Embracing neurodiversity can give startups a competitive edge

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Hiring neurodivergent employees can give startups access to unique perspectives and skills. By embracing inclusive recruitment, businesses can increase their competitive advantage. Excelling in areas such as problem-solving, creativity, pattern recognition, analytical thinking and memory, many people with autism, dyslexia, and ADHD are well suited to technical roles.

But without a supportive and inclusive working environment, people who are neurodivergent can find their jobs challenging. Startups that don’t take diversity and inclusion seriously may even alienate prospective neurodivergent talent whose skills would be immensely invaluable to their future growth.

So, with this in mind, what can startup teams do to support existing and future neurodivergent employees?

Valuable team members

Thinking differently from their neurotypical peers, neurodivergent employees can bring a range of unique skills and qualities to startup teams. These include alternative methods of processing information and problem-solving, according to Christine Tanner, lead psychologist at the UK arm of private medical care provider HCA Healthcare.

She says such skills allow neurodivergent employees to “bring fresh thinking and perspectives” to technology companies, which can benefit from improved processes and increased efficiencies as a result.

Many neurodivergent people also hyperfocus on their tasks and go into great detail, she adds, further strengthening the problem-solving abilities of technology teams. They are also creative thinkers who excel at pattern recognition, she says. Harnessing these two skills can help startups “approach things from a different angle” by finding “more innovative solutions” to problems they may face.

Steve Salvin, CEO and founder of AI data insights specialists Aiimi, believes that neurodivergent workers can bring “a huge range of talents and skills” to technology startups. He says great analytical skills and a keen eye for detail, in particular, make them invaluable for studying datasets.

Sandi Wassmer, CEO of not-for-profit organisation The Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion, is blind and has ADHD. She views her neurodivergence as a “superpower” that brings a wealth of valuable skills and experience to her team.

“I have incredible skills mastery, and can get a grip on complex issues very quickly. I have phenomenal resilience, having had to navigate a neurotypical world for most of my career without understanding or support,” she tells UKTN.

“I can uber-focus and provide sustained attention and energy to my work, which is super helpful for meeting deadlines. I am an out-of-the-box thinker and problem solver, able to recognise patterns when they exist and when they don’t.”

Along with being highly meticulous and great at problem-solving, Wassmer also describes herself as “authentic and honest”. She says these qualities allow her to cut through the noise so that her team members “know where they stand” and “never have to manage up”.

Richard Bate, CTO at cybersecurity startup Goldilock, was diagnosed with ADHD at age 30 and views adaptability as a unique quality of neurodivergent employees working for startup teams. He says: “The need for stimulation and novelty makes adapting to new technologies, tools, or methodologies exciting rather than daunting.”

Negative experiences

The overwhelming majority – 96% – of UK founders say they experience some form of business discrimination because of their neurodiversity, according to a recent survey from think tank the Entrepreneurs Network.

This could stem from a continued lack of understanding about neurodiversity, including the misconception that neurodiverse conditions are a form of disability. However, events like Neurodiversity Celebration Week aim to challenge stereotypes and raise awareness.

While neurodivergent people have many strengths and unique qualities that can strengthen their teams, they may also struggle in some areas.

Andy Clayton, CEO and co-founder of Oxford-based biotech company Fermtech, often finds it hard to identify and manage his emotions because he is autistic. He tells UKTN: “It takes a lot of work to unpick what I’m feeling and why. There is a lot of variability and unpredictability in running startups and that leads to a difficult range of emotions.”

Clayton also has difficulty understanding “silly or arbitrary rules” and adapting to the “authority and governance” involved in the scale-up process when a board of directors and chairperson are appointed.

Bate finds communicating with neurotypical colleagues challenging. “In my head, I have the solution, and it’s very obvious, but the way I came to that conclusion may not be typical or easily understood,” he explains.

“I often have to spend more time translating the idea to explain it, than it took to come up with the idea and potentially execute it.”

Supporting workplace neurodiversity

For neurodivergent staff to excel in their roles, it’s pivotal that employers provide adequate support and make reasonable adjustments where needed.

Salvin explains that Aiimi has done this by setting up a dedicated diversity and inclusion team run by employees, providing team-wide unconscious bias training, working with charities like TRACKS to provide autistic employees with extra support and training, and adjusting the hiring process to meet everyone’s needs.

“For example, in the past, we’ve had candidates opt to talk our hiring team through how they would approach technical challenges, rather than face a potentially stressful test environment,” he says.

Wassmer urges startup founders to remember that neurodivergent people can thrive in non-technical roles, too. She says they “have a plethora of skills and experiences” that can make them suitable for roles in all areas of the business, including leadership positions.

Bate says startups can create an inclusive working environment for neurodivergent employees by offering flexible working options, educating the entire team about neurodivergence, creating a transparent workplace culture where people can “request accommodations or discuss their needs”, and focusing on individual strengths.

Ben Docherty benefits from flexibility and structure in his role as a security engineering specialist at cybersecurity company Adarma. He says: “Being neurodivergent, it’s important to me that I’m in the right role at a company that understands how we can work together to utilise my powers.”

Embracing neurodiversity can bring a wealth of talent and knowledge to startups. But for neurodivergent people to succeed in their roles, startup management teams must provide adequate support and create an understanding company culture by providing training for neurotypical employees on neurodivergence.


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