From hyperfocus and creativity to attention to detail and lateral thinking, the strengths of neurodiverse people have been widely recorded.
In the UK 1 in 7 people are neurodivergent, meaning that 15% of Britain’s population are part of this group. There has also been a surge in diagnoses in the UK, with an 800% increase in autism diagnosis over the past two decades and a 400% increase in adults seeking an ADHD diagnosis since 2020. Yet the startup ecosystem often fails to accommodate their needs.
As an autistic female founder building a product that supports neurodivergent people with their mental health – with a team that has either lived or learned experience of neurodiversity – I know there are a number of things startups can do to build a neurodiverse-friendly culture that will enable this talented group of people to flourish.
These inclusivity tips are beneficial for everyone. They are about simplifying and clarifying processes, listening to the needs of your staff and creating environments where people can be themselves.
Educate yourself first and understand your why
Before updating your policies, publishing a job ad or hiring a neurodivergent employee, you need to educate yourself about the latest thinking on neurodiversity so you can make informed changes to your organisation.
A good place to start are the following key concepts to frame your work on neurodiversity:
- Neurodiversity is a spectrum: there is massive variation between neurodivergent people, even those with the same diagnosis or label. One-size-fits-all initiatives won’t work so focus on personalisation and providing choices so people can opt-in to what works for them.
- Focus on strengths: “asset-based” approaches focus on the strengths your neurodivergent employees bring to your organisation and shapes their roles and career progression around these strengths, so they’re set-up to succeed right from the beginning.
- Neurodiversity is not a “superpower”: focusing on strengths doesn’t mean ignoring the challenges your neurodivergent employees will inevitably face in environments that are designed for neurotypical ways of working. Understand and accommodate scenarios that might be difficult for them and don’t be afraid of getting it wrong and taking on feedback to improve it for next time. Understand that neurodivergent strengths can be a double-edged sword – an employee hyperfocused on an important business objective means their productivity will skyrocket, but if they forget to take breaks or practice self-care they’ll burn out in a few months.
- Not all neurodivergent people have a formal diagnosis: waiting times in the UK for an adult ADHD or autism diagnosis can be 3-5 years, or even longer depending on where you live. Women and people of colour tend to be under or even misdiagnosed and so may be less likely to have a formal diagnosis. Don’t make accommodations dependent on medical certification of someone’s neurodivergence and be open to employees who self-identify as neurodivergent.
- Understand the benefits universal design will bring to your organisation: policies and practices you implement for neurodivergent employees will create a flexible working culture and environment that will benefit other groups, from working parents to employees living with long-term health conditions.
Being knowledgeable on the above means you can explain the rationale behind neurodiversity-friendly changes to your organisation’s processes, policies and practices to employees.
It will also help you understand why you are making these changes. Do you want to be an inclusive employer to set yourself apart from your competitors? Do you want to expand your hiring pool in a competitive talent marketplace? Do you want to build an intentional culture from the ground up?
Champion inclusivity from the start
An inclusive startup culture begins with an inclusive hiring process. When seeking new team members, make it clear that your startup actively welcomes neurodivergent individuals.
Embed this commitment to inclusivity in your job applications and clearly state that you are interested in hearing from neurodiverse people and be specific about why. Have an equality, diversity and inclusion statement on your website that outlines your commitment to inclusivity. Share this message across all your communication channels, so that people can find this information easily.
By taking these straightforward yet effective communication steps, you can attract neurodiverse talent that might otherwise hesitate to join your team.
Simplify the application process and remove bias
In the bustling world of startups, efficiency is key. Streamline your application process to ensure it’s accessible to all. Whether it’s a concise cover letter or a user-friendly online form, keep it simple. This prevents potential barriers that could prevent neurodivergent candidates from applying. For example, a long written application may be more difficult for some with dyslexia or ADHD.
Avoid using psychometric or personality tests to make recruitment decisions, as they have been designed on neurotypical ways of working and actively discriminate against neurodivergent candidates. If your recruitment process requires them, make sure to weigh other elements of the candidate’s performance more heavily in your hiring decision. Better yet, design a task that will help you get the information you need about a candidate’s ability and let them work on it in their own time.
If you are using a recruitment agency, find one that specialises in hiring neurodiverse talent or has inclusive recruitment processes in place.
Remember, keeping things simple and accessible is one of the most inclusive things you can do when hiring. It also makes the process easier for any candidate who would like to be considered for a role, not just neurodivergent talent.
Conduct inclusive interviews
Interviews are pivotal moments for startups. Not only do you get a chance to meet your potential candidate, it’s also an opportunity for them to check out your credentials as a neurodiversity-friendly employer.
Opt for inclusive practices such as asking if the candidate needs any accommodations beforehand and sharing an outline of the interview or even the questions you will ask to help reduce anxiety and help the candidate perform at their best.
Offer virtual interviews and allow candidates to choose whether or not to use cameras. This accommodates individuals who may find visual or in-person interaction challenging and reduces the cognitive load during the interview itself. Additionally, offer flexible interview scheduling to cater to the preferences of your candidates and avoid scheduling interviews back-to-back.
First impressions count and are a reflection of your culture, be sure to make someone feel as comfortable and as welcome as possible.
Tailor solutions to individuals
Startups thrive on uniqueness and being small and agile means they can adopt flexible approaches with ease.
Recognise that each individual’s neurodivergence is different and that the way it affects them will be shaped by their identity, personality and surroundings. Work closely with team members to identify benefits that cater to their specific needs. This could involve flexible hours, remote work options, creating a tailored schedule or personalised support. This is all about creating an environment that enables people to maximise their strengths while working in a way that suits their needs, leading to increased productivity and creativite output for your company.
Do this from the start and build in regular check-ins to ensure their requirements are met as they contribute to your startup’s success.
Nurture a supportive environment
As burnout is more likely to affect neurodiverse people, creating a safe space for open discussions about well-being is crucial.
A written policy, although a good start, is not enough; your startup’s culture must actively support it. Create a psychologically safe environment that actively celebrates when a staff member shares their needs. Be sure to thank them for their openness and find a way to accommodate them. As a founder, lead by example. Communicate your own feelings and delegate tasks when needed.
By fostering an environment where well-being conversations are encouraged, you’re creating the foundation for a supportive workplace.
Lead by example
Startup leaders hold the power to influence change. Demonstrate your commitment to inclusivity by actively embracing neurodivergent individuals and showcasing their contributions. Explain why you are adopting certain policies and practices clearly, so people understand why they are important to your organisation’s culture. Share your own story about why inclusivity is important to you and create safe spaces for others to do the same.
Authentic leadership sets the tone for a more inclusive atmosphere, encouraging everyone to value diversity as a core strength.