Neurodiversity such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia can bring useful abilities to tech teams. But to hire this talent, you’ll need recruitment and workplace policies fair to all.
The candidate’s application was impeccable. They had great academic scores and a flawless practical test. But in their interview and presentation, they avoid eye contact and can’t give a succinct answer. How would you assess them?
Many hiring managers would dismiss this candidate without a second thought, labelling them “not a good fit” or “fails to perform under pressure.” But evidence suggests they may be throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
Untapped potential in neurodiverse workforce
Neurodiversity refers to variations in how people think and experience the world. Neurodivergent people might have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD,) autism, dyslexia and more. Increasingly, these conditions are seen as natural and valuable variation between people rather than disorders.
Meg O’Connell, CEO and Founder of Global Disability Inclusion, says, “Companies often overlook people with disabilities, and this includes people who are neurodivergent. Recruiters and hiring managers are not equipped to effectively interview and assess people who are neurodiverse.”
O’Connell says not being able to fairly assess a neurodivergent person’s abilities deprives companies of talent at a time of higher than average numbers of people resigning. Organizations need a strategy to include neurodiverse candidates. For tech companies, neurodiverse talent can mean especially useful strengths, like hyperfocus, pattern recognition and attention to detail.
Cybersecurity and content marketing consultant Lisa Ventura, who is autistic herself, points to what neurodiversity can offer in cybersecurity. “[Some] neurodiverse people are good at finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, the small red flags and minute details critical for hunting down and analyzing potential threats. Other strengths include pattern recognition, thinking outside the box and methodical thinking.”
Differences are strengths
“Instead of focusing only on what makes a neurodivergent person different, we should embrace the benefits different viewpoints and minds bring to the table,” says Ventura.
This untapped potential comes in many forms. People on the autism spectrum have faster pattern recognition, attention to detail and a stronger memory. In the workplace, employers report a range of good qualities including honesty, precision and consistency. People with dyslexia have sharper peripheral vision and notice more visual anomalies.
Thom Hartmann, the founder of the Hunter School, describes people with ADHD as “hunters in a farmer’s world.” Kimi Wright, Operations Executive at UK digital and tech recruiters Adam, says the condition means she can multitask efficiently. “I find it easy to juggle many pieces of work. I have been often told my hyperfocus is beneficial, especially when I am doing project work or large copywriting tasks. I research new projects passionately and retain a lot of information. When I see a problem, I jump right into it and work my way out. It’s meant new processes and smoother ways of working within our team.”
The more diverse your team, the more productive, creative and successful. Having different minds and perspectives can solve communication problems.
Lisa Ventura, cybersecurity and content marketing consultant
Human brains exist on a continuum
In his book The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of your Differently Wired Brain, Thomas Armstrong, Executive Director of American Institute for Learning and Human Development says human brains exist along continuums. People process information, present and communicate differently.
Armstrong explains the ‘spectrum’ of autism using sociability: Some people with autism are very sociable, some are introverted but relate well to others and some prefer to be alone.
Uptimize is a training platform that helps organizations engage with talent that thinks differently. It uses universal design principles to find out what colleagues, managers and HR can do that will likely benefit everybody.
Ed Thompson, CEO and founder, says management should ask employees their working style preferences and find ways to accommodate. For example taking sensory sensitivities like noise or bright light into account when designing office layout, recreational spaces or company retreats.
When it comes to the remote, hybrid or back-to-office debate, Thompson says there’s no ‘one size fits all.’ “Some enjoy the control of their own environment. Others miss the stimulation of the office. The key is to be sensitive to each employee’s needs and preferences, without making assumptions.”
Ventura agrees. “Giving those who are neurodivergent the choice over where and how they work is key. I started to work solely from home in 2015 because I got to the point where I could no longer cope with working in an office. I couldn’t stand the noise, interruption and chatter. But I was brought up to ignore all that and go out to work because it’s what we must do, and I masked how I really felt.”
Tailored to the individual
To level the playing field for neurodiverse people, we must revamp job designs and hiring practices. David Emm, Principal Security Research at Kaspersky, recommends, “thinking outside the box and re-defining the methods we use to draw talented people into our organizations.”
We must move away from the ‘survival of the fittest’ mindset and focus on making environments in which everyone can flourish. And it’s not just about the physical environment – Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria can often come hand-in-hand with ADHD. Wright says it helps that her manager checks in regularly, breaking news sensitively and working together on hard days.
In his book, Thomas Armstrong also talks about the positive feedback loop when neurodiverse people can construct suitable niches for themselves, such as microhabitats or subcultures. Anthony Moffa, working as a Software Engineer as part of JP Morgan Chase’s Autism at Work program, says, “not having to pretend I was neurotypical boosted my identity, confidence and self-esteem.”
Improving HR practices
HR practices and work cultures must undergo a major revamp to be fair to everyone. Ventura advises job descriptions and advertisements avoid lists of skills and attributes describing the ‘ideal’ candidate instead focusing on what the role involves and experience needed, making clear what’s desirable versus must-have. Requirements like ‘must have strong teamwork skills’ or ‘must be a good communicator’ can discourage neurodiverse jobhunters.
Employers and hiring manager training helps. O’Connell of Global Disability Inclusion says, “We help managers understand how neurodiverse talent might interact or respond, giving space for candidates to respond and the opportunity for management to truly assess the skills and abilities of these candidates.”
Aim for an application process that’s accessible by default. Asking for accommodations can be demotivating in an already arduous job search process.
Take behavioral-style interview question, where interviewers ask candidates for a specific example of using a skill, with questions like “tell me about a time you handled a difficult situation.” Processing large numbers of past experiences and choosing just one can be hard for someone with autism. Instead, experts recommend making questions specific and phrasing them in future tense, for example, “If one of your team didn’t want to participate in a project, how would you encourage them to take part?”
Share information in advance, such as interview questions and assessment details. Be open to individual needs and suggest accommodations you can make. For online interviews, Wright suggests displaying the question in chat for the interviewee to refer to.
Managing neurodiverse employees
Many autistic employees feel empowered by routine as they feel comfortable in predictable patterns. Structure and schedule things as much as possible, use templates and break large tasks into smaller ones.
Interpersonal interactions shouldn’t make or break careers. Neurodiverse talent needs ways to show their skills and abilities that don’t involve presentations or group work.
Reflecting on how we can make work more inclusive for neurodiverse people shows we can tap into a more diverse talent pool by giving employees choice to work in ways that suit them. Neurodiverse people bring unique advantages and skills. Workplaces have an opportunity today to reinvent themselves and welcome those who think differently.