What is Neurodiversity?

The concept of neurodiversity emerged in the late 1990’s, as a way of describing the differences in individual brain function which naturally occur across the human population.  More recently, neurodiversity has emerged as an important topic in organisational diversity and inclusion.  With greater research and awareness, it is now recognised that welcoming and embracing a range of thinking styles can bring significant organisational, and societal benefits.   

The term neurotypical is commonly used to describe people who have a standard or typical brain function.  This term captures most of the population, and these people will generally meet developmental and behavioural milestones at the expected ages and stages.      

In contrast, the term neurodivergent is used to describe people who have been diagnosed with a condition such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia, to name a few.  People with these conditions often have a brain which functions differently to what is considered standard or typical.  These differences are most apparent in a person’s thinking, attention, memory or sensory experiences.   

Why is neurodiversity important?

It is widely acknowledged that organisations have benefited from building and nurturing diverse teams.  Through intentionally expanding a workforce to include individuals of varying backgrounds, gender, religion, culture, age, sexual identity and education, businesses have demonstrated improved performance, innovation and profit.  Employees in diverse teams feel more comfortable at work, leading to less conflict, reduced turnover and higher levels of employee engagement.   

It is estimated that around 15% to 20% of the population are neurodivergent in some way (Doyle, 2020).  Given this, there is a significant opportunity for organisations to tap into a wider talent pool of individuals with unique and valuable skills, particularly when it comes to problem solving, analysis, creativity and big-picture thinking.   

Barriers to workforce participation

Neurodivergent people are far more likely to experience unemployment than those who are neurotypical.  For example, in Australia the unemployment rate for people with an autism spectrum disorder is greater than 30% (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2019).  In comparison, the official unemployment rate across the general population sits at 4% (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2022).   

Significant barriers to workforce participation among the neurodivergent population include:  

  • General gaps in awareness of what neurodivergence is, and how it might affect the way in which someone communicates and behaves at work 
  • A lack of understanding about the unique strengths and different perspectives that a neurodivergent person can offer, and how these might benefit a business 
  • Misconceptions that additional business costs and resources may be required to adequately support a neurodivergent employee 
  • Accessibility issues for candidates throughout the recruitment process or in the work environment 

How can you increase the neurodiversity in your organisation?

There are now many tangible ways that employers can tap into, and benefit from, the strengths and capabilities that neurodivergent employees can bring to their business.   Across the globe, many organisations are benefiting from the introduction of targeted talent programs for neurodivergent employees. These programs seek to place candidates into roles that are specifically suited to their individual strengths and skillsets and make simple accommodations to ensure they are well-supported and set up for success. 

Recruitment and selection

A thoughtful and considered approach to neurodiversity might require adjustments to your recruitment process, to ensure that it is accessible for all candidates.  This might include:  

  • Ensuring that employees are carefully matched to a role that aligns to their individual capabilities and strengths 
  • Simplifying the way in which job advertisements and careers pages are written and presented, by avoiding jargon and using clear and specific language 
  • Auditing your selection process, to identify and remove any areas of bias 
  • Asking candidates if they may need any specific accommodations through the recruitment process 
  • Allowing candidates to prepare interview questions in advance, with clear instructions on what is required during the interview 
  • Ensuring any pre-employment assessments are suitable for neurodivergent candidates, such as offering tests in multiple formats or using work samples or practical assessments ahead of psychometric testing 
  • Providing the opportunity for candidates to visit the workplace before accepting a role 

Onboarding and future support

Supporting neurodivergent employees may also require some initial planning and preparation to help them feel welcome and comfortable in their role.  You can do this by:  

  • Providing a clear outline regarding what their onboarding process will involve 
  • Establishing a buddy system for support through orientation 
  • Providing consistent and effective coaching and mentoring on-the-job 
  • Regularly checking in with employees to seek their feedback on support, tools, or technology required 
  • Introducing respectful neurodiversity education and awareness training across the organisation 
  • Displaying genuine advocacy and support from senior leadership 
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Updated February 2022