Glowing neurons
Autism, Neurodiversity, Work and occupational

‘Neurodivergent employees have a lot to offer, but want to be heard and valued’

Ella Rhodes reports.

18 May 2023

By Ella Rhodes

New research from Birkbeck, University of London’s Research Centre for Neurodiversity at Work, commissioned by the charity Neurodiversity in Business, has found barriers to neurodivergent employees disclosing their neurodivergence to employers.

Led by Birkbeck Professors Almuth McDowall and Nancy Doyle, the survey of 127 employers and 990 neurodivergent employees found that 65 per cent of surveyed employees said they feared disclosing their condition for fear of discrimination from management, while 69 per cent of employers said a lack of disclosure made it difficult to make adjustments for neurodivergent employees. I asked Doyle and McDowall about their work and findings. 

What drove you to carry out this research?

Neurodiversity in Business (NiB) wanted a research partner to conduct a national survey of neurodiversity practice at work. NiB liked our proposal, which was to look at any gaps between what employers provide (supply) and what employees need (demand). NiB also liked that we work in a research centre dedicated to building evidence for neuroinclusion at work. We set this up because much research to date has focused on babies, young children and teenagers who will all turn into adults. Secondly, research has a focus on specific conditions which does not correspond to actual prevalence rates (see Doyle & McDowall, 2021, ‘Diamond in the rough’). Right now, research is focused on autism. But if we want to get neuroinclusion at work right – making the world of work a better place for everyone, regardless of their neurotype – we need a holistic approach. 

How can we move towards a more supportive environment for neurodivergent employees to flourish at work?

Our data shows that neurodivergent strengths are remarkably similar across conditions – employers and employees agree that this talent is creative, innovative, can focus very well, and is entrepreneurial. We need specialist career pathways which reflect this, as these are the kinds of skills which the World Economic Forum references for the future. But the challenges people experience are different between conditions, meaning that adjustments have to be tailored to need. The employees in our data set report strong views about their intentions to leave – not a normal distribution – as about a fourth think a lot about leaving, and a fourth don’t, the others are in the middle of a bimodal distribution. Tailored adjustments make people stay, and lack of adjustments make them leave – so the adjustments are a baseline every organisation needs in place.

But this is not enough to fulfil ambitions and harness talent. Our regression analysis pinpointed career satisfaction as the most important predictor of intention to leave, followed by psychological safety (a belief that it’s ok to make mistakes and learn to together), and the support of their direct line manager. This shows that neuroinclusion is relational not transactional. Neurodivergent employees have a lot to offer, but want to be heard and valued, not just helped with technology and adjustments. 

Is there a role for psychologists in helping workplaces to better support their neurodivergent employees? What might this be?

We think it’s crucial to involve Occupational Psychologists who understand about the wider context including person-environment fit, employee relations, managing organisational change, career psychology and so on. You also need leadership and facilitation skills to work effectively with a range of stakeholders with differing wants and needs. We stress that knowledge on individual neurotypes is not enough for working in an applied context. 

Is there anything that could help employees feel more comfortable to disclose their neurodiversity?

Our data also shows that line managers are first responders – these are the people everyone turns to for advice. Upskilling and educating the entire organisation, not just select people, is very important. Intersectionality is a big issue in neurodiversity and deserves attention at work. Our Autism research last year showed that Autists of colour, females and transgender/non-binary Autists experienced significantly less access to formal diagnosis, representation in the workplace (including on positive action hiring programmes) and worse experiences of inclusion and belonging. 

What are some of the difficulties which neurodivergent employees may face in the workplace?

We found that only about 30 per cent of employees had reasonable adjustments in place, being reluctant to disclose for fear to stigma and prejudice from employers and colleagues. Psychoeducation is very important so that people understand and embrace different ways of working. But we also need to champion genuine inclusion right from the top. A commitment to inclusion needs to be part of organisational strategy and then hold senior managers to account.

Could you tell me about the strengths which neurodivergent people can bring to work?

Neurodivergent people make good specialists and are often strategic and divergent thinkers. Therefore organisations should support specialist career pathways, which don’t make it a condition that you for example line manage others, or are good at absolutely everything to get promoted and developed. We’ve known for some time that neurodivergent people are underrepresented in corporate leadership and overrepresented in entrepreneurialism, so it is time to think more creatively about job design and how we link the demonstrable skills of the job to prior experience. 

What are some important unanswered questions about neurodivergence in the workplace? Are you planning any future research to help answer some of these?

There are so many questions which are fascinating… let’s start with three examples. We need more research on how we can best facilitate change in organisations – what exactly are the barriers to neuroinclusion and how can we address them? We need research on groups and teams – how do we best resolve ‘dramas’ and conflict when people come with very different needs and also a potential history of personal trauma? We also need in depth research on the qualities neurodivergent people bring to work, for example their ability to notice things which ‘pop out’ or ‘see the big picture’ which others easily miss.