Neurodiversity / neurodivergence is the concept that all humans have differing levels of neurocognitive ability and for some, the variation between strengths and challenges is more pronounced. Neurological conditions encompassed by the terms ‘neurodivergence’ and ‘neurodiversity’ fall into three categories: applied, clinical, and acquired. Applied refers to conditions with which an individual is born, and which are not considered to be a health condition, such as dyslexia. Clinical is neurological differences with which an individual is born, and which are considered to be a health condition, for example, ADHD. Lastly, acquired includes neurological differences that change cognition and behaviour in the individual, and which can develop as part of a health condition or injury, including PTSD. Over a period of an individual’s life, someone may experience an overlap of multiple types, which is why adult diagnoses are becoming more common.
It is estimated that around 1 in 7 people in the UK have a form of neurodivergence and around 15-20% of the world. Some of these conditions include autism, ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and dyslexia. Lesser common conditions include dysgraphia, misophonia, stammering and Tourette’s syndrome. While neurodivergent people may face challenges in a society often designed by and for neurotypical people, there are many benefits to being neurodivergent, which can be particularly useful in the workplace.
Autism spectrum disorder:
Autistic people have trouble with interpreting verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice or sarcasm. They might also need extra time to process information or answer questions. They often also have difficulty with social interactions. For example, they may struggle to understand other’s feeling and intentions and, therefore, appear to be insensitive and struggle to form relationships. They can also repeat movements such as hand flapping, rocking or the repetitive use of an object such as twirling a pen or opening and closing a door.
ADHD is where individuals may have difficulty focusing, staying organised and controlling impulses. There are typically three categories:
Signs of this can also include restlessness, such as tapping their feet, interrupting others and difficulty paying attention to details.
Dyslexia is a condition that affects reading, spelling, and writing skills, however it is not related to intelligence. Dyslexic people may have difficulty processing and remembering information they see and hear, which can affect their learning. This condition can also impact on other areas such as organisational skills.
What’s the current state of neurodiversity in the workplace?
One of the biggest challenges with neurodiversity in the workplace is the lack of understanding around the topic. Many employers still hold the belief that hiring neurodiverse people will have a negative impact on their company, even though this couldn’t be further from the truth. It has been found that somewhere between 30% and 80% of neurodivergent people are unemployed. That’s three times higher than for other disabilities and eight times higher than people without disabilities. This is largely due to the fact that people still hold stereotypes and misconceptions about these individuals, leading to discrimination in the workplace. Due to this discrimination, it is not surprising that companies lack neurodiversity in the workplace. Being discriminated against in the workplace can have a huge impact on someone’s well-being, career, and mental state. It can lead to many people quitting their jobs due to feeling lonely, sad and isolated.
Another problem is the lack of support for neurodiverse employees from their employers. For example, those with autism may need to work in a quiet space and have clear instructions on what they need to be doing, and set a realistic routine that they can follow. If these needs are not met, it is likely the person will start to feel isolated, like they are not good enough for the job or they don’t fit into the working environment and therefore, will ultimately leave the job. Therefore, employers need to be proactive in identifying and providing alterations that will help these employees perform at their best.
Many tech companies have realized the benefits of neurodiversity in tech and are leading the way in embracing the benefits of inclusive hiring practices to attract neurodiverse applicants. In the past few years, the industry has seen an increase in big names such as Microsoft viewing neurodiversity as an advantage. The tech industry can rely heavily on highly analytical people, including those with dyslexia or autism. Therefore, having neurodivergent people in the tech industry can be another advantage for a career in tech.
What are the benefits of having neurodiverse employees in your company?
It is estimated that as many as half of leader and managers say they would not hire a neurodivergent person. However, this attitude leaves out a large pool of talent with skills that are greatly useful within organisations. For example, they can have high levels of creativity and innovation. Neurodiverse individuals can often see things from a different and unique perspective, which can help create innovative solutions to problems in the workplace, that might otherwise take longer to solve. This creativity can also be particularly useful in some professions, such as marketing or graphic design. In addition, an employee with ADHD might be highly skilled in multitasking, which can be a big asset in face-paced jobs that need flexibility.
Attention to detail is another hugely beneficial aspect of having a neurodiverse employee. This means they are able to pick up on mistakes or patterns that others may miss. This is also helped by the fact they often have a strong work ethic and can bring focus to complex and repetitive tasks where others may have gotten bored or lazy with checking details. For example, an employee with autism can have exceptional pattern recognition skills that may be useful in fields such as data analysis. Also, people with ADHD often hyperfocus, which refers to an intense fixation on an interest or activity for an extended period of time, therefore reducing the chances of getting distracted when working.
Creating a diverse workplace is also important as it allows all employees to feel supported, valued and able to reach their full potential. It also encourages all employees to contribute their unique talents and perspectives, which helps create a sense of community and belonging. Moreover, it allows employers to pick from a larger pool of talent and to gain different ideas and perspectives, which can only help their company as more people are likely to want to be part of your company if they see you are inclusive.
How to embrace neurodiversity
As we have briefly discussed, it is important employers put into place practices that allow a neurodivergent employee to feel supported and appreciated and there are a number of ways they can do this. For example, keeping up good communication is important so that you are aware of any changes in what assistance they may require. You shouldn’t make assumptions on what the individual may need because everyone is different and some may need more help than others. You may also need to adapt your way of communicating because for some conditions it may be most useful to have clear, written down instructions that they can refer to later, rather than having to take lots of information in over a face-to-face meeting. It is also a good idea to not include sarcasm or metaphors and just have clear, literal language be used. However, if the person is dyslexic, they may prefer to be verbally told things and then they can write things down in a way that they will be able to understand later on.
Providing quiet areas is also a good way of helping those that need it to be quiet when they work so they can focus. However, these areas should be optional and available to go into whenever they like, so they do not feel segregated. Another key point is to have a sensory friendly environment, which means not having bright overhead lights or multicoloured ones. Instead have dimmable lights, so employees can choose how bright the room is. Fidgeting is also something that is commonly done by neurodivergent individuals, such as those with ADHD. Therefore, allowing the use of fidget gadgets can help to keep them relaxed and focused.
Employee support networks are also a great way to help everyone in the workplace feel included and supported and are a great tool to help create an inclusive work environment. They are voluntary groups of colleagues with similar beliefs, backgrounds or interests and they provide support, advice, in a safe, confidential environment. If companies have a support network for neurodivergent individuals, it can allow them to have a place where they can feel comfortable to share any concerns they’re having, whether it be struggling with the work or communicating with others. It also offers the change for employees to gain the confidence to speak up and make changes that will benefit future neurodivergent employees. Alongside this, assigning a mentor to those that need it can also offer a safe space for them to raise concerns or ask for advice.
You can find out more about employee support networks and how to set them up here.
What to do if you feel you may have one of these conditions:
If you have been diagnosed with one of these conditions, or think you might need a diagnosis, informing friends, family and colleagues can help alleviate some of you worries or concerns. It will also help them to understand your condition and allow them to support you in any way they can. You can then talk to your GP about your concerns, and they are likely to ask you to complete the relevant assessment for your signs and symptoms. For example, if you think you might have autism, they may ask you to complete an autism assessment. If you do then get a diagnosis and you are employed, speak to your employer about any adjustments you may need, even if it’s just asking them to change the way they communicate information to you. But most importantly, don’t be embarrassed to speak up about your condition. Creating a supportive environment will help both your work and your relationships. There are also online forums you can join so you can interact with like-minded people.
While there is still much to work be done, there is a growing recognition for the importance of neurodiversity in the workplace, both for the employees and employers. Once employers start to implement these changes, it will create a better, more inclusive and diverse environment where, no matter who you are, you are able to thrive.
You can read more about neurodiversity in the tech industry here.