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Neurodivergence at work: Employers starting to recognise the benefits

Irish businesses are beginning to wake up to the advantages that neurodiverse talent can bring

Neurodivergent staff – those with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia or dyslexia – can be creative, innovative, intensely focused and uniquely entrepreneurial, yet the Irish workplace is only beginning to wake up to the benefits that neurodiverse talent can bring to the table.

Some organisations are beginning to see the presence of neurodivergent employees as a competitive advantage, with a few pioneering companies even specifically seeking out neurodiverse hires. In a recent side-by-side comparison of a neurodiverse team with a neurotypical team carried out by the bank JP Morgan Chase the neurodiverse team achieved 48 per cent higher productivity.

But research commissioned in the UK by the charity Neurodiversity in Business earlier this year found that there are still significant barriers to neurodivergent employees disclosing their neurodivergence to employers; around 65 per cent of surveyed employees said they feared disclosing their condition in case of discrimination from management. That said, 69 per cent of employers said a lack of disclosure made it difficult to make adjustments for neurodivergent employees.

According to Dr Maeve Houlihan, associate dean of the UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business, in recent years recognition of the concept of neurodivergence – or an inclusive acceptance that there are many different ways in which humans perceive, experience and interact with the world – has grown significantly, particularly in educational and workplace contexts.


“This wasn’t always so,” she admits. “The challenge is that when we present differently we can be treated differently or, worse still, avoided due to the uncertainty and anxiety generated in others. Unfortunately, that can lead to individuals being overlooked, misunderstood or underemployed.”

Recent progress in this area has been buoyed by a growing body of evidence that neurodiversity is a significant strength, Houlihan adds, “such as seeing things differently and presenting unique skills, which might include, for example, specialist deep knowledge, hyperfocus or certain other capacities that more ‘neurotypical’ people may lack”.

“It should come as no surprise that people who see the world differently have a real strength and resource when it comes to mirroring the world back,” she says.

Growing recognition of neurodiversity in Ireland has been significantly advanced by the principles of equality of access to opportunity, inclusion and belonging, Houlihan notes.

“In the workplace this same principle applies, with the additional drive of accessing diverse talent pools and representing and learning about customers by mirroring the wider population,” she says. “Workplaces and employers have a disproportionate power of access here to influence understanding and through building inclusive workplace recruitment practices and cultures.”

In the workplace neurodivergent employees might have requirements that call for specific consideration. These could include having sensitivities to noise, lighting or distraction or a need for distinctive patterns of communication, with less reliance on subtext or indirect communication. They might also include particular relationships with time, uncertainty, eye contact or executive function. Many of these conditions coexist – so, for example, someone with autism might also be dyslexic.

Irish employers are slowly beginning to embrace neurodiversity, says Ken Kilbride, chief executive officer at ADHD Ireland. Yet ADHD continues to fall between stools, given its “invisible” nature.

“When we go out and talk to corporate organisations and we ask them, ‘Who are your employees with autism?’, they know them and support them,” says Kilbride. “But when we ask them, ‘Who are your employees with ADHD?’, they don’t know.” That’s despite the prevalence of the condition being estimated at between 3.5 and 5 per cent of the global population.

“Employers have a lack of awareness but it’s not necessarily their fault,” adds Kilbride. “When we speak to people in our support groups and ask them if they have told their employer they have ADHD they invariably say no and when we ask them if they intend to ask their employer the answer is no. There is a reluctance to put that label on themselves and they are concerned about what it might do to their prospects within the organisation.”

The issue is that while ADHD has entered the public discourse in recent years, with many adults seeking and receiving diagnoses, it is not yet widely understood.

“Adults can have ADHD but people still think of it as just impacting children,” says Kilbride. “Those biases also need to be removed from the recruitment and interview process so that people should feel they can be open and honest about their diagnosis and that it won’t impact them negatively.”

People with ADHD might need specific types of help, depending on the nature of their ADHD, Kilbride believes.

“People always need some kind of support in the workplace so we are seeking universal accommodations,” he says. “Someone in a wheelchair – that is a visible disability. But you cannot see that someone has ADHD. So even if they have declared it to their supervisor or line manager, their colleagues might be wondering why they are getting certain accommodations. There is a job to be done in increasing awareness not only at the executive level but throughout the entire organisation, so that people are fully accepting.”

Debbie Merrigan is head of adult support, employment and wellbeing at the autism support charity AsIAm. She offers the stark statistic that there is 85 per cent unemployment and underemployment in the autistic community – the highest unemployment rate of any minority group in Ireland.

“That is quite devastating,” says Merrigan. “I get calls weekly from people who may have master’s degrees or PhDs, or those who are school leavers, but they all have the same story – ‘I can’t get a job; what’s wrong with me?’ And there’s nothing wrong with them – it’s the attitude of the employers.”

AsIAm is now working closely with employers around interview and training processes, devising autism-friendly interviews and job specs. Merrigan cites Mr Price as an example of an autism-friendly employer that has transformed its interview process to suit individual applicants and is building jobs around the person’s needs and wants. AsIAm has also recently launched an autism-specific jobs page on irishjobs.ie.

“But it’s not just about hiring staff – it’s about retaining staff,” says Merrigan. “It’s about levelling the playing field for all.”

One of the central things to understand is that neurodiversity presents in many different ways, Houlihan stresses.

“It’s definitely true that ‘if you have met one neurodiverse person, you have met one neurodiverse person’,” she says.

And things are beginning to change – Kilbride notes that ADHD Ireland is “fully booked” for October, which is ADHD Awareness Month, delivering talks and seminars to corporations.

“Even five years ago that wasn’t the case,” she says.

Danielle Barron

Danielle Barron is a contributor to The Irish Times