We make the case here that neurodivergent thinkers should be an important part of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies because every organization stands to benefit from the inclusion of different cognitive perspectives in creating the organization’s culture.
This argument can be made from several different angles. For example, it can be made from the standpoint of a single organization, competing with other organizations in a commercial or industrial pursuit. It can also be made from the standpoint of the larger society, which stands to benefit from more innovative and equitable organizations.
Wouldn’t we all prefer to live in a world that values individuals for the skills and talents each of us uniquely possesses? Wouldn’t we all prefer to live in a world where seeming misfit pieces of the puzzle find a suitable home in the tapestry of the larger machine that is a 21st century economy?
However, in making any of these arguments, there is a central point that ties them all together, which is where we must begin: The neurodiverse are undervalued in the labor marketplace despite the many talents they bring to the table.
What is Neurodiversity?
“Neurodiversity” is a strength-based perspective that refers to individuals with differences in brain function, neurology, and behavioral traits as existing within “the normal variation in the human population.” Neurodiversity involves people with varying diagnoses, including autism spectrum disorders (ASD), Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (“ADD” / “ADHD”), Dyslexia, Sensory Processing Disorder, or Dyspraxia, among others.
Where Neurodiversity fits within the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Paradigm
We know from previous research that improved DEI metrics, more broadly defined, have been shown to increase financial returns and productivity for organizations. Companies with more diverse management teams, for instance, demonstrate, on average, 19% higher revenues due to increased innovation and 9% higher EBIT margins, as reported in a recent Boston Consulting Group Research Report.
Neurodiversity and the benefits of diverse cognitive strategies have only very rarely even been highlighted as part of the traditional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) framework. We argue that Neurodiversity should be explicitly addressed and included as part of ongoing conversations about how to improve DEI initiatives at both the policy and organizational level.
Neurodiverse Groups Contribute Talents that Employers Need
The most direct proof that the neurodiverse — sometimes referred to as neurominorities — are undervalued in the labor marketplace is the fact that, while studies have emerged showing that many neurodiverse workers are as or more productive than their neurotypical counterparts, the neurodiverse are much more likely to be unemployed or underemployed.
In other words, they struggle to get and retain jobs despite evidence that they are just as good at them.
For our purposes here, to simplify the analysis, we will focus on one particular neurodiverse population that has been shown to disproportionately fall through the cracks in terms of both degree completion and employment rates – Autism spectrum disorders (often referred to as ASD).
The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has broadened the diagnostic criteria to address all variants and subtypes under the ASD umbrella. ASD is a developmental disorder that affects skills in three domains to varying degrees – communication, social interaction, and repetitive behaviors – and is believed to be the fastest growing developmental disability, diagnosed more frequently than AIDS, cancer and diabetes combined. Recent CDC estimates suggest that 1 in 54 kids are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. One summary resource to learn more about ASD can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html
While studies have shown some variation in employment statistics, it has been estimated that approximately 85% of autistic adults remain unemployed or underemployed and as many as 9 out of 10 college graduates on the Autism Spectrum also remain unemployed or underemployed. To put this in perspective, for the rest of the economy, as of the end of 2019, the unemployment rate was at about 3.5%.
At the same time, according to Manpower Group, out of the 40,000 employers surveyed, 45% of global employers reported that they are struggling to find the talent they need to succeed in their organizational objectives.
This might be incorrectly taken as evidence that people on the spectrum are strikingly worse at performing basic job-related tasks than their neurotypical peers. However, the available data clearly suggest otherwise.
While the talents of ASD jobseekers might be overlooked during verbal interview processes, recent Autism at Work pilot studies have shown that neurodiverse/neurodivergent employees are more productive than their neurotypical peers in the same job when given the opportunity. In fact, in a recent study by JPMorgan, individuals with ASD were found to be 48% faster and as high as 92% more productive when compared to their neurotypical peers employed in the same position.
People with ASD also possess unique cognitive strengths and have shown superior performance on visual-spatial tasks, including tests utilizing block design skills (Shah and Frith, 1993), as well as pattern detection abilities such as the embedded figures test (Jolliffe and Baron-Cohen, 1997). In a very recent segment on 60 minutes (October 4, 2020) , Anderson Cooper tried the block test compared to a person on the spectrum; Anderson fell extremely far behind: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/autism-employment-60-minutes-2020-10-04/.
People on the spectrum have also been found to me more consistent in rational decision making and less prone to errors of cognitive bias, including susceptibility to being influenced by marketing gimmicks (Farmer et al, 2017). Attention to detail and the ability to sustain focus for long stretches of time are additional powerful contributions to employers (see Burry et al. 2020 for a review).
Unique Kinds of Minds
Besides being undervalued in the labor marketplace on traditional measures, the neurodiverse also bring the value of diversity to the table. Diversity is productive because it introduces a greater range of experiences and ideas into the conversation.
We argue that this is just as true in the case of neurodiversity as it is for other types of diversity that are currently the focus of the DEI movement.
Neurodiversity represents diversity of cognition. People with ADHD or ASD think differently from each other and from their neurotypical peers, often noticing different details, making different assumptions, and reaching different conclusions.
This is inherently valuable.
An article published in Harvard Business Review suggested how “Innovation calls on firms to include people and ideas ‘from the edges.’” Another useful quote published in the same Harvard Business Review article comes from an executive at SAP:
“Having people who see things differently and who maybe don’t fit in seamlessly helps offset our tendency, as a big company, to all look in the same direction.” – Bessa, SAP’s Autism at Work program.
In a separate article published in Forbes titled, “Five Trends Driving Workplace Diversity,” Selena Rezvani observed:
“In addition to creating a workplace inclusive of race, gender, and sexual orientation (to name a few), many organizations are seeking value in something even simpler, diversity of thought. In some industries that are known for being insular—think law or high-tech companies—seeking out talent with different thinking and problem-solving backgrounds in critical. Deloitte research underscores that diverse thinkers help guard against groupthink . . .”
In each case, the same point lies at the heart of the issue: A team of people, no matter how smart or well-educated, that contains no diversity in cognitive, perceptual or analytical bearing, can be a risk to organizational success.
In other words, when everyone is highly correlated in terms of perceptual or analytical tendencies, the range of potential ideas that can be considered in making important decisions is narrow. That narrow range creates two major disadvantages: It prevents innovation and creates catastrophic vulnerability.
In the first case, new and better doors to progress are not always visible because everyone is simply unable to realize that there are other directions to look. In the second case, serious risks are often not noticed as they creep up from an unseen direction.
Uncorrelated cognitive tendencies present a value, not a liability, broadly speaking. And organizations able to access and implement this value will reap benefits over time through the presence of unique minds in the room predisposed to think differently and see fresh angles to seemingly obvious challenges – to mix up the ingredients in ways that simply don’t occur to “most people”.
We would suggest researchers work to establish the true costs, in both social supports for, and deviance related to, those defined here as “neurodiverse”, especially those who might otherwise be employable in terms of skills, but for a lack of supportive resources for both employers and neurodiverse job-seekers.
Corporate giants such as Microsoft, SAP, JP Morgan and Ford Motors have been highlighting the many gifts that ASD workers offer in recent years. It is time to expand on this foundation and take cognitive diversity seriously as an important asset to organizational culture within the broader DEI policy framework.