Neurodiversity and tech: a win-win equation

What are the wide-ranging benefits of hiring neurodivergent employees and how can employers attract talent from this mostly untapped source?


Companies have long known the benefits of diverse voices at the table, but it is only over the last decade that their talent policies have looked at hiring neurodivergent people.

The term "neurodiversity" was coined by sociologist Judy Singer in the late 1990s. Today, it refers to a social movement to ensure that individuals with neurological differences such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and learning disorders are treated as equal members of society.

Neurodivergent applicants may not meet the criteria employers traditionally look for in a candidate such as academic qualifications, clear communication, strong social skills, and the ability to adapt to change easily. This means they often don’t make it through standard recruitment processes. To illustrate, unemployment figures that tend to run higher amongst differently-abled people can be even more so amongst autistic adults.

However, tech employers are beginning to find that neurodivergent people have unique traits that make them great contributors in the technology space. "People with neurocognitive disabilities have talents, perspectives, and skills that are often distinct from neurotypical people. These include having a keen eye for detail, strong memory retention, persistence and high levels of concentration. This can mean they have a natural aptitude for coding which is so crucial to us as we push the boundaries of innovation," says Craig Dobson, vice-president,  professional services and diversity & inclusion lead for Asia Pacific & Japan at VMware.

In 2019, VMware launched their Neurodiversity Inclusion Program, centred around a pilot hiring event at their headquarters in Palo Alto, California. The candidates’ hiring process was specially designed to be inclusive, engaging and eliminate unconscious bias internally. Applicants were screened online for technical skills, and those shortlisted were invited for a week-long learning and immersion program on campus. Interview guidance was provided to help the shortlisted candidates get comfortable before face-to-face interviews, and those selected were given access to mentorship and formal job coaching for a smooth transition. The company worked on this initiative with an external consultant Neurodiversity in the Workplace (NitW). As of January 2020, three software engineers joined two VMware business units in Palo Alto via these hiring rounds.

The move into the mainstream

When tech companies first started hiring neurodivergent candidates, it was often limited to specific roles based on certain qualities that are likely to come with a diagnosis. For example, autistic people were hired for software testing roles, which require a lot of repetitive work. Over the years, however, employers have learnt that neurodivergent employees have talents and abilities that go well beyond these boundaries.

SAP is a company that has led the way here. Its Autism at Work program kicked off in 2013 and SAP now employs more than 200 neurodivergent employees worldwide, with 18 of them working in its India offices.

SAP India was one of the pilot countries for the Autism at Work program and began to lay down the foundations back in 2011. The team at SAP India partnered with a non-governmental organisation, Enable India. The two organisations developed a structured program that involved understanding applicant profiles before shortlisting, and working intensively with those shortlisted for three months in areas like employability, professionalism and teamwork. Every year, those selected at the end of the program were absorbed into specific roles like software testing, in teams that had been sensitized to onboarding and nurturing a neurodivergent colleague.

But by 2016, it was clear to the SAP India team that their neurodivergent colleagues had much more to offer. "We realized we really needed to break the ceiling in terms of what they could do," says Shraddhanjali Rao, head, HR, SAP, India.  "So we started hiring people on the autism spectrum not just for a certain set of roles, but based on their skills, abilities and education." SAP India today has employees on the autism spectrum engaged in roles such as data analysis, project management, graphic design, finance, and HR. These jobs ask for creativity, social skills and on-the-spot thinking, requirements autistic people are often assumed not to be comfortable with.   

The Autism at Work program at SAP India now provides a secure ecosystem for autistic employees where they are assigned a mentor, a buddy, as well as an Enable India counsellor who continues to work with all the three stakeholders and the managers well after the initial placement. "We now have people internally who are passionate about this and a framework that is sustainable," says Rao. And hearteningly, autistic employees often put up their hands to be ambassadors for the cause within SAP and outside.

The quartet of values for a neurodivergent-friendly workplace

A pioneering voice in the space of neurodivergent employment is Thorkil Sonne, who set up Specialisterne Foundation, a non-profit organisation in 2004, when as the parent of an autistic child, he learnt of the disheartening job prospects for autistic individuals. Specialisterne Foundation has since enabled over 10,000 jobs for neurodivergent people across the world, and aims to enable one million more employment avenues through social entrepreneurship, corporate sector engagement and a global change in mindset.

Specialisterne Foundation is associated with the United Nations Department of Global Communications and has worked with companies such as IBM and SAP. Its programs have always attempted to look beyond labels and stereotypes, to truly understand the talents and motivations of the neurodivergent candidate. "The label is just 1%. There is more to the person than the diagnosis," says Sonne.

According to him, companies need to have a culture of being respectful if they want to become a friendly workplace for neurodivergent candidates. "Respect is the first of our four values," says Sonne. And the second value the Specialisterne Foundation goes by when choosing corporate partners is accommodation; this could range from minor tweaks in the work environment like workstation dividers and noise-cancelling headphones, to greater empathy like a manager or teammates intuiting that a neurodivergent colleague would function best by working for fewer hours, or stepping back when the workload is overwhelming.

Clarity of communication is the third important workplace value to integrate well with neurodivergent colleagues, says Sonne.  Autistic people, for instance, do not catch unspoken cues.  Managers and colleagues need to explain procedures and expectations clearly. "Mean what you say," is Sonne’s tip. The fourth and final value is accessibility; neurodivergent employees should always know where to go when they need advice and guidance.

The Specialisterne Foundation works in thirteen countries with companies that meet these criteria. One of its offerings is a recruitment program that helps candidates show rather than tell, and get used to the workplace as a comfort zone that gradually expands to include mentors and managers.

Not just business

The unique abilities of autistic employees spur efficiency and innovation, sometimes leading to new patents. Organisations have consistently found that autistic employees are more productive, observes Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, co-founder at Inclusively Tech, a specialist diversity and inclusion advocacy consultancy.  

Morgan-Trimmer, who brings her lived experience of autism with ADHD to her training programs, further points out that companies reap indirect benefits from transforming the workplace to meet neurodivergent colleagues midway. For instance, recent research has found that altering the interview approach for autistic candidates boosts the interview performance of non-autistic candidates as well.

Managers also learn to lead better when they have neurodivergent team members. According to Senthilnathan K, Development Manager, SAP Labs India, who has a neurodivergent member in his team, the latter’s focus, transparency and innovative thinking have been a source of inspiration to others in the team. "I have grown immensely as a leader," adds Senthilnathan.

"Inclusive hiring has a ripple effect," says Morgan-Trimmer.  "Being in an environment where they can be themselves massively reduces stress, reduces the risk of burnout and makes for happier and less anxious employees. And that improves the whole team."