We recognise the concept of neurodiversity is often skewed towards individuals with milder forms of the respective conditions, and that individuals with more severe forms can often be significantly impaired in their everyday activities.1 We respect this reality and wanted to clarify that, as this article aims to discuss the challenges and opportunities in fostering neuroinclusion in the workplace, it does focus in the main on individuals with milder forms. This is particularly the case when referring to autism.
In his 2020 book, Grow the Pie: How Great Companies Deliver Both Purpose and Profit, Alex Edmans, professor of finance at London Business School and academic director of the Centre for Corporate Governance, states that companies do not have to choose between doing the right thing and being profitable.
“By investing in stakeholders, a company doesn’t reduce investors’ slice of the pie – it grows the pie, ultimately benefiting investors,” writes Edmans.2 “A company may improve working conditions out of genuine concern for its employees, yet these employees become more motivated and productive.”
While this may seem optimistic, Edmans states this view is based on “rigorous evidence that this approach to business works for both investors and stakeholders, and real-life examples spanning industries and countries”.
Making a workplace more diverse and inclusive to harness diversity of thought is a textbook example. Companies that do the right thing for their employees also stand to benefit from improved risk management, more innovation, and better representation of their client base.3
In this regard, improving gender and ethnicity representation, while hugely important, might only help ‘perceived’ diversity. Unless backgrounds and broader diversity characteristics are considered as well, focusing only on them will not necessarily result in more diverse thinking. A more holistic view is required, one that focuses on achieving genuine cognitive diversity.4
Neurodiversity is a vital piece of this puzzle, yet in many companies it is barely mentioned – if at all. For example, the Financial Conduct Authority, Prudential Regulatory Authority and the Bank of England recently acknowledged the lack of diversity in the financial sector’s approach to diversity and inclusion in a discussion paper. Yet even though the authors deplored the lack of effort made to date on areas other than gender, the report does not mention neurodiversity once. This highlights that, when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the workplace, neurodiversity is well down the list of priorities.5
As an organisation, we hadn't trained managers to cope with managing neurodiverse people
Ian Iceton is an ambassador for the Diversity Project, the cross-company initiative looking to improve diversity in the investment industry, and currently writing a PhD thesis on the recruitment and retention of autistic people in the workplace. He explains the lack of awareness of how to manage neurodivergent people in organisations was one of the triggers for his growing interest in the subject.6
“In my day job as an HR director [at a previous company], I had some cases where I was asked to dismiss people who had been called ‘disruptive’ or ‘disobedient’ in work,” he says. “In two cases, it turned out they were on the autistic spectrum and weren't trying to be disrespectful or unhelpful. On the contrary, they thought they were being helpful by being very clear and specific in pointing out the mistakes their manager had made. They just did it in front of everybody else, and that was not considered the social norm way of doing it. That made me realise that, as an organisation, we hadn't trained managers to cope with managing neurodiverse people.”7
All shapes and sizes: What is neurodiversity?
The term ‘neurodiverse’ refers to variations in processing information, sociability, attention, and other neurological functions. It commonly covers autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder, tics, and Tourette’s. The term ‘neuroinclusion’ is also increasingly used to describe the sub-category of workplace diversity and inclusion that focuses on neurodivergent individuals.8
An estimated one in seven people in the UK is neurodivergent
In a recent article in The Actuary, Chika Aghadiuno, group enterprise and operational risk director at Aviva, noted an estimated one in seven people in the UK is neurodivergent, meaning they experience the world and process information differently from most people. This can make it harder to adapt to a working environment made for people who are largely ‘neurotypical’. Outdated job interview and performance review processes, open plan offices, meetings that play to ‘bigger’ personalities and office cultures where disclosing a condition is seen as high risk create obvious challenges. Without adjustments, many struggle to thrive at work. That represents a large talent pool companies are not fully tapping into.9
Figure 1: Traits commonly seen in neurodiverse people10
Note: APD = Auditory Processing Disorder; CP = Cerebral Palsy; FASD = Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder; hEDS = Hypermobile type Ehlers-Danlos syndrome; TBI = Traumatic Brain Injury.
Source: Do-IT Solutions Ltd, October 1, 2020. Updated July 2021
But not all companies are stuck in the past. Aghadiuno writes about ‘neurodiversity-smart’ employers, who “seek to embrace and maximise the talents of people who think differently”, explaining that, not only does it have benefits (see below), it is also a legal requirement in a number of cases. For instance, under the UK’s 2010 Equality Act, given some neurodivergent conditions are considered a disability, employers must make reasonable adjustments.11
Making adjustments and supporting disabled people at work makes the whole workforce feel welcome and engaged
Dr Nancy Doyle, founder and chief research officer of Genius Within CIC, a social enterprise dedicated to facilitating neurodiversity inclusion,12 says such adjustments are money well spent.
“The average reasonable adjustment for neurodiversity costs less than £1,000 but replacing a member of staff costs £5,000+; the value of an adjustment is a performance uplift of 50 per cent (as rated by managers), and 25 per cent of our clients are promoted within one year. Making adjustments and supporting disabled people at work makes the whole workforce feel welcome and engaged,” she notes.
So, the question remains. When it comes to neuroinclusion, why are some leading, while others have not embraced this change?
Doyle believes one of the key motivations behind creating a neuroinclusive work culture is an inability to stay silent in the face of injustice. “Those who are leading this cause tend to have personal experience, either directly or through family members,” she says. “We see in our own lives the wasted potential and the amount that neurodiverse people have to give, and the lack of opportunities in standardised, rigid cultures.”
Parents of neurodivergent kids want to make the world a better place for their children
Meike Bliebenicht, neurodiversity workstream lead at the Diversity Project, concurs. “Some are neurodivergent themselves and have had to battle through difficulties. It drives them to want to improve the situation, not just for themselves, but also for others,” she says. “There is also a large group of parents of neurodivergent kids who want to make the world a better place for their children. I find that a very strong motivator.”
Neurodiversity in the Workplace is a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based non-profit organisation that works with companies to design programmes to hire and retain neurodivergent jobseekers.13 Its director, Joseph Riddle, believes many companies are starting to recognise the potential of a neurodiverse workforce.
“We also see it coming from a purely business perspective,” he adds. “People need talent, and this is a huge untapped talent pool. And in tech, it is something of a critical area, so from a corporate perspective, it’s a win-win. They can be more inclusive, and they can get the talent they so desperately need.”
Steve Farrall, chief risk officer and executive champion for neurodiversity at Aviva Investors, agrees change is being driven by both wanting to do the right thing and the fact it makes business sense.
“When those two things come together, you get momentum,” he says. “Some of what we've seen in society in recent years, and certainly through the Black Lives Matter movement, has been a shock for many people. The desire to be inclusive to as many as possible; the fact it helps make better decisions; and a drive to try and right the imbalance are three factors I see commonly among neuroinclusion leaders.”
Benefits: Neurodiversity is cognitive diversity
A neurodiverse working culture also allows everyone to contribute to the best of their abilities and add skillsets that are particularly well suited to certain tasks.
“If you have a neurodiverse workforce, you will get a different range of opinions, and that improves decision-making,” adds Farrall. “You get a more rounded outcome and avoid groupthink. The financial services sector really needs to pay attention to this because, when you look at financial crises, they typically arise because of groupthink. Everybody piles into the same thing, and you get that boom-and-bust mentality. If more people call that out, that's vital information, and that's clearly of interest to me as a chief risk officer.”
Adopting a neuroinclusive culture allows firms to do their legal due diligence and create a safe working environment
As it is illegal to discriminate in many countries, adopting a neuroinclusive culture allows firms to do their legal due diligence and create a safe working environment. This leads to higher employee engagement and loyalty, but also to an uplift in performance and productivity for those who are struggling with everyday barriers.
“That’s not to be underestimated,” says Doyle. “90 per cent of disability is invisible, so even companies who are not actively recruiting in a neuroinclusive style will have undisclosed colleagues battling every day. Once we also get into the proportion of neurodiverse people who are not employed, we see a talent pool that is not maximised.
“Our workforces need to represent our service users and customers,” she adds. “Only by reflecting society at large can we begin to design with the full range of potential customers and service users in mind.”
Through his research, Iceton has also observed that, in learning to manage neurodiversity, team leaders have to become much better managers for all their people. “What you need to do to be good at managing an autistic person, for example, actually benefits all employees, so you get better managers across the organisation,” he says.
To reap these rewards, however, companies must overcome several obstacles.
The challenges to creating a neuroinclusive environment
The first challenge is that less progress has been made on neuroinclusion than other parts of the D&I agenda, in large part due to a general lack of awareness.
Neurodiversity hasn't had the political backing and big campaigns other areas of diversity have
“When I started my doctorate five years ago, neurodiversity was hardly talked about,” says Iceton. “I see a lot more attention now, but it hasn't had the political backing and big campaigns other areas of diversity have. And, up until very recently, it also hasn't had the self-advocacy. There were a lot of examples of women or ethnic minorities who got to senior positions and could use that to promote the cause. That’s been much less common with neurodiversity.”
He adds many people are undiagnosed or diagnosed late in life, while others are reluctant to disclose their diagnosis – a challenge itself (see below). Coupled with the huge spectrum of diversity within the neurodiverse community itself, it means companies today underestimate the proportion of neurodivergent individuals in their workforce and are ill-equipped to understand or get the best out of them.
“A lot of people are still under the impression that neurodiversity only affects a very small proportion of their workforce,” says Bliebenicht. “And once they understand that prevalence is around 15 per cent, neurodiversity seems very complex initially. The fact some neurodivergent conditions are classified as disabilities probably increases that perception of complexity.”
One-size-fits-all: The path of least resistance
A common problem facing neurodivergent individuals is the pressure to conform to ‘conventional’ ways of doing things. This is evident even before they join a company.
“The biggest challenge is we're essentially asking people to change how they do something. Anytime we do that, that's difficult,” says Riddle. And it is all the more problematic as, over time, companies have set up standardised processes to recruit, assess and promote that work well for the majority of neurotypical individuals, while setting up barriers for neurodivergent people.
Job descriptions are a good example. “Sometimes, they describe the process you would expect the jobholder to apply, and not the outcome you actually want them to deliver,” says Bliebenicht.
The interview process is also a huge barrier, requiring social communication skills that put many neurodiverse candidates at a disadvantage, even for roles that do not requires such skill.
The interview process requires social communication skills that put many neurodiverse candidates at a disadvantage
“We often judge people in an interview based on human intuition, and human intuition is remarkably unqualified to assess whether someone would do well in a role,” says Riddle. “You have to go through a series of semi-fake conversations to try and ‘court’ the hiring manager into liking you, which isn't really fair, especially for someone who has trauma from past interview experiences or social communication difficulties. That's the challenge: to get people to surrender some of that intuition, towards a fairer, skills-based way of evaluating applicants.”
The same issue comes up when neurodiverse colleagues seek advancement within their company, which also compounds with the way many employee evaluations are conducted.
“It shouldn't be this ‘line in the sand’ where people can either perform well or not in an appraisal context,” says Farrall. “Again, that would produce an additional barrier for neurodiverse people because it's putting stress on a particular conversation they might not feel the most comfortable with.”
Many evaluations judge employees on qualities such as ‘leadership communication style’, which often points to how a neurotypical person communicates, without necessarily reflecting the actual qualities needed for a role. These measures also tend to reinforce managers’ expectations of how employees should behave to secure advancement, without ever being explained to the employees themselves. Understanding what is required – notably self-promotion to gain recognition – is an unwritten rule that creates barriers for many less vocal employees, and even more so certain neurodiverse individuals who think more literally.
They are brilliant at doing their job, but it wouldn’t occur to them that they need to network and promote their work
“Quite often, they are brilliant at doing their job, but it wouldn’t occur to them that they need to network and promote their work,” says Bliebenicht. “Talking about this to a friend of mine who is on the autistic spectrum, she said ‘doing small talk is not part of the job description’. If she weren’t told, it simply wouldn’t occur to her that others might also be interested in hearing about her work and results.”
Riddle says this can be seen in the outstanding retention rate of the neurodiverse candidates they work with – about 98 per cent – which is in fact too good. “It shows people aren’t going to other opportunities their neurotypical peers may have gone to because of those barriers,” he explains.
In addition to the predominance of conventional work processes, Iceton notes the lack of training and awareness, particularly among team leaders.
“Because it’s a hidden diversity, some managers don’t spot it, others don’t understand it and are just not prepared to accept it because of that,” he says. “I have talked to a lot of managers who didn't feel their organisations had trained them to cope with managing neurodiverse team members. They were looking things up online by themselves and feeling very inadequate because they were having to make it up as they went along. Many organisations face a challenge in how they educate their people on this subject.”
Masking and non-disclosure
Faced with working environments that are not set up for neuroinclusion, it is perhaps not surprising many neurodiverse employees do not disclose their condition at work, fearing being labelled or discriminated against.
Disclosing is a difficult decision to make, as it means revealing something incredibly personal. Riddle says employers who are serious about including neurodiverse staff need to explain why they can and should disclose. “It's important for companies to talk about neurodiversity to let employees know the company is considering how it can best support you,” he says.
Bliebenicht cites examples of neurodivergent people who don’t disclose following a previous experience of discrimination, or after deciding to leave a company where they didn’t feel accepted.
About 15 per cent of the UK population is neurodivergent but under one per cent across the industry have disclosed it
“Simple things like giving clear instructions or providing regular feedback to remove anxiety were considered too much, and in some cases the firm offered to terminate the contract instead,” she says. “That’s the biggest challenge, and we should get better at admitting it before we can solve it. About 15 per cent of the UK population is neurodivergent, but in terms of people who have disclosed it is below one per cent across the industry, so there is a big gap.”
She adds that many who don’t disclose also mask their differences to blend in. “Most neurodivergent colleagues are very good at masking their different thinking skills because, growing up, we have all trained ourselves to fit in,” she says. “If people are not comfortable, they can very quickly switch back to ‘covering up’ mode. For example, they will agree with the majority view even when they might have a brilliant idea, because they are not sure it will be welcomed.”
This can create other issues, from missing out on neurodivergent applicants in the interview process to hindering employees’ productivity and wellbeing. Iceton says mental health is a particular problem.
“My evidence and other research show neurodiverse people have a much higher likelihood of having mental health issues because they are often having to cope with a world that doesn't understand them,” he says. “And if they're also masking, either deliberately or unintentionally to fit in, their brain is having to work so much harder. Some get home every night mentally shattered. As employers, we underestimate at our peril the mental health issues neurodiverse people are coping with.”
Doyle sees a constructive way around this, saying that making HR neuroinclusive can remove the need for disclosure altogether. “We don’t recommend asking for people to put their hand up when they’re struggling, we prefer to offer adjustments at every HR interaction and simply assume a sizeable minority will need them,” she explains. “The types of support neurodivergent individuals need – flexible hours, quiet workspaces, assistive tech, coaching around organisation time and memory – are also needed by those with chronic health conditions, like long COVID or menopause. Being neuroinclusive by design means you can prepare for snags and overcome them before they become problems; and then, more of your staff will be working at their best more of the time.”
What it takes to be neuroinclusive
The Diversity Project sums up the neurodivergent community’s main ask, which is for companies, HR and managers to stop imposing ‘normal’, acknowledging everyone is different and will have different needs. They write: “A healthy attitude for organisations to adopt is to not assess people by how they get the job done, but by what they deliver. To harness the benefits of neurodiversity, it is key to adopt a results-oriented rather than process-focused approach.”14
In terms of recruitment, this means giving up some social biases and creating inclusive job designs.
“We don’t need all analysts to have ‘influencing skills’ or be fantastic at ‘teamwork’; we need them to be accurate,” explains Doyle. “A great designer doesn’t need spelling and grammar – we have technology workarounds for that – yet we leave these things in because we haven’t thought strategically about how to build teams and roles. This is a whole company challenge, which requires those who have done well out of the current system to change it. It’s harder than many care to admit.”
This is a whole company challenge, which requires those who have done well out of the current system to change it
As discussed earlier, the interview process can be especially demanding for neurodiverse applicants and needs to be rethought – for instance by training recruiting managers, sending questions in advance to candidates, or using a skills-based approach to assessment.15
“Simple projects where people can demonstrate their skills or the use of a technical portfolio are great ways to showcase those skills,” says Riddle. “A lot of these programmes are still relatively small because we haven't been able to change the mainstream hiring approach yet, but once the first companies fully do that, the progress will hopefully increase exponentially.”
Expanding this type of recruitment should be the long-term goal, rather than confining those with different conditions to targeted programmes. While Riddle says they are an efficient way to let neurodivergent applicants know a company is willing and able to make adjustments to help them thrive, he admits they are “almost like a communication piece to the community”.
“An autism-at-work scheme proves a point – that flexing recruitment rules leads to specialists coming in who excel at the work,” adds Doyle. “However, the second point is to ask why we were recruiting like that in the first place? Instead of repeating the special programme, which might create stigmatisation and limit career options for the programme recruits, we should use the learning to update all recruitment, and remove the barriers to create a better pathway for all.”
Let people play to their strengths
When it comes to management, Bliebenicht says it is important to focus on results over process and avoid micromanagement, to encourage creative and lateral thinking.
Hiring and retention efforts will be more successful if senior management teams are aware of the benefits of neurodiversity
“Inclusive leaders give their team members enough room to apply the approach that works best for them to achieve results,” she says. “They also trust their teams to identify and raise issues early and encourage a culture of open discussion where people are not afraid to ask for help. On the flipside, if someone has a particular talent or passion, they will enable them to work on projects that play to their strengths.”
Taking a strengths-based approach to employee assessments can similarly provide a more constructive framework to recognise and maximise people’s contributions. The Diversity Project’s Top 10 tips also recommend providing career support to help neurodivergent employees navigate organisational structures, find career opportunities and create networks – through initiatives like mentoring, coaching or sponsorship.
The tone must come from the top. “Leadership drives inclusion,” say the authors. “Hiring and retention efforts will be more successful if senior management teams are aware of the benefits of neurodiversity.”16
Small adjustments, big results
Enabling neurodiverse people to work to the best of their ability does require companies to adjust. Farrall says it takes some clever thinking about how we get the best out of people, in a way that suits them. “How is the workplace structured? And are there things we do just because that's how we've always done them, whereas if we tweaked them, suddenly it would create a more accommodating atmosphere?” he asks.
Clear instructions and communications
One simple change that can make a huge difference is being clear in instructions and other communications, which Riddle says improves team dynamics and productivity, also making the workplace more enjoyable. Bliebenicht agrees, adding that it benefits everyone.
“It’s just that neurodivergent individuals proportionately benefit more. That is almost always overlooked,” she says. Practical tips are available online, listing simple steps from keeping emails short to avoiding impromptu meetings and being open to ‘unexpected’ ideas.17,18
Manage stimuli for hypersensitivities
The Diversity Project notes many neurodivergent brains benefit from ‘hyper-focus’, the ability to deeply concentrate for long time periods. However, many can also be prone to overstimulation, with stronger audio or visual sensitivities. Traffic in the corridor or noise in the kitchen can interrupt their concentration, but this is easily remedied by letting people wear headphones, providing quiet areas or allocating specific desks.19
Consider other formats
“Let's think about the best way to communicate and, if we've got people who are dyslexic for example, ask if we could make more use of the spoken rather than written word, or if we can provide assistive technology,” says Farrall.
Taking a different approach to working hours and ways of working can also help neurodivergent colleagues – and many others. Emailing to ask for a chat, even when in the office, will be less disruptive to people’s hyper-focus than dropping by their desk, while flexible hours can allow them to stay home for quiet work or to use read-aloud apps for reading assignments, or simply to avoid the sensory overload that can result from commuting during rush hour.
The Diversity Project adds that operating at the high intensity and speed of hyper-focus is not possible the whole day. “Neurodivergent colleagues found that while they were often judged for taking breaks or logging off early when in the office, working from home allowed them to take control of their day. It would be beneficial to retain this flexibility,” it says.20
Figure 2: Visualising health equity: One size does not fit all21
Source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, June 30, 2017
Looking beyond stereotypes
It is also important to include intersectionality in companies’ thinking. Many neurodiverse people will be diverse in other ways too, whether they are women, from an ethnic minority or LGBT+ – or several at once. Individuals should be taken in all their richness and variety, so their particular challenges and skills are not overlooked or put into a convenient but ill-fitting box.22
“My concern regarding autism-at-work schemes in the tech sector is both a tendency towards overrepresentation of white males, when autism is actually diverse in race, ethnicity and gender, and a tendency towards autism and tech, when neurodiversity relates to a wider inclusion mandate,” says Doyle. “Autism-at-work schemes could improve this by targeting entry level roles for people who are long-term unemployed rather than specifying autism. That way, they will naturally include a wider range of hidden disability from a more diverse group. This is one of the ways in which Genius Within is leading the sector as we work with neurodiverse people who are in poverty and lacking resources, as well as those seeking high flying jobs.”
While Iceton is sceptical about what we can learn from visible forms of diversity like ethnicity and race because neurodiversity is much harder to spot, he says there is a particular gender issue linked to the latter.
“If we're really interested in neuroinclusion, we have to think very hard about women, because it's even more likely we are missing the neurodiverse women in our organisations,” he says. “That is because – and there is a lot of evidence to show this – young girls’ learning styles are different from boys’. Girls tend to copy those around them, while boys typically just do their own thing and so are less referenced to the people around them.
We need to look at neurodiversity from a talent perspective
“As a result, neurodiverse boys stand out much faster, whereas neurodiverse girls can be missed at school because they are so good at mimicking other girls. If that goes all the way through education, they can get into work without getting spotted,” he explains.
“We need to look at neurodiversity from a talent perspective rather than this intensive support thing,” Riddle adds. “It's a talent problem, and that's how we need to address it. We're seeing a tonne of progress and I'm excited by that. But we have so much more work to do.”