Sometimes, curious things just do not make sense. Everywhere we look, signs make tempting offers to attract new hires. Millions of job opportunities remain open following the COVID pandemic lockdowns, the disruption of traditional work relationships, and “The Great Resignation.” Unemployment rates remain the lowest in decades.
Still, the neurodiverse workforce remains underemployed. How can we explain the disconnect? What concerns, gaps, and barriers keep able neurodiverse candidates from applying?
Can neurodiverse candidates work?
Genetics and environment have created a class some label as neuro-minorities. With brains apparently wired differently than those considered typical, the atypical represent up to 20 percent of the U.S. population. We can infer, among other things, that the currently employed include tens of thousands of neurodiverse workers with little or no accommodation. Nonetheless, millions go without good work.
Psychologists and analysts typically identify atypical people according to their deficits.* For instance:
|ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)||Lack of attention and random compulsive behaviors|
|ASD(Autism Spectrum Disorder)||Cognitive impairment in prefrontal cortex|
|Dyscalculia||Difficulty performing basic mathematics and measurements|
|Dysgraphia||Difficulty controlling hands and handwriting|
|Dyslexia||Difficulty reading and spelling|
|Dyspraxia||Difficulty with motor coordination|
|Tourette Syndrome||Difficulty managing verbal and motor tics|
Many of these conditions present with comorbidity. People on the autism spectrum, for example, may also show symptoms of ADHD. Those with Dyslexia might also display ADHD behaviors.
Cognitive therapy, special education, and necessary accommodations can manage Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, and Dysgraphia. Prescribed medications may reduce symptoms of ADHD, ASD, Dyspraxia, and Tourette Syndrome. Still, many lead a significantly reduced quality of life.
The deficit approach troubles observers as well as those affected. As Nancy Doyle wrote in the British Medical Bulletin, “we lack a single unifying theory for any condition.” Each of the atypical conditions represents a fluid continuum in which no two people have the same atypical brain formation.” When we place capabilities on a spectrum or scale, we impose a metaphor unsupported by science. Logic insists all members of a class share commonalities, yet this deficit class of neuro-minorities pulls together widely disparate neural symptoms. It makes analysis and observation difficult.
We should not understand these conditions as mental illness or injury. Individuals who self-identify as “divergent” may not consider themselves disabled, meaning they have no protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). So, with the social perception focused on symptoms, finding, securing, and landing a job worthy of their potential remains difficult.
How normal are neurodiverse workers?
When Dustin Hoffman prepared for Rain Man, he mimicked the stereotypical autistic savant. He chose characteristic gestures, body language, and eye movement. The receptive audience — most of whom never met an autistic savant — co-created a character framed by their collective cognitive bias. This biased construction also applies to Young Sheldon, The Good Doctor, and Star Trek‘s Spock.
A tour of a renowned university’s autism center finds signs outside the doors of research offices and labs. Each of them explains the research underway into the causes of autism. None of the research deals with parenting, teaching, or vocational training. To be fair, the center does provide extensive clinical services. However, to an outside observer, the focus seems to confirm the deficit status.
Writing for Health Care Analysis, Jaarsman and Welin said, “In its broadest sense the concept of neurodiversity regards atypical neurological development as a normal human difference.” There is nothing binary or stable about neurodiverse conditions. Labels like “high-” or “low-” functioning relegates people to subcategories from which they cannot move. Atypical and typical brains vary in large and small ways. Both reveal a fluid and flexible dynamic in which talents and capabilities may or may not prove exceptional.
The neurodiverse minority includes millions who go unnoticed unless their symptoms differentiate them as significantly disabled. Many of them understand they have atypical behaviors because others remind — or bully — them. They can deal with math, spelling, and reading with therapies, mentoring, and runarounds.
Even non-verbal autistic children learn to walk and potty train. They may never play soccer, but they will jump on a trampoline or play on a swing or slide for hours. They laugh when their parents are annoyed and they torment their siblings. Some write books, excel at playing music, or communicate through devices. In short, they clearly make choices.
The known talents and capabilities suggest the presence and power of additional potentialities. We do not know if cognitive awareness improves over time or just manifests itself in time. But there is reason to believe that, given a positive, psychologically safe, and specialized environment, neurodiverse people can determine their own futures.
What work do the neurodiverse do?
Well, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk have changed the world while acknowledging their own struggles on the ASD. Others have found it tougher going.
Retail and hospitality businesses have hired people to perform repetitive menial tasks. With instruction and tools, they stock shelves, clean floors, and greet customers. These companies may seem motivated by quotas, but they do provide work with pay and, sometimes, benefits.
Many neurodiverse believe their talents and skills deserve higher pay and more personally rewarding work. They feel like the immigrant surgeon who must drive a taxicab or wash dishes when arriving in a new country. They know, however, they can focus on detail, work long hours on defined projects, and bring a new perspective to collaboration.
Revisiting that deficit focus, we might highlight the related superpowers and potential jobs:
|Neurodiverse Condition||Superpowers||Potential Jobs|
|ADHD||Risk takersMultitaskersProblem solversEmpathetic and supportive||SalesEntertainmentTeacherHealthcare|
|ASD||Work ethicResearch focusReliable taskmasterManual skills||Plumber/Mechanic/CraftsCAD DraftingPhotographyWriting|
|Dyscalculia||CreativeStrategicIntuitiveProblem solver||Web designLandscape artistProfessorCounselor|
|Dysgraphia||CreativeVisionaryAttentiveWork ethic||CoachTeacherReal estate salesEngineer|
|Dyslexia||Big picture thinkersPattern recognitionSpatial awarenessProblem solver||CookingDesignerTutorTrainer|
|Dyspraxia||PersistentDeterminedMotivatedWork ethic||Elder careVeterinariansResearchersProject management|
|Tourette Syndrome||EnergeticPerceptiveCreativeEmpathetic||WritingGraphic designMusicianFirst responders|
Browsing Indeed.com and other online databases, we find many job titles available to neurodiverse candidates. They include Learning Solutions Specialist, Marketing Assistant, Lead Project Manager, and Compensation Analyst. Job boards also include many jobs that candidates can do from home.
Organizations do reach out for neurodiverse candidates, offering career opportunities that can make a difference in an individual’s life. Many jobs offer significantly competitive income with employee benefits that provide security and independence. However, we must consider what concerns, gaps, and barriers keep able neurodiverse candidates from applying.
What’s in the way for neurodiverse job candidates?
Real and perceived problems in job searching keep many neurodiverse people among the unemployed. A neurodivergent person must start with a self-assessment. Any job applicant — typical or atypical — should make an objective inventory of their knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA). Those results must match a posted or advertised job.
Going forward, it helps to understand that a job search “takes a village.” Neurodiverse job candidates should listen to the friends, family, and medical professionals who know them best. They should collaborate on an assessment of if and how the candidate might pursue an available job.
Neurodiverse candidates should understand employers see all applicants the same way. When they review resumes or online applications, employers do not look for deficits. They look for KSA that appear to match their needs at the time. So the neurodivergent job candidate must learn to modify or reorganize their resume to fit the open position.
If the employer invites the candidate to interview, challenges multiply if candidates do not understand the process:
- Candidates must decide whether to self-identify as having a condition requiring accommodation. Those with mildly active dyslexia or dyscalculia refuse to self-identify, fearing discrimintation. Those with more profound neurological effects should self-identify in order to ensure protections under the ADA and to help the employer accommodate special needs for the interview phase.
- Employers may not ask about medical conditions during the interview. In fact, they cannot ask about medical issues until after they make a job offer. Any question must relate directly to the job under review. And employers may not discuss a candidate’s medical history with anyone.
- Atypical candidates should realize that typical candidates have the same anxieties about their job search. They fear interviews and approach them with considerable tension. So neurodiverse applicants would also benefit from coaching on how to interview effectively.
However, many neurodiverse candidates have obvious symptoms like poor eye contact, muscular twitches, frequent stuttering, or disengaged attention. Most recruiters have yet to train in getting past such surface cues, but an increasing number of employers have developed units focused on staffing up with neurodiverse talents.
- Neurodiverse candidates would benefit from researching those organizations with aggressive initiatives to recruit and hire. These include SAP, Dell, IBM, J.P. Morgan, and KeyBank. A recent look at Jobs Across the Spectrum found job titles like Direct Care Assistant, Entertainment Manager, and Senior Software Developer.
- Candidates should locate employment agencies focused on finding, forming, and feeding neurodiverse talents to employers. Neurodiversity Hub, for example, partners with many organizations committed to integrating neurodiverse capabilities.
- Intermediaries like Specialisterne work with candidates to develop their job search skills and with employers to design and sustain initiatives to hire and onboard neurodiverse employees.
- A 2021 study sponsored by Microsoft interviewed 26 neurodiverse professionals and concluded, “Working from home offers neurodivergent professionals much needed flexibility in work routines and environments, although they must perform significant cognitive and emotional labor in configuring an accessible home and virtual workspace and negotiating accessible remote communication practices.”
What’s the upside for neurodiverse candidates?
Finding and landing a job poses challenges for everyone. But neurodiverse candidates may appreciate some direction. They should have the confidence that jobs await them and their talents. Employers must realize:
- Neurodiverse demographics will put neurodiverse candidates before them sooner than later.
- Organizations profit from the demonstrated work ethic and productivity of neurodiverse workers
- Employers must make reasonable accommodations for those identified as disabled, including reimagined recruiting, interviewing, onboarding, and training and development.
Neurodiverse job candidates must welcome help in developing a strategy for landing that self-fulfilling career.
Das, M., Tang, J., Ringland, K. & Piper, A. (2021). Towards Accessible Remote Work: Understanding Work-from-Home Practices of Neurodivergent Professionals. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact., Vol. CSCW, No. 1. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/uploads/prod/2021/01/ND_CSCW21-MSR-copy-accessible.pdf
Doyle N. (2020). Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. British medical bulletin, 135(1), 108–125. https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldaa021
Jaarsma, P. & Welin, S. Autism as a Natural Human Variation: Reflections on the Claims of the Neurodiversity Movement. Health Care Anal 20, 20–30 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10728-011-0169-9