Widening jobs access for neurodiverse workers

Neurodiverse individuals often struggle to get hired. A range of schemes are tackling the problem, with benefits for employees, society and firms 


 The Umbrella project celebrated neurodiversity and ADHD awareness at Church Alley, Liverpool

What does ‘neurodiverse’ mean? While many of us might think of autistic savants like ‘Rain Man’, the reality is far removed from a Hollywood film. 

To be diagnosed with autism, a person must display “difficulties with social interaction and communication, in addition to restricted interests and repetitive behaviours”, according to the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. They’re at a very high risk of mental health problems, particularly depression and anxiety, the centre notes. Data from the UK’s National Autistic Society shows that about 0.6% of the world’s population is on the autism spectrum. 

In the UK, only 22% of autistic people are in employment, the Office for National Statistics reports. That is the highest unemployment rate recorded among disabled people, and represents a huge amount of wasted potential, particularly at a time of labour shortages. 

Smart move

There are lots of good reasons to hire people with autism. First, it’s the right thing to do. Claire Cookson, CEO at DFN Project SEARCH, which helps young people with learning disabilities and autism find employment, says the number one contributor to healthy adulthood is “a safe and secure job”. 

Helping people into the right job also benefits society. Adult social care can cost £3m over the course of a lifetime. However, an internship that leads to employment costs about £20,000, Cookson says.

A person doesn’t ‘have’ a disability … Disability is something a person experiences typically because society creates barriers

What’s good for individuals and society is also good for firms. “What we always find is that productivity [in a role] goes through the roof,” says Cookson. “Our interns are determined to succeed. They have real energy. Within 48 hours of being treated like everybody else and being allowed to contribute to society, they change the way they walk, talk and feel.” 

This hiring approach boosts the morale of the whole firm. “People want to work for an organisation that shows kindness and inclusion and community.” 

The interns that Cookson supports have learning disabilities.  While they won’t live the cliché of becoming highly paid computer programmers, 70% get permanent jobs “with full-time integrated contracts paying at least the prevailing wage”, she says. 

“Business often wouldn’t have looked at these interns’ CVs because they don’t have five GCSEs,” says Cookson. “We give them an opportunity to show that they can do a particular job.”

Breaking down barriers

However, even when neurodiverse applicants tick all the qualification boxes and more, they can still struggle to get through a standard recruitment process. In 2019, an employment tribunal fined BT £18,000 for not making “reasonable adjustments” for an applicant to its graduate recruitment scheme who had Asperger’s Syndrome, dyslexia and dyspraxia – and a very high IQ. 

The problem for firms is that standard aspects of selection processes – like bright office lighting, noise and being expected to make eye contact with strangers – can be an insurmountable barrier for someone on the autistic spectrum. But because most people making hiring decisions are ‘neurotypical’, they often won’t realise the hurdle is there. 

BT has a long history of disability support; the telecoms company also needs the pattern recognition and concentration skills that some neurodiverse people bring to roles in areas like coding and billing. However, it still doesn’t always get it right. 

Giles Barker, diversity and inclusion lead at BT Group, says the company now “tailors” its processes and working environments to support disabled colleagues and their managers. 

BT’s thinking is informed by the ‘social model of disability’, he says. 

“A person doesn’t ‘have’ a disability … Disability is something a person experiences typically because society creates barriers,” Barker says. Those barriers could come through the way decisions are made, how buildings are designed, or through processes and policies. 

BT provides support for a wide range of needs, from help with reading, writing and grammar to dealing with sensory overload, social cues and socialising, as well as the physical environment. At least 25% of staff at BT have more than one condition or impairment that the firm can help with, he says. 

But BT doesn’t pursue such policies just to be nice. “Workplace diversity, including neurodiversity, brings different perspectives and innovation in relation to how we design products, solve problems and serve customers,” says Barker. 

One of the company’s aims is to “build bridges from academia into industry through our community training programmes and specialist disability portals”. Still, Barker stresses that BT wants to “welcome and support neurodiverse colleagues at all levels of the organisation”.

Big ambitions

DFN Project SEARCH has narrower goals, but its ambitions are arguably bigger. It’s trying to reset the perception of what someone with learning disabilities can do. “We say to employers ‘you don’t even know what five GCSEs means’. GCSE English Lit doesn’t necessarily mean that someone can do a job,” says Cookson, who’s a former headteacher. 

“One young man did an internship at Charing Cross hospital. He has very limited speech and is on the autism spectrum,” she continues. “He was in the laundry and so productive and so reliably consistent. He did a brilliant job and the communication barriers were neither here nor there.”

Not one company that has tried the scheme – which includes careful profiling of the skill and talents of the interns and ‘systematic instruction’ by job coaches – has found that it didn’t work, Cookson adds. Firms often learn from it. Systematic instruction means breaking down a task into its constituent parts and practising until each is done right. “That often creates efficiencies in the host business,” says Cookson, “When they’re asked ‘why do you do it like that?’ they stop and think.”