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Neurodiversity Celebration Week: closing the employment gap

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 20 Mar 2024

Despite growing recognition of the power of thinking differently, levels of employment among the neurodivergent population are disappointingly low. But there are ways to move forward.

We are at a turning point. Companies have come to understand the power of neurodiversity for innovation. But employers are often unsure how to harness the strengths of the estimated 15% to 20% of the population who are neurodivergent (ND) – and think, learn or communicate differently. 

The UK government recently highlighted the problems facing one part of the ND population, or neurominorities. According to the Buckland Review of Autism Employment, only 3 in 10 autistic people of working age are in employment, compared with 8 in 10 for non-disabled people. 

Meanwhile, employers are looking for exactly the skills that neurodivergent people possess. Neurodiversity in Business (NiB) academic research, conducted in partnership with Birkbeck, University of London, found that more than 70% of ND individuals identified strengths including excellent detail processing, innovative thinking, hyperfocus and creativity.

So how can companies move forward? We look at what’s involved.

Why neuroinclusion? Why now? 

Drivers for neuroinclusion include:

  • Economic: diversity of thought drives innovation and can lead to 19% more revenue, according to a study by Boston Consulting Group.
  • Sustainability: access more talent and reduce talent turnover.
  • Legal: the UK Equality Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and similar legislation cover many neurodivergences.
  • Social: 72% of talent list a diverse workforce as a major factor in evaluating companies and job offers, according to a study by Glassdoor.
  • Moral: empowering diversity is simply the right thing to do.

The ND employment gap

ND individuals are much less likely to be employed than the general population – people who are neither neurodivergent or disabled. 

Adults diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) fare slightly better than those with autism, but 33% are unemployed at any time, according to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association. 

Even when they secure employment, ND individuals may face additional challenges in staying employed; 45% of autistic people have lost or left their job because of challenges due to being misunderstood, according to the National Autistic Society.

Overcoming barriers to ND employment

Barriers exist at every phase of the employment cycle. Only 11% of neurodivergent people said they did not experience barriers to employment, according to the 2023 NiB and Birkbeck research.

These barriers are real and solvable. Companies can take action to help neurodivergent people reach their potential. To identify improvements, employers must first examine places where their current workplaces may fall short. 

Among the barriers identified by the 2023 NiB and Birkbeck academic research were:

  • Fear of stigma: 65% feared stigma and discrimination from management and 55% feared stigma and discrimination from colleagues.
  • Knowledge gaps: 40% said there were no supportive and knowledgeable staff.
  • Lack of support: 34% said existing support was inadequate and 29% said support needed was not provided.
  • Poor communication: 23% did not know who to ask for help.
  • Disclosure requirements: 20% did not want to share confidential information and 18% did not have a formal diagnosis.

Catalysing ND strengths through inclusive workplaces

Straightforward, scalable approaches are available to support ND people in work. The challenge for companies is to embed inclusion by design.

ND individuals are far from a monolith. Neurotypes range from autism and ADHD to dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia; to Tourette’s syndrome and tic disorders; to acquired neurodiversity such as traumatic brain injury and Parkinson’s disease. While individual strengths and challenges vary, there are common themes in what works to support ND people in employment. 

Here are sample solutions that companies have found can help to create neuroinclusive workplaces and close the gap for ND colleagues.

Fear of stigma: combine open support for ND at work, bold role models, clear access to adjustments, training and more.

Knowledge gaps: embed neurodiversity into your equality, diversity and inclusion policy or create a neuroinclusion policy and educate staff about it. Train managers and signpost to resources.

Lack of support: offer tailored adjustments. Audit adjustments/accommodations process and co-produce recommendations with ND employees. Ensure performance management processes are neuroinclusive to support career progression. 

Poor communication: review communications and signposting. Consider a company-wide campaign around available support.

Disclosure requirements: ensure you are asking for minimum required information. Improve general inclusive practices to support those who do not formally request adjustments/accommodations.

You can change lives while improving your bottom line. The benefits to companies of embracing neuroinclusion are clear. The benefits to ND individuals, their families and our communities are exponential.

Dan Harris, Founder and Chair, Neurodiversity in Business, an industry forum focusing on creating neuroinclusive workplaces. 

Early findings of NiB/Birkbeck academic research into neuroinclusion practice at work will be shared at the 2024 NiB Annual Conference on 16 April.

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