How to Build and Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Claire Hastwell

Author

The word neurodiversity was first coined by an Australian social scientist, Judy Singer, in the 1990s, 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 pyschologytoday.com, this concept is often contrasted with the “medical model” that views these conditions as disorders, which rather focuses on the treatment, cure or prevention.1 This has gained significant ground in its awareness and appreciation in recent years, particularly among advocacy communities.

As this becomes widely accepted, advocates in the Philippines and around the world, hope that this concept goes mainstream, which could mean huge changes, not just in current educational practices, but also, in workplace norms.

Companies who support this pursuit, like EY in this article, have since open-sourced their work and even collaborated with specialists in the field, to create an Autism @ Work Playbook, so that companies who want to find talent, create meaningful employment opportunities for people in the spectrum, and promote more diversity in their workplace, can also follow suit.

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.

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. Even governments are turning to neurodiversity2. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), for example, has a team staffed primarily with people on the spectrum, as they tend to see patterns in data that others cannot. And the Australian Defense Department is borrowing assessment methods from the IDF to develop a neurodiversity program in cybersecurity.

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.

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.

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. For example, EY took the surprise element out of their interview process — if the candidate is not applying for a job that requires them to think fast on their feet, then there’s no need to consider that in the interview.

As well, it’s 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 transferrable 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.

“Interpersonal difficulties are no barriers to a high-performing team,” said Michael.

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.

EY is open-sourcing its work, along with other companies pursuing neurodiversity, through the Autism at Work Roundtable.

“This is giving us a tremendous amount of reputational value,” said Hiren. “It’s good for our own employees, it’s good for the marketplace. Our clients want to do business with companies that do good. Candidates want to work with companies that do good.”

Building – and supporting – a diverse workforce starts with 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 our employee survey.   

Neurodiversity https://www.psychologytoday.com/sg/basics/neurodiversity
Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage https://hbr.org/2017/05/neurodiversity-as-a-competitive-advantage
Claire Hastwell

Author

Great Place To Work identifies Best Workplaces™ in Asia by surveying over 1 million employees in Asia and the Middle East about the key factors that create great workplaces for all and analyzing company workplace programs impacting over 4.7 million employees in the region.

To be considered, companies must first be identified as outstanding in their local region by appearing on one or more of our Best Workplaces lists in Greater China (including China, Hong Kong and Taiwan), India, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, UAE, Vietnam during 2021 or early 2022.

Companies rank in three size categories: Small and Medium (10-499 employees); Large (500+); and Multinational. Multinational organizations are also assessed on their efforts to create great workplaces across multiple countries in the region. They must appear on at least two national lists in Asia and the Middle East and have at least 1,000 employees worldwide with at least 40% (or 5,000) of those employees located outside the headquarters country.

Great Place To Work identifies Best Workplaces in Asia™ by surveying 2.1 million employees in Asia and the Middle East about the key factors that create great workplaces for all and analyzing company workplace programs impacting 5.9 million employees in the region.

To be considered, companies must first be identified as outstanding in their local region by appearing on one or more of our Best Workplaces lists in Bahrain, Greater China (including China, Hong Kong and Taiwan), India, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Oman, Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, UAE, Vietnam during 2022 or early 2023.

Companies rank in three size categories: Small and Medium (10-499 employees); Large (500+); and Multinational. Multinational organizations are also assessed on their efforts to create great workplaces across multiple countries in the region. They must appear on at least two national lists in Asia and the Middle East and have at least 1,000 employees worldwide with at least 40% (or 5,000+) of those employees located outside the headquarters country.

For All™ Methodology

Great Place To Work, the global authority on workplace culture, determined the Philippines Best Workplaces™ 2023 List by conducting annual workforce studies through our Trust Index Survey™ and Culture Management platform Emprising®, representing the voices of over 450,000 employees across the Philippines.

Employees responded to over 60 survey questions describing the extent to which their organization creates a great place to work For All™, meaning that the company empowers all individuals to reach their full human potential. Eighty-five percent of the evaluation is based on what employees report about their experiences of trust and reaching their full human potential as part of their organization, no matter who they are or what they do. We analyze these experiences relative to each organization’s size, workforce makeup, and what’s typical in their industry and region. The remainder of the evaluation is an assessment of all employees’ daily experiences of the company’s values, people’s ability to contribute new ideas, and the effectiveness of their leaders to ensure they’re consistently experienced.

To ensure surveys truly represent all employees, we require enough people in each organization to respond that results are accurate to a 95% confidence level and 5% margin of error or better. We review any anomalies in survey responses, news, and financial performance to ensure there aren’t any extraordinary reasons to believe we couldn’t trust a company’s survey results.

For All™ Methodology

Great Place to Work, the global authority on workplace culture, determined the Philippines Best Workplaces™ 2022 List by conducting annual workforce studies through our Trust Index Survey™ and Culture Management platform Emprising®, representing the voices of over 130,000 employees across the Philippines.

Employees responded to over 60 survey questions describing the extent to which their organization creates a great place to work For All™, meaning that the company empowers all individuals to reach their full human potential. Eighty-five percent of the evaluation is based on what employees report about their experiences of trust and reaching their full human potential as part of their organization, no matter who they are or what they do. We analyze these experiences relative to each organization’s size, workforce makeup, and what’s typical in their industry and region. The remainder of the evaluation is an assessment of all employees’ daily experiences of the company’s values, people’s ability to contribute new ideas, and the effectiveness of their leaders to ensure they’re consistently experienced.

To ensure surveys truly represent all employees, we require enough people in each organization to respond that results are accurate to a 95% confidence level and 5% margin of error or better. We review any anomalies in survey responses, news, and financial performance to ensure there aren’t any extraordinary reasons to believe we couldn’t trust a company’s survey results.

Categories:
These organizations’ assessment is based 100% on employee responses to the Trust Index survey.

  • Small 10-99 Employees

For larger organizations with more than 100 employees, we also use our Culture Audit™ tool, asking organizations to share with us their practices, policies, and programs to create a great workplace For All™ and evaluate the approach they take.

  • Medium 100-999 Employees
  • Large 1000+ Employees

Why do you say in one place your national list scoring is based on 85%/15% and in another place that it is 75%/25%?

We are explaining two different things:
1.  The criteria we evaluate

  •  85% concerned with Trust and Maximizing Human Potential and
  • 15% concerned with everything else

2.  Where the data comes from

  • 100% Trust Index for organizations with less than 100 employees
  • 75% based on the Trust Index survey analytics and 25% based on responses to the Culture Audit for organizations with more than 100 employees.
For All™ Methodology

Great Place To Work, the global authority on workplace culture, determined the Philippines Best Workplaces™ 2023 List by conducting annual workforce studies through our Trust Index Survey™ and Culture Management platform Emprising®, representing the voices of over 450,000 employees across the Philippines.

Employees responded to over 60 survey questions describing the extent to which their organization creates a great place to work For All™, meaning that the company empowers all individuals to reach their full human potential. Eighty-five percent of the evaluation is based on what employees report about their experiences of trust and reaching their full human potential as part of their organization, no matter who they are or what they do. We analyze these experiences relative to each organization’s size, workforce makeup, and what’s typical in their industry and region. The remainder of the evaluation is an assessment of all employees’ daily experiences of the company’s values, people’s ability to contribute new ideas, and the effectiveness of their leaders to ensure they’re consistently experienced.

To ensure surveys truly represent all employees, we require enough people in each organization to respond that results are accurate to a 95% confidence level and 5% margin of error or better. We review any anomalies in survey responses, news, and financial performance to ensure there aren’t any extraordinary reasons to believe we couldn’t trust a company’s survey results.

Categories:
These organizations’ assessment is based 100% on employee responses to the Trust Index survey.

  • Small 10-99 Employees

For larger organizations with more than 100 employees, we also use our Culture Audit™ tool, asking organizations to share with us their practices, policies, and programs to create a great workplace For All™ and evaluate the approach they take.

  • Medium 100-999 Employees
  • Large 1000+ Employees