Efforts to bring more diversity to the tech industry are missing a big part of the picture if they don’t include neurodiverse hiring practices.
According to the CDC, 1 in 6 children between ages three and seventeen have a developmental disability. The term “neurodiversity” encompasses a litany of neurodevelopment deficits. This designation includes disorders, impairments and disabilities like ADHD, dyslexia, and the autism spectrum. These terms remind us that humans don’t come in one-size-fits-all packages, but each one of us is unique in how we function.
For any marginalized identity, active participation in the workforce can be the ticket to social inclusion and economic independence. But for the neurodivergent population, even neurodiverse hiring comes riddled with barriers. The unemployment rate for persons with disabilities stood at 12.6% in 2020, more than double that of neurotypical people. In Australia, the unemployment rate for people with autism spectrum disorders was 34.1%, almost eight times the rate of people without disability (4.6%). Even when hired, employees with disabilities face acute disconnect regarding equity or opportunity within their company, compared to peers without disabilities.
Understanding Barriers to Neurodiverse Hiring
Conventional hiring, employment, and workplace management models have a design flaw - they center around neurotypical people. These standards are the benchmark. Berlin-based Shubham Kaushik, 24, lives with ADD. Before landing her current gig at an international NGO, she applied to many places, “I did not even think of asking for accommodations [at the application stage] because it is such an employer’s market. I just did my best to do everything they asked for during applications.” Doug Meeker, CEO & Founder of Life Sherpa, states that “the whole interviewing-recruiting process has always been like a one-way street to push or filter people out, instead of welcoming them.”
These systems set up the neurodivergent candidates for failure from the get-go. For example, candidates with ASD, who might otherwise be excellent at the job, will likely struggle to “sell themselves” in the interviews. In extreme cases, sensory issues can make them physically uncomfortable or even trigger a panic response. The sensory sensitivity to office infrastructure and lighting, designed with neurotypicals in mind, can be bothersome once on the job.
Fortunately, both the office set-up and the HR processes are amenable to changes.
Abandoning a One Size Fits All Model
Ed Thompson, CEO & Founder at Uptimize, says, “To work towards a solution, what’s needed is an attitudinal shift towards neurodiversity. Our differences are just that: differences. No aspect of talent management can ever be optimized if the fundamental reality that people process information, present and communicate differently is not actively considered across the board.” With that in mind, it’s easy to acknowledge that neurodiverse people also have specific skills, abilities, and interests that contribute to the workplace; it is only a matter of identifying their aptitude. Adelphi University’s Dr. Stephen Mark Shore shares the sentiment about neurodiverse hiring, “every one of the characteristics of autism can be flipped around to be an advantage in particular situations.” To find the jobs and careers that neurodiverse people will flourish in, it’s worth referring to the strengths that correspond to their eccentricities.
Neurodiverse people often have superior analytical skills, faster pattern recognition, sharper accuracy, and better attention to detail. They don’t get bored with repetitive tasks. They can, for instance, recognize bugs in a code faster than a neurotypical individual. These skills are instrumental in data science, machine learning, artificial intelligence and software testing. Programs like Neurodiversity @ Work collaborate with NGOs and use these neurodiverse exceptionalities to their advantage.
Several initiatives have bloomed to feed these talent needs and implement the tools necessary for neurodiverse hiring. Organizations like Daivergent, Life Sherpa, Global Disability Inclusion, Melwood, Specialisterne, Ultranauts, Uptimize, among others, that either:
- connect hiring managers or organizations with neurodiverse candidates, or
- facilitate the management of a neurodiverse workforce.
These hiring programs are working, and the results are pretty evident. JP Morgan’s Autism at Work employees are 48% faster and as much as 92% more productive compared to peers. They also lead more innovation efforts that created efficient processes.
Neurodiverse Hiring Plugs the Skill Gap
Conventional assumptions dictate that standardization and conformity are prerequisites for scalability. For a truly inclusive approach, this “one-size-fits-all” concept has to go; HR professionals and neurodiversity advocates across the globe agree.
“What we’re observing is that tech companies are keen on hiring the untapped pools — which include neurodivergent people — as they’re potentially facing severe talent shortages for knowledge workers,” shared Meeker. His Life Sherpa platform seeks to help scale up neurodiversity programs beyond their original templates. “It’s about how you integrate a variety of people with a variety of functionalities,” he adds. The app allows the users to customize it to their needs, add a support ecosystem, and communicate comfortably. Such tools enable the management of a neurodiverse workforce across different sites and geographic regions.
Reforming Human Resources and Hiring
Matty Street, the owner of TeamKarting and X-Cart, who lives with Asperger’s, explains how hiring processes need revamping. “The autistic spectrum is so wide that there’s no one set of behaviors to define everyone on it, and therefore no one way to support people with autism into work.” Street insists that the focus should be on raising awareness and being creative when reviewing and accepting applications.
What tweaks can improve neurodiverse hiring? Meg O’Connell, CEO & Founder of Global Disability Inclusion, shares an example, “Often neurodiverse candidates don’t do well with behavioral interview questions. So, it is important not just for recruiters but also hiring managers to adjust their interviewing styles if they are not getting the ‘expected’ responses during an interview.”
Some people on the spectrum might face severe anxiety in social situations. Forcing them into an interview setting defies the very purpose of conducting the interview. Street shares how work simulations can lead to finding incredible people without the traditional process. Holding recruitment or open-house events allows people to submit applicable information about themselves informally.
At Uptimize, Thompson seeks to incorporate the Universal Design principles in the organizations they engage. This collaboration guides colleagues, managers and HR staff can do proactively that will likely benefit everybody. He adds, “An example of this would be a manager asking all their direct reports about their communication preferences, or HR decision-makers consciously considering things like sensory sensitivities when designing a new office plan. Then, we also equip staff to respond to individual needs or preferences in a very person-centered way, allowing an individual colleague or employee to advocate for their own requirements.”
This empathetic, person-centered method is the common denominator driving all the stakeholders. Accommodations like gentle lighting or noise-canceling headphones can provide wholesale fixes. But individual adjustments will need to be made to create tailored, optimal conditions for each employee and their company to thrive.