take steps to encourage neurodiverse job applicants, remove potential inhibitors in the hiring process and support their people to achieve their potential in the workplace.  

The benefits of embracing neurodiversity in the workplace 

Because neurodiverse people are wired differently from “neurotypical” people, they may bring new perspectives to a company’s efforts to create or recognise value. More recently, organisations have started tapping into such talent, recognising it as a competitive advantage and launching specific programs aimed at hiring and retaining neurologically different talent. 

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Many people with neurological conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia have extraordinary skills, including in pattern recognition, memory, and mathematics. Yet they often struggle to fit the profiles sought by employers. 

A growing number of companies, including SAP, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, and Microsoft, have reformed their HR processes in order to access neurodiverse talent—and are seeing productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and increased employee engagement as a result“. 

The cognitive differences among neurodiverse people can benefit a business significantly. This includes their superior attention to detail, focus, observation skills, ability to retain facts, in-depth knowledge in their areas of interest, respect for rules, and integrity.  

As a result, many excel in data analytics and software management that supports emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, automation, blockchain and cyber. 

Fostering neurodiversity in the workplace 

Every individual is unique; therefore, when HR considers adapting systems and approaches to support and recognise the value of neurodivergent thinking, a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate. A lack of awareness and appropriate infrastructure can also cause the unnecessary and unintentional exclusion of people with neurodiversity in the workplace

 Instead, there are many ways in which HR can ensure that neurodiversity is recognised and considered when putting together strategies and plans for their employees. These include:  

  • Teaming with government organisations or non-profits experienced in working with people with disabilities 
  • Adopting best practices from autism charities and neurodiversity partnerships, 
  • Draft guidance for managers on supporting neurodivergent employees in the workplace: 
  • Adopting a clear communication style, avoiding sarcasm, euphemisms, and implied messages. 
  • Providing concise verbal and written instructions for tasks and, where required, breaking tasks down into small steps. 
  • Informing people about workplace/social etiquette and not assuming someone is deliberately breaking the rules or being rude 
  • Offering minor adjustments to an employee’s work environment to accommodate any sensory needs, e.g., a quiet break space within the office and providing noise-cancelling headphones. 
  • Allowing the use of fidget toys, extra movement breaks, and flexible seating. 
  • Giving advance notice if plans are changing and providing a reason for the change. 
  • Avoid making assumptions and ascertain an employee’s individual preferences, needs, and goals by asking them directly. 
  • Use no interview assessment processes 
  • Training managers on what to expect 
  • Setting up a support system and tailoring methods for managing careers 
  • Developing risk assessment process so that reasonable adjustments can be made 
  • Examining recruitment and onboarding practices to ensure inclusivity 
  • Providing coaching for internal candidates with special needs who are applying for a different role or a promotion 
  • Reviewing induction, learning & development packages to incorporate different learning styles 
  • Setting up learning and awareness events and using a variety of communication channels, including social media. 

In summary 

By understanding and embracing neurodiversity, recognising and emphasising each person’s strengths and talents while providing support for their differences and needs in the workplace, HR can improve inclusivity for all and expand their workforce in support of their DE&I programs. 

This post was written by Tugela People. They are an exhibitor on the Consulting & Advisory Partner floor of the HRTech247 Partners Hall here.