Many businesses accept the notion that diverse perspectives support innovation, but far fewer have looked at how to incorporate true ‘diversity of thought’ in practice. Neurodiversity (ND) refers to the broad range of thinking, information processing and learning styles. The concept applies to our brain wiring similarly to how biodiversity refers to natural differences in plants and animals.
In the UK, 15-20% of the population is neurodivergent, with thinking and learning styles that differ from what’s considered typical. This equates to 13 million people, including 700,000 people with autism spectrum condition and two million people with dyslexia. Neurodivergence also includes attention hyperactivity disorder, dyscalculia and dysgraphia (among others).
These numbers are rising due to more accurate and inclusive diagnostic criteria. Autism diagnoses alone have increased 787% in the past two decades and prescriptions for ADHD medication have jumped 800%. We are also experiencing a post-pandemic boom in ND diagnostic referrals. Some NHS waiting lists are up to eight years long, and even private referrals are up to two years.
Employers often require a formal, costly diagnosis to provide adjustments, leading to some unsupported neurodivergent workers leaving employment. According to the National Autistic Society, 45% of neurodivergent people have lost or left their job because of challenges due to being misunderstood. Today, only 1 in 16 autistic adults are in full time employment. Fox & Partners LLP note the rise in employment tribunals citing neurodiversity discrimination, with cases jumping to 93 in 2021 from 70 in 2020.
Given the high numbers of neurodivergent working age adults, accommodating both current employees and job seekers makes sense for businesses. Yet only 1 in 10 organisations have been focusing on neurodiversity at work, according to a 2018 CIPD poll.
However, that is changing. Our research and rapid growth in membership of Neurodiversity in Business (NiB) to more than 500 in under a year – including many of the highest profile corporates in the UK – indicates that organisations are keenly aware of and interested in supporting neurodiversity at work.
Providing a competitive advantage to business
Businesses recognise the high unemployment and under-employment rate of neurodivergent individuals translates to underutilised human capital at a time when many industries, such as financial services, are experiencing a war for talent.
The skills needed in our data-driven economy are more about how to integrate a broad spectrum of knowledge into decisions about what data to look at and how to surface the most valuable insights. Additionally, there will always remain tasks in the growing knowledge economy that do require intense, sustained and narrow focus.
Neurodivergent employees have both strengths and challenges. When part of diverse and inclusive teams, they bring unique viewpoints and ways of solving problems. According to the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion, examples of tasks where neurodivergent employees excel can include:
- Solving problems in innovative, creative, or unprecedented ways;
- Critical, detail-orientated and routine and repetitive work;
- Designing technical tasks, such as in information technology, or planning and logistics;
- High levels of sustained concentration that can favour high accuracy and error detection when performing tasks;
- Strong memory and ability to recall information, details and knowledge; and
- Higher-than-average reliability and perseverance, honed through a lifetime facing challenges and barriers not faced by neurotypical employees.
Making neuroinclusion a reality
By appropriately accommodating neurodivergent talent, employers will not only benefit from increased employee satisfaction, they are also likely to see increased productivity and reduced turnover without increasing salaries or overheads in many cases. Simple alterations allow for businesses to increase revenue as well as quelling the general low morale that is present in the workforce.
The benefits of neuroinclusive workplace practices to individuals and families are many: employee satisfaction, career growth, financial stability, improved mental health (when properly matched with employment and support), and quality of life.
Multiple stakeholders can contribute to promoting more inclusive workspaces from a neurodiversity perspective.
- Increase your level of awareness and fluency in neurodiversity.
- Embrace allyship to challenge stigma and stereotypes and treat neurodivergent individuals with respect and empathy.
- As managers, be proactive in engineering cohesive teams.
Employers and organisations
- Set in processes ‘as standard’ that accommodate the needs and strengths of neurodiverse employees.
- Invest in neurodiversity integration efforts throughout the employee lifecycle, and not just during recruitment and onboarding.
- Incorporate educational institutions as vendors in a value-chain ecosystem to help manage the school-to-work transition for early (neurodivergent) talent.
- Utilise educators as a resource hub to exchange specialised training and thought leadership (eg, shifting accommodations and adjustments from classroom to workspace).
- Enact legislation that protects the rights of neurodivergent workers.
- Promote company-led neurodiversity training and awareness.
- Develop remuneration packages into your employee value proposition that specifically support and celebrate neurodivergent workers.
Community and society
- Engage in collaborative activities between the organisation, its stakeholders and the public.
- Develop outreach programmes that foster a culture of acceptance as part of a wider corporate social responsibility agenda.
At NiB, we believe businesses should incorporate multiple players in the design and scope of their internal operations as standard. It’s only through collaborative efforts that workplaces can truly understand, value and celebrate the unique strengths and diverse perspectives of all neurotypes.
Dan Harris is Founder and CEO of charity Neurodiversity in Business.
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