How to build and support neurodiversity in the workplace?

Digital tech skills are in high demand across Scotland, and there a number of unfilled vacancies. Building a neurodiverse workforce is advantageous because neurodiverse people possess the skills particularly needed right now as businesses adopt more advanced technology. 

What is neurodiversity? 

The term ‘neurodiversity’ refers to the natural variations in the way people learn, function, process information and think.  It acknowledges that people have different abilities and skillsets and are naturally better in some areas more than others. 

Neurodiverse individuals are those with developmental disabilities such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia.  However, there’s a growing understanding that these individuals aren’t disabled per se, but rather differently abled. While they may struggle with social skills, they tend to have above-average abilities when it comes to things like analysis and information processing. 

Digital tech skills are in high demand across Scotland, and there exists a significant number of unfilled vacancies. National Autistic Society surveyed autistic adults and 10% said that their ideal job was to work in IT. It is estimated that 1 in 97 people in Scotland have autism, that equates to 47,000 people. Yet a 2017 Scottish Government survey found that 69% of autistic adults were unemployed. 

For those living on the autism spectrum, finding a job suited to their skillset can be an immense challenge. It is estimated that 51% of workers on the spectrum have skills higher than what their job requires. Meanwhile, fewer than one in six adults with autism has full-time employment. 

Advantages of neurodiversity in the workplace 

Building a neurodiverse workforce is advantageous because neurodiverse people possess the skills particularly needed right now as businesses adopt more advanced technology. For example, artificial intelligence and robotics, and the demand for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics talent increases. 

But a strong neurodiversity program isn’t just beneficial to employees on the spectrum. Not only can businesses find great talent, but they can also create better managers who look at individuals’ needs. 

“At ENABLE Works we support employers across different sectors to feel confident in hiring people with diverse skillsets and backgrounds. Neurodivergent minds have abilities and skills that neurotypical people don’t necessarily possess. That is why it is crucial to have a diverse workforce which will contribute to creating more equitable workplaces and a more inclusive society, overall”. 

Federico Marchiolli from Enable Works

How to build a neurodiverse workforce

1. Get buy-in from all levels 

It is important that these conversations are open and transparent. There needs to be a safe space for both neurotypical employees to ask questions and for neurodiverse employees to come forward and disclose. 

2. Engage with the local community 

Community groups can help employers find and attract neurodiverse talent. These groups may take the form of government agencies, non-profits and educational institutions.  

In addition to helping with recruitment, such groups can provide crucial advice and resources for training. 

3. Adjust your recruitment practices 

Imagine this scene: You’re interviewing a potential candidate for a role as a developer with your company. The candidate seems to have the skills you need but also displays a few social eccentricities. Perhaps they won’t make eye contact , or rock back and forth in their seat. 

Potential hires like this are often rejected from the candidate pool. “Poor culture fit” has typically been the rationale. 

But what if in the hunt for the “right culture fit” you’re rejecting an entire pool of highly qualified and maybe even the best qualified workers? 

Hiring managers need to reframe their idea of what makes a “good candidate.” 

Managers also need to ask the right questions at interview to best draw out the individual’s skills and capabilities.  

Interview Tips: 

  • Ensure you have left enough time to plan for changes 
  • Use singular ideas in questions 
  • Avoid multiple questions in one 
  • Avoid vague questions –be clear on what is being asked  
  • Consider the need for “curveball” questions  
  • Talk with a steady pace  
  • Leave time to talk –don’t immediately fill the silence  

It is important to remember that CVs don’t necessarily tell the full story. Because so many neurodiverse individuals have struggled to find work that matches their abilities, they are often self-taught or possess transferrable skills. 

4. Arrange staff awareness training 

Some neurodiverse people struggle to understand social rules. They can appear to others as socially awkward and for that reason may find it difficult to relate to their colleagues and fit into regular workplace culture. As an employer, it is extremely important that you create a culture of support and understanding.  

Arranging Neurodiversity Training for managers, supervisors and the wider workforce will ensure your team understand autistic spectrum conditions and how they can appropriately and effectively interact with and support autistic colleagues.  

Staff awareness training on autism and disability in general is good practice. Increased understanding can help create a more accepting and supportive culture and an increased awareness of accessibility and inclusion can not only directly benefit your workforce but can impact your wider business by giving you an increased understanding of your potential customer base.  

5. Be ready and willing to accommodate 

After ensuring recruitment is inclusive, it’s also important to understand how inclusive the workplace is. Ensure reasonable adjustments are a regular part of your support and supervision and employee conversation. This allows adjustments to be reviewed, but also allows a safe space for current employees to disclose.  Individuals with autism for example may be sensitive to things like temperature, sound, and lighting. As such, you may need to provide accommodations such as noise-cancelling headphones, privacy rooms, or flexible work schedules, so employees can be their most productive. Individuals on the spectrum have often had negative experiences in the world. So, while they may feel understood at work, they may not feel as safe outside of the office. A strong neurodiversity program should push its message externally as well as internally, making it a more normal part of employment in general. 

“The world needs people who think differently. In a world where everyone thinks the same, nothing would ever change.” (differentminds.scot)