Neurodiversity in the Workplace: The Opportunities of Thought Diversity

As mentioned in our first blog in this series, neurodiversity accounts for the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, placing it on a spectrum of neurological function where “neurotypical” aligns with an average brain and “neurodiverse” aligns with brains that are more unique. Individuals with more neurodiverse brains tend to possess exceptional gifts that come with their differences.

For example, people with the neurodiversities of Asperger’s or high-functioning autism have the ability to focus on a single topic and understand that topic in great depth – much more than individuals with neurotypical brains. When these individuals find something that truly interests them, they learn everything they can about the topic and seek to practice applying that knowledge day after day. In short, they become masters of their trade. When applied to the professional world, this level of interest and dedication to one’s work can add extreme value to a company.

In fact, many leading technology companies have recognized this and have been aggressively recruiting people with these neurodiversities for occupations in systems and computer coding. Microsoft’s “Autism @ Work” initiative has attracted a lot of recognition as one of the most prevalent targeted recruitment initiatives for adults on the autism spectrum based on their exceptional performance in certain job functions. In recent years, many other companies recognized this value and launched their own recruitment programs to attract individuals with neurodiversities, such as SAP, Salesforce, Google, Cable Labs, Hewlett Packard and CollabNet.

In fact, SAP has expressed its intent to obtain up to 650 employees with autism based on the specific job roles that have been outlined in which they outperform their neurotypical peers. SAP has expressed that in addition to their ability to pay great attention to detail, individuals on the autism spectrum bring a different perspective to the workplace, which aids in the company’s efficiency and creativity. Neurodiverse employees at SAP have been found to really excel when they take on roles such as identifying software problems and assigning customer-service queries to members of the team for troubleshooting.

Dr. Hackie Reitman is an orthopedic surgeon in Florida who strongly advocates for neurodiversity in hiring and spends much of his time traveling throughout the country to meet with local employment initiatives. He notes, “It’s not just the Microsofts and the Googles who have very high functioning employees with Asperger’s syndrome. It also can and must be the offices, the service businesses, the repetitive work that speaks to a workforce that enjoys doing it, are loyal employees, will never lie, will not call in sick and will be grateful to gain the gift of independence. Society needs to understand and embrace neurodiversity for the benefit of all of us. It’s amazing to see the grassroots initiatives.”

For these reasons and more, companies outside of tech are also recognizing the benefits of bringing in diverse brains, and thus, diversity of thought, to their organizations. Companies including Best Buy, Deloitte, Freddie Mac, Willis Towers Watson and Ford Motor have all started expanding their recruitment pipelines to target individuals with a variety of neurodiversities to add value to their work environment. Freddie Mac’s hiring policy even states that “Harnessing the unique skills of people on the autism spectrum has the potential to strengthen our business and make us more competitive” (WSJ, 2014).

Considering about 1% of the population in the U.S. (amounting to more than three million people) is thought to have an autism-spectrum disorder, and 85% of adults with autism are estimated to be unemployed, there is a huge opportunity presented for companies to bring this diversity of thought on board while moving a large portion of the population to being employed and self-sufficient.

Companies often speak of interests in attracting a more diverse workforce. While organizations spend much time focusing on diversity in other areas, this opens up significant opportunities for companies to explore the positive benefits of attracting diversity of thought. According to Dr. Ron Young, psychologist and parent of a neurodiverse child, “Companies may be focusing on the wrong things based on their goals if they are strictly seeking diversity of color, nationality and gender because you can hire people who are very different in those areas, but they might all still think the same.” According to Dr. Young, who is also a Co-founder of PAIRIN which helps identify behavioral patterns to assist companies in hiring, “What companies are often seeking is diversity of thought, and one way to achieve this is to bring in someone with a neurodiversity that truly sees the world differently and can offer a unique perspective that doesn’t currently exist on your team.”

Dr. Young also notes that individuals with neurodiversities often complement the work environment because they tend to be more structured and “black and white” in their view of the world, so you won’t find them stirring up trouble by gossiping with colleagues or getting involved in office politics. They also tend to have a strong interest in helping others and being an integral part of a team, so they will go above and beyond to help others succeed and contribute in any and all ways they can to the organization. Not to mention, their thinking styles often allow them to see pitfalls and problems in areas that the best paid CEO might not even notice.

As the early adopters start to realize and promote the results of initiatives focused on expanding their recruitment to more neurodiverse brains, more and more companies will start to recognize the benefits of diversity of thought. It’s already happening. Has your organization started thinking about acquiring individuals with more diverse thinking styles? Do you even have an appropriate hiring assessment targeting the right applicants for each job that are most likely to be successful in a given role? If not, consider a tool like PAIRIN that will help improve your hiring process and start you on a path to faster and smarter hiring practices.