Neurodiversity: the Benefits of Building a Neuroinclusive Workplace

As organisations begin to acknowledge that diverse and inclusive environments are often also the most productive, profitable and sought-after workplaces, DE&I has migrated to the very core of the corporate agenda. But amid the broader push for greater equality of opportunity across all under-represented demographics, those with neurological differences can still find themselves edged out.
Diane Nowell
Mar 09, 2022

It’s thought that up to a fifth of the world’s population could be described as neurodiverse – a term used to cover those with attention, communication, visual or physical disorders that fall outside the parameters of neurotypical cognition. Common conditions include Autism (ASD), ADHD, Dyslexia/Dyscalculia and Tourette’s.

Unsurprisingly, the capabilities of neurodivergent people can vary considerably, and yet even those with exceptional talents may struggle to fit the recruitment profile of prospective employers. According to UK statistics, 78 percent of adults with autism are unemployed, for example – the highest rate of any single group.

Untapped potential

These figures suggest that employers are missing out on the fresh perspectives that neurominority employees could bring to the workplace.

Sam Handfield-Jones is CEO of Seccl Technology and lives with ADHD.

‘Diversity of every kind needs to be encouraged in the workplace. If everyone looks the same, has the same experiences or thinks the same, you carry on doing the same things. In a fast-changing world, neurodiversity offers businesses critical skills to stay competitive, evolve and adapt.’

However, as some of the commonly associated behaviours of neurodiverse people don’t fit neatly into mainstream ideas of what makes a good employee – such as good communication skills, teamwork and emotional intelligence – they are routinely screened out of consideration.

KK Harris, Executive Coach Director at Talking Talent, was diagnosed with a neurodiversity (ADHD) last year and now helps organisations accelerate advancement for under-represented talent.

‘In every industry we can benefit from making the world more accessible for those who are neurodiverse, embracing their learning differences and the way they see the world. But by focusing too much on the stigma of neurodiversity, businesses overestimate the amount of support neurodiverse talent need and inevitably miss out on great candidates.’

Creating an inclusive company culture

While neurodiversity benefits business by driving innovation, it also enriches company culture by modelling the unique talents and behaviours that help build belonging and purpose – which, in turn, impacts the wider workforce.

Suki Sandhu, OBE, is the founder of DE&I-focused businesses Audeliss and INvolve. Suki is confident that neurodiverse talent can embody the fresh perspectives that help companies become far more attuned to their wider stakeholder communities.

‘Where companies support diverse talent through meaningful action and system changes, they are showing their commitment to creating a culture of equal opportunities. Businesses who are enabling neurodiverse employees to succeed will stand out as an employer of choice for others.’

In fact, recent research found that 72 percent of people listed DEI as a major factor in their decision to stay at a company.

For Niamh Graham, SVP of Global HX at workplace solutions specialist Workhuman, this cultural shift can be positive for everyone – if it’s authentic.

‘To create an inclusive culture, organisations should first focus on inculcating the kind of psychological safety that enables all employees to bring their whole, authentic, human selves to work – including feeling comfortable enough to bring up any issues with colleagues and managers – without any fear of backlash.’

Kate Griggs, founder and CEO of charity Made by Dyslexia and author of This is Dyslexia, agrees that culture is the foundation of a neuroinclusive workplace.

‘Creating a ‘skills-first’ culture is important because it defines neurodiverse employees by what they can do, not what they can’t.’

Setting the stage for success

Pursuing a policy of neuroinclusion isn’t without its challenges. Neurodiverse people may need additional workplace accommodations – noise-cancelling headphones, for example – as well as the opportunity to showcase their abilities in ways that don’t put them at a disadvantage.

Educationalist Prof. Adam Boddison is CEO of Association for Project Management (APM). He believes it is important to view neurodiversity as ‘brain differences’ that can enhance project outcomes, rather than ‘brain deficits’ to be avoided. He advocates implementing practical strategies for inclusion as part and parcel of routine business activity for everyone – such as upgrading to standing desks, encouraging regular movement breaks and providing low-stimulation workstations well away from the daily office hustle-and-bustle.

It’s worth considering that even small adjustment can have a huge impact on an organisation’s ability to retain neurodiverse talent. Kate Griggs recommends giving dyslexics extra time to read documents before meetings, providing big-picture summaries and presenting information in a multi-sensory way (using videos, pictures, diagrams and less text), as well as offering assistive tech, where possible.

Importantly, committing to neuroinclusion means ditching the presumption of conformity in successful workplace practices and allowing neurodiverse employees to deviate from standard processes and protocols.

Tailoring L&D to neurodivergent thinkers

Learning and development can be more effective when there’s an acknowledgement that the challenge rests within the organisation and not with the individual.

Jacqui Wallis is CEO of Genius Within, an organisation that supports neurodivergent staff unlock their talents, whilst acknowledging and valuing diversity. The organisation advises governments on policy, provides consultancy to businesses of all sizes and manages the Celebrating Neurodiversity Awards.

‘Awareness is perhaps the first stumbling block. We know that there is little awareness or understanding among employers about neurodivergence, according to a report by the Westminster AchieveAbility Commission. We also know that many neurodivergent people are unaware of their strengths. Systemic change means reducing all disabling factors – sensory as well as physical ones – and so removing the barriers that prevent great performance.’

Raising awareness might seem like a modest ambition when there’s so much ground to cover, but it is a crucial step on the path towards neuroinclusion.

Prof. Adam Boddison: ‘One of the most significant barriers to advancing DE&I goals is ignorance. Companies don’t consciously decide to limit the inclusivity of their workplaces, but misconceptions and a lack of understanding can result in unintended consequences.’

Focusing on employees’ positive contributions has the added advantage of benefitting the whole workforce.

‘It’s important to note that it’s an organisation’s diversity that adds value – rather than one person thinking in a particular way,’ he adds. ‘Business practices that embrace neurodiversity are also those most likely to embody those business practices that benefit all employees.’



Diane Nowell

Writer and communications consultant