What if employers learned they were unintentionally neglecting a rich talent pool and didn’t even know it? 

According to Shawn Brown, an engineer, designer and YouTube star, most companies fall short when it comes to attracting and retaining neurodivergent jobseekers and workers — and he’s on a mission to change this. 

The term neurodiversity refers to natural variations in how people learn, think and engage with the world around them and encompasses a variety of diagnoses, including dyslexia, autism, ADHD and more. While this type of diversity isn’t visible to the naked eye, it is central to how people live and work. So what can employers do to create more inclusive hiring practices and work environments?

Brown, who has dyslexia, is passionate about helping employers tap into this talent pool, and he spoke about it at Indeed Interactive 2021. We reached out to him to learn how employers can use small changes to attract and keep these workers. By following his advice, employers can better tap into this pool of candidates while also creating work environments that are more inclusive and user-friendly for all.

Brown’s advocacy builds on personal experience

Although Brown has a dream job today, his path could have been much different. As the cofounder of the popular YouTube channel Kids Invent Stuff, he and his co-presenter get to turn children’s ideas for wacky inventions into reality. As a teenager, however, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, which in his case primarily affects his ability to remember information. 

“I went from being a sort of straight-A student to sitting in exams with my head in my hands and feeling useless,” he recalls.

Although Brown began receiving classroom accommodations as a university student, he knows that many neurodivergent individuals have had a rougher path. 

“There are tens of thousands of people who struggled at school or left, and haven't had opportunities to become engineers or any number of other careers,” he laments.  

To help build a more promising future for this talent pool, Brown trained as a neurodiversity advisor and now advises employers on the many benefits of these jobseekers and employees. 

Reframe neurodiversity in positive terms to fight stigma

So how can employers get started?

First and foremost, Brown stresses that neurodiversity is part of human nature. 

“There are absolutely neurodivergent individuals, myself included, who don't in any way see their dyslexia or autism or ADHD as disabling,” Brown explains. 

Nonetheless, stigma remains a significant hurdle — and Brown has experienced this himself during past job searches. For example, despite the option to request accommodations during the hiring process, the only time Brown disclosed his learning differences was on an application to work for a dyslexia agency. 

“I felt disempowered,” he explains. “I didn't feel that the people who were recruiting me had a real understanding of what my dyslexia actually meant, and I felt it would have ultimately disadvantaged me for the roles.”

In part, stigma stems from how neurodiversity is framed. Words matter, and terms like “disorder” imply negative connotations that don’t match reality.

He believes it’s important to reframe how we discuss neurodiversity itself: “I see my dyslexia as bringing me far more advantages than it does challenges in my day-to-day life.” 

Combine awareness, knowledge and tactical changes 

To create neurodiversity-friendly workplaces, employers should build awareness while implementing practical changes, says Brown. 

Given that different people have different learning needs, styles and preferences, it’s impossible to find a one-size-fits-all solution, and that’s okay — diverse needs call for diverse solutions. Meanwhile, many of the steps needed to boost accessibility and inclusion on this front are simple and cost-effective and can have a broad impact. 

For example, Brown suggests offering different types of workspace options and letting employees choose what suits them. This might mean providing different workspace layouts or simply allowing employees to use noise-cancelling headphones in the office. 

“For lots of autistic individuals, lighting and background sounds can have a massive impact,” explains Brown. “But individuals with ADD or ADHD can absolutely thrive in a more noisy bustling environment, so giving staff their own individual choice rather than just saying, ‘This is your desk’ is a really powerful thing.”

Tactical approaches such as the above are most powerful when paired with increased awareness and understanding. Brown says it’s critical for companies to train their managers about neurodiversity, which gives a clearer picture of workers’ needs while also dispelling misconceptions. Employees also need to learn the correct terminology to discuss neurodiversity in the workplace since the topic might be unfamiliar or feel sensitive to some. 

“We have a lot of fear … of using the wrong terminology and saying the wrong things,” says Brown. “And that fear is causing a lack of action and contributing to a lack of support.” 

Tailor hiring practices to include neurodivergent jobseekers

Just as small changes can spell huge benefits for neurodivergent employees, the same applies for jobseekers. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and hiring needs to reflect this.

Job descriptions are a good place to start. Brown believes a good job description should include no more than three main points and calls for an end to “kitchen sink” postings. Similarly, avoid jargon or filler words: “[Job descriptions] go on about needing people to be ‘flexible’ and ‘open-minded,’ but what do they even mean?” asks Brown. 

He encourages employers to take an “open-minded approach” to hiring. For example, reconsider how early rounds of applicants are weeded out from the pile. Brown notes dyslexic friends who excel in their respective fields but could easily have small typos in their application materials. Even though such errors have nothing to do with the work they might be doing, these jobseekers might be tossed into the “no” pile early on — meaning not only would the applicants lose the opportunity to move forward, but employers would miss out on potentially stellar hires. 

In terms of the physical workspace, Brown recommends having clear signage in the office to help people navigate the space. In the interview itself, Brown suggests being flexible about eye contact, which might be a struggle for some neurodivergent jobseekers. He also encourages employers to ask direct questions about practical work abilities and experiences. Brown notes that many employers overlook one of the best ways to gauge a candidate’s potential: talking to their references. 

Finally, Brown says employers should be sure to ask each candidate a simple question: “Is there anything we can do to give you a better experience during this interview or during this process to better support you to show your skills and ability?”

This opens a potential dialogue and creates a safe space for applicants to share whether they might need adjustments. Brown believes this empowers both jobseekers and employers, going so far as to say it is the “single most powerful thing” an organisation can do for neurodivergent candidates.

Accessible, inclusive workplaces help all workers

“Everyone within a team or within an organisation ultimately thinks differently,” says Brown.

The task for employers, then, is to harness and nurture this diversity. To boost awareness and create more inclusive settings, Brown says employers should combine educational programs about neurodiversity in the workplace with practical changes to the physical workplace. This gives managers and employees the knowledge and vocabulary they need, while also framing neurodiversity as a central facet of human diversity itself — just like race, ethnicity, gender identity, age and more. 

Employers should also rethink their hiring practices to help them tap into the rich, vast talent pool of neurodivergent jobseekers. Pare down job descriptions and prioritise checking with applicants’ references. And, most importantly, employers should ask how they can support candidates’ unique learning styles and needs throughout the process.

Together, these steps don’t just benefit neurodivergent jobseekers and employees — they create more inclusive, accessible environments. By implementing his suggestions, employers can begin working today to build a better future of work for all.