All hands on deck: Neurodiversity and the future of work


In the context of today’s post-pandemic labor shortage and jobs reshuffling, our economy needs all hands on deck. At the end of August, the number of job openings was 10.4 million. Even if we were able to match all currently unemployed workers to the available jobs we’d still be about 2 million workers short. The future demographic squeeze means this shortage may very well persist.

The bottom line is this: We have no workers to waste, and one persistently excluded pool of talent is neurodivergent individuals. Neurodiversity activist Alix Generous, who will be speaking at AEI’s event next week on the topic of neurodiversity in the workplace, gave a TED talk titled, “Complex problems require unique minds.” Her message applies now more than ever.

Neurodiversity refers to the idea that there are developmental differences in our brains that create normal variations amongst minds that have both unique strengths and differences. Neurodivergent individuals include those on the autism spectrum as well as those with ADHD, bipolar, dyslexia, and several other intellectual and developmental profiles.

Depending on how the term neurodivergent is defined, between 10 and 30 percent of the population has a neurodivergent trait. In the case of autism, every year, 50,000 children on the autism spectrum reach the age of 18, and 44 percent pursue some sort of postsecondary education in order to prepare for the labor market and employment. Yet, over 80 percent of adults on the spectrum go on to be unemployed. Half of those on the spectrum that are employed are underemployed, meaning that they have skillsets that go beyond what their job requires.

Work is integral to social well-being as well as developing meaning, purpose, and sense of contribution to community, but work isn’t just good for neurodivergent workers, it is also good for employers. By excluding neurodivergent individuals from the workforce, we lose their unique gifts and skills, such as exceptional pattern recognition and recall capacity, as well as denying them the satisfaction of being recognized and valued. Companies such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard reformed their hiring processes to improve access to neurodivergent talent, and have seen productivity gains as well as increased employee engagement for both neurotypical and neurodivergent workers.

Even still, simply hiring more neurodivergent workers is not enough. To truly increase opportunity, it’s important to create welcoming, accessible workplaces and workflows that align jobs to talent and social capacity. Part of the solution for businesses may be remote work, which helps these employees work around difficult social situations they have difficulty processing.

Employers should also seek to learn from the governmental and the nonprofit sectors, which have experience employing neurodivergent persons. Federal contractors are required to take proactive steps to recruit, hire, retain, and promote qualified persons with disabilities, both physical and mental, with an employment target of 7 percent. The problem with such mandates is they communicate that incorporating such workers is a burden rather than an opportunity for the business and the worker. Failing to recognize and value these individuals for what they can do rather than looking only at limitations is both unfair (after all, who among us doesn’t have some sort of limitation?) and counterproductive.

We’re going to explore these themes in greater depth on Monday. Hope you can join us to hear more about how to create more inclusive work environments and bring in more of the talent our economy needs.

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