5 min read

Hiring for Neurodiversity

Hiring for Neurodiversity

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

What is Neurodiversity?

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.”

Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Diversity in the workplace, including neurodiversity, equips organizations with greater perspective, creativity, and insight. Diverse teams are more likely to catch errors and effectively troubleshoot existing practices and procedures. They’re also more resistant to “groupthink,” or unreasoning consensus, an issue common among homogenous teams. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, studies have shown that employers with the greatest focus on disability inclusion achieve higher revenues. 

Despite these benefits, a 2018 report showed the employment rate for working-age people with cognitive disabilities in the U.S. 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 individuals have the ability, desire, and need to attain employment. What’s stopping them?

The Hiring Process and Neurodiversity

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.” While the attributes of professionalism might seem desirable, they can be—and often are—used by employers to discriminate against applicants with disabilities. 

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

Interviews typically allow candidates little time 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 help an applicant with ADHD focus 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 a neurodivergent person’s fine motor skills.

Finally, it’s impossible to overlook the role that ableism—prejudice and discrimination aimed at people with disabilities— plays during the hiring process. Too many hiring managers hold ill-informed or outdated beliefs about the skills and abilities of disabled applicants, considering them inferior to their non-disabled counterparts. 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 in and out of the workplace.

Organizations that want to take the work of disability inclusion seriously should look critically at their recruitment and hiring processes. 

Recommendations for Employers Seeking to Hire and Retain Neurodiverse Talent

First, prepare your organization.

Ask leadership: When our organization hires neurodiverse employees, how will we support them? Can non-disabled co-workers or supervisors 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? Efforts such as these 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.

For example, Austin and Pisano’s article describes a software company where new hires create a ‘how to work with me’ document. This 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 affirms 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. Avoid treating these gaps as signs of deficiencies or potential red flags.

  • If you don’t already, consider giving applicants multiple ways to inquire about job openings and submit applications. This could be online, by phone, or by email. This allows them to choose the method that is easiest for them or most compatible with the assistive technology and adaptive strategies they use. 

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

  • Panel interviews can easily overwhelm neurodivergent applicants, as they require attention to several people's body language, facial expressions, etc., all at once. Instead, if the candidate needs to speak with different people, try opting for sequential interviews with one person at a time. 

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

  • Be prepared. Make questions available to the candidate before 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. 

  • 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. It’s also best to avoid sarcasm, which many neurodiverse people struggle to interpret.

  • If a candidate chooses to disclose a disability, ask what language they 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.

  • Give candidates flexibility in processing and recording information during the interview. Allow them their choice of tools for processing and recording. Routinely offer to repeat instructions and build in extra time for rereading 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 applicants. Whether a candidate decides to share a diagnosis, your recruitment and hiring process should continue to reflect a commitment to supporting individuals with disabilities. With increased diversity comes greater resilience, innovation, and problem-solving—benefits for employers and employees alike.
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