DIVERSITY IN THE WORKS: Capitalizing on and Supporting Neurodiversity within the Workplace



Executive Summary: As noted by John Edler Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye (a memoir detailing his life with Asperger syndrome and savant abilities), “neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like autism and [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”)] are the result of normal, natural variation in human genome” and are “not the result of disease or injury.”  Some estimate that 10% of the human population have neurodiverse conditions such as autism, ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, dyslexia, and Tourette syndrome.  In fact, Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, Richard Branson, Mozart, Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, and Andy Warhol have all been reported to have been neurodiverse.      

In the modern workplace, neurodiverse employees can provide an organizational advantage.  Some may have a high level of focus, allowing them to excel in a variety of roles, such as accounting, computer programming, and journalism.  Other neurodiverse employees may demonstrate a high level of creativity.  Ultimately, neurodiverse workers provide unique perspectives regarding work and the workplace.  However, to tap into this pool of potentially valuable employees, businesses may need to adjust their hiring and other workplace practices. 

Re-thinking the Hiring Process

Neurodiversity should be taken into account with respect to recruiting, hiring, and on-boarding.  For example, when hiring for a specific position, employers should ask themselves, “Are we looking for someone who is well-rounded, or do we need a specialist for this particular role?”  Based on the position a business is seeking to fill, that company may consider an application process that includes non-traditional items, such as videos and art. 

Further, employers should keep in mind that someone with a neurodiverse condition such as autism may struggle in a job interview, given the unpredictability and unfamiliarity of the process – but may have all the of the skills necessary for a particular role.  Further, autistic employees may favor routines, so employers should avoid sudden, unexpected modifications to the interview process (or be open to rescheduling an interview rather than making abrupt changes). 

Specialisterne – a Danish social innovator company that uses the characteristics of people with autistic spectrum disorders as competitive advantages in the workplace – has developed an approach referred to as “hangouts” for evaluating neurodiverse candidates.  Hangouts are comfortable gatherings, usually a half-day, where neurodiverse 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. 

Adjustments within the Workplace

As noted by Look Me in the Eye author Robison, “Indeed, many individuals who embrace the concept of neurodiversity believe that people with differences do not need to be cured; they need help and accommodation instead.”  Indeed, neurodiverse conditions may be considered “disabilities” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and similar state laws.  Accordingly, neurodiverse job applicants and employees may be entitled to reasonable accommodation.  According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), “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.” 

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

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

Conclusion: Neurodiverse employees can potentially bring valuable skillsets to the workplace.  So hiring them is not about being nice or giving people jobs, it is about ensuring that a given business has the best workforce possible to meet its needs.  Several prominent companies have adjusted their human resources practices to embrace neurodiversity, including Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and Ford.  SAP, for example, started an “Autism at Work” program in 2013.  As of December 2020, SAP had placed more than 100 employees in 18 roles, with a 90% retention rate.  As one SAP manager noted, “The original expectation, as I understood it, was that these colleagues would be mostly focused on repetitive work, such as software testing.  But in practice they have been able to add value in a much broader range of tasks.”  Put simply, by capitalizing on and supporting neurodiversity within the workplace, employers may improve products, processes, and services (thereby gaining an advantage over competitors). 

This alert is part of our Diversity Legal Alert Series – Diversity in the Works. Members of FordHarrison’s Diversity and Inclusion practice group publish Alerts in this series addressing a variety of legal topics that may impact employers’ diversity initiatives. For information on other diversity, equity, and inclusion training modules available to your organization, including details on our recent six-part webinar series, click here

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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