Employers are desperate for job candidates with ideal soft skills in leadership, communication, resiliency and emotional intelligence. We’ve written about it time and again. But in the search for these social attributes, what job talent is being overlooked? Are otherwise top hires being ignored because they’re neurodiverse talent?
It’s a question that employers are asking themselves as they strengthen their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts while simultaneously looking for new ways to attract talent. So we did some research to uncover only the tip of the iceberg regarding the art, reasoning, and value of considering neurodiversity in hiring practices.
What Is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity refers most commonly to being inclusive for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) but seeing it as merely an autistic issue misses the mark. Neurodiversity also considers ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, sensory processing disorders, and dozens of other diagnosable and rarely diagnosed traits outside what’s deemed to be standard thinking and behaving.
Up to 17% of the population has been diagnosed with a neurodivergent condition. But diagnosis is tricky. Therefore, while one in eight people are considered neurodiverse, it’s believed that fewer than 50% of these individuals know they are. To illustrate that point, check out this Different Brains panel discussion of neurodiversity experts who were each diagnosed long into their working years, some past their 40s and 50s. As Google Technical Trainer Tim Goldstein puts it, “I was diagnosed at 54, and prior to that, I was just weird.”
J. David Hall, founder and CEO of the Foundation for Life Guides for Autistics (LGFA) / NeuroGuides™, knows this paradigm well. He began dedicating his time to helping autistic adults lead fulfilling lives because he’s a father to three persons diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Even while he worked and lived with autistic people 24/7, he didn’t recognize that he himself was autistic until a friend suggested it a few years ago. He uses the term autism spectrum condition (ASC) to describe his diagnosis. The different terms can be confusing—we found this helpful explanation here. We asked Hall what it was like to get the diagnosis so far into his adult life and career. What he told us is a brilliant lesson for all employers, hiring managers, recruiters, co-workers, and humans:
“The reason my own formal diagnosis…came as such a surprise is at the very heart of what is wrong with our current cultural understanding of neurodiversity, most predominantly seen in the workplace. As a professional in both the private and public sector, I’d invested decades in unknowingly ‘masking’ my own neurology in order to ‘fit in’ to a workplace culture best suited for neurotypical persons,” Hall told us. “Many people in the workplace, whether they are diagnosed on the spectrum or not, expend a great deal of mental, emotional energy in trying to be good chameleons, emulating their neurotypical peers’ social behaviors. For example, over the years, I trained myself to make eye contact with others in workplace settings, although I find myself entirely able to process human communication without staring into the eyes of other persons. However, particularly in our Western business culture, not looking others in the eyes is seen as a sign of distrust or suspect motivations. So, although we find it uncomfortable, we do it to fit into the workplace culture. On the other hand, my neurodivergent neurology is bound up in my strong empathy strengths, which empowers my abilities in sales and development work.”
As to any “wish I’d known” moments, Hall continues, “My past is full of them. Had I known my own neurology and its unique workings, I could have self-advocated, sought to be understood as much as I labored to understand others.”
Lyric Holmans, a Texas-based neurodiversity specialist and consultant, often talks candidly about the vast and confusing universe of neurodiverse traits at Neurodivergent Rebel. Watch this recent video for some eye-opening characteristics that they didn’t know were related to their autism (Holmans was diagnosed at the age of 29). Neurodivergent traits can include being sensitive to noisy offices, breakroom smells or fluorescent overhead lights (some of these triggers can even cause migraines or seizures). There’s selective mutism, nervous tics, and other behaviors that can suddenly make a job interview awkward. Dig deep enough, and you’ll undoubtedly relate to some traits yourself, even if they aren’t as disruptive or debilitating for you as they are for someone who isn’t neurotypical.
Add the pieces together, and it’s no wonder it’s so difficult to find “perfect” job candidates. Nancy Doyle, an organizational psychologist specializing in neurodiversity, outlines that a singular focus on soft skills can quickly turn into a vehicle to exclude, excuse, oppress, marginalize and minoritize otherwise talented employees.
What Is One Of The Biggest Mistakes Employers Make with Neurodiverse Talent?
Special hiring programs and “paths to success” are becoming plentiful, particularly for autistic individuals. But they often focus on extreme neurodivergent cases or require employees to self-identify as autistic or another neurodiverse talent label. A local example is the Autism Society of Texas’s Path-Building Employment Program, designed to teach young adult participants how to create pathways toward equitable, gainful, meaningful self-directed employment. The program requires a diagnosis of autism and a household income of less than $25,200.
In Austin specifically, the Dell Neurodiversity Hiring Program has gained accolades for its efforts. As part of the initiative, Dell says its Autism Hiring Program is an opportunity to rethink the traditional interview process. It’s “designed to provide customized supports and to help each job candidate demonstrate their skills to the hiring team through various projects and manager interactions.” The process isn’t open to all, however. Eligible candidates are pre-screened by Dell staff and an external partner, Neurodiversity in the Workplace. Only qualified candidates (IDed through the pre-screening) are invited to participate in the skill-based alternative interview process.
Google Cloud recently announced a partnership with the Stanford Neurodiversity Project aimed at “empowering ‘talented’ neurodivergent people through training and work opportunities.” But, again, the program requires self-identification. It’s an issue that Holmans addressed on LinkedIn:
“This is a step for Google, but programs like this are still technically segregation of Autistic People, because they create alternate hiring paths for Autistics, which requires us to out ourselves to be part of the program. What about those late discovered Autistics, who don’t know they are Autistic yet, or those who don’t feel safe outing themselves? Real inclusion would not be segregated, it would be fixing the systems so Autistic People can go through the same doors as non-Autistic people. Why not change how they interview EVERYONE?”
Hall cautions against these programs as well. “Creating more ‘boxes,’ more ‘labels’ for neurodivergent hiring is proving to be an unmitigated failure, so if you’re considering building an actually neuro-inclusive hiring program and re-tooling your workplace culture to be inclusive in practice, then steer a wide mile around autism hiring programs and their unhelpful structures.”
“Some neurotypical people would benefit from changing how employers recruit,” Lucy Knight, founder of UK-based Autism Alright, adds. She envisions employers giving everyone a preference in how they interview and work. If you’re great at giving presentations, do that. If your portfolio speaks better than you do, highlight that. “Employers need to step up the recruitment process if they want to hire proper talent,” she says, adding that relying solely on autistic programs—usually based on stereotypes like common autistic traits for coding and IT—is problematic.
“We…need to realize some people interview well and are going to be horrible employees, and some of the most dedicated hires you will ever find don’t interview well,” Holmans adds.
Steps To Take
When good talent is hard to find, re-evaluating your hiring practices with neurodiversity in mind can pay off. A UK study recently found that 32% of employers are uncomfortable hiring autistics, one in 10 wouldn’t consider a dyslexic employee, 30% wouldn’t hire someone they know has Tourette Syndrome, and so on (no comparable study has been done in the U.S.).
“Automatically discounting someone for a label they haven’t addressed with you, insisting they need certain soft skills to do the job (when, in reality, they don’t), or refusing to re-engineer a ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ attitude to accommodate an otherwise stellar candidate limits your recruiting efforts,” warns The HT Group Founder and CEO Mark Turpin.
Hall recommends recruiters, hiring managers, and business owners start by simply understanding what neurodiverse talent is in the first place.
“We are all neurodiverse. We live, work and play in a neurodiverse world, much like biodiversity in nature-we are each unique in our minds, our strengths, and cognitive processing. While most are neurotypical, there are also neurodivergent persons all around us. These are uniquely minded people, often with co-occurring neurological differences,” he explains.
Then, he offers a challenge.
“If you want to put aside the fluff of pursuing diversity and embrace actual inclusivity, then examine your workplace culture, hiring, and other processes to see if your workplace is actually an inclusive-driven culture,” Hall recommends. “We’ve been on the bleeding edge of universal design-inclusivity for years now. We’re now seeing a sea of change in hiring practices, which is driving retention in business to grow much more robust, more resilient because of the care of their human assets.”