Neurodiversity in Tech: 3 Things Hiring Leaders Should Know

As more companies broaden and invest in their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, more leaders are adding neurodiversity to their vocabularies. Large technology companies such as SAP, HP, and Microsoft have already created hiring and training programs designed to serve neurodiverse employees. These companies have seen gains in quality, innovation, and employee engagement. So, how is neurodiversity defined, and what does it look like in technical hiring? For those becoming more familiar with the term, a quick overview might help. 

Thankfully, we can offer some answers to these questions for leaders looking to build and grow high-performing engineering teams in fair and inclusive ways, with the caveat that the research is still new and best practices are still being discovered. However, this article will summarize what we currently know about neurodiversity in tech hiring and list some benefits of accommodating neurodiverse employees.

While neurodiversity is quickly becoming a buzzword, defining neurodiversity often depends on who you ask. Academics describe neurodiverse people as those who have cognitive and affective traits [that] fall outside the middle range,  and “where…[a person’s] psychological properties are neither clearly normal nor pathological”. Advocates also describe neurodivergence as those who have not met the same behavioral or developmental milestones as neurotypical people or have a diagnosed condition such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or dyslexia. 

Although anti-discrimination laws such as the United States’ Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the UK’s Equality Act protect most neurodiverse conditions as disabilities, not all neurodivergent people consider themselves disabled, nor do all neurodiverse people have a diagnosis. This makes neurodivergence a difficult definition to apply in practice, as disabilities or conditions aren’t always visible and clear policies and protections rely on self-disclosure. With these definitions in mind, what should leaders responsible for hiring technical talent know about neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity-friendly recruiting practices will be important for sourcing mission critical, scarce talent.

A common concern of technical hiring managers is the overwhelming demand and scarce supply of technical talent. However, research has found that people with autism have a particular interest in studying computer science-related fields. As such, companies who develop neurodiversity focused hiring and retention programs may get double the benefit: attracting and sourcing in-demand talent from an untapped talent pool and a more diverse and inclusive organization.

In order to maximize the benefits of hiring neurodiverse employees, we must keep in mind the unique needs of neurodivergent individuals. Because neurodiverse people often 1) do not have prior work experience and 2) struggle with verbal communication or interpersonal skills, it is unwise to rely on resumes/CVs or traditional interviews to make hiring decisions. Instead, leaders must understand and assess the skills and competencies necessary for the job and offer reasonable accommodations both during interviews and with working conditions once on the job. Some companies who have made these adjustments to their talent programs have already started to see rewards. DXC Technology, for instance, claims a 30-40% increase in productivity after launching its Dandelion Program, a program dedicated to transitioning neurodiverse people to the IT workforce.

Technical hiring managers will encounter more neurodivergent candidates that offer unique, complementary talents.

Not only are ASD diagnoses on the rise, most people diagnosed with autism go unemployed. However, neurodiverse employees often excel in the abilities and skills required for technical roles. Compared with their neurotypical coworkers, neurodiverse employees have increased capabilities in areas such as pattern recognition, writing orderly code, mental visualization, and creative thinking

Over time, companies will start to realize the opportunities neurodiverse talent have to offer their organizations and will start to attract more candidates. Not only will hiring teams who prepare for a greater inflow of neurodiverse job candidates be able to fairly and ethically process their applications, they may also add complementary strengths for in-demand positions. 

We still have more to learn about neurodiversity in tech hiring.

So far, research has shown neurodiversity has much to offer technical hiring. But, many unknowns remain. Given that the peer-reviewed research is limited, things may change quickly as more studies are published. This is also true in practice. SAP, a neurodiversity early adopter, launched their program in 2013. Other companies are still figuring out how to handle disclosure rules, provide reasonable accommodations, or respond to negative attitudes about neurodiverse coworkers. Thus, it becomes clear that while the topic of neurodiversity is obviously important, it is also ambiguous.

This is why it’s imperative that we make an effort to better understand neurodiversity in technical hiring. Which practices work best, for example, in removing bias against neurodiverse talent in hiring procedures? What are the work experiences of neurodiverse employees themselves? Is the technical workspace prepared to engage neurodiverse employees effectively? Answering these questions can help us tap into the full potential of how neurodiverse talent can benefit technology companies. We know that organizations who have prioritized neurodiversity have experienced early successes in productivity, creativity, and engagement. As neurodiversity initiatives grow and develop, they may also see market share value growth, or a close in the gap between demand and supply for technical roles. Neurodiversity may be a newcomer to the conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but we believe it is here to stay. 

Neil Morelli, Ph.D, is the Chief Industrial-Organizational Psychologist at Codility, a pre-hire assessment platform for software engineering talent. Neil focuses on scientifically validating test content, consulting clients on hiring best practices, and providing data analyses on hiring fairness. He has spent more than 10 years in technology-enabled talent acquisition, helping Fortune 500 and venture-backed tech companies create effective and inclusive hiring practices.