According to the BCS, neurodiversity remains an overlooked issue in the tech industry — employment rates for neurodiverse people remains low and stigma remains. However, a growing number of companies are recognising that it’s not only right to offer opportunities to all, but people who think differently provide a competitive advantage and help to create an inclusive environment for everyone. For example, both Microsoft and Dell have an established autism hiring programme. So, what are the barriers to a neurodiverse tech industry and how can organisations help?
What does neurodiversity mean?
Neurodiversity refers to the differences in thinking patterns, interests and motivations that naturally occur throughout the population. A neurotypical brain functions in the way that the majority expects. However, an estimated 15% of the UK population are neurodivergent. This is an umbrella term that refers to people who have Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia and other neurodevelopmental conditions.
Barriers to employment
Employment rates vary across conditions. For example, according to research conducted by the National Autistic Society, just 16% of autistic people are in full-time paid work and many are working in a job below their skill level. Worryingly, a recent study found that half of leaders and managers would be uncomfortable hiring a neurodivergent person. The highest level of bias was against people with Tourettes, ADHD or Autism. In addition, the majority of neurodivergent people surveyed felt their workplace was not inclusive to their needs. Up to 40% of employees in the tech industry have not disclosed their neurodivergent traits, meaning that their needs are unlikely to be supported.
Benefits of neurodiversity
It’s important to firstly point out that stereotypes around neurodivergent behaviour are unhelpful and often cause unrealistic expectations. For example, the idea that autistic people are maths or computer savants. However, there are many benefits that go beyond superficial abilities including:
- People with Autism: often have strong attention to detail, are good are observing rules, are thorough in their work, possess a direct communication style and a high level of subject expertise due to their special interests.
- People with Dyslexia: often highly creative, have a talent for story-telling and possess strong problem solving and communication skills.
- People with ADHD: often display a passion for their work and thrive when completing urgent or physically demanding tasks.
Software and data quality engineering start-up, Ultranauts, is a fantastic demonstration of a company leveraging the power of a neurodiversity. 75% of the workforce are on the Autism spectrum. The small company is now winning contracts from Fortune 100 companies over established global IT consultancies. The company’s founder credits their success to their neurodiverse workforce, saying that, ‘with different learning styles and information processing models, to collaborate and focus on attacking the same problem, we’re just going to be better at it.’ Crucially, Ultranauts also worked hard to create an inclusive culture that supports neurodivergent people.
Importantly, hiring neurodivergent people has a positive effect on the entire workforce by fostering a culture of inclusion. Accommodating individual needs is a wonderful thing that everyone can benefit from by encouraging both innovation and empathy within the organisation.
How to facilitate a neuro-diverse workplace?
Many neurodivergent people will require accommodations in their workspace. For example, Autistic people who suffer with sensory processing disorder may benefit from adjustments in lighting and noise (however, it’s important to highlight that variation exists — one autistic person could be over-sensitive and another under sensitive). ADHD people who experience periods of hyper-fixation accompanied by distractibility may benefit from a flexible schedule. In addition, making interviews neurodiverse friendly will support fair assessment practices and encourage hiring of neurodiverse candidates.
Finally, many neurotypical people overestimate their knowledge of conditions such as Autism and ADHD. Awareness training can help build understanding and avoid further workplace barriers being created for their neurodivergent peers.