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How to Embrace Neurodiverse Talent and Why You Should

A woman wearing glasses and a headset in a call center.

​An estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of the world's population exhibits some form of neurodivergence, according to various studies, and despite strides being made in advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace, some say that neurodiversity is still being overlooked.

Autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are all categorized as being on the spectrum of neurodivergence. Anthony Pacilio

Anthony Pacilio is vice president of Neurodiverse Solutions at CAI—an employment program that helps companies attract and retain neurodiverse talent. CAI is a technology services and consulting firm in Allentown, Pa.

Pacilio spoke with SHRM Online about obstacles neurodiverse talent experience in the hiring process, challenges faced by neurodivergent employees and steps that companies can take to become more neurodiverse.

SHRM Online: What are some of the common barriers to hiring neurodiverse talent?

Pacilio: There are three main barriers: the traditional interview process, inaccessible workplace culture and a lack of understanding of the benefits of neurodiversity.

Neurodivergent job seekers excel when the pressures of the traditional interview are removed. The interview process is typically tailored to neurotypical candidates. A panel-style interview with multiple managers asking questions can be overwhelming and intimidating, which may hinder candidates' abilities to best present themselves.

A hands-on evaluation with a neurodiversity-certified leader in a supportive workplace environment is the best solution. It reduces anxiety, allowing neurodivergent individuals to express themselves and demonstrate their skills.

Workplace accommodations are also necessary for neurodivergent employees to integrate into team dynamics and thrive long term. There are many inexpensive, effective and instant accommodations employers can implement, including:

  • Noise-canceling headphones to block out distracting sounds and conversations for better concentration.
  • Desk placement assessment and relocation to reduce anxiety.
  • For remote employees, recorded meetings with agendas, closed captioning, and notes so that the information is accessible in various ways.

While these are beneficial prior to hiring neurodivergent talent, workplace cultures are improved post-hire as neurodivergent employees can introduce managers to new accommodations.

The most common barrier, though, is not understanding the business benefit of hiring someone who is neurodivergent. More than productivity and innovation, employers experience higher morale and employee engagement with blended teams of neurodivergent and neurotypical people. Sometimes, employers don't know where to start. Neurodiversity employment programs manage the recruitment, assessment and onboarding of neurodivergent individuals. The goal is to set candidates up for a lifetime of independence through meaningful and rewarding careers and for employers to realize the benefits of neurodiversity.

SHRM Online: What are the typical challenges faced by neurodivergent employees?

Pacilio: For neurodivergent employees, in addition to the lack of workplace accommodations, it's also career mobility. Landing a job is great, but we're also interested in building long-lasting careers. Neurodiversity-certified leaders who manage and oversee the success of a neurodiverse team also coach on how to self-advocate. Goals are established with defined paths toward achievement, creating a plan focused on career mobility, which in turn leads to employee advocacy.

SHRM Online: What benefits do neurodivergent workers bring to an organization?

Pacilio: Neurodivergent individuals provide organizations with insights that foster innovation and outside-the-box thinking. Employees who think differently provide fresh ideas and perspectives while adding to the organization's bottom line. Neurodivergent individuals are skilled in analyzing data, problem-solving, pattern recognition, and may have strong attention to detail. Careers in technology, finance, legal, cybersecurity and health care research, among others, are ideal for candidates with these skills that aid in solving complex business challenges.

Taking the time to fully understand what it means to be neurodiverse provides a strong return on investment for employers. When hiring from the neurodivergent talent pool, not only do employers improve productivity, but they boost their company culture and DE&I efforts in the process. Blended teams of neurodiverse and neurotypical talent not only increase companies' efficiencies but also organically transform their culture into one rooted in empathy and support. In turn, workplace collaboration increases while also becoming more accepting.

At the end of the day, the greater impact is shown in what the organization is doing for the individual. The neurodiverse community contributes to an organization's bottom line, but the opportunities provided are just as valuable. The positive impact of a worthwhile job extends beyond the corporate atmosphere. It's another step in neurodivergent employees' independence. With a secure sense of responsibility, financial security, renewed confidence and more, neurodivergent employees are empowered to thrive in and out of work.

SHRM Online: How can employers become more neurodiverse?

Pacilio: In my mind, it's all about support. As for all employees, retaining neurodivergent talent is achieved when proper internal support is in place. When employers create a culture of authenticity by empowering employees to bring their full selves to work, neurodivergent employees can thrive.

To achieve this, employers should conduct an internal audit of their hiring and onboarding processes. Are practices mindful of or neglecting neurodivergent talent? Are simple accommodations available—noise-cancelling headphones or better desk placements? What about more longer-term solutions such as assistive technologies and online accessibility? Are there other resources available for neurodivergent employees?

One of the more successful starting points is in establishing a disability-focused employee resource group (ERG). ERGs invest their time and resources into developing an inclusive culture that raises awareness, educates employees and creates a sense of belonging. These ERGs can educate business leaders and managers on more inclusive employment practices and can help fulfill accommodation requests.


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