Skip to content

Experts talk: hiring (and championing) neurodivergent grads

Experts talk: hiring (and championing) neurodivergent grads

Even in the context of DEI, neurodiversity is rarely discussed. Is neurodivergent hiring at risk of being overlooked, especially for early talent? Here’s what our experts had to say…

Neurodivergent representation in today’s workplace

We’re going to put this plainly: neurodivergent talent has a hard time entering the workforce. In the UK, just 1 in 5 autistic people are in work. And this isn’t because they lack the ability or credentials — 85% of graduates with autism find themselves unemployed today.

We’re fighting hard for gender, race, and LGBTQ+ diversity and starting to move the dial. But when it comes to embracing neurodiversity in our workplaces, we’re surely missing a chance. How can we extend the same DEI opportunities to neurodivergent talent as well? 

And, more specifically, how can we make the world of work more welcoming for neurodivergent graduates just starting their careers?

Our specialists

We invited a panel of specialists to discuss the challenges a neurodiverse workforce faces and how we can help.

Tom Price-Daniel, CRO at Headstart was the chair of the conversation. Tom understands navigating dyslexia in the workplace, first-hand.

Let’s talk 🗯

  1. The challenge of an “invisible” disability
  2. A spectrum of unique gifts and abilities
  3. Does your hiring approach champion neurodiversity in graduates?
  4. How to support neurodivergent early talent in your teams
  5. 3 things to remember for building a neurodiverse, inclusive workplace
  6. Watch the full discussion [Video]

The challenge of neurodiversity as an “invisible” disability

How many neurodivergent team members do you have?

Are you sure?

Neurodiversity often isn’t obvious to friends, employers, or co-workers, and there is still some stigma in disclosing it. This is a challenge for those of us interested in better understanding neurodiversity and improving both representation and support.

🗯 “Due to their environments or the cultural nuances of where they grew up, many people will not be comfortable with coming forwards. They’re not going to be comfortable saying, I’m autistic, or I’m dyslexic because it is a disability.

We’ve got to understand all of those complexities around this subject, making it difficult for people within our organizations, especially young people, to confirm a diagnosis early on in their careers. They are at the lower end of that career ladder and can be highly influenced by the rest of those people in the organization.”

— Theo Smith

Making the decision to talk about being neurodivergent can feel high-risk, particularly for early talent. Labels such as “dyslexic” or “autistic” can incorrectly position candidates as “less than” in some recruiter’s minds. And these biases carry into the workplace once (or if) they arrive. 

For those who do decide to talk about being neurodivergent, the response isn’t always ideal.

🗯 “Some people can come up and say “You don’t seem autistic. You don’t appear to be autistic”… and I think that that’s really coming from the stereotypes and the narratives that they’ve been told from the media — that that is what it is to be autistic.”

— Tom Moran

It’s essential to realize that neurodiversity is more… well, diverse than we may subconsciously anticipate.

A spectrum of unique gifts and abilities

You’ve probably heard people talking about being “on the spectrum”. But have you considered what that spectrum might look like? And what challenges and opportunities it can present for neurodivergent employees?
Neurodiversity covers vastly different experiences, even for those with the same condition or “label”.

Many also never receive a formal diagnosis. Autistic women, for example, are often diagnosed with social anxiety or depression instead.

The spectrum is more far-reaching than we realize, too.

Our panel was keen to highlight how more information might help co-workers understand their own neurodiversity — and how that could help improve inclusion and remove bias around neurodiversity at work.

🗯 “I think there’s also a huge spectrum of our own employees that maybe haven’t necessarily thought of themselves on the spectrum or even aware that they are or have maybe thought “Gosh, I’ve always struggled with x, y, and z. Maybe I am” […] People may not even know that they’re on that spectrum, or even be aware that they have some of these gifts and abilities that are overlooked.”

— Annabel Nichols

Our job is to create an environment that makes it easy for neurodivergent talent to perform at their best. And, arguably, that should go double when hiring neurodivergent grads — those who may be even less connected with the gifts and abilities their “condition” brings to the fore.

So how do we do this? What support can we offer, and what adjustments should we be making?

We need to start by focusing on recruitment…

Does your hiring approach champion neurodiversity in graduates?

For most organizations, the answer is a firm no.

Traditional recruitment methods — application forms, psychometric testing, and assessment days, for example — often fail to highlight a neurodiverse candidate’s strengths.

The recruitment process becomes even less equitable when hiring remotely. Many neurotypical people struggle to read social cues or maintain eye contact during video calls. And this may come across as despondent or disinterested to recruiters, not in the know.

So how can we rethink recruitment to make it fairer and more inclusive for neurodiverse candidates?

Creative recruitment attracts neurodivergent talent

Neurodivergent individuals make constant adjustments to fit in with society. So we, as employers, owe them the same. If traditional recruitment processes don’t show the talents of neurodivergent candidates, what will?

🗯 “It’s about being really creative and thinking more broadly about how you attract individuals to then explore how they can enter the profession.”

— Laura Yeates

Start by considering exactly what skills you are looking for, and how you can recognize those in neurodivergent candidates. The panel was clear that embracing neurodiversity takes more than a few tweaks to the system. We need to consider inclusivity throughout the recruitment process and make significant changes from top to bottom.

🗯 “I think it goes all the way through the Assessment and Selection Process starting right at the beginning with things like job descriptions — everything needs to be very clear, it needs to be free of jargon, and we need to also be very upfront in terms of what candidates can expect in terms of you know what the process might look like, who they will meet.”

— Annabel Nichols

How we handle the recruitment process tells neurodivergent candidates a lot about our commitment. So what message do you want to put out there?

Dedicated neurodiversity training for all assessors

Our panel discussed the “absence of knowledge” (Tom Price-Daniel) regarding neurodiversity at work. 

Diversity training isn’t perfect, but it’s undoubtedly an essential step in training recruiters and other assessors on why neurodiverse grads may appear a certain way or struggle with a specific part of the recruitment process.

🗯 “I think people are very familiar with things like gender diversity, sexual orientation, religion, but they’re much less aware of neurodiversity and all of the things that we need to be aware of […] Some individuals are not great at eye contact or picking up social cues, and we all need to be much more aware of that and think about the traits that actually are important for the role you’re looking for.”

— Annabel Nichols

How to support neurodivergent early talent in your teams

Recruitment is only the first step in our DEI efforts. What can we do to support neurodivergent early talent once we’ve found it?

👉 Make adjustments to allow neurodivergent talent to shine

Asking for adjustments can be stressful for neurodivergent employees — especially early in their career. Be proactive and ease the process by offering adjustments and asking what would help. 

🗯 “Almost coming up with a menu, and being like, you know, this is what we could offer you. What would be beneficial? Otherwise, we’re waiting for an individual to come up to the organization and say, “Oh look I need extra time” or “I need a quiet space”. I think that’s really key.”

— Tom Moran

We need to offer up and make these suitable adjustments, but we need to consider how those adjustments will play out in reality as well. 

Yes, you’ll be ticking the boxes for inclusion and equitability if you have a dedicated “quiet zone” for neurodiverse workers. But if you make a big song and dance of the fact that people need to ask to use it, then you risk doing more harm (and embarrassment) than good.

🗯 “[My employer] gave me big defender headphones that made me really stick out in an organization — big, red, airplane defender headphones. And obviously, that’s a “reasonable adjustment”. They’ve met the law, but you know, that doesn’t allow me to assimilate with the culture and the group I’m working with. And doesn’t allow me to have my input or output that would be relevant for the organization.”

— Tom Moran

The neurodivergent employees you’re trying to help are best placed to advise what works and what doesn’t.

🗯 “I think what we need to do now is cut out the bureaucracy — because we proved we can do it when we need to — and really think about the human approach.”

— Theo Smith

👉 Provide dedicated mentors for neurodivergent grads

Excellent management isn’t reinventing the wheel; find what works elsewhere and apply it to your business. 

Universities are having great success with mentorships for neurodiverse students, and so can we. When done right, mentorships can be incredibly influential, building confidence and empathy, among other benefits — especially for early talent. 

How could your mentorship program be better suited to neurodivergent talent?

🗯 “I think it was really through identifying great mentors […] It really helped me to grow and be an individual and have confidence in myself; confidence to try and make friends and then learn from those mistakes, too.” 

— Tom Moran

👉 Help neurodiverse early talent to be “out” in your organization

Ask yourself: are our neurodivergent team members open about their ‘disability’? Do they talk about it publicly? Do we want or need them to be?

Increasing visibility is an important part of reducing bias and stigma, but this can still be a difficult question. We don’t want to impose an additional burden on neurodivergent talent — least of all right at the start of their career journey.

🗯 “And it was interesting because one of the trainees asked the question: “Well, this is all very well and good but the pressure seems to be on us as trainees to upward manage the organization”.”

— Laura Yeates

How can we find a middle ground? We want to encourage discussions about neurodiversity, without asking neurodivergent talent to be responsible for driving change. Tom Moran suggested “disability passports” as one solution:

🗯 “So if you were to move around the organization, this passport moves with you, and this passport has your reasonable adjustments, any traits or triggers that may come from that, and it helps the next manager to understand how best to manage those situations and help you as an individual.”

— Tom Moran

3 things to remember for building a neurodiverse, inclusive workplace

We’ve covered a lot in this blog post — you might well be feeling that your organization still has some way to go for neurodiversity DEI. So, by way of a summary, here are the three most important things to bear in mind when recruiting and supporting neurodivergent early talent:

1.

Ditch the labels, forget what you’ve seen on screen, and treat each candidate as the individual they are. Not only will this help make the process more manageable for you, as a recruiter, but it also helps reduce the risk of generalization and positive discrimination, too.

🗯 “Talk to people with the neurodiverse conditions and find out from them what they need and their lived experiences. 100% talk to people […] What resources would you need?” For me, it’s all about talking and educating myself with those lived experiences.”

— Laura Yeates.

2.

Everyone can be an educated ally

You don’t have to fight this fight alone. As we mentioned before, there could be way more neurodiverse people in your workplace than you know of today. Equally, there are doubtless many more allies and partners who can support you as you work to make your organization more equitable. 

🗯 “Set up a network or a resource group so that you can really build on their knowledge and their expertise to help change things. For me again it’s all about education.”

— Annabel Nichols

Headstart’s Hire Up Network could be a great place to begin.

3.

Use data to work out where your biggest barriers exist

Workplace and employee data helps expose the full story and true picture of diversity and inclusion in your organization. You may be met with criticisms or denials: “We don’t have a problem with diversity here”. But armed with data that supports your case? Well, then you’re unstoppable.

🗯 “At a very basic level, anybody who is involved with recruitment should be looking at adverse impact in terms of the proportional representation or students from different demographics at each stage of your selection process […] That is a really easy way of seeing warning flags that you’ve got potential issues or barriers that might exist which require further investigation.”

— Laura Yeates

– – – – – – – – –

The live debate

Of course, we couldn’t fit in all the insights. To hear directly from our incredible guest panel, you can dive into the full live discussion below.

Hungry for knowledge? Sign up for our Hire Up newsletter to be updated about upcoming Headstart Presents.

Share this post:
Get the newsletter

Why Ethical Employer Brands Should Be Making a Social Mobility Pledge

In order to attract the kind of talent your company wants (and needs) you must show commitment to the right…

Upward mobility: raising early talent’s trajectory

When an individual or group moves up from one social or economic position to another, that’s known as upward mobility.…