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How Can A Neurodiverse Workforce Elevate Business?
The Basics

How Can A Neurodiverse Workforce Elevate Business?

The Basics is a series that breaks down the essential questions of purposeful business.
26th Jan 2022

Elisabeth Wiklander always felt like she was different. It was as if everyone apart from her had a rulebook for what to say and how to act. The social world became scary and unpredictable, and she found her relationships being eroded by misunderstandings and misinterpretations. People thought she was rude, dismissive, or strange. 

“It was so frustrating. It was like fighting a ghost, something that no one could really grasp – not even the counsellors,” she said. By her mid-twenties, she had spent over two decades feeling alone, isolated and unaccepted. 

The richness and diversity of each individual mind is enormous. It’s time we began to recognise that different ways of thinking are not abnormal or rare – it is something to be celebrated and appreciated. 

At 28, something finally changed. She was diagnosed with a form of autism that some refer to as Aspergers (a term which some continue to use, while others prefer to simply label themselves as autistic or on the autistic spectrum). “No wonder my life had been so confusing. But now I started to see myself in a new, clearer context.”

Elisabeth is one of millions of individuals who are neurodiverse. The term, coined by sociologist Judy Singer in 1998, describes people who have different ways of thinking, behaving and perceiving the world around them, and includes conditions include autism, ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia. Rather than framing them as disabling or deficits, the concept of neurodiversity attempts to expand perceptions of what ‘normal’ is to include these conditions. In short, neurodiversity highlights that developmental conditions are normal variations of the brain. 

Of the 7.8 billion people on our planet, the richness and diversity of each individual mind is enormous. It’s time we began to recognise that different ways of thinking are not abnormal or rare – it is something to be celebrated and appreciated. 

What are the challenges that neurodiverse people face?

An estimated 15-20% of the global population is neurodiverse – that’s 1.56 billion individuals. And the majority of them are adults, meaning that a large proportion of the workforce is neurodiverse

Despite the prevalence of neurodiversity, there are still a huge number of barriers, stigmas and challenges faced by people who think differently. These are some of the common challenges faced by the neurodiverse community:

  • Social misunderstandings: some find it hard to read typical social cues and body language. This can lead to negative or uncomfortable social interactions, misunderstandings and feelings of anxiety.
  • Sensory overloads: Some individuals have a greater sensitivity to noise, light and touch than others, and so the modern social and workplace settings can be extremely overwhelming and distracting. 
  • Concentration: Some individuals find it difficult to conform to the social expectation of working for 8 hours a day with little time for rest, breaks or other activities. This can lead to often false perceptions of laziness or disinterest in work.

“We’re committed to recruiting people with dyslexia and other neurodiverse individuals into the organisation. It’s mission critical for us.”

Jo Cavan, GCHQ’s Director of Strategy, Policy and Engagement

Why is a neurodiverse workforce beneficial?

Greater diversity in how people think means there will be more solutions to problems and greater levels of creativity.

For example, amid the difficulties of growing up with undiagnosed autism, Elisabeth found herself excelling in academics due to her excellent analytical skills, ability to focus intensely and high capacity for memorising information. She now has an extremely successful career as a cellist in the London Philharmonic orchestra, and has delivered TED Talk on neurodiversity

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Neurodiverse people bring a host of skills to any organisation – often including data analysis, ability to focus intently, excellent mathematics skills and being able to see patterns easily. Up to a quarter of CEOs are thought to be dyslexic, and GCHQ has begun actively recruiting neurodiverse individuals for the talents and skills that they bring to the world of espionage and data analysis: “We’re committed to recruiting people with dyslexia and other neurodiverse individuals into the organisation. It’s mission critical for us,” said Jo Cavan, GCHQ’s Director of Strategy, Policy and Engagement. 

Any examples of neurodiverse leaders?

Richard Branson: The billionaire founder of Virgin Airlines has been an advocate for increasing awareness about dyslexia and removing stigmas around it. In a blog post from last year, he reflected on how being neurodiverse has changed his life, and championed the skills and talents of the dyslexic community: “I simply wouldn’t be where I am today if I wasn’t dyslexic. Many people with dyslexia have great imaginations, creativity and problem-solving skills. In fact, many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and inventors are dyslexic.” 

“I can look out on an industry with all kinds of problems and say, ‘How can I do this better?’ My ADD brain naturally searches for better ways of doing things.”

David Neelman, Founder of JetBlue

Elon Musk: During his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live last year, Musk revealed to the audience that he has a form of autism: “I’m actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger’s to host SNL.” He remains a controversial figure for the neurodiverse community (he recently claimed his Neuralink technology could ‘solve’ autism), but is one of the most prominent neurodiverse business leaders in the world. 

Greta Thunberg: The teenage activist has spoken publicly about her Asperger’s diagnosis and detailed how she considers it as one of her greatest strengths. She has advocated to change the stigmas around autism and neurodiverse people, tweeting in 2019: “I have Aspergers [sic] and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower.” 

David Neelman: JetBlue Airline founder Neelman has been an outspoken advocate for the talents and skills of people with ADHD. Given the chance to take a pill that would make his ADHD go away, he would instantly refuse: “I can distill complicated facts and come up with simple solutions. I can look out on an industry with all kinds of problems and say, ‘How can I do this better?’ My ADD brain naturally searches for better ways of doing things.”

How can organisations support neurodiverse people? 

  • Adjust the office space: Change or assess the office space in order to make it conducive to individuals who experience sensory overload. This can include creating quiet spaces, re-designing lighting, or having noise cancelling headphones.
  • Active recruitment: Often facing more challenges throughout education or academic life, neurodiverse people can also struggle at the interview process as it often relies on subtle and unwritten social rules. For example, a formal interview may not showcase an autistic person’s skills, but a written test could allow them to flourish. 
  • Listen to neurodiverse employees: Since the neurodiverse community is so variable and multifaceted, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to creating a more inclusive workplace. Listen to neurodiverse employees about how they can be best supported. 
  • Change the culture: Neurodiverse people are far more likely to experience social anxiety, bullying, isolation or discrimination from peers, and the workplace is not an exception. Educating other employees on what neurodiversity is can help to foster a culture of understanding, acceptance and celebration. 

Further reading:

  • Great Minds Don’t Think Alike – The Beautiful Truth
  • Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage – HBR
  • The Business Case for Supporting Neurodiversity At Work – Fast Company