Neurodiversity Rises as Critical Component in Your HR Strategy

Author: Robert S. Teachout, XpertHR Legal Editor

Experts estimate that up to 15% of the human population have neurodiverse conditions, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. Taking steps to address the needs of the neurodiverse and ensure their inclusion in the workplace can benefit both the employees and the organization.

But what precisely is neurodiversity and why is it so important? Neurodiversity describes the concept that people experience and interact with their surrounding world in many different ways as part of the normal variation in the human population. It is defined as the range of variations in individual cognitive functions and behavioral traits, bringing forward unique and different skills, abilities and needs among workforces.

When organizations view neurodiversity as simply another way in which normal brains operate and hire neurodiverse employees, they can gain a competitive edge. However, most employers do not accommodate neurodiverse employees, losing out on the beneficial talents, perspectives and skills these employees bring.

This is understandable to attorney Tim Reed, a shareholder with Ogletree Deakins in San Francisco. Reed is a diversity and inclusion advocate, with a particular interest in neurodiversity issues. He recently presented a webinar on embracing neurodiversity in the workplace for XpertHR.

"This is an emerging topic in employment law, and the idea of and the need for accommodating neurodiverse individuals may be something that is not on a lot of employers' radar," said Reed. "So, the fact that a majority of [employers] have not made any modifications for neurodiverse employees is not surprising."

A poll of webinar attendees found that a large percentage of employers are not providing any sort of accommodations. When asked what types of accommodations their organization has in place for neurodiverse employees, 63% responded that they had not made any modifications for neurodiverse employees. Of those reporting provided accommodations:

  • 35% made modifications to the work environment;
  • 26% made modifications to the manner/circumstances in which the job is performed;
  • 22% made modifications that enable an employee to enjoy equal employment benefits and privileges; and
  • Only 13% made modifications to their job application process.
neurodiversity chart

(Because participants could choose all answers that applied, results exceed 100%.)

Reed explained that there are many different neurodiverse conditions besides autism, ADHD and dyslexia (the most commonly recognized). Others include:

  • Asperger's syndrome;
  • Dyscalculia;
  • Dyspraxia;
  • Epilepsy;
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); and
  • Tourette syndrome.

According to Reed, neurodiverse conditions usually will fall under the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, an individual with a disability is one who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. As an example, dyslexia impairs a person's ability to read, a major life activity, and therefore qualifies as a disability and an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to enable a dyslexic employee to perform the essential functions of their job.

Employers can start to overcome a resistance to providing accommodations for neurodiverse employees by considering a different perspective. According to John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye (about living with Asperger's syndrome), neurodiverse employees do not need to be cured, but rather helped and accommodated instead.

As a normal variation to the human experience, neurodiversity falls squarely in the area of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) efforts, and it is important not to take the view that embracing neurodiversity is a burden on the organization because your employees are paying attention.

A recent study from Tallo found that for Gen Z employees, inclusivity within an organization - including for neurodiversity - is required, not optional. One in five told Tallo they decided not to apply for a job because a company lacked resources for neurodivergent employees, and 80% said they would be more likely to apply to an organization that provides materials for the neurodiverse.

"This is not a charity act to do something nice for a person with autism," states Drexel University Professor Paul Shattuck, the Director of the Life Outcomes Research Program at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. "This is about having a more inclusive workforce because we value diversity in our society."

As with accommodations for other disabilities, best practices for reasonably accommodating neurodiverse employees often are low- or no-cost to the employer and unlikely to create undue hardship. For example:

  • Providing a quiet workspace with little stimulation (or allowing the use of headphones).
  • Making attendance at work-related social events optional.
  • Providing instructions via email (rather than verbally).
  • Reassigning the employee to a vacant position or a different team.

Another accommodation is to arrange workplace buddies or job coaches. The Job Accommodations Network (JAN) explains that while job coaches can be helpful in assisting individuals with a wide variety of disabilities, they most commonly work with individuals who have conditions such as autism, ADHD, learning disabilities and cognitive impairments.

Employers that embrace and support neurodiverse employees, such as Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and Ford - report strong benefits to the organization. Software firm SAP started its "Autism at Work" program in 2013 and has placed 100 employees in 18 roles; these employees have a 90% retention rate. Although the expectation was that neurodiverse employees would primarily focus on repetitive work like software testing, SAP reports that in practice the employees "have been able to add value in a much broader range of tasks." In late 2020, EY (a global provider of solutions for building a better working world) reported that "companies that embrace neurodiversity can gain competitive advantage in many areas - productivity, innovation, culture, and talent retention."

So, employers that fail to embrace neurodiverse employees may be putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage, especially amidst the hot labor market and staffing shortages that have plagued some companies. Instead, by recognizing the value these employees can bring to the table and providing reasonable accommodations to help them thrive, an employer can demonstrate its genuine commitment to inclusion that today's employees expect.