When it comes to thinking differently, acceptance in corporate circles has long been lagging. Only in recent years has the business world begun to embrace and accommodate the unique talents and needs of neurodiverse individuals – and in Asia, this is just getting started.
For example, while the US signed into law its Disabilities Act (inclusive of divergent thinkers) in 1990, igniting the neurodiversity movement in the same decade, India only recognised Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in its Disabilities (PwD) Act in 2016.
Broadly defined as a diversity of thinking styles and abilities, neurodiversity or neurodivergence refers to differences in the human brain and covers a range of cognitive variations such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and Tourette Syndrome.
While there are no reliable statistics on how many people have a neurodiverse condition, largely due to its invisible nature and limited understanding, estimates suggest 15-20% of the global population are neurodivergent. And according to data from Deloitte US, 85% of those on the autism spectrum are unemployed, compared to 4.2% of the overall population.
The numbers make for depressing reading, but even more so when you look at specific countries in Asia. In the Philippines, less than one in five of working-age people with disabilities are part of the workforce, while in Malaysia, that figure is drops to just 1.4%.
But the tide is changing. Increased awareness and understanding coupled with an expanded corporate focus on DEI and continuing talent shortages is turning employer attention towards what has historically been untapped talent.
Embracing neurodiverse talent
While there is no data on neurodiverse hiring specifically, growth in the recruitment of persons with disabilities (PwD) in India rose to 4% in Q2 FY23 from 1% in FY22, according to Quess General Staffing – and more organisations are getting on board.
Monika Mahto is a research leader at the Deloitte Center for Integrated Research. She works on Deloitte’s global research campaigns on advanced technologies and future of work and leads the Inclusion-Wellbeing initiative for Deloitte’s 700 employees across Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru.
“We are seeing positive developments in support of neurodiversity, including employers’ willingness to support neurodiverse individuals,” Monika tells Business Chief.
Citing Deloitte research, Monika points to multiple forces of change within the corporate world – from the war on talent and widening skills gap, to the pressure to integrate a diverse workforce, not to mention the need to create and sustain business value in new ways.
“Neurodiverse professionals can help organisations find solutions to some of these challenges by fuelling innovation, facilitating problem-solving, and enhancing productivity – delivering benefits at many levels,” she says – adding that some companies intentionally form ‘pods’ comprising neurotypical and neurodivergent professionals to bring the best out of the combination in service of business goals.
Neurodiversity as competitive advantage
Certainly, in viewing the world differently, neurodiverse talent can offer different perspectives, which can help solve complex challenges and advance innovation.
As CEO of Empauwer, the world’s first AI-powered inclusive onboarding and engagement platform designed to help employers hire, engage, and harness neurodiverse talent, Singapore-based Farida Charania is seeing first-hand the shift taking place.
“There has been a stigma around neurodiversity in Asia, as is the case in many parts of the world. However, the landscape is slowly shifting… and more organisations are realising the unique potential and skills that neurodiverse individuals bring to the table.”
While every neurodiverse individual is unique, there are common characteristics that make them great hires, says Farida. As well as fostering innovation and bringing a wide range of perspectives to the table, those with neurodivergent conditions offer unique problem-solving abilities, creativity, and attention to detail, she says.
Rajesekharan Pazhaniappan, co-founder of v-shesh Learning Services concurs. “There are many neurodivergent individuals who are highly creative and have natural out-of-the-box thinking and complex problem-solving skills – the same aptitude that corporates want for their roles in IT, analytics, data science and AI.”
At the same time, he points out that many have deep interest in related fields, so not only are they an untapped talent pool but an exceptional one, “the combination of aptitude and interest creates an intense work focus”.
Globally, EY and JPMorgan were among organisations quick to spot the talent pool. In comparing the work generated by neurodiverse and neurotypical professionals, EY found that while quality, efficiency and productivity were similar, neurodiverse employees excelled at innovation. And after implementing its ‘autism at work’ initiative, JPMorgan found neurodiverse teams made fewer errors and were 90% to 140% more productive.
Realising the competitive advantage, these and other organisations including Wells Fargo, Deloitte, Accenture, Petronas and IHG Hotels are rolling out hiring and retention programmes across the region.
As a top three employer in Malaysia, with more than 47,000 employees, Petronas is working with EY Malaysia to facilitate organisational readiness in creating job opportunities for the neurodiverse population, as well as provide upskilling and support to select organisations.
“Hiring neurodiverse talent brings an innovative opportunity for Petronas and other organisations to address business needs and contribute to nation building,” says SVP of Group HR Management, Farehana Hanapiah. “By harnessing the power of people who think differently, neurodiversity can help to bring innovation and creativity to the workplace while also developing better leaders that are more inclusive and empathetic.”
Many other companies regionally are implementing programmes that target neuro-diverse hires with customised roles for their abilities, appropriate hiring techniques and adapted workplaces – necessary steps to attract and retain talent long-term, say experts.
“To accommodate neurodiverse talent, managers and HR departments need to foster an inclusive culture, provide necessary accommodations, create flexible work environments, and offer training to all staff on neurodiversity,” Farida says.
Deloitte leader Monika believes training is especially critical given that neurodiversity often manifests as an invisible set of differences, meaning managers and peers may not always be aware of unique requirements.
“Understanding neurodiversity is the first and crucial step toward embracing it. Just as no two neurotypical individuals are alike, no two neurodivergent individuals are the same. And even within one condition, individuals may exhibit different traits on a spectrum, making it important to avoid generalising the challenges faced and the support needed.”
Take working styles. While some people are comfortable working from home shielded from the pressure of unstructured social interactions, others may prefer the routine of office presence and the clear delineation of work and non-work hours, says Monika. It is therefore important to give workers “some flexibility” to choose how they structure their day.
“Business accommodations need to be made not just in letters but also in spirit and should remain flexible with feedback received from neurodivergent workers and their allies.”
Wells Fargo has recognised the need to take a personalised approach. With offices in Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad, the company launched its Neurodiversity Strategy in India in 2021 with the aim to build a sustainable ecosystem for neurodivergent talent.
The financial services giant worked locally with community partner EnAble India to roll out a Train, Intern, Hire model – employing a customised approach that involves understanding the available talent pool and undertaking an intensive job role analysis to identify roles best suited for potential candidates. Selected candidates then undergo training for 14 weeks, inclusive of soft and hard skills.
Among unique features, the programme offers continuous engagement with family members, the allocation of buddies, intensive sensitisation sessions for leaders and teams, and encouragement of employees to advocate for themselves, sharing their needs and aspirations.
The buddy system is an approach Monika recommends. “Beyond formal policies, finding support from a trusted ally or buddy is important, someone who can speak up in support of neurodiverse individuals and who can educate others – as often it is others who need to be sensitised.”
Addressing hiring and placement
Hiring and placement of neurodiverse talent can be a challenge. According to Rajesekharan Pazhaniappan, the neurotypical way of thinking requires employees to adhere to certain norms and employers are conditioned to misread any deviation as a hiring risk.
“A candidate not making eye contact is misjudged as not likely to be a team player or not interested,” he says. “The line between acceptable societal / HR normal and specific needs of a neurodivergent individual is so blurred that without appropriate awareness and training, current practices just do not provide an equal opportunity for neurodivergent individuals.”
To make the hiring process as equitable as possible, Deloitte research leader Monika recommends reviewing not only the wording in job descriptions to ensure inclusivity, but also typical interview questions. “Abstract questions can perplex all interviewees… and so consider moving from abstract to more specific questions.”
Trial work periods rather than traditional interviews can also work better for neurodiverse candidates – giving them the space to demonstrate their capabilities over time and giving hiring managers a better understanding of fit, explains Monika.
Finally, Monika suggests matching candidates against all open roles, not just for those requiring skills that they are stereotypically good at.
“As part of our research, when we began to talk to post-secondary institutions about who was self-identifying neurodivergent to their accessibility offices, there were more people from the arts than there were from STEM, which is contrary to popular belief.”