Building and Supporting Neurodiversity in the Workplace

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The word neurodiversity is a portmanteau of “neurological” and “diversity” which was first coined in the 1990s by an Australian social scientist Judy Singer, who is herself on the autism spectrum. This refers to the concept that certain developmental disorders are actually normal variations in the brain. According to, this is often contrasted with the “medical model” that views these conditions as disorders, which offers less room for acceptance and inclusion, and focuses on the treatment, cure or prevention. It has gained significant ground in recent years in its awareness and appreciation, particularly among advocacy communities in Singapore. 

Today, top organizations not just in Singapore but around the globe are finally embracing neurodiversity in their workplaces. They have come to understand that true diversity of thought on a team can provide critical competitive advantage. 

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 he has a tick, or rocks back and forth in his seat, or won’t make eye contact. 

For decades, potential hires like this have been 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 – maybe even the best qualified — workers? 

An untapped pool of potential

For those living on the autism spectrum, finding a job suited to their skillset can be an immense challenge. In fact, Drexel University’s National Autism Indicators Report says 51% of workers on the spectrum have skills higher than what their job requires. Meanwhile, fewer than one in six adults with autism even has full-time employment. 

Michael Ando is on the autism spectrum and an employee at EY. He told the audience at the Great Place to Work company culture conference about autistic friends with advanced degrees who could only get jobs dishwashing, cashiering, or working in warehouses. 

“All of these jobs are fine, but if you have spent years getting degrees … it’s a shame and a waste they weren’t able to use them,” he said. 

But some workplaces are purposely seeking out cognitive diversity. Michael, for example, was hired under EY’s neurodiversity program. 

In Singapore, only 31.4% of the total number persons with disabilities including those with Autism are employed while 3% are without work. A huge chunk of this population is outside the labor force, either they are students or part of the ageing population. However, we might see these figures soon change over the next few years as the student population begins to enter the workforce. 

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiverse individuals are those with developmental disabilities such as autism, ADHD, and social anxiety disorders. 

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, information processing, and pattern recognition. 

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 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) talent increases. 

Hiren Shukla, Neuro-Diverse Centre of Excellence leader at EY, explained how processes that took two to three hours were reduced to just two minutes, thanks to programming by members of their neurodiverse workforce. These employees were able to see inefficiencies that neurotypical employees had either become used to or had never even noticed. 

“Their thought process and their delivery are different to what we are used to,” Hiren said. 

Kate Griggs, founder and CEO of Made By Dyslexia, shared that creativity, imagination, and intuition are what set human talents apart from machines in the age of automation and digitization. For example, people with Dyslexia have a different way of processing information, or what Griggs refers to as Dyslexic Thinking. This atypical way of thinking results in creativity, innovation, and big picture thinking—some of the top in-demand competencies within the next five years. 

Organizations can benefit greatly from understanding and valuing neurodiversity. It provides an opportunity to bridge the skills gap of the future. 

But a strong neurodiversity program isn’t just beneficial to employees on the spectrum. In EY’s case, not only have they been able to find great talent, but they’ve also created better managers who look at individual needs. 

It’s also helped with company-wide communication. Managers now avoid abstract language, use shorter words, and give more specific instructions — clarity that has benefited everyone. 

How to build a neurodiverse workforce

1. Get buy-in from all levels

Engage with leadership so that they, in turn, can have conversations with their teams about what it means to have a neurodiverse workforce. 

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

Indeed, according to Psychology Today, the emergence and rise of the neurodiversity enterprise resource groups (ERGs) is perhaps the most significant to the growth of neurodiversity at work—perhaps even more significant than early autism hiring programs. ERGs not only provide support for neurodivergent talents but drive “neuroinclusive” initiatives in all areas of the enterprise. 

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, vocational rehab centres, educational institutions, or offices for disabilities. 

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

Hiren said connecting with the community was a win-win. These agencies were challenged to find meaningful work for individuals on the spectrum, and EY needed assistance in finding those individuals. 

3. Adjust your hiring practices

Hiring managers need to reframe their idea of what makes a “good candidate.” Many superficial norms, such as a strong handshake or looking someone in the eye, are difficult for neurodiverse individuals to perform. 

Managers also need to ask the right questions to best draw out the individual’s skills and capabilities. It is also important to remember that resumes don’t 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 transferable skills. 

4. Be patient

Building a neurodiverse candidate pool takes time. EY uses a two-week process that is focused on hiring people as team members rather than as individuals. 

Week one is virtual, relying on Skype video calls, virtual exercises and assessments through mini projects. Week two is called “Superweek” and is held on-site. This week includes team-based work simulations and interpersonal skills development. 

At the end of the two weeks, EY selects the highest performers and hires in cohorts. From there, all onboarding and training is done by managers who have taken formal training in autism. 

5. Organize expert-driven, two-way training

Soft skill training is a critical part of building a neurodiverse workforce and should be done by an expert with the appropriate experience – something you can also look to the local community for. 

Note that this training isn’t just for neurodiverse employees, but for all employees and especially managers, who need to be educated about what it’s like to be on the spectrum, and how to best work together. 

6. Be ready and willing to accommodate

Individuals with autism may be sensitive to things like temperature, sound, and lighting. As such, you may need to provide accommodations such as noise-canceling headphones, privacy rooms, or flexible work schedules, so employees can be their most productive. 

“If an individual has an issue staying still for more than 45 minutes at a time… [they should] go for a walk and come back. As long as you’re productive when you come back, we’re okay with it,” said Hiren. 

7. Amplify the message

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.

Building and supporting a diverse workforce starts with the right data.

Having a systematic and continuous way of gathering feedback around the employee experience provides the data and insights needed to create a roadmap for affecting positive change. Gather and analyze your employees’ experience with ouremployee survey. 

Claire Hastwell

Claire Hastwell

Claire is our Content Marketing Manager. Claire works with Great Place to Work data and company culture experts to distil the psychology of high-trust workplaces. Claire co-authored the Women in the Workplace report and her profiles of Best Workplaces™ have featured in Fortune. When Claire’s not sifting through our 28+ years of survey data, she’s rolling out her yoga mat or daydreaming about her next U.S. road trip.

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To be eligible for the World’s Best Workplaces list, a company must apply and be named to a minimum of 5 national Best Workplaces lists within our current 58 countries, have 5,000 employees or more worldwide, and at least 40% of the company’s workforce (or 5,000 employees) must be based outside of the home country. Extra points are given based on the number of countries where a company surveys employees with the Great Place to Work Trust Index©, and the percentage of a company’s workforce represented by all Great Place to Work surveys globally. Candidates for the 2017 Worlds Best Workplaces list will have appeared on national workplaces lists published in September 2016 through August 2017.