Why Your Company Needs a Neurodiverse Workforce
This article series is sponsored by DXC Technology and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Even as diversity and inclusion (D&I) becomes a corporate buzz phrase, neurodiversity is often left out of broader D&I conversations. So, what is neurodiversity, and why does it matter to business?
Neurodiversity refers to recognizing neurological differences the same way we do other differences. Neurological differences include diagnoses like autism, attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, clinical anxiety and depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. People with neurodiverse needs bring unique strengths to the table, but they often struggle to access the resources they need to prepare for successful careers—and companies are unsure how to train, recruit and retain them.
For example, an estimated 80 percent of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed worldwide. Meanwhile, millions of positions go unfilled due to a lack of skilled workers—particularly in the tech sector.
Matching this untapped labor pool to the tech talent gap presents a lucrative opportunity. And case studies show that integrating neurodiverse workers into corporate teams can increase productivity, spur innovation and strengthen more inclusive organizations that celebrate the entire range of diversity.
Organizations increasingly recognize the competitive advantages that a neurodiverse workforce brings. But overall, neurodiversity is rarely represented in corporate D&I strategies—and integrating neurodiverse individuals into the workforce requires a thoughtful approach.
Fortunately for the tech sector and other industries that want to embrace this potential talent pipeline, a growing number of companies are showing the way. Among them is DXC Technology, an independent, end-to-end IT services company that serves clients across 70 countries. Since 2014, through its Dandelion Program, DXC has been working to increase technology employment opportunities for people on the autism spectrum and capitalize on their innate skills.
Based in Australia, the program engages partners in government, business and academia to provide work experience and job placement for people on the spectrum—and to track best practices for training and engaging them.
Neurodiversity and the workforce of tomorrow
The lack of employment opportunities for people on the spectrum and the overall tech talent gap are dual challenges that DXC set out to address. “It was the perfect intersection of problems,” Michael Fieldhouse, DXC Dandelion Program executive, told TriplePundit. “DXC was facing shortages in finding skilled labor in IT. And I had recently begun to recognize that people on the autism spectrum represented a talent pipeline that we—and many other tech companies—were overlooking.”
Fieldhouse recalled the moment he made the connection: One evening, while hosting friends and their two sons with autism for dinner, he noticed one of the boys dropping pebbles one by one into a Japanese pond. “At first, I glanced over at him, annoyed that I’d have to pluck them out later,” he said. But when the boy was still engaged in this activity two hours later, Fieldhouse was struck by “his incredible concentration at this repetitive task,” he told us. “That was my epiphany. How to bring that skill into the workplace was another question.”
Building a neurodiverse workforce: Ingredients for success
“We wanted to create a program that allowed neurodiverse people to have careers, not just a job,” Fieldhouse told 3p. That means creating space for people to develop themselves, he said, “and the organization has to be prepared and willing to support that development.”
After a year of research to better understand the circumstances around neurodiverse individuals—particularly those on the autism spectrum—in the workforce, DXC began employing its first group of neurodiverse workers in 2014. The company has since established seven teams across four states in Australia, employing over 100 people on the autism spectrum in fields like cybersecurity, data analytics and software testing.
The DXC Dandelion Program engages a range of government partners and private companies to provide work opportunities, and universities such as La Trobe, Cornell, Stanford, City University of New York and University of Haifa provide research support. The focus on research informs a sustainable program that creates the right environment with the right support structure to ensure that participants are able to learn and grow as employees and as individuals.
“Companies get the ‘D’ of diversity but not the ‘I’ of inclusion,” Fieldhouse said. “It’s easy for people to tick the box and hire individuals of a certain background, but not actually change the fabric of the organization to be inclusive.”
When it comes to creating a culture that welcomes neurodiverse workers, buy-in from management is critical, Fieldhouse said. “Companies need to focus on what management practices they have in place and the level of education their general employee population needs about autism,” he told us. “The key thing is to create a sense of empathy. When you start to empathize, you hear other people’s thoughts, and that enriches the conversation. … This is the art of the manager, to navigate these situations skillfully and bring the organization together.”
Sharing the knowledge
“When we initially started the program, there was very little evidence-based information around employing people with autism,” Fieldhouse said. “We have conducted the only longitudinal research study on this type of program."
Now others are benefiting, too. DXC’s Dandelion Program methodology was open-sourced through Cornell University’s K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability (Yang-Tan Institute) to help other organizations further break down the employment barriers for people with autism.
To date, some 330 organizations have downloaded research and organizational management materials from the program, Fieldhouse said.
Reaping the benefits
Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace carries a host of benefits, including boosts in productivity, innovation, organizational cohesiveness and inclusiveness, Fieldhouse said. For DXC, having teams of neurodiverse individuals has “enriched the diversity of thought” in the organization, he added.
A survey conducted by La Trobe University indicated strong conviction among co-workers about the importance and value of the program. “They’ve actually helped sharpen up some of the thought processes amongst the teams,” one employee said of neurodiverse co-workers. “They’ll ask questions where others fear to tread.”
“We have found that co-workers are proud their organization is involved,” Fieldhouse told us. “They see diversity as important and relevant, and the program is a ‘go to’ when talking about positive aspects of work.”
Still, the main challenge is for companies to succeed at sustaining employment of neurodiverse individuals, Fieldhouse said. “For that, processes might need to change; engagement processes and on-boarding might need to change. How do you undertake performance management, for instance, and how do you provide the training and education for co-workers to interact with neurodiverse employees?”
The DXC Dandelion Program achieves a 92 percent retention rate, compared to a 76 percent retention rate from the company's graduate recruitment program. A 75 percent job satisfaction rate demonstrates that, when given the right tools, neurodiverse individuals can not only integrate into technology positions, but also thrive in these teams. “We have seen productivity rise by as much as 30 to 40 percent,” Fieldhouse added. “In fact, the feedback we most often get from the people in our program is that we should be giving them more work.”
The bottom line
As more companies look to integrate neurodiversity into the way they approach D&I, case studies like the DXC Dandelion Program offer insight and incentive. “By strengthening our skills as managers and as co-workers of those with autism or other aspects of neurodiversity, the entire organization is lifted to deal with a whole range of mental health issues,” Fieldhouse said. “Organizations need to be reflective of their communities. You bring the best of the community into the organization—and that’s what the Dandelion Program has been able to accomplish for us.”
Over the next six weeks, in partnership with DXC Technology, TriplePundit will explore what it means to create a corporate culture that welcomes everyone—including those with neurodiverse needs. You can keep track of the series here.