Thinking differently about neurodiversity in the workplace

Mon 31 Jan 2022

Thinking differently about neurodiversity in the workplace

As awareness of neurodiversity in the workplace increases, so is the need for understanding how organisations can provide the necessary environment and support that allows people to flourish and be productive in their work

By Murielle Gonzalez

Adults with autism are among those disabled people with the lowest employment rate, the 2020 report 'Outcomes for disabled people in the UK' revealed. It was the first time that the research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) asked respondents whether they were autistic, and it found that just 22% of those with autism were in either full or part-time work.

The figures, released last March, were deemed 'shocking' and lower than any estimates by the National Autistic Society. Jane Harris, director of external affairs and social change at the charity, argued that viewing recruitment of neurodivergent people as a challenge rather than an opportunity means organisations are missing out on the myriad benefits of hiring someone with neurodiverse talents. For example, creativity and innovation, problem-solving skills, and the ability to 'think outside the box' are some of the positive attributes commonly associated with neurodivergent staff.

Awareness of neurodiversity in the workplace has increased in the past decade, particularly driven by big names in the technology space, such as Vodafone and Microsoft, which run neurodiverse employment programmes as part of their inclusion policies. However, this approach has created a stigma for neurodiverse individuals, limiting their talents to the tech world.

Indeed, there's still a lack of understanding of the neurological conditions in the neurodiversity spectrum and organisations that want to become neurodiverse-confident employers are challenged by the little experience they have in providing the necessary environment that allows people with those conditions to flourish and be productive in their work.

Autism is just one of the many conditions under the neurodiversity umbrella — the concept recognises that the human brain is wired with neurological patterns that are unique to them, hence people function, learn and process information differently.

How many people are neurodivergent? Official data suggest that one in seven people in the UK is neurodivergent, diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or with a degree of the autism spectrum. However, neurodivergent conditions remain undiagnosed in the adult population.

'Neurodiversity at Work', the CPD-certified event from Dods Diversity & Inclusion, takes place online on 22 February with a content-packed agenda that seeks to foster a better understanding of neurodiversity, reduce stigma and help organisations create a safer environment for people to feel comfortable in the workplace.

The agenda has been designed with a focus on providing attendees with the tools to support the neurodiverse community. This is an immersive training day with workshops, case studies, and personal perspectives. Secure your place now.

Personal perspectives

"If you were to meet me, you'd probably notice that I'm short and my hair is in a bob. You might notice that I don't often make eye contact. But you won't see that I'm also extremely sensitive to bright lights and loud noises, I often miss conversational cues, and I'm hopeless at reading body language. Like around 700,000 people in the UK, I am autistic." The words of Catherine Bean, a Fast Stream social researcher at the ONS, are a testament to neurodiversity's hidden disabilities — and make it evident the challenge in recognising neurodiverse individuals.

Bean noted in her blog that workplaces support neurotypical people by default, so often neurodivergent individuals are left to advocate on their behalf to get reasonable adjustments in place. "Without good support, neurodivergent people like me may not progress in our organisations or may even leave jobs altogether," she wrote.

So, what can organisations do to foster neurodiversity at work? Understanding the subtle details of neurodivergent individuals and how they manifest in the workplace is an excellent place to start.

For example, neurodivergent individuals have different thinking patterns, so how quickly they get to what needs to be done is a factor that managers and colleagues need to account for. How engaged neurodiverse individuals are in conversation and how neurodiverse people break down information might also be different from neurotypical people, hence necessary adjustments are needed to allow everyone in the team to realise their full potential.

Experts in organisational diversity and inclusion also highlight that neurodiverse conditions create insecurities — those fears are there, and organisations cannot ignore them. So, considering the person's fears or anxieties in the workplace is crucial for line managers to support them.

Talent retention

The insights that Microsoft's Michael Vermeersch shared at Neurodiversity at Work 2020 still resonate with valuable advice for talent retention. For Vermeersch, fostering a neurodiverse workplace is about removing the barriers for the individual, not fixing people.

Vermeersch, Microsoft's Accessibility Product Marketing Manager, explained that the company introduced a neurodiverse-focused employment programme in 2015, which evolved with learning lessons over time, following feedback from 18 cohorts.

Among the learning lessons was the realisation that a significant percentage of people who joined the scheme had applied for a job in the company previously but were screened out at the telephone interview. "It showed us that we were doing things wrong," he said. "We learned that we've got to allow people to show their skills rather than pretty CVs," he added.

Today, Microsoft's recruitment process takes place over a couple of days, and applicants are given the opportunity to show their skills in action. And rather than applying for a specific job, successful candidates are offered a role within existing vacancies based on what they have demonstrated are great at. "This [programme] has helped us put people in places where they can capitalise on their strengths — and it's not just coding," Vermeersch enthused.

For Vermeersch, a combination of initiatives has been key to unlocking talent retention, from an employee orientation programme to mentors and work buddies. "We make sure that the [onboarding] experience is fully accessible to everyone, and that people are set for success," he concluded.

Join Neurodiversity at Work on 22 February and you will come away with expert advice on how to recruit, manage and support your neurodiverse staff while ensuring that they have equal opportunities to progress and flourish within your organisation.

Some sessions you don't want to miss:

  • Using the social model to understand and educate staff about neurodiversity
  • Neurodiversity and the law: understanding an employer's role in supporting neurodiverse employees
  • Starting up and setting out: how to include neurodiverse talent when launching a new project



Murielle Gonzalez, content strategy manager at Dods Diversity & Inclusion, is an experienced journalist and editor. She can be reached on

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