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Busting 5 common myths about neurodiversity in the workplace

By Ian Handley 
Published: March 21, 2024
READ TIME: 5 minutes
While the evidence is stacking up on the benefits of cognitively diverse teams, and major global companies like Microsoft, Goldman Sachs and IBM are leading the way with neurodiversity hiring initiatives, several common myths continue to derail the conversation when it comes to bringing neurodiverse employees into the workplace.

As a longtime neurodiversity advocate, and someone who’s spent time with HR Managers and Executive Leaders from practically every industry, I’ve seen countless conversations place neurodiverse recruitment in the ‘too hard’ or ‘not for us’ baskets based on simple misconceptions.

Aside from missing out on cognitive diversity, it’s estimated 15-20% of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence, so any organisation who is hesitant to hire neurodiverse individuals is also missing out on a pretty big chunk of the potential workforce. Not ideal amid a digital skills crisis.

With this in mind, I wanted to bust some of the myths I’ve heard time and time again to reassure any employers out there that hiring neurodivergent employees is low risk and also a great way to bring more diversity and inclusion, innovation and creativity into your workforce.

Myth 1: Accommodating for neurodiversity in hiring practices is creating an unfair advantage

Traditional hiring practices, including job descriptions with strict ‘must have’ role requirements, rigidly formal interview formats and the unpredictable number of steps involved can be more challenging for people with neurodivergent conditions to navigate. With that in mind, accommodations in the hiring process – like sending interview questions to a candidate beforehand – can enable these individuals to arrive better prepared. While some may see that as creating an unfair advantage, what you’re really doing is creating a more inclusive experience for neurodivergent candidates.

After all, these individuals are starting from a point of disadvantage when it comes to finding and developing their careers, and if someone doesn’t advocate for them, they will continue to be left behind. 

If we take autism spectrum disorder as an example, in Australia, the ABS found the unemployment rate for autistic people is 34.1%, more than three times the rate for people with disability (10.3%) and almost eight times the rate of people without disability (4.6%).

By adopting a more inclusive hiring process, you’re recognising that neurodiverse candidates face different barriers to employment than neurotypical individuals and creating a fairer starting point for them.

Myth 2: Accommodating for neurodiversity in the workplace is costly and disruptive

Beyond hiring, many also believe that making accommodations for neurodivergent candidates in the workplace will be expensive and disruptive to existing processes and other team members. However, many accommodations are simple, cost-effective, and can be of benefit to all employees. For example, flexible working hours, quiet workspaces, providing written meeting notes and agendas and the option to work remotely can enhance productivity and job satisfaction for everyone.

Accommodating differences in the workplaces isn't something specific to neurodivergent individuals – creating an inclusive workplace is just good people management.

In fact, I wrote another article off the back of Autism SA's Inclusive Recruitment Project, specifically calling out key lessons learned about embracing neurodiversity in the workplace and the raft of benefits it can deliver.

Investing in such accommodations, especially flexibility on work time, patterns and location has been associated with improved employee wellbeing and reduced exhaustion, burnout and fatigue. A happier workforce also means better employee attraction, engagement and retention, important factors in securing your business’s future success.

Myth 3: Neurodivergent workers are only suited to tech roles

While I have a vested interest in encouraging neurodivergent people to consider roles in tech because of my role at WithYouWithMe, this isn’t the only field their skills and abilities are suited for. In fact, neurodiversity covers such a broad spectrum of conditions, experiences and abilities that you can find a neurodivergent person well-suited to any type of role. Chances are, you already have neurodivergent team members succeeding across all your business functions, so best not to stereotype what they’re capable of.

Instead of thinking about why you shouldn’t hire neurodivergent candidates, consider what your business could gain if you did.

Ian Handley,
VP of Oceania at WithYouWithMe

Myth 4: "We just don’t have any neurodivergent people coming through our pipeline” 

This is something I hear a lot from Hiring Managers, and while it can be true in some instances, there are several factors that might explain why...

  1. You do have neurodivergent candidates, but you just don’t know it. As with any form of socio-cultural differences or disabilities, individuals don't have to self-declare, and many don't want to for fear of the negative connotations typically associated with this group of cognitive differences. Others simply don’t see it as a defining factor of who they are.
  1. Your job advertisements outline rigid ‘must have’ role requirements like educational credentials, past job titles and years of experience. Neurodivergent people often think in black and white – meaning if there’s one requirement of the role they don’t specifically meet, they won’t apply.
  1. Lack of visibility around inclusivity efforts. Unless you clearly communicate that you welcome neurodivergent candidates and are eager for them to apply, people may assume the working environment is not welcoming, supportive or able to accommodate their needs. Sometimes you need to invite people to take a seat at the table.

Myth 5: Hiring neurodiverse people will lead to cultural misalignment in the team

In today’s political climate, neurotypical people tend to be apprehensive about broaching certain topics like neurodiversity or disability in the workplace, nervous of saying the ‘wrong’ thing. While this apprehension is well-meaning, it doesn’t foster a culture of inclusion, rather it leads to hesitancy around embracing differences and a perception that those differences will somehow change the workplace culture and lead to misalignment between old and new team members.

In reality, building a strong organisational culture is not about increasing uniformity, but instead about embracing the variations and fostering an environment where all team members feel valued, supported and encouraged to share their ideas. Especially in the fast-paced business environment we find ourselves in today, innovation and outside-the-box thinking is critical, and history has shown it doesn’t come from maintaining conformity.

As businesses strive to navigate a competitive recruitment landscape and a growing lack of digital skills in the market, it’s time for a shift in mindset away from screening people out for their differences and instead seeing those differences as opportunities.

Stop thinking about why you shouldn’t hire neurodivergent candidates and start thinking about why you should.

At WithYouWithMe, we provide free aptitude testing and digital skills training to more than 1,500 neurodivergent Australians through our Potential platform. If you want to implement a neurodiversity hiring initiative, get in touch.

This article was originally published on HRM Online.

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