Neurodiversity at the workplace: what employers need to know

Thursday 25 April 2024

Ajay Singh Solanki

AZB & Partners, Mumbai


Thangam Chandy

AZB & Partners, Mumbai


The human mind is complex yet beautiful. Even after years of work, researchers and neuroscientists are still amazed by the capacity of the human mind to think and behave differently in different situations. No two minds are alike. In the context of workplaces, each individual has a unique way of thinking and expressing themselves at work.

However, due to various preconceived notions and biases attached to neurological differences like autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia etc, certain individuals may have been generally considered unskilled or inept to be a part of the workforce. The lack of understanding regarding neurodiversity significantly impacts the employment opportunities available to neurodiverse individuals. Although prioritising cost-efficiency and profit maximisation deters most employers from investing time, effort and capital into creating a conducive and inclusive work environment for neurodiverse individuals, the long-term benefits of being a neurodiverse workplace are immeasurable. In light of the same, we have explored the existing legislation, practices and hurdles faced by companies in India attempting to achieve this, while parallelly drawing from the examples of other jurisdictions.


To quote Susan Fitzell, a noted neurodiversity speaker:

‘When we can accurately describe the world around us and the people that inhabit it, we can develop the collective mentality necessary for a world free of discrimination.’[1]


Given the sensitivities around the subject, workplaces should literally delve deep into how they intend to address neurodiversity, before they get into the actual implementation of the concept in the workplace. A few key terminologies for general understanding are as follows:

  • Neurodiverse/neurodiversity: refers to the general environment where diverse minds coexist, and encompasses those who are neurotypical and neurodivergent. ‘Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like autism and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome’, says John Elder Robison, scholar.[2]
  • Neurodivergent: a person who functions differently from society’s defined version of ‘normal’. Neurodivergent people include those with epilepsy, different kinds of brain trauma or simply a unique way of thinking that may not have a specific diagnosis.
  • Neurotypical: people who think, perceive and behave in a way that society would generally deem to be ‘normal’.

Different minds work differently and there is no one way

It is well established that many people with neurological conditions such as autism and dyslexia are extraordinarily gifted with unique skills including but not limited to those linked with pattern recognition and retention. However, despite this keen advantage, neurodivergent individuals often find it challenging to fit the mould sought by prospective employers as they often display unconventional traits, and may sometimes lack the social skills to present themselves favourably.

Particularly in large companies, the process of recruiting is typically standardised for the sake of scalability. However, in this pursuit of efficiency, neurodivergent people are often overlooked or simply underestimated. For example, the traditional interview process for some positions is designed to weed out individuals who lack ‘client-facing personalities’ and people skills. Most conventional employers seem to see the value in uniformity. They see little reason to make special accommodations for anyone when there are a number of other candidates lined up outside, eagerly waiting to conform. The fact of the matter is that even small accommodations, such as being mindful of office lighting or providing noise free workspaces, help prevent sensory overstimulation (which may be a reasonable accommodation expected by a certain category of neurodiverse employees), and are not very expensive to arrange. However, such efforts do require more tailoring and time than many employers are able and willing to invest.

Current Indian scenario

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 (RPDA) is a fairly recent piece of Indian legislation which makes reference to a range of different ‘specified disabilities’, which not only include the sub-category of physical disability (including visual/hearing impairment and speech and language disability) but also (1) intellectual disability (including specific learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorder); (2) mental illness; and (3) disability caused due to chronic neurological conditions or blood disorders.

While the RPDA has broadened the scope of its applicability, broadly, the only obligation that it places on private employers is to formulate an equal opportunity policy in accordance with the provisions of the RPDA and register the policy with appropriate authority. More specifically, as per the RPDA:

  • while all employers need to formulate an equal opportunity policy, an employer employing at least 20 employees needs to have a more elaborate policy containing inter alia, the manner of selection of persons with disabilities for various posts, post-recruitment and pre-promotion training, preference in transfer and posting, special leave and other such facilities, as well as any provisions for assistive devices, barrier-free accessibility etc, provided by the employer;
  • an employer employing at least 20 employees is also required to appoint a liaison officer to oversee the recruitment of persons with disabilities and provision of facilities and amenities to such employees;
  • the policy needs to be displayed on the website of the establishment or at a conspicuous place in the establishments for employees to have easy access to the policy; and
  • the employer is also required to register the policy with the appropriate governmental authorities.

It is also important to note that the earlier Indian law on disability used to have a three per cent reservation for the disabled in higher education institutions and government jobs, which has now been increased to five per cent. While this reservation system is intended to uplift the disadvantaged groups of society, it is largely limited to the government sector. RPDA enables the government and the local authorities to provide incentives to private sector employers to ensure that five per cent of their workforce is composed of persons with disabilities.

While most Indian employers aim at a bare minimum compliance with the RPDA and, in some cases, hiring of employees with apparent physical disabilities, there seems to be a lack of conversation around neurodiversity, the more non-apparent form of disability. This lack of conversation burdens neurodivergent individuals, who themselves are unsure how to accept the practical realities of their circumstances, much less disclose the same to their prospective or current employer and colleagues.

Sensitisation, labelling and masking

While environmental and physical accommodations create a more conducive atmosphere for neurodivergent individuals to excel in, a few big factors that remain uncontrolled are the people and interactions that neurodivergent people have to face. Sensitisation and training cannot be reserved for only upper management, but must permeate all levels of an organisation. After all, it is not only a neurodivergent person’s manager, but also their teammates who would need to be able to understand and work alongside them effectively. Sensitisation includes raising awareness, learning correct terminology and triggers and understanding how to both approach and react to potential situations. An understanding or supportive colleague can play a critical role in helping a neurodivergent colleague reach their true potential.

It is no secret that labelling a person makes a big difference to the way other people perceive them and often also affects their perception of themselves. ‘Masking’ refers to the act of concealing or suppressing aspects of neurodivergent conditions/traits, in order to avoid subjective treatment. While neurodivergent persons often feel like masking is their only option if they want ‘normal’ treatment at a par with other neurotypical individuals, the mask ends up doing more harm than good. The effort exerted in both covering up and catching up, could be channelled into something more productive, if neurodivergent individuals felt comfortable enough to lay all of their cards on the table without the fear of judgment and subsequent disadvantage.

Pioneering companies

In recent years, many companies globally have begun reforming their recruitment procedures and have already set up exploratory efforts in this regard.

Thorkil Sonne founded Specialisterne, a for-profit software testing company in 2004, motivated by the autism diagnosis of one of his children. This organisation has now developed and refined non-interview methods of assessment, training and management for the neurodiverse pool of candidates. This unbiased approach seems particularly beneficial because even those who are considered to be neurotypical are, to some extent, differently abled, as a result of both inherent ‘machinery’ and the experiences that have ‘programmed’ them.

Novo Nordisk[3] is a leading global healthcare company which is a forerunner in the realm of neurodiverse inclusivity. Novo Nordisk’s Project Opportunity is a unique employment programme that seeks to match existing job vacancies within the organisation with the unique talents and qualifications of people living with autism spectrum disorder.

Nagarro,[4] a German IT services company, has recognised the importance and need to be more inclusive in their hiring process by having a special programme for neurodiverse individuals. These programmes are also being given a special fillip in their Indian offices.

It is the success of these organisations that continue to prove the sustainability of such models and practices. In fact, the success of neurodiversity programs has prompted some companies to think about how ‘normal’ human resources processes may be excluding high-quality talent. In the future, such companies hope to make mainstream talent processes so ‘neurodiversity friendly’ that they can eventually end the specialised neurodiversity programs.

Small considerations go a long way

For neurodiverse individuals in the workplace, small and carefully thought out steps may go a long way in making the workplace more inclusive. While the thought of a major overhaul in recruitment and management procedure sounds not only daunting and expensive, employers need to be aware of feasible and impactful alternatives which are in their immediate control. External factors such as ergonomics, office climate, lighting and noise are the easiest to control and are well within any employer’s power. Furthermore, taking the time to enquire about and understand a neurodivergent individual’s requirements and preferences is a mutually beneficial exercise for employer and employee.

Both managers and colleagues can easily implement some of the following practices with little to no disruption to their usual work schedule:

  • concise instructions – specific and focused instructions avoid the opportunity for distraction and complication;
  • enhanced communication and feedback – open communication and clear conveyance of any changes required can be both encouraging and informative;
  • mentoring – the support of another individual who either has their own personal experience or is well sensitised to the situation, is immeasurable;
  • allowing focus in one task at a time – ensuring that employees are not overburdened with work allows more attention to detail; and
  • flexibility – allowing employees sufficient time and space to get their tasks done alleviates pressure and lets them individualise their own terms.

The bottom line

Why should organisations care about neurodiversity or invest time, money and effort to create inclusive work environments for neurodiverse individuals? The most logical response to this question is probably the immeasurable goodwill it creates for an organisation in being an equal opportunity employer not just in theory but in practice. In the short term, the barriers of implementation coupled with the convenience of familiar/existing processes may not seem to make enough commercial sense for businesses. However, in the long run, insightful practices establish an inclusive workplace and set them apart from the rest.

More recently, with corporations starting to pursue their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals, workplace diversity being a ‘low lying fruit’ certainly gets attention. However, up until now, the efforts on this front have been revolving largely around diversity relating to gender, LGBT and physical disabilities. It is time that organisations initiate a conversation on neurodiversity as well to bust myths and biases relating to the subject. A little effort from corporations to sensitively approach the subject could go a long way in making the workplace more inclusive for neurodiverse individuals.

[1] Susan Fitzell, ‘The Language of Neurodiversity’ online blog, https://susanfitzell.com/the-language-of-neurodiversity/.

[2] John Elder Robison, ‘What is Neurodiversity?’ online blog, 7 October 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/my-life-aspergers/201310/what-is-neurodiversity.

[3] Novo Nordisk, https://www.novonordisk.com/sustainable-business/diversity-and-inclusion/including-the-excluded.html.

[4] Nagarro, https://www.nagarro.com/en/caring-inclusion-neurodiversity-trainings-hiring.