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Hiring For Neurodiversity

Note: To respect differing preferences, this article uses both person-first and identity-first language.

Neurodiversity, according to neurologists Nicole Baumer and Julia Frueh, is “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits. The word neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities.”

There are many benefits to hiring neurodiverse employees. A recent study even showed that employers with the greatest focus on disability inclusion achieved an average of 28% higher revenue. Despite this, Cornell University’s 2018 Disability Status Report showed that the employment rate for working-age people with cognitive disabilities in the US was 28.6 percent. For working-age people without disabilities, that number was 80 percent. While some cognitive disabilities preclude participation in the workforce, many of these people do have the capacity, need, and desire to attain employment. What’s stopping them?

One key challenge lies in how employers find and evaluate applicants. As Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano, co-authors of the article “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage,” point out, “The behaviors of many neurodiverse people run counter to common notions of what makes a good employee—solid communication skills, being a team player, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, salesperson-type personalities, the ability to network, an intolerance of disorder and need for routine, a need for individual accommodations, and so on. These criteria systematically screen out neurodiverse people.”

Haley Moss, an attorney and autistic self-advocate, has described the traditional, interview-based pathway to employment as “a nonstarter.” She writes, “That process seemed primed to surface my weaknesses: I am autistic, and sometimes I feel uncomfortable in settings with elaborate and unclear social norms.” Unfortunately, screening and assessment methods often evaluate candidates on their social skills, even when they are unrelated to the job itself.

Additionally, interviews typically allow little time for candidates to process information, respond to questions, or perform tasks—and little flexibility in how they do so. Repetitive clicking of a pen might annoy interviewers, but it could support an applicant with ADHD in focusing on the conversation. Illegible handwriting on an application or related materials could be viewed as sloppiness or laziness, but it may simply reflect differences in an autistic person’s fine motor skills.

Finally, it’s impossible to overlook the role that discrimination plays against people with disabilities in the hiring process. Too many hiring managers hold ill-informed or outdated beliefs about the skills and abilities of disabled applicants. And this discrimination becomes more pronounced when these applicants are people of color. According to the Disability & Philanthropy Forum, racism and ableism are intertwined and have devastating impacts on individuals, both in school and the workforce.

Organizations that take the work of disability inclusion seriously should look critically at their recruitment and hiring processes. We have some recommendations for employers seeking to hire and retain more neurodiverse talent.

First, prepare your organization.

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Ask leadership: When our organization hires neurodiverse employees, how will we support them? Can non-disabled co-workers provide a certain amount of assistance with workload management or prioritization? Are there social partner organizations in the area that can provide job and life skills coaching? Can the organization implement internal anti-bias training? These efforts will allow neurodiverse talent to succeed in their new roles.

A great resource for those new to this work is the Autism @ Work Playbook, developed by the University of Washington’s ACCESS-IT program. It highlights case studies of organizations that have implemented inclusive hiring programs for people with autism, including Microsoft and JPMorgan Chase. Even if the scope of your program is broader than autism, it includes many valuable ideas and considerations for all hiring efforts in the neurodiversity space. The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) also has valuable resources on its website, including where to find candidates with disabilities. And for those who find the accommodation process overwhelming, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has a comprehensive toolkit.

When starting this work, be sure to preserve employee choice in participating in any programs or initiatives. Avoid spotlighting disabled employees who may not appreciate this attention, and do not put pressure on anyone to disclose their disability. Legal implications aside, they may not feel safe or comfortable doing so. Instead, it can be helpful for initiatives to, in part, acknowledge neurodiversity as it applies to all employees.

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For example, the article “How to Attract and Support Neurodiverse Talent” describes Cockroach Labs, a software company based in New York City, where new hires create a ‘how to work with me’ document that forms the basis of their interactions with colleagues and includes details such as their preferred work hours, ways of giving and receiving feedback, and communication methods. This unique approach encourages employees to become more self-aware and validates the differing needs and preferences of everyone in the organization. 

Next, utilize nontraditional screening and assessment methods.

  • When reviewing resumes, consider that neurodiverse applicants may have gaps in employment and education due, in part, to discrimination by other organizations. Plan to ask about volunteer experience or internships and take them into account.

  • Adjust application forms and procedures, and—if you don’t already—consider allowing applicants to apply online and by phone.

  • Use interview alternatives, such as project-based assessments. Ask candidates to complete tasks similar to those they would encounter on the job. This technique helps remove barriers for those who struggle with the social demands of traditional interviews.

Finally, be thoughtful if you choose to use traditional interviews.

  • Be prepared. Make questions available to the candidate in advance of the interview and provide them with a clear process for requesting any accommodations they may need. Proactively offer information about the physical interview location, such as parking and transit options.

  • Be aware of the impact of a last-minute change. Last-minute changes in an interview schedule can be highly disruptive for many neurodiverse candidates, especially those with autism. Ensure the candidate knows the timeline and specific details for each step in the process, and, if there is a change or delay, inform them immediately.

  • When you meet candidates, choose your words thoughtfully. Avoid using terms such as “differently-abled” or “challenged.” If you struggle to mention disability directly, you reinforce the idea that it is bad or shameful.

  • If and when a candidate chooses to disclose their disability, ask what language they would prefer to describe themselves. Individual preferences vary widely, and this is the best way to be sure your language is appropriate.

  • When it comes to interpersonal skills, be direct and provide support. Consider assessing social and technical skills separately and asking questions specific to each skill set. Be clear about what training, if any, exists to support employees in this area. During the social portion of the interview, you may choose to involve advocates and job coaches. Advocates may be formally trained and appointed by the organization, or they could be informal advocates such as parents, friends, family members, or members of social partner organizations. These people can offer encouragement and help boost candidates’ performances.

  • Give candidates flexibility in how they process and record information during the interview. Allow them their choice of tools for processing and recording—whether drawing, writing, or typing on a personal device. Routinely offer to repeat instructions and build in extra time for re-reading or repeating tasks.

Again, to avoid a discrimination charge, an employer should never inquire about an applicant’s medical history or disability status and must consistently treat all similarly qualified applicants. Whether a candidate decides to share a diagnosis, your recruitment and hiring process should stay the same. Continue to research and grow in your knowledge of neurodiversity, consider using nontraditional screening and assessment methods, and plan thoughtful and inclusive interviews.

Archbright members have access to a comprehensive Video Training Library in mozzo, which includes microlearning videos such as Equitable Hiring (Parts 1 and 2), Emotional Intelligence—The Awareness Wheel, Being an Ally, and Recruiting for Neurodiversity (Parts 1 and 2). Contact us at info@archbright.com to see how you can get access.

Picture of Tess Griswold, M.Ed.

Tess Griswold, M.Ed.

Tess Griswold is a Training Specialist with Archbright. Her perspective on education and leadership is informed by her experiences working in community colleges and the nonprofit sector, where she taught Adult Basic Education and English as a Second Language. She earned a B.A. in English Literature from Western Washington University and a M.Ed. in Secondary Education from Loyola University Chicago.