- About 15 to 20% of the world’s population identifies as neurodivergent.
- Neurodivergent people often face workplace barriers in applying, interviewing, and onboarding.
- Some companies, such as P&G, have introduced programs to recruit and retain neurodivergent candidates.
- This article is part of the “Innovation at Work” series exploring the trends and barriers to workplace transformation.
Danny Lakes, who identifies as being on the autism spectrum, is an order-management automation specialist at Procter & Gamble. Before getting his job at P&G, though, he found it difficult to find work.
“I knew I had skills, but not a lot of companies were willing to give me a chance,” Lakes, 29, told Insider. He explained that he struggles in social situations, especially in corporate environments, and that it was a barrier to getting hired.
Lakes’ experience is not uncommon among neurodivergent individuals, which is a term that represents people with neurological types like autism, dyslexia, or ADHD. Indeed, the estimated unemployment rate among neurodiverse people ranges from 30 to 40% up to 80%.
And while some workplaces have begun to embrace the ethos of diversity, equity, and inclusion, neurodiversity — defined as the variations of human brains and cognition in each individual — hasn’t always made the DEI cut.
Neurodivergent people must navigate workplace obstacles that may be straightforward for neurotypical employees, such as oral presentations, long meetings, customer service, and coworker lunches, and that’s if they can even get hired.
Workplace culture is beginning to shift
There’s some change on the horizon. As more adults self-identify as neurodivergent — some estimates suggest about 15 to 20% of the US population is neurodivergent — companies are beginning to rethink workplace culture to support these employees and the unique skills they bring to the table.
“Definitely in the last five to eight years there has been a shift,” Susanne Bruyère, a professor of disability studies at Cornell University and the director of the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, told Insider.
“Some companies have started seeking out the neurodivergent, particularly those who have autism, finding characteristics like the ability to hyperfocus on a task or analyze data to be great at jobs, with appropriate education and support,” she said.
“Right now, organizations are doing the groundwork,” Lyric Rivera, who identifies as neurodivergent, told Insider. Rivera said companies are starting to have conversations and bring in trainers, a sort of “Neurodivergence 101” for employees and leadership. “It feels a little safer, but there needs to be more change and more neurodivergence in leadership positions — not just entry-level.”
Rivera has a background in human resources and recruiting and is on social media as Neurodivergent Rebel. They authored “Workplace Neurodiversity Rising,” a book about supportive environments in the workplace for diverse minds, and consults with companies to help with neurodivergent-employee retention and recruitment.
Rivera is part of a growing number of neurodivergent individuals who are speaking up and owning their differences, pushing employers to expand accommodations that they say benefit all employees and make workplaces more supportive and inclusive.
Neurodivergent people face specific barriers to entering the workplace
Bruyère said some reasons employers may not consider a neurodivergent applicant could include their inability to register social cues, applicants getting screened out of the interview process because of unpredictable behaviors, or applicants having nontraditional education paths.
While these obstacles exist at the interview stage, some neurodivergent candidates find they cannot even apply for certain jobs because the work environment is chaotic or features fluorescent lighting, or they have a short attention span for specific tasks, a lack of organizational skills, or limited executive function, to name a few concerns.
This makes the applicant pool of neurodivergent candidates even smaller and pushes out those who require more support at the day-to-day level.
“Historically, as a population, they have been marginalized and employed at far lower levels than they should have been,” Bruyère said. “Those who are neurodiverse don’t get the same consideration in the hiring process. And that presents a problem.”
Company culture can support neurodivergent employees
While many companies offer programs to support existing neurodivergent employees, advocates like Rivera say the next step is to get more neurodivergent candidates in the door.
Procter & Gamble, where Lakes works, began offering a range of programs in 2018 to support neurodivergent talent, including a five-week internship program for neurodivergent employees that provides mentorship opportunities, an affinity group for people to connect across the company, and ongoing training for neurodivergent employees and managers to learn communications strategies.
Lakes said the program has been a game changer for him. “It’s the only company I’ve worked for that has helped me build myself as a person,” he told Insider.
Todd Ballish, who manages P&G’s neurodiversity program, said, “The goal of the program is to mirror everyday society and what that actually looks like. It’s more of an objective — to bring in talent and mirror society.”
Companies can still go further
Rivera said workplace culture needs to continue to shift away from the self-reliant, “never admit you are struggling” mindset and into a more supportive and inclusive model that will benefit both neurodivergent and neurotypical employees.
Photo provided by Lyric Rivera
Accommodations like working from home, being able to wear headphones at work to drown out excess noise, or finding quieter spaces to work in an office are accommodations that can contribute to overall success.
“People are not robots, of any neurotype,” Rivera said. “And it’s not kind or compassionate to look at employees that way, as emotionless. When people feel appreciated and valued, when they can bring their whole selves to work, it allows us to have safety. Don’t pressure people to fit a mold that is historically set by neurotypical people. It’s an unfair expectation.”
Bruyère said that changing culture starts in the hiring process. Eliminating those barriers — like applicants getting screened out of the process due to nontraditional educational paths or unpredictable behaviors — is the first step to leveling the playing field and creating a more diverse workforce.
The next step is to rethink the larger workplace environment, addressing things like noise, fluorescent lighting, flexible schedules, and work-from-home opportunities.
“Companies are increasing interest and willingness and sharing best practices to talk about what is working and not working,” Bruyère said. “Companies are seeking this population because it’s untapped talent and I find that incredibly encouraging.”