Neurodiversity in technology: Are businesses missing out on key talent?

My son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the first grade. As a mother, it took an ecosystem of support from schools, counselors and family members to ensure that we understood his needs and provided support for his learning and personal development.

Through our own journey, I’ve seen firsthand the challenges that people with neurological variations like autism face on a daily basis, but perhaps one of the biggest hurdles is overcoming society’s underestimation of this incredibly gifted population.

In my experience, people with neurodiversity are consistently underestimated for their knowledge and skills — but if my son is any indication of the value they can bring to the tech industry, then business leaders are missing out until they prioritize cognitive diversity.

Why is neurodiversity important in the technology industry?

One of the key factors in making each of us different is our neurological makeup. This difference can result in people interpreting, understanding and reacting differently in certain situations within personal and working life. And it often creates different skills and talents within people, such as heightened levels of analytical and creative processing.

The technology industry spans various roles and functions, from data scientists to developers, analysts and many more – not to mention the jobs that have yet to be created as we approach the Fifth Industrial Revolution and our world undergoes a significant digital transformation.

As an industry, we need to work harder to educate how talent can be leveraged in different ways to fulfill these roles, because employees are often a company’s greatest asset.

Throughout history, we’ve relied on our ability as a society to think differently in order to survive and thrive. With differences in thinking, neurodiverse people can bring alternative perspectives that may not have been explored before. It’s critical that businesses continue to prioritize cognitive diversity in their workforce, as every individual brings unique knowledge, experiences, and skills to the table and can help drive progress in technological innovation.

How can the tech sector recognize and recruit neurodiverse talent?

One of the first barriers to entry for someone who is neurodiverse is the interview process. Traditional interviews take into consideration things like body language and awareness of social cues that can put a neurodiverse person at a disadvantage.

Neurodiversity might affect the way that someone communicates; for example, the inability to read non-verbal social cues, resulting in limited eye contact and limited language softening. This behavior could lead to the removal of neurodiverse people from candidacy based on “cultural fit.” In reality, this is a much larger miscommunication that’s likely to screen out neurodiverse talent from positions in which they could excel.

Chemistry and character-based stages of the hiring process tend to take place first, before digging into the more technical elements of a role, where neurodiverse people can display their advanced skills. This leads us to ask: Are businesses doing enough to support diversity, equity and inclusion if they aren’t giving equal opportunity to neurodiverse people?

One way businesses can address this challenge is by partnering with community organizations to gain expert guidance, education, and best practices around talent acquisition and talent nurturing.

For example, across Stanley Black & Decker, we’re collaborating with the National Organization on Disability and Autism Speaks to establish a hiring program that helps us recruit and retain talent of all abilities. As a leading global company, we have a responsibility to ensure our future is developed for everyone, by everyone, and that means taking steps to ensure our workforce is diverse and inclusive of people of all abilities, including neurodiverse people.

By taking steps to understand how we can all implement inclusive hiring practices, the tech industry can greatly benefit from a talent pool that might have otherwise been untapped. This could provide at least part of the solution to the technology talent shortage that continues to impact the industry.

Job mobility and career advancement within the neurodiverse community can also be explored and developed to ensure that career advancement is not limited to lower-skilled positions.

We must keep in mind the limitations on soft skills and associated characteristics stereotypically looked for in management and leadership roles, such as self-awareness and interpersonal communication.

When you look at case studies of neurodiverse teams, there is a distinct uplift in productivity, particularly in analytical roles. As such, I’d encourage leaders to identify opportunities for all talent to excel in their areas of expertise.

Can the tech sector help optimize the future of the workplace for neurodiverse people?

During the past 18 months, we have seen a dramatic shift in requirements from leadership. Employees have more autonomy than ever before, and the same goes for people who are neurodiverse.

They now have the ability to request workplace accommodations that might not have been considered “essential” in the past — for example, more flexible working arrangements or the availability of choices to support alternative requirements to thrive in their working day. This could include variety in their immediate work environment and spaces for limited social interaction, noise or distraction, as well as the availability of headphones to limit auditory overstimulation.

Not only that, but the virtual world in which we’re living presents an added opportunity for people who are neurodiverse because it requires fewer of the typical in-person social skills that were previously expected within the workplace. This means that now more than ever, there are many flexible processes and policies that organizations can put in place to meet employees where they are.

A great way to provide additional support to employees is by encouraging engagement in employee resource groups (ERGs). In 2018, I co-founded our Abilities Network, a global ERG committed to supporting employees with disabilities, employee family caregivers of those with disabilities and the greater global community. It provides them with an engaging environment where they can pursue advancement, bring their full selves to work and thrive.

It was my personal experience that inspired me to establish this ecosystem of support — I knew how essential it was in helping our family advocate for our son. I did this through charity partnerships such as Autism Speaks. First initiated in 2018, we wanted to provide guidance for our workforce and leverage the National Organization on Disabilities to enhance our education and progress in this area.

By developing these communities, we can open conversations around neurodiversity and create more inclusive environments in which all employees have the tools, resources and support they need to succeed.

This also allows us to support employees as the business adapts. For example, during the pandemic, we saw a large increase in employees suffering from anxiety. Therefore, the Abilities Network partnered with Understanding Anxiety to offer support and tools to employees who need it.

It’s important that we bring best practices in inclusivity to all elements of the business, from hiring to marketing and everything in between.

From a marketing perspective, this means creating, for example, accessible website experiences across a company’s digital platforms to ensure people of all abilities are able to access and experience the company’s information. We’ve been successful in deploying numerous digital experiences with “accessibility by design” through the support of the Abilities Network ERG.

By tracking the progress of the employee experience through employment statistics and employee objectives in a Disability Employment Tracker, we have seen a 54% increase in talent sourcing and a 20% increase in “people, policies and practices” leading to an overall cultural accessibility increase of 105%.

My son has been a tremendous help throughout this process, acting as a sounding board to help me drive toward a more inclusive future, and I’m forever grateful for his partnership. He has been the inspiration behind my passion to ensure inclusivity remains at the heart of everything that I do.

Neurodiversity presents business opportunities

Technology changes the world and shapes the future of all industries. As leaders in this space, we have a responsibility to ensure that this future is inclusive and representative of all of us. We must ensure diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives aid not only new talent, but the neurodiverse people already within the talent pool.

My son, now 19 years old, is studying biotechnology and molecular bioscience at a technology university. When he was first diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, we were met with low expectations for his personal and professional development — a collective underestimation of the value his unique skills could bring to the table.

This has driven my passion and efforts to ensure that we at Stanley Black & Decker — and other companies — provide inclusive opportunities for all people.

Neurodiversity presents a huge opening for leaders to bring in unique talent with different skill sets to ultimately drive progress in the tech industry and beyond. And unless we’re tapping into this pool of talent, companies are missing out.