Neurodiversity offers huge pool of untapped finance talent

Some organisations have begun to embrace candidates with autism or other cognitive differences, but obstacles remain.
Neurodiversity offers huge pool of untapped finance talent

Finance teams must often solve complex business problems to help their organisations understand market opportunities, competition, and risk. To tackle such problems, companies can turn to nontraditional thinkers.

Australia-based Andrew Hyland, FCMA, CGMA, is CEO of disability services provider Lifestyle Solutions. He said finance teams must often solve complex problems to help the business understand market opportunities, competition, and risk.

“You need different thinkers in your team to tackle these problems and innovate,” Hyland said. “Understanding cognitive differences is critical to the way companies design more effective teams.”

Understanding and embracing those cognitive differences is something companies are beginning to embrace, with programmes and policies that help them recruit more neurodiversity into their ranks.

Freddie Mac, SAP, Microsoft, Ford, PwC, and EY have been a few of the leaders in bringing in a more neurodiverse workforce.

The term “neurodiverse” refers to natural variations in learning, sociability, attention, and other neurological functions. First coined in the late 1990s by sociologist Judy Singer, the term includes autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The neurodiversity movement argues that societal barriers disable people with these conditions — not the conditions themselves. The term neurodiversity should simply refer to cognitive differences within the entire human race — and regard each as normal and valuable — rather than be an umbrella term for the conditions.

The concept also gained awareness after US journalist Steve Silberman noticed how many successful professionals in Silicon Valley were autistic and wrote the book NeuroTribes about it in 2015.

“There is a range of valid human cognitive styles, rather than just one type of ‘normal, superior’ brain,” Silberman said. “Autism, dyslexia, and ADHD are just names for brain types that work differently but can complement neurotypical or ‘normal’ brains, and one another. Just as biodiversity helps a rainforest deal with changing conditions, neurodiversity can help a company deal with unexpected market conditions.

“Many normative values have prevailed in business recruitment. But companies need people who see problems from different angles, as autistic people, for example, often do. They don’t go along with peer pressure as readily. Valuing that is a revolution.”

Silberman believes the concept can be valuable in building effective finance teams.

“For example, many autistic people also have great long-term memory, pattern-spotting, and systematic thinking, which is useful in finance,” he said.

Many people with other neurodivergent conditions also have strengths useful in accounting. For example, studies show that dyslexia and ADHD are over-represented amongst entrepreneurs, Silberman said. “Because of their reading issues, they often get good at delegating tasks and become good managers,” he said. “Also, some people with ADHD can think outside the box and conceptualise solutions differently.”

Avoid stereotyping

Companies should take care not to overemphasise roles or functions when promoting neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity is broader than the stereotype of the autistic, male technology worker, said Nancy Doyle, Ph.D., CEO of Genius Within, a UK organisation that provides coaching and training for neurodiverse individuals. “We need to widen participation in affirmative action programs to ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and others,” Doyle said. “Intersecting issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality have led to diagnosis being a privilege, so there is a risk that, when we focus on only one part of a diverse group, we are exacerbating exclusion, and instead we must learn the lessons from the successful autism-at-work pilots and change our recruitment practices for everyone.”

US-based Zoe Gross, director of operations, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, said there’s no harm in recruiting those with autism to technology and finance and that such programmes have made workplaces more inclusive.

“However, outside these technical roles, the numbers drop,” she said. “Not all autistic people are natural accountants or mathematical geniuses (another stereotype). We have more diverse skills than people might think. So we want neurodiversity to grow beyond certain roles or departments.”

Removing biases

To build a neurodiverse culture in your function or company, Doyle recommended overhauling job design and recruitment to remove structural barriers. These could include reducing literacy-based assessments where spelling is judged despite assistive technology being available; or insisting on interviews when jobs require no or little face-to-face interaction. It will also include flexible policies on remote working, flexible hours, and provision of assistive technology.

An example is Danish company Specialisterne, which asks candidates with autism to demonstrate their skills by building Lego structures to solve problems, rather than attending interviews.

Doyle pointed to research by US professor Quinetta Roberson as an example that companies should follow regarding inclusion. The research, Doyle said, “showed that the most powerful changes are transparency, management accountability, and the provision of coaching and mentoring to encourage talent.”

Companies can also train employees to provide a supportive community and set up neurodiversity working groups to make sure employees can raise issues safely.

“If you already have neurodiverse employees, you can invite them to brainstorm how neurodiversity hiring can work at your company,” said David Kearon, director of adult services for Autism Speaks. “They can be your most effective champions and spread news of your efforts.”

Freddie Mac pioneer

US housing finance company Freddie Mac was one of the first companies to create a neurodiverse internship programme in 2012. Over the subsequent five years, half the participants converted to full-time hires and many are still with the company. In 2019, it also started using specialist recruiters to source neurodiverse talent.

US-based Sarah Crump, manager, employees and suppliers for Freddie Mac’s Inclusive Engagement Office, said: “Through our programme, we learned that hiring for individuals with autism spectrum disorder should largely map to the way we recruit specialised neurotypical talent, using a targeted strategy.”

Programmes should build a network of internal and external resources to help recruit neurodiverse candidates, onboard, and help them succeed, Crump said. This includes using experts to evaluate the work environment and culture; and training managers and teams to assess neurodiverse applicants’ skills, foster an inclusive environment, and communicate effectively.

Global challenges

Many organisations have yet to embrace neurodiversity.

Figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics show that 22% of adults with autism are employed. Data from other countries paint a similar picture.

This is due to persisting beliefs that the conditions are pathological, Silberman said. Traditional hiring practices still filter out neurodivergent people who struggle with traditional interview techniques like making eye contact and selling yourself.

Hyland said: “Organisations often don’t embrace change as they see diversity threatening the status quo. But better understanding of variations among neuro-minorities will help create the right environment and eliminate judgemental views. Too often, we ask minorities to conform to mainstream ideas. Instead, we should adapt to their strengths.”

UK-based Mark Charlesworth, a coach, speaker, and trainer for those with ADHD and autism, said the employment disparity is “not good enough” and too few companies have adequate neurodiversity policies.

“So many corporate ‘inclusion weeks’ don’t help much,” he said. “Companies must reflect on how practices affect people with various conditions every day, not one week a year.”

The wide-ranging differences between neurodiverse conditions and individuals mean firms need a strong company-wide policy with a highly individualised approach, Charlesworth said.

Building programmes can be complicated and time-consuming, and it is a challenge to persuade other people that the extra time and spend is worthwhile, though it will ultimately boost your bottom line.

Silberman said companies have accommodated other minority groups — they can do it for neurodiversity, too. Another challenge can be senior managers thinking neurodiversity is about charity. But large companies such as SAP are not doing this for charity, rather to maximise shareholder value, Silberman said.

Kearon said there are also specific challenges in recruiting neurodiverse candidates into professional fields like finance.

“One is that there are still professional implications to disclosing a condition that may not be understood in all circles, especially at work,” he said. “Unless recruiters make it very clear they’re seeking neurodiverse candidates, there may be no incentive for a candidate to disclose their condition.”

Despite the challenges, acceptance of neurodiversity is spreading. It is also making available to businesses thousands of skilled, but previously overlooked, workers.

“The early corporate neurodiversity experiments were positive, with lots of proof of concept,” Silberman said. “Now, it’s just about spreading awareness.”

Tim Cooper is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at