How to Build and Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace


Imagine this scene: You’re interviewing a potential candidate for a role as a developer with your company. The candidate seems to have the skills you need but also displays a few social eccentricities – perhaps he has a tick, or rocks back and forth in his seat, or won’t make eye contact.

For decades, potential hires like this have been rejected from the candidate pool. “Poor culture fit” has typically been the rationale.

But what if in the hunt for the “right culture fit,” you’re rejecting an entire pool of highly qualified – maybe even the best qualified — workers?


An untapped pool of potential

For those living on the autism spectrum, finding a job suited to their skillset can be an immense challenge.

Patrick Brophy, Quality Specialist at SAP and in the autistic spectrum said that "A day and a half after the second interview, I was told that I landed the job and I was over the moon with excitement because it was essential going to bring a whole 3 years of unemployment to an end".

In fact, Drexel University’s National Autism Indicators Report says 51% of workers on the spectrum have skills higher than what their job requires. Meanwhile, fewer than one in six adults with autism even has full-time employment.


Watch SAP recruiting and supporting neurodiversity👇




Through their ‘Autism at Work’ practice, SAP is making a real and sustainable difference in the lives of those individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) by providing career and development opportunities. Through the creation of inclusive hiring and retention practices, people of all abilities are contributing to the success of the business, to customers and communities. In this short video, you'll see that by creating a defined process for the selection and integration of new recruits with Autism, SAP is leading the way in being a true innovator in the area of diversity and inclusion.


What is neurodiversity

Neurodiverse individuals are those with developmental disabilities such as autism, ADHD and social anxiety disorders.

However, there’s a growing understanding that these individuals aren’t disabled per se, but rather differently-abled. While they may struggle with social skills, they tend to have above-average abilities when it comes to things like analysis, information processing, and pattern recognition.


Why is neurodiversity important in the workplace?

Building a neurodiverse workforce is much more than an inclusive practice. Neurodiverse people possess the skills particularly needed right now as businesses adopt more advanced technology. For example, artificial intelligence and robotics, and the demand for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) talent increases.

Kristen Doran, Senior HR Business Partner and Autism at Work Programme Lead at SAP shares "We have one fellow whose career trajectory and what he has accomplished for the organisation is incredible. He has started off at entry-level support role and in  3years now he is a Manager of a Team of 20 people and he is going to our highest-profile customer selling our product to them. He has an in-depth and a huge breadth of expertise around this product that nobody would have who is only been in the organisation for 3 years."


How to build a neurodiverse workforce
1. Get buy-in from all levels

Engage with leadership so that they, in turn, can have conversations with their teams about what it means to have a neurodiverse workforce.

It’s important that these conversations are open and transparent. It needs to be a safe space for both neurotypical employees to ask questions and for neurodiverse employees to come forward and disclose.


2. Engage with the local community

Community groups can help employers find and attract neurodiverse talent. These groups may take the form of government agencies, non-profits, vocational rehab centres, educational institutions, or offices for disabilities.

In addition to helping with recruitment, such groups can provide crucial advice and resources for training.

SAP have partnered with Specialisterne Ireland for this, and Kristen Doran, Senior HR Business Partner and Autism at Work Programme Lead at SAP said  "they help us source the talent and screen the talent and then we work with them in placing the people in our organisation".

3. Adjust your hiring practices

Hiring managers need to reframe their idea of what makes a “good candidate.” Many superficial norms, such as a strong handshake or looking someone in the eye, are difficult for neurodiverse individuals to perform.

Managers also need to ask the right questions to best draw out the individual’s skills and capabilities.

As well, it’s important to remember that resumes don’t tell the full story. Because so many neurodiverse individuals have struggled to find work that matches their abilities, they are often self-taught or possess transferrable skills.


4. Be patient

Building a neurodiverse candidate pool takes time.


5. Organize expert-driven, two-way training

Soft skill training is a critical part of building a neurodiverse workforce and should be done by an expert with the appropriate experience – something you can also look to the local community for.

Note that this training isn’t just for neurodiverse employees, but for all employees and especially managers, who need to be educated about what it’s like to be on the spectrum, and how to best work together.

Kristen Doran, Senior HR Business Partner and Autism at Work Programme Lead at SAP: "We make sure that the team the person is going into has a level of understanding of what autism is and what it means to be working with someone on the autistic spectrum".

Liam Ryan, Managing Director at SAP Ireland: "There are some training courses that the managers have to go through and that the teams have to go through - awareness more than anything else about some of the things that you need to be aware of when you are dealing with somebody with autism."


6. Be ready and willing to accommodate

Individuals with autism may be sensitive to things like temperature, sound, and lighting. As such, you may need to provide accommodations such as noise-cancelling headphones, privacy rooms, or flexible work schedules, so employees can be their most productive.

Kristen Doran, Senior HR Business Partner and Autism at Work Programme Lead at SAP: "When we say accommodation, we are not talking about huge big programmes that are expensive at all. It is very small things. For example, someone when he first started with us, was sensitive to sound and he didn't want to eat in our canteen, because it is really noisy, so he would have lunch at his desk, or in the meeting room. Some people would have thought it was a little bit antisocial but we explained it was because he has this sensory sensitivity  and therefore wasn't comfortable being around the noise."


7. Amplify the message

Individuals on the spectrum have often had negative experiences in the world. So, while they may feel understood at work, they may not feel as safe outside of the office.

A strong neurodiversity program should push its message externally as well as internally, making it a more normal part of employment in general.

Dara McMahon, Support Engineer at SAP and in the autistic spectrum: "Working at SAP has been very good, it is very helpful in the fact that I have a lot of autonomy as SAP have done anything they can for me and apparently I have been good enough to hold on to that for about 6 years now".


Having a systematic and continuous way of gathering feedback around the employee experience provides the data and insights needed to create a roadmap for affecting positive change. Gather and analyze your employees’ experience with our employee survey.   

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