Neurodiverse talent: looking beyond adjustments

Employers stand to benefit if they realise the ambition and talent of non-neurotypical workers, say professors Almuth McDowall and Nancy Doyle

Credit: Professors Almuth McDowall and Nancy Doyle

Neurodiversity as a buzzword in organisational practice is gaining traction, evidenced by a growing number of training courses, articles and specific work programmes. But we need robust evidence to facilitate genuine inclusion that is going to last and deliver solid business benefits. Otherwise, organisations run the danger of unintended consequences, such as losing valuable talent and investing in adjustments which may not work.

In March 2023, the Neurodiversity in Business charity  launched its first commissioned bespoke research. A team from Birkbeck University of London, led by ourselves, created a wide-reaching survey, designed with input from both business leaders and neurodiversity advocates. They obtained data from well over one thousand people, which included 990 employees and 127 employer representatives.

The findings give pause for thought regarding the challenges people experience and hope for the future because they evidence the value of neurodiverse talent. 

Employers and employees agree that neurodivergent talent is marked by hyperfocus (80 per cent), creativity (78 per cent), innovative thinking (75 per cent), detail processing (71 per cent) and authenticity (64 per cent). Taken together, they speak exactly to the skills the World Economic Forum references as key for 2025.

But neurodivergent people also report challenges, which include looking after yourself (78 per cent), concentration (76 per cent) and asking for help (70 per cent). In fact, the researchers found very low levels of wellbeing overall, signposting a call for action and targeted support. But only 30 per cent of employees have formal adjustments in place. Key barriers were stigma and prejudice from senior people in the organisation and co-workers, as well as lack of knowledge in the organisation.

As part of the research team, we unravelled the data further, asking employees about their intention to leave, as this is a key metric for HR teams which has tangible costs and operational performance associated. Neurodivergent people reported very strong views, one quarter said that they were very likely to go and one quarter said that they were very likely to stay, with the rest in between. To put this into context, we would normally see more people in the middle. What makes a difference? Adjustments! Those wanting to stay had received tailored, personalised adjustments, and those in the ‘leave’ category had not received any.

So adjustments are a baseline – they should be part of the relational office furniture – it’s the proverbial chair offered to others to sit down on, if the chair is pulled away, the person crashes.

But adjustments alone are not enough to help everyone fulfil their real potential. The most important predictor of intention to leave was career satisfaction, psychological safety and acceptance, and the boss’s support. This tells us that making neurodiversity work is relational not transactional. It’s how people work with each other that makes the difference, rather than the provision of a few tools and flexibilities. People need to feel valued and heard, not just helped.

However, we may need specialist input to work out which adjustments suit which employee. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’. The research found that most people reported several neurodivergent conditions rather than one and, because the challenges people experience vary by condition, the blend of neurotype, role and environment all need to be considered in determining what will work. So, to give people the best possible support, people need to have depth and breadth of knowledge.

Line managers were reported as the first port of call for identifying support by both employees and employers, yet they are unlikely to have specialist training. It is vital that businesses upskill and support this crucial group with considered policies, training and access to specialists if needs be.

The researchers recommend a focus on the implementation of tailored adjustments and benchmark provision and progress. These efforts need to be paired with putting inclusion and wellbeing right at the heart of corporate strategy. This necessitates a shift to a relational perspective where everyone is valued and can contribute.

Prioritising resources for line managers is essential. Finally, neurodiversity inclusion is about realising ambition and talent beyond adjustments to ensure that people can do their best work to make unique specialist contributions and fulfil their potential.

Professor Almuth McDowall is head of Birkbeck's department of organisational psychology and Nancy Doyle is a visiting professor at Birkbeck and a chartered psychologist