Neurodiversity and the Future of Work
- While business schools have significantly increased their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, the number of programs focused on neurodiversity still lag behind those focused on race, gender, and LGBTQAI+.
- By offering relevant training and content, both business schools and the business community can reduce the stigma that neurodivergent individuals can face and cultivate greater interest in their talents.
- Because some individuals might not be comfortable disclosing—or even aware of—their neurodiverse status, all-inclusive programs that welcome everyone can create more inclusive environments for all stakeholders.
Patrick is a master painter. But you won’t find his works in any gallery or online portfolio. Instead, if you ask, he may choose to show them to you personally from his private collection of figurines that he has created based on a popular board game. Each figurine takes him between six to ten hours to make, and the amount of detail is amazing.
Sarah, his mother, reflected on her son’s talent in a focus group in Bangkok. “He’s not confident, doesn’t know how to interact socially,” she said. “But in this area, he’s a mastermind.”
Patrick has autism. Growing up, he most often quietly observed others rather than engaged with them socially, making it difficult for him to succeed in a mainstream school. At 16, Patrick dropped out of high school and finished his education through a combination of homeschooling and attending schools that serve special-needs students. At age 21, he has never held a job or found a way to commercialize his considerable talent. “He has an altruistic idea that when you do something, it’s not for money,” his mother explained.
Patrick is among the millions of neurodivergent individuals in the world. Neurodiversity refers to the natural variations that occur in human brain structure and cognition, which include differences in learning, attention, emotion, sociability, and other mental functions. Beyond those with autism spectrum disorder, individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyscalculia, learning disabilities, and other conditions are considered neurodivergent.
While there has been exponential growth in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts in business and education, programs to raise awareness of neurodiversity still lag behind those focused on race, gender, and LGBTQAI+. Yet the number of people impacted by neurodivergent conditions is immense. According to global estimates, up to 20 percent of the world’s population is neurodivergent. Most of these individuals are undiagnosed, and even more lack access to adaptations that would help them succeed in school and at work.
As a result, unemployment within this population is high—close to 80 percent by some estimates. Underemployment—when a worker’s skills are underutilized—is equally problematic. Many employers view neurodivergent people as globally disabled and unable to perform in the workplace, but they fail to understand that, in most cases, it is the working environment that “disables” these individuals. By making small tweaks to working and learning settings, employers and schools can make a world of difference and unlock an incredible amount of talent.
Five Changes to Champion Now
As hubs connecting academia, society, and business, business schools are well-positioned to highlight and support neurodiversity in their curricula and research. Yet, although some higher education institutions have dedicated centers to the topic, many business schools struggle to take up the cause. At a recent AACSB event in the Southeast Asia region, only one administrator attending (out of hundreds) reported that her school focused on neurodivergent individuals.
But while some institutions and employers have yet to support neurodiversity, many larger companies are already focusing on the issue. HSBC, for instance, recently reported its substantial efforts to recruit neurodivergent talent. Companies such as Microsoft, SAP, and EY are also adopting recruitment strategies and internal policies that make the success—and retention—of neurodivergent workers more likely.
Business schools also can do more to lead the way in supporting neurodivergent individuals. They and their corporate partners can start by adopting these five strategies:
1. Increase Neurodiversity Awareness
Any informed DEIB strategy starts with increasing the community’s understanding of the experiences and needs the marginalized group. While definitions of what constitutes a disability are relative, organizations can use the intersection between neurodivergence and disability as a good point of entry. By folding neurodivergence into existing disability policies, businesses and schools can discover areas of omission and needed expansion in their policies, programs, and research.
Business schools and other organizations also should train members of their communities on the strengths and challenges of people with different neurodivergent conditions. Dedicated training can help reduce the stigma surrounding these conditions and highlight potential adaptations. Moreover, research shows that the neurodivergent individuals are more likely to disclose the nature of their challenges in welcoming environments, and that such disclosures can lead to a world of positive change.
2. Reimagine Accessibility and Inclusion
Familiarizing management teams, faculty, and students with the benefits of neurodiversity—such as increased productivity, creativity, and morale—cultivates greater interest in what neurodivergent individuals have to offer. Organizations that employ neurodivergent employees find that these workers bring new perspectives to problems, which leads to more innovative workforces and other positive outcomes.
But to maximize this potential, employers often must make small adaptations to learning or work environments. That’s why business schools need to reimagine what accessible, inclusive learning and working environments look like. Only then can they model effective policies and promote those policies among their corporate partners.
Fortunately, the same tweaks that unlock the potential of neurodivergent people can boost productivity for the entire campus community or workforce.
Some schools refer to such changes as “accommodations” made at the request of individual students who require adaptations to learning or testing environments, such as text-to-speech technology, additional time on tests, or extra break allowances. Other schools incorporate more comprehensive alterations to existing practices, such as allowing more flexible working hours, designing sensory-friendly workspaces, providing visual or written aids, or offering dedicated job coaching and mentoring.
Fortunately, the same tweaks that unlock the potential of neurodivergent people can boost productivity for the entire campus community or workforce, says David Lawrence, lawyer, attorney, and founder of Pegleg Co. Ltd., a legal firm and employer based in Thailand. As someone with ADHD, Lawrence takes advantage of work environments that offer a range of sensory stimuli, from quiet, soundproof rooms where he can go to unplug to open spaces that provide more sensory input.
“Everyone experiences one or more symptoms of ADHD at some point and time,” Lawrence points out. “An ADHD-friendly workplace is actually a friendly workplace for everyone.”
3. Partner With Neurodiverse Communities
Not only do neurodivergent people belong in our classrooms and businesses—they are already here. Given that reality, business schools should partner with dedicated communities and organizations, on and off campus, to gain greater insight into how to support neurodivergent individuals. Administrators and faculty can work with advocates and experts to create policies, case examples, training opportunities, collaborations, and impactful initiatives that support the needs of multiple stakeholders.
When few or no economic or political resources exist to finance large-scale social change, business schools can set an example. For instance, my school, the Sasin School of Management, is located in Bangkok. Here in Thailand, higher education institutions are encouraged, but not always required, to assist individuals with special circumstances. Without governmental requirements or other legal mandates acting as guidelines for higher education institutions, Sasin has had to be deliberate and creative, building its inclusion policies from the ground up.
This has included opening the Neurodiversity in the Workplace Research Centre at the school with Steps, a local partner specializing in neurodiversity advocacy. “By establishing our center on neurodiversity at work, we’ve not only been able to launch an interesting program of research that’s quite new to the region, but also educate our students, staff, and alumni about the opportunities that working with neurodivergent people brings,” says Ian Fenwick, director of the school.
“The solution didn’t exist,” he adds, “so, we built one.”
The research center does more than provide opportunities for Sasin to engage with the neurodiverse community through its research and programming. While the Thai government does not have laws focused on neurodiversity in higher education, it requires most organizations to hire a certain number of individuals with registered disabilities (which includes autism). This requirement opens a doorway for the center also to work with its corporate and community partners to create long-term impact.
The center plans to offer internships for students, staff, and faculty, including opportunities for neurodivergent trainees to fill different roles at the school. In addition, the Sasin School plans to make internal policy shifts and programming adjustments based on the center’s early research and lessons learned from its partners.
4. Include Neurodivergent Perspectives in Teaching and Practice
Too often, would-be “inclusion” attempts exclude or diminish the voices of those they mean to represent. But by incorporating neurodivergent perspectives into their research and outreach, businesses and business schools can gain a community-based, stakeholder-driven perspective on their internal processes and curricula that might otherwise be missing.
When institutions include stories and voices from the neurodiverse community in their classrooms, offices, and online spaces, they convey a clear message: Neurodiverse people belong here.
These efforts need not be extreme. On campus, for instance, faculty can simply incorporate facts about neurodiversity into their course materials and including famous neurodivergent faces, such as the oft-cited Elon Musk, in case and leadership perspectives. They can ask students to examine corporate environments, accommodations, policies, and laws that cater to (or work against) neurodivergent populations and issues.
In the classroom and in the business world, people might be interested in the fact that there is a clear relationship between entrepreneurship and ADHD, with ADHDers appearing far more often in entrepreneurial populations than the general public. Yet neurodivergent leaders are unlikely to benefit from their divergent thinking and cognitive flexibility if organizational policies inhibit that type of expression.
When institutions include stories and voices from the neurodiverse community in their classrooms, offices, and online spaces, they change the focus of conversations. They move beyond being advocates to conveying a clear message: Neurodivergent people belong here. Such efforts are likely to have far-reaching benefits to neurodivergent individuals and businesses alike.
5. Strengthen an Overall Culture of Inclusion
Like the members of many other stigmatized groups, neurodivergent people may not be “out” regarding their status—and that’s OK. Whether individuals disclose or explore their own identities is an intimately personal choice. This is one reason that DEI initiatives that target specific groups are often less effective than those that change organizational processes and systems.
On the other hand, all-inclusive multicultural programs that aim to make all people feel welcome often have more positive and lasting effects. Creating cultures of inclusion that value many forms of diversity and recognize the contributions of individuals from all backgrounds helps establish more welcoming and supportive environments for everyone.
Get Started Now—Get Started Right
No DEI effort will be a single-shot, guaranteed success. DEI activities “are meant to be disruptive,” Fenwick points out. “You’re disrupting the status quo, which means you’re bound to ruffle some feathers.”
Rather than being alarmed at possible pushback or early policy pitfalls, administrators should anticipate the inevitable ups and downs that come with adopting such policies, Fenwick suggests. While it’s essential to keep feedback channels open and respond to concerns that arise, “nothing is more important than taking the first step,” he says. “All the ‘lessons learned’ start after that.”
Still, some individuals might fear that adding yet another “special interest group” will chip away at already limited DEI resources. This can be especially true because the oft-invisible nature of neurodivergence can lead people to “think it isn’t real,” cautions Lawrence of Pegleg Co. Research also shows that, when disability accommodations are not well-understood, employees and students can resent the apparent “special privileges” their colleagues can receive.
Nevertheless, when people realize that many accommodations for neurodivergent individuals are low-cost or free—such as allowing more time on exams or providing early access to course materials—some attitudes will soften. Success is even more likely when leaders frame the issue clearly, provide the right context, and invite collaborative participation across the organization.
Ultimately, embracing neurodiversity doesn’t just benefit individuals with neurological differences. It also enhances innovation, creativity, and productivity throughout the business world.