Amidst the backdrop of skill shortages in various sectors, employers face a demographic transformation as more neurodiverse individuals enter the job market. Dr. Rob Austin, a professor and researcher at the Ivey School of Business at Western University, outlines in a Harvard Business Review article that neurodiversity can be a competitive advantage. He and co-author Gary Pisano, a professor of business administration at Harvard University, share that neurodivergent minds “can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.”
Nevertheless, neurodiverse talent frequently encounters challenges in aligning with the criteria sought by potential employers.
“When you are neurodivergent, often it feels like the world is trying to make you into something else,” author Wanda Deschamps reflected in the September/October issue of Plans & Trusts. Deschamps became a passionate advocate for neurodiversity in the workplace due to her professional experiences. As a result of her undiagnosed autism, she spent the first 25 years of her career feeling out of sync, often highly anxious and filled with self-doubt without understanding the reasons.
In her article, Deschamps delves into how companies can create an inclusive workplace that values and nurtures the potential and inventiveness of employees with cognitive variances.
What Is Neurodiversity?
The concept of neurodiversity, as attributed to Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s, describes the diversity in cognitive function among individuals and the wide range of characteristics and traits that can be present. Some well-known examples of neurodivergence include dyslexia, autism, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Less prominent examples include dyspraxia and dyscalculia.
Neurodivergence is “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 deficits,” according to Harvard Health.
The neurodiversity movement advocates for greater acceptance and inclusion of neurodivergent individuals in society. It aims to challenge traditional views of conditions like autism and ADHD as disorders to be “fixed” rather than differences to be understood and accommodated.
Why Hire Neurodiverse People?
The challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals in finding and maintaining employment often begin when they first come across a job listing. These obstacles persist throughout the application and interview phases and can extend into the workplace. Even after securing a job, neurodivergent individuals might experience a lack of support unrelated to their skills and abilities, hindering their professional performance and making them feel excluded and isolated in their work environment.
Deschamps observed that organizations that continue to base their judgments and formulation of solutions only on neurotypical cognitive patterns will produce the same results and stagnate. Given the greater diagnosis and disclosure, there is an increased likelihood that we all have or currently collaborate with neurodivergent colleagues.
Deschamps suggests that organizations move away from traditional application practices. Resumes may not accurately represent the skills and capabilities of neurodivergent applicants, particularly those with nonlinear career paths or employment gaps.
Instead, organizations could:
- Share interview questions with all applicants in advance
- Encourage candidates to share their relevant interests, even if not explicitly asked for in the job posting
- Structure open-ended questions as multiple-choice prompts to provide clearer guidelines for responses.
Deschamps points to individuals such as Charlotte Valeur, a Danish former merchant banker and corporate governance expert who previously chaired the UK’s Institute of Directors, as an example of how neurodiverse talent can not only occupy leadership roles but also thrive when their skills and capabilities align with an organization’s objectives and priorities.
Valeur, a vocal advocate of boardroom diversification, publicly shared her autism and ADHD diagnoses at the age of 50 and declared, “My autism is my strength.” In 2021, Valeur launched the Institute of Neurodiversity (ION), an inclusive, neurominority-led global membership organization with the purpose of helping neurominorities thrive and prosper. ION fosters neurodiversity awareness, acceptance and appreciation and advocates for equality and human rights of all neurominorities. It is founded on the belief that people experience and interact with the world around them differently and that neurodiversity is the naturally occurring neurological variations that require no cure. ION wants a world where neurodiversity is understood; all neurotypes are celebrated, embraced and valued and not constrained by labels.
In addition to greater innovation, accommodations made to support neurodiverse individuals often yield broader benefits for all employees, notes Deschamps. “Flexibility in terms of working hours and locations, access to quiet spaces, breaking down assigned work into manageable segments, and utilizing assistive technology like noise-canceling headphones are accommodations that benefit both neurodiverse and neurotypical employees. This recognition underscores the importance of neuroinclusion for overall workplace well-being and inclusivity.”