Supporting (and Leveraging) Neurodiversity in the Workplace

By Tim Reed

In the modern workplace, neurodiverse employees can make outstanding contributions to their organizations. For example, some may have a high level of focus that allows them to excel in certain roles; others may demonstrate a high level of creativity. Whatever their talents and skill sets, neurodiverse workers bring unique perspectives to the workplace. In order to tap into this pool of potentially valuable employees, however, businesses may need to adjust their hiring and other workplace practices.

Rethinking the Hiring Process

Organizations should take neurodiversity into account during recruitment, hiring, and onboarding. For example, when hiring for a specific position, employers should ask themselves, “For this role, are we looking for someone who is well rounded, or do we need a specialist?”

Depending on the position a business is seeking to fill, it may consider welcoming nontraditional application materials, such as videos and art. Further, employers should keep in mind that someone who is neurodiverse may struggle in a job interview because of its unpredictability and unfamiliarity but may have all of the skills necessary for a particular role. Because neurodiverse people often favor routines, employers should avoid sudden, unexpected modifications to the interview process (or be open to rescheduling an interview rather than change it).

Specialisterne, a “socially innovative company” in which “the majority of employees have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum,” focuses on ”the special characteristics and talents of people with autism and use[s] them as a competitive advantage.”1 To evaluate candidates, the company has developed an approach that uses half-day-long gatherings called “hangouts”:

[N]eurodiverse job candidates can demonstrate their abilities in casual interactions with company managers. At the end of a hangout, some candidates are selected for two to six weeks of further assessment and training (the duration varies by company).2

Adjustments within the Workplace

Neurodiverse individuals need accommodation, not cures. Indeed, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws neurodiverse conditions may be considered disabilities, and neurodiverse job applicants and employees may be entitled to reasonable accommodation:

To determine the appropriate reasonable accommodation it may be necessary for the covered entity to initiate an informal, interactive process with the individual with a disability in need of the accommodation. This process should identify the precise limitations resulting from the disability and potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limitations.3

Accommodations for neurodiverse employees need not be extensive to be effective. However, organizations should be flexible with respect to management and supervision of neurodiverse workers, workspaces, and communications. Accommodations may include:

  • Changes to physical space
  • Providing a quiet workspace with little stimulation (or allowing the use of headphones)
  • Making attendance at work-related social events optional
  • Providing instructions via e-mail (rather than verbally)
  • Reassignment to a vacant position or a different team
  • Workplace buddies or job coaches

Hiring neurodiverse employees is not a question of being nice or “giving” people jobs. Because these individuals can bring valuable skills to the workplace, hiring them can help a business build the best workforce possible to meet its needs. Several prominent companies have adjusted their human resources practices to embrace neurodiversity and leverage neurodiverse employees skill sets. (SAP’s Autism at Work program, which “has placed more than 100 employees in 18 roles” since its launch in 2013, is one example.4) Put simply, by capitalizing on and supporting neurodiversity within the workplace, employers may improve their products, processes, and services — and thereby gain an advantage over their competitors.

About the author:

Tim Reed is the office managing partner of Ford Harrison’s San Francisco Bay Area office, which he cofounded in January 2018. He represents employers both in the courtroom and before administrative agencies with respect to a wide range of employment law claims, including discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, trade secrets, breach of contract, economic tort, and wage-and-hour matters.