The benefits of a neurodiverse workplace
Around 15-20% of people are neurodivergent, and many companies now recognise that a neurodiverse workplace can strengthen their workforce. Here’s how to be more inclusive.
As humans, we’re all unique. We think, live and act differently, and one of the most interesting cross-sections of our global population is the neurodiverse community. But what is neurodivergence, and how many neurodivergent people are there?
In the late 1990s, Australian sociologist Judy Singer coined the term neurodiversity. Judy, who describes herself as “likely somewhere on the autistic spectrum”, came up with the word to describe behaviours and thoughts that differ from what is considered ‘typical’.
Judy’s aim was to challenge stigma around autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other neurological or developmental conditions.
She wanted to highlight that our differences should be considered just that – differences, not deficiencies. And that these differences should be recognised, respected and celebrated.
It’s estimated around 15-20% of the world’s population is neurodivergent and 1-1.5% of the population is on the autism spectrum.
In 2018, Autism Spectrum Australia estimated around one in 70 people in Australia was autistic, or about 353,880 people, which is an increase from one in 100 people recorded in 2014.
Referrals for ADHD diagnosis have also surged since the pandemic, according to Monash Health, which consultant psychiatrist Dr Sujit Sharma says is partly due to increased awareness.
According to Neurodiversity Media CEO, Rachel Worsley, people with ADHD, dyslexia, autism, Tourette syndrome, dyscalculia (difficulty applying maths principles) and dysgraphia (difficulty turning language sounds to text) make up one in eight Australians.
What does it mean to be neurodivergent?
“Neurodivergence is when a person’s neurobiology (their brain and body processing) diverges from what’s considered neurotypical,” says Kristy Forbes, an autism and neurodiversity support specialist. “Neurodivergent people identify as having a different way of existing in the world.”
Besides autism, ADHD and dyslexia, other types of neurodivergence you might have heard of include dyspraxia (difficulty with movement and coordination), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and Tourette syndrome (TS). If you’re unfamiliar with the term neurodiversity, and if you don’t know how to refer to someone who is neurodivergent, it’s always best to ask them rather than make assumptions.
“Neurodivergent is an appropriate way to refer to a person with a neurodiverse condition such as ADHD or autism, but it’s important to check with the individual [about] how they choose to identify,” says Kristy.
“More than 80% of the autistic community, including myself, prefer to say, ‘I’m autistic’, rather than ‘I have autism.’ Autism is not separate from me; it’s central to my being and influences how I process and understand the world.”
Neurodiversity covers a range of conditions and characteristics, and many conditions require a complex diagnosis from a variety of health professionals.
Neurodiversity in the workplace
Having a diverse workforce can help organisations thrive and grow in our modern world. According to a 2018 Deloitte report, companies with inclusive and diverse cultures are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets, three times as likely to be high performing and six times as likely to be innovative and agile.
Other research suggests neurodivergent employees can improve team morale, offer higher than average attention to detail, can apply a more creative approach to problem solving, and an increased rate of productivity compared to neurotypical employees.
“Diversity represents the community. If an organisation doesn’t embrace diversity, in particular neurodiversity, they’re really missing out on having staff who think differently, solve problems differently and give them a competitive advantage,” says David Smith, managing director at Employ for Ability.
“Many organisations focus on hiring a particular type of person, calling it cultural fit, but neurodiverse workers are a large percentage of the community and need to be represented in all organisations.”
Neurodiversity challenges in the workplace
Neurodivergent people have so much to offer the culture of our workplace, but they can face many challenges when it comes to getting a job. For many, these challenges start at the interview process.
“[Job] interviews measure social and communication skills but for many neurodivergent adults, these are the barriers that prevent them from participating in society as an employee,” says David.
“Managers and workers [sometimes] expect neurodivergent employees to think, speak and use logic the same way they do, but that’s like expecting a vision-impaired co-worker to be able to do things the same as someone who is visually unimpaired.”
Education and awareness can help empower employers to hire more neurodivergent people and understand the benefits of doing so. “Working out what reasonable adjustments they need, accessing these adjustments via the federal government-funded Job Access scheme and getting help with a good job coach means managers and workers are both supported,” says David.
How to initiate positive change
As employers start to understand how neurodiversity is beneficial for their business, they’re adjusting their hiring processes to attract neurodiverse applicants. SAP, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and Microsoft are leading the way.
In the US, Microsoft now invites suitable candidates to hiring events where they can get a feel for what it’s like to work at Microsoft. They get help with interview preparation and meet with interviewers beforehand so they’re more comfortable in an informal setting.
Australian companies are also making positive changes. In 2021, Telstra launched a pilot recruitment program using non-traditional recruitment approaches (like replacing formal interviews with a series of work-based assessments) to find and recruit autistic and other neurodiverse employees. This has been so successful that, in 2023, Telstra is launching a full-scale neurodiverse recruitment program across all departments.
“In our experience at Employ for Ability, 95% of the candidates we place, when
provided with appropriate support, are still working for the same organisation 12 months later,” says David.
While it's a win for all, there’s still a long way to go. Australian statistics show there’s a higher level of unemployment for people who are neurodiverse, including an unemployment rate for autistic adults almost eight times higher than the rate for people without disability.
How to encourage neurodiverse job applicants
If you’re an employer wanting to improve inclusivity in your workplace, making some changes to your company’s recruitment processes can help. If you aren’t an employer, you can still raise these ideas with your own boss or HR department. Here are some tips from David:
- Write clear, jargon-free job ads and mention in the job ad that neurodivergent people are encouraged to apply.
- Advertise on a range of websites, magazines and community groups to cast a wider net and attract neurodivergent candidates.
- Consider whether a candidate can be chosen through a work trial, testing process, simulation or role play rather than an interview.
- Sit next to a candidate rather than in a traditional panel interview style of face-to-face.
- Ask candidates if they have any specific needs during the interview.
- Send out interview questions in advance.
- Give candidates an outline of what to expect during their interview.
- Encourage candidates to bring along a support person, or where necessary, offer to provide one.
How to help neurodivergent employees feel settled
There are several things people at work can do to help a new employee feel welcomed and supported. These may include:
- Delivering neurodiversity education and awareness training for managers and peers.
- Teaming them up with buddies who are neurodivergent, or have lived experience of working with neurodivergent colleagues, for ongoing support.
- Offering access to consistent and regular job training.
- Scheduling regular catch-ups to ensure employees are well supported.
- Promoting advocacy and support throughout the organisation.
Are you neurodivergent and looking for help?
If you or anyone you know is seeking support for a neurodivergent condition, there are a
variety of services available. Or, check in with your GP.
- Autism Connect is a free national helpline that supports autistic people, their families and carers, health professionals, teachers, employers and the community.
- Neurodiversity Hub provides a range of support services, including employment help and information.
- ADHD Australia is a supportive non-profit organisation that lists many support services and resources.
A GP at your fingertips
At HCF, we know it can be hard to manage your health in a convenient way. Our partnership with GP2U, an online video GP service, makes it easier for you to access telehealth services.
Through our partnership with GP2U, all HCF members with health cover can access a standard online video GP consultation (up to 10 minutes) for a fee of $50. See hcf.com.au/gp2u for more information.
Words by Jo Hartley
First published October 2022
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