The benefits of a neurodiverse tech team in the workplace

Jacqui Wallis

  • Research points to specific strengths and skills associated with neurominorities, like ADHD, Dyslexia, Autism and more.
  • Assumptions on neurodiversity often dismiss people’s experience and skills.
  • Tech industry is starting to recognise the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce.

We all think and learn in different ways – and every kind of mind brings something unique to the table. When it comes to employment opportunities for neurominorities, unfortunately the landscape tends to be filled with challenges, rather than opportunities.

The tech industry is only just starting to realise the benefits of embracing a neurodiverse workforce, and this lack of foresight is surprising. From Alan Turing to Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, some of history’s most brilliant brains are rumoured to have been Autistic. More recently, Elon Musk also opened up about having Asperger’s syndrome. And, of course, Autism and Asperger’s are just two examples of neurodivergent conditions.

What is neurodiversity?

The term ‘neurodiversity’ was coined in the late 1990s by Australian sociologist and author Judy Singer, an Autistic woman herself. It refers to the different ways the brain can work and interpret information. According to Singer, it embraces “the timeless and incontrovertible reality that every single living being is unique, and that no two human minds (actually mind-body complexes) are the same.”

Everyone has different interests and motivations. Some people are naturally better at some things and struggle with others, within a specific range. A neurodivergent brain typically has a ‘spiky’ cognitive profile, meaning there can be significant variations between these areas of strengths and weaknesses. A neurotypical brain has a much flatter cognitive profile in comparison.

Around one in eight people are considered neurodivergent but many are not aware of this. The terms Autism and neurodiverse/neurodivergent are sometimes used interchangeably; however, neurodiversity covers a range of conditions, some of which are well known and others less so. These can be broken down into four categories:

  • Clinical neurominorities: conditions you are born with which impact behavioural skills, such as communication. This includes Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Tourette Syndrome.
  • Applied neurominorities: conditions such as Dyslexia, Dyscalculia and Dyspraxia which impact applied educational skills.
  • Acquired (Chronic): neurominorities linked to neurological illness or brain injury.
  • Acquired (Transient): neurominorities develop in response to a physical or mental health condition.

And it is extremely common for these conditions to co-occur. We know from research conducted by neurodiversity specialists, Genius Within CIC, which draws on the research of Dr Nancy Doyle, building from the original work of Mary Colley, that overlapping conditions also provide the background for shared strengths, outlining the different strengths each cognitive condition can bring.  As Dr Doyle points out: “The clear result of this difference is that we have a group of complementary specialists scattered among a population of generalists. Anyone wanting to hire a well-balanced team would of course find this very useful.”

The dangers of stereotyping neurodivergent people

Steven Silberman, author of the acclaimed and ground-breaking book NeuroTribes, in his article for Tech publication Wired, once called Autism "the geek syndrome".  Silberman recognised this is just one aspect in the evolution of understanding Autism as well as the wider spectrum of Neurodiversity.

In a 2016 study, The National Institute of Economic and Social Research explained that there is a “propensity for neurodivergent individuals to be stereotyped according to the more well-known characteristics of their condition.”

Given that conditions can present differently depending on the individual, and they rarely exist in isolation, these assumptions are incredibly damaging. They don’t allow the whole person to be seen, dismissing their wealth of experience and skills.

It is important to understand the challenges that neurominorities can face; however, when individuals are in the right environment which allows them to make use of their strengths, neurodiversity can be a competitive advantage. Climate change activist Greta Thunberg, for example, famously refers to her Autism diagnosis as a “superpower”.

As Dr Nancy Doyle, CEO of Genius Within states in a Forbes article on neurodiversity: “Assuming competence and focusing in on what we can do rather than what we can’t creates the perfect jumping off point around which a framework of support can be built. Most disabled and neurodivergent people have good experience of overcoming difficulties and challenging themselves so we do not need or want to be protected. We do however like to know that if we have different processes, learning styles, social and environmental needs that our employer will understand and be inclusive.”

What skills can neurodivergent people bring to the workforce, particularly in tech?

An inclusive workforce celebrates the differences between employees. It recognises the benefit of balanced teams, including a blend of ‘specialist’ and ‘generalist’ thinkers.

For example, in 2017 test specialist Dyllan Rafail was one of the first neurodivergent employees brought into IBM’s Ignite Quality and Test programme, bringing a range of special qualities to his job and team. Paul Austin, Senior Software Development Manager, and Andrew Williams, AP Business Development Executive, spearheaded the initiative with support from the Specialisterne Foundation, which specialises in bringing neurodiverse candidates to companies worldwide. It was one of several pilots launched across IBM globally to pave the way for a more inclusive workplace.

“Dyllan has turned out to be an exceptional guy,” according to Austin. “Many times, individuals like Dyllan have a number of skills and traits that compensate for the other things that they lack. One of those traits is perseverance, another is a high tolerance for repetitive tasks, as well as an intense ability to focus. They happen to be well-matched for testing and pattern-matching. A neurodivergent person will often be better than their neurotypical peers at finding anomalies in how a program runs.”

While it’s important to understand that neurodivergent people have different characteristics and strengths, research reveals that there is evidence of specific strengths and skills associated with neurodiverse conditions.

Within the world of tech, focus, creativity and analytical talents could help leaders address a range of existing skills gaps and widen their talent pool:

  • Autism: logical thinking, strong ability to focus and concentrate for long periods of time, ability to assimilate and retain detailed information, attention to detail, reliable, dedicated and loyal
  • ADHD: high energy levels, hyper-focus, highly creative and inventive, behaving spontaneously, entrepreneurship
  • Dyslexia: Very good “on the front line”, inventive and creative, established link with entrepreneurship, ability to see the big picture (‘out-of-the-box thinking’), visually manipulating 3D images, pattern spotting and working with complex data sets
  • Dyspraxia: High verbal abilities, strategic thinking and problem solving, strong episodic memories, highly motivated, determined and a hardworking ethos

Skills Development Scotland also identified a range of positive traits linked to neurodiverse conditions that can benefit any business looking to recruit tech talent. These include:

  • Creativity and innovation: Design, Gaming/games development, Product and process development, Software development, Business development/sales
  • High levels of concentration and the ability to work on repetitive tasks: Software quality assurance, Software testing, Image analysis, Cyber security, Compliance
  • Methodical and focused on details: Identifying defects in software, websites and graphic projects, Data analytics, Programming, Coding, Compliance
  • Pattern recognition and identifying anomalies: Data analytics, Cyber security, Quality assurance
  • Investigative nature and inquisitive mindset: Cyber security, Testing
  • Understanding rules and sequences: Computer programming

The benefits neurodiverse employees bring to your wider business

While addressing the tech skills gaps is important, a neurodiverse workforce can also drive:

  • Innovation: Dyslexic people are likely to have stronger analytical thinking skills than others. Another study revealed Autistic people can display higher levels of creativity. Further research also revealed that Dyslexic or Dyspraxic people are better at ‘thinking outside of the box’. As explained in this Harvard Business Review piece, “Because neurodivergent people are wired differently from ‘neurotypical’ people, they may bring new perspectives to a company’s efforts to create or recognize value.” In the same article, Silvio Bessa, the senior vice president of digital business services at SAP, points out that having people who see things differently and who maybe don’t fit in seamlessly “helps offset our tendency, as a big company, to all look in the same direction.”
  • Customer experience: One study revealed that, contrary to stereotypical views, Autistic people can often be deeply empathetic. For a tech company, this could help you better understand your customer base and deliver innovative and meaningful products and services. Carlene Jackson, CEO of tech company Cloud9 Insight – who is herself Dyslexic – estimates around 20-30 per cent of her company are neurodiverse. Describing the benefits these employees can bring, she says: “Firms just need to understand the value of having people that don’t think in a traditional way. We find the ability to focus and be loyal are strong Autistic traits, while being creative and an out-of-the-box thinker is a Dyslexic’s contribution. Why wouldn’t we want this in our business?” Software services company Ultranauts also employs cognitively diverse teams with 75 per cent on the Autism spectrum. The company claims its staff find more bugs and significantly increases test coverage to boost the UX of its client’s digital products.
  • Employee engagement: Software house SAP reports employee engagement has risen in areas that its neurodiversity programmes come into contact with. The EY neurodiversity programme also had an impact on leadership, helping managers learn to communicate in new and specific ways. “Working with people on the Autism spectrum has made managers more patient. They’ve learned to avoid abstract language and use shorter, more precise words. This has made them better communicators and more inclusive leaders,” the report states. At US software and quality assurance (QA) testing non-profit Aspiritech, its entire workforce is made up of Autistic people. “Our clients benefit from an affordable, US-based, highly skilled solution for their QA testing needs,” says Brad Cohen, Chief Marketing Officer. “The staff gain a well-paying job in a suitable environment that supports their long-term employment. Everyone gains when people are given the opportunity to use their skills for meaningful, well-paying work that leads to a fully independent life.” Aspiritech also has a retention rate of 95 per cent, with team leaders and managers hired from within the organisation.
  • Productivity: JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work programme launched in July 2015 as a four-person pilot. Since then, it’s grown to more than 150 employees in eight countries and boasts a 99 per cent retention rate. Most are tech roles such as software engineering, app development, quality assurance, tech operations and business analytics. Six months into the pilot programme, compared to their peers, the Autism at Work employees were 48 per cent faster and 92 per cent more productive. Goldman Sachs also launched its Neurodiversity Hiring Initiative in 2019 and recently said it was “thrilled” with the results thanks to the high productivity and attention to detail workers hired under this scheme have achieved. In addition, EY’s neurodiversity programme identified process improvements with its scheme. In the first month, the time taken by neurodiverse staff to complete its technical training programs had been cut in half. “They learned how to automate processes far faster than the neurotypical account professionals they trained with. They then used the resulting downtime to create training videos to help all professionals learn automation more quickly,” the report states.

The benefits of a balanced team

The tech industry is now recognising the benefits of having a diverse workforce and the unique range of skillsets and experience it offers. It is working hard to encourage diversity in any form, and things are starting to change. But change – across any demographic – is a long game.

As Dr Doyle comments: “Allowing for difference means showing respect and understanding that different ways of doing things aren’t lesser.”

To realise the benefits and opportunities of embracing neurodiversity, awareness is key. Today’s tech houses must recognise that neurodiversity includes a wide range of conditions, and that every individual is, well, an individual.

In our next blog, we explain how tech companies can adjust their recruitment processes to hire a neurodiverse workforce.

 

Author

Jacqui Wallis
Commercial Director of Genius Within CIC

As one of three female Directors of Awarding-winning social enterprise Genius Within, Jacqui’s role is to shape and grow Genius Within’s inclusion work within the field of Neurodiversity. GW’s work is strongly rooted in research, building consensus, and expanding understanding in the field of Neurodiversity at Work.

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