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Neurodiversity at Work – Understanding the Benefits and Developing Effective Selection and Retention Practices


Increasingly, employers recognize that diversity and inclusion is not solely about compliance with EEO laws. Instead, there is a compelling business case for doing the right thing, not only because the law requires it and it’s the right thing to do, but because companies that are more diverse tend to be more innovative and outperform those that are less diverse.[1]

The diversity focus of this article is neurodiversity, or quite literally, diversity in the way that our brains are wired, and its positive impact on business. Autism is one very prominent example. One in every 54 children are now identified with autism (1 in 34 boys and 1 in 144 girls) and over 50,000 people on the autism spectrum graduate from high school each year.[2]  

Although the vast majority of people with autism are employable, and many have undergraduate and advanced degrees, over 80% are unemployed or underemployed. This, however, is beginning to change as employers expand their lens and appreciation for diversity and realize that there is significant untapped neurodivergent talent who, with the right selection tools, training, and support, can be productive and even truly exceptional members of the workforce in a wide range of jobs, including, for example, manufacturing, quality control, engineering, accounting, law, medicine, the arts, and so much more. 

Sorting Out the Terms

When initiating diversity and inclusion efforts, the terminology can be important and sometimes confusing. Here is a brief overview of some common terms and concepts:

Person-first vs identity-first language:  Although disability advocates usually recommend using person first language when referring to individuals with disabilities (e.g., “a person with autism”), there is less consensus about this usage within the autism community. Person-first is the preferred language for some people who have been identified with autism. Many others, however, opt for identity-first (autistic person) language, based on their belief that their autism cannot be separated from who they are in any meaningful way.[3] And yet again others reject the word “autism” altogether because “ism” words are indicative of disorders. (This article varies the usage of these terms to reflect those differences.)

What is Neurodiversity? The term “neurodiversity” was coined in the late 1990’s by Sociologist and autistic rights advocate, Judy Singer, as a synonym for neurological biodiversity. The term challenges the notion that neurological differences are pathological, and instead views them as natural variations in sensory, information processing, communication, and social skills.[4] The concept is particularly helpful in reducing the stigma of disability and shifting the focus to the significant and often uniquely beneficial strengths of these individuals. 

Neurotypical refers to people whose general neurological development and characteristics are shared by most people. 

Neurodivergent refers to an individual whose neurological development is statistically less common. Examples of such differences include dyspraxia, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyscalculia, autistic spectrum, and Tourette syndrome.[5]

Neurodiversity vs Neurodivergent: Neurodiversity refers to the neurological variability amongst a group of people. It is appropriate to refer to a group (or workforce) as neurodiverse, and to individuals as neurodivergent or neurotypical.

The Benefits of Neurodivergent Talent

In some instances, the very characteristics that make people neurodivergent also help them to be particularly suited to certain jobs. For example, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has a group responsible for analyzing aerial and satellite imagery that is staffed primarily with people with autism,[6]. More broadly, this group represents talent that is both qualified and available to perform a wide range of jobs but are missing those opportunities because traditional selection processes tend to overlook their strengths and unduly emphasize their weaknesses. Some of the skills that often align with autism are as follows:[7]

  • mathematical and technological skills
  • attention to detail; precision
  • hyper-focused, excellent concentration
  • intense interests and motivation
  • perseverance in problem solving
  • preference for repetitive tasks
  • skilled at pattern detection
  • strong memory – information retention
  • able to understand and retain concepts and rules
  • reliable, conscientious, honest
  • punctual and strong attendance
  • strong commitment to organizations/employers

Neurodiversity Workplace Inclusion Programs

In recent years, employers have begun to recognize that neurodivergent people bring unique and valuable skills to the workforce. At the same time, however, this talent pool struggles with securing and retaining the jobs – including those where they have the potential to be tremendously successful. Some of the hurdles that these candidates face can be removed or minimized to the benefit of both the candidates and the employers. Here are some tips for employers to consider:

Consider innovative recruiting tools. Traditional candidate screening tools, especially interviews, tend to over focus on skills for which neurodivergent candidates are likely to struggle, but that may not be required for the job itself. Instead, neurodivergent candidates are more successful in hiring programs that de-emphasize interviews and resumes, and focus instead on questionnaires, behavioral and skills assessment work simulations, and trial work periods. Inviting candidates to ask for accommodations is another important element in ensuring a smooth and successful recruiting experience for neurodivergent candidates.

Facilitate onboarding. The onboarding process for individuals who are neurodivergent may take more time and require reasonable accommodations. Managing change is an issue for which additional time and modest modifications can make a big difference for long term employment success. For example, individuals who are neurodivergent may experience issues with information processing, executive functions associated with planning, organizing, and the social skills related to meeting and interacting with colleagues. These potential issues may be exacerbated in the unfamiliar setting of a new job.

Ensure effective job accommodations. Some of the same characteristics that help make neurodivergent workers valuable to the workforce can also present challenges if not accommodated properly. It is important to remember that autism is considered a spectrum representing a constellation of developmental differences. Within these very broad characteristics, individuals with autism are often very different. It is important to not make assumptions about someone’s needs or capabilities simply because they have identified as autistic or neurodivergent. 

The following table identifies some of the possibilities that may apply to someone who is autistic.[8]

Examples of autism workplace accommodation needs

Examples of autism workplace accommodation ideas

Sensory sensitivity (sound, light)

Sensory/information processing – may take more time to process a question and respond

Motor planning/coordination

Understanding vague or unwritten rules or expectations

Executive functions (planning/prioritizing, organization, self-monitoring, behavioral flexibility)

Managing change

Navigating social demands

Discomfort with eye contact

Modify workspace or equipment (for sound, light, etc.)

Supporting equipment (headphones)

Products and strategies for managing time, work, and behavior

Visual supports, color coding

Job coaches, mentors

Workplace process guides

Alternate/redundant communication modalities (e.g., in writing vs in person, audio vs video)

Clear and explicit work expectations


It takes a team. Working with specialists who understand the workplace strengths, needs, and challenges of neurodivergent people can help to ensure a smooth and effective hiring program.  Some public interest organizations or government vocational rehabilitation departments offer services in this space. Private consulting firms have also emerged. Specialisterne is one example of such a resource, having supported industry giants including SAP, Boeing, BNY Mellon, Deloitte, TD, Goldman Sachs, and many others.

In addition to autism inclusion expertise, an informed manager can make a big difference in the success of neurodivergent employees. Training managers can be very helpful in, for example, adapting communication methods, defining job requirements, and monitoring and communicating success and opportunities. Of course, these are tools that will help managers with all employees, not just those who are neurodivergent. 

Combat bias and facilitate understanding and acceptance. Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all is overcoming the pervasive and systemic bias that individuals with disabilities are inferior workers. Executive sponsorship and robust DEI programs for neurodivergent hiring, inclusion, and retention are important to shifting the workplace culture to one that values and embraces diversity in all its forms. Training the workforce to understand and value neurodivergent people is especially important to ensuring a successful work experience for these individuals and to realizing the benefits that they bring to the business.

Neurodiversity Hiring Programs

Many companies are now realizing the advantages of a neurodiverse workforce and have established programs to attract and retain neurodivergent talent. Examples of companies that have established neurodiversity hiring/inclusion programs include, e.g., Accenture, Bloomberg, BNY Mellon, Deloitte, E&Y, Hewlett Packard, IBM, JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft, PWC, TD Bank, and Wills Towers Watson.  Examples of companies that have built their personnel model on a neurodivergent workforce include, e.g., Autonomy Works, Ultra Testing, Auticon. 

Recently Boeing joined the growing list of industry giants by piloting an Autism at Work program that was designed in consultation with Specialisterne and resulted in the hiring of several employees into engineering and software development roles. The goal of this initiative was to develop a reliable and repeatable hiring model that is inclusive of individuals with autism and leverages their key capabilities and expertise. The pilot also aims to illustrate the value and skills often untapped talent bring, and ultimately, to scale the program across the Boeing enterprise.

“This exciting talent acquisition program has been adopted by employers in other industries and is a first for Boeing,” said Doug Fischer, program manager of the Autism at Work pilot program and president of the Boeing Employees Ability Awareness Association’s Philadelphia chapter. “We believe that making neurodiversity a priority in the hiring practices for Boeing is essential to foster a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Our Autism at Work program is an opportunity to show that including individuals on the spectrum will drive innovation, employee engagement, and enhance company culture.”  

Getting Started – Resources

The following is a small sample of resources available to assist employers in designing and implementing neurodiversity workplace inclusion programs and providing workplace accommodations to autistic employees.

Job Accommodation Resources for Individuals with Autism 

Neurodivergent people bring a rich source of diversity to the workforce. They are an underrepresented and underutilized segment of the population that, with the right training and support, can enrich the workforce and have a strong and positive impact on the bottom line. 

[1] See, e.g., Sundiatu Dixon-Fyle, Kevin Dolan, Vivian Hunt, & Sara Prince, Diversity Wins:  How Diversity Matters, Mckinsey Report, May 2020,; Rocio Lorenzo & Martin Reeves, How and Where Diversity Drives Financial Performance, Harvard Business Review, January 2018,; Robert D. Austin & Gary P. Pisano, Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage, Harvard Business. Review (2017),

[2] Autism Statistics and Facts, Autism Speaks,; Karen Streeby, Impact Sourcing in Action:  Autism Empowerment Kit, Global Impact Sourcing Coalition Report,

[3] See Streeby at 3; Debra Muzikar, Person First Language – Autistic, Person with Autism, Aspergian, Aspienaut?, November 2018 (quoting Jane Strauss, “Most of the ‘professionals’ I have met who are the most vehement about ‘person first’ are the most disrespectful of me as a person and assume incompetence. I also to be accurate capitalize the A in Autistic … I am no more a ‘person with autism’ than I am a ‘person with femaleness’ or a ‘person with Jewishness’ or a ‘person with cleverness’ or a “person with Photographic skill. I am an Autistic, Jewish, clever, woman photographer.”)

[4] Specialisterne, Autism & Neurodiversity;

[5] Neurodiversity Hub: What is Neurodiversity?  Quoting Syracuse University, National Symposium on Neurodiversity 2011,

[6] See Austin & Pisano (2017).

[7] Streeby at 10; Neurodiversity Hub: What is Neurodiversity.

[8] Job Accommodation Network, Accommodating Employees with Autism Spectrum Disorder, - spy-scroll-heading-2.