Neurodiversity in Tech: Challenges and Opportunities in Hiring

Hiring a neurodiverse workforce is important for any industry. Even the tech industry, long home to a range of neurodiverse groups, could improve its outreach and support for neurodiversity in hiring and management. 

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that includes those with dyslexia, autism, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and others. Each one of these conditions will have different strengths and weaknesses, and will also manifest differently from person to person.

Dustin “Evil Mog” Heywood, senior managing consultant for IBM X-Force Red, said many hiring processes and technologies are geared toward neurotypical professionals, and there’s not much inclusivity for neurodiverse candidates who think or behave differently.

“Neurodiverse candidates don’t always come off well in social settings and their communication skills are often lacking, so when it comes to things like candidate screening, we’re often judged on things beyond our control even if they have nothing to do with the role we’re applying for,” he said.

Heywood added that a candidate shouldn’t be judged on how much eye contact they can make during a conversation, or how well they handle small talk if it has nothing to do with the job they’re applying for. “If anything, these bias processes are leading companies to miss out on valuable talent,” he said.  

To foster more neurodiversity in workplaces, organizations could benefit by educating employees on the overall concept. Executives and teams should also question whether their workplaces are set up to allow both neurotypical and neurodiverse colleagues to succeed.

“Teach your neurotypical employees to be patient with their neurodiverse peers and understand that their minds operate differently,” Heywood said. “Encourage your neurodiverse workers to be vocal about things that are making them uncomfortable and empower them to leverage their skills for tasks that benefit the work you’re doing.”

That’s not to say you need to shine an unnecessary light on your neurodiverse peers. As Heywood sees it, the only thing worse than not being acknowledged at all is constantly being put on the spot. “If you have a question about how to work with your neurodiverse colleagues, just ask,” he said. “We’re typically very direct people and want to collaborate.”

To get the ball rolling, businesses should first leverage their internal resources. Heywood points to IBM’s Neurodiversity@IBM Global Business Resource Group, which champions neurodiversity through education, acceptance and hiring practices: “These resources not only help to educate IBMers on the topic of neurodiversity, but also take action in supporting a neurodiverse workplace. “ 

Jennifer Carlson, executive director and co-founder of Apprenti, believes neurodiverse people should have access to careers where they can continue their professional growth if they desire.

“Some autistic hackers may have strong pattern recognition skills and enjoy repetitive tasks. Some hackers with dyslexia are strong visual processors which means they can process large amounts of visual data which might be challenging for a neurotypical person to understand,” she said. “Some hackers with ADHD can harness their impulsivity to be strong self-starters and willing to try things that others may be hesitant about beginning.”

She warned any company looking to hire neurodiverse workers to be wary of creating “neurodiverse-only” jobs, as this perpetuates the marginalization of these workers.

“Intentionally inclusive workplaces benefit everyone: employers have access to a broader range of talent and diverse employees can be successful with the right support,” she said. “We envision an integrated and inclusive workplace. We believe that neurodivergent individuals should have access to the same positions, opportunities for growth, and flexibility in professional development as others.”

A recent Bitdefender survey indicated the cybersecurity industry in particular could benefit from hiring more neurodiverse people. A fifth of survey respondents thought increased neurodiversity in cybersecurity will help combat cyberwarfare; a third felt a more neurodiverse workforce would “level the playing field” against bad actors.

Among the recommendations Carlson has for organizations looking to employ neurodiverse workforces: a critical audit of the interview process. What is the ultimate goal of each interview segment? For example, if your organization does not provide questions to candidates in advance, it’s clear you’re evaluating those candidates’ ability to think on their feet. Do these goals necessarily apply to neurodiverse candidates?

“Is that actually a skill that is important?” she asked. “Could you provide questions or guidelines to candidates in advance so that you are getting higher quality answers from people who might have slower processing times?”

Carlson said organizations should also evaluate their internal accommodations policy and infrastructure. For example, do employees know how to request an accommodation? The process should be easy and clear. Organizations should check in with employees at regular intervals after the accommodation is implemented; as new processes are developed, organizations should ensure that they remain accessible.

“In addition to providing individual accommodations, we encourage organizations to think about how accessibility and inclusive design practices can be implemented company-wide,” she said. “My hope is to see this hiring shift, and for a sector that prides itself on being cutting-edge, to see new product development tailored to better serve the very populations that we’re trying to entice into tech roles.”