Comment: Building on the benefits of neurodiverse engineering talent

Neurodiverse individuals are often a significant asset for engineering firms. James Cusack - CEO of Autistica - explains how neuroinclusive practices can help employers in the sector support these workers and make the best possible use of their talents.

According to the Engineering Council there are estimated to be 820,000 neurodiverse engineers working in the UK.
According to the Engineering Council there are estimated to be 820,000 neurodiverse engineers working in the UK. -

World Autism Acceptance Month (April) serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of inclusivity within the workforce, particularly in sectors such as engineering where the unique capabilities of neurodivergent individuals can prove to be a significant asset.

An estimated one in seven people in the UK are neurodivergent, a term which encompasses a range of conditions including autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and tic disorders like Tourette’s. Yet many neurodivergent people struggle to get into jobs or progress in employment. For example, just three in ten autistic people are in employment, with many of these jobs being either unstable or below their skill level.

The engineering industry has been proactive in embracing neurodiversity, often leading the way compared to other industries. This is likely because engineering tends to attract a higher percentage of neurodivergent colleagues. According to the Engineering Council’s September 2020 report, ‘Mapping the UK’s Engineering Workforce’ , there are estimated to be 820,000 neurodiverse engineers working in the UK. Conversations with engineering companies have suggested that they have long been implementing workplace adjustments and developing support programmes to bolster their neurodiverse talent. These are examples that could be beneficial and should be replicated across different sectors.

Research has consistently demonstrated that neurodiverse teams are more effective, bringing a range of benefits to their organisations. For engineering companies, the advantages of employing neurodivergent talent are manifold:

  1. Innovative Problem-Solving - Neurodivergent individuals may have unique perspectives that lead to creative and innovative engineering solutions.
  2. Attention to Detail - The heightened attention to detail that many neurodivergent individuals possess is invaluable in engineering, where precision is critical.
  3. Pattern Recognition - Skills in recognising patterns can be particularly advantageous for identifying trends and anomalies in engineering data.
  4. Sustained Concentration - The ability to concentrate intensely can enhance productivity and facilitate progress in complex engineering projects.

However, neuroinclusive practices within the engineering industry hasn’t been smooth sailing. Many engineering companies have encountered specific challenges with neuro-inclusion. For example, much of the research and recommended adjustments are geared towards office-based roles, leaving a gap for industries with non-desk roles. This makes implementing certain adjustments, like working from different locations, more complex. Furthermore, many diversity engagement initiatives rely on online platforms, necessitating alternative access for employees who don’t spend their workday in front of a computer.

Also, despite the obvious strengths that exist with employing neurodivergent talent, a survey conducted by The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) highlighted a concerning trend: 19% of UK respondents identified as neurodivergent, yet they report largely negative experiences in the workplace. This disconnect suggests that engineering firms may be inadvertently sidelining a vital resource for growth and innovation.

The challenge is further exacerbated by a culture of silence around neurodiversity in the workplace, as noted by a 2020 survey by the Institute of Leadership which indicated that industries such as engineering, manufacturing, and construction are among the least likely to have neurodivergent individuals openly discussing their neurodiversity. This silence can be seen as symptomatic of a broader issue – a work culture throughout the country that is still learning to fully support and nurture neurodivergent talent.

There are ways businesses and government leaders have been looking at building neurodiversity inclusion across the workforce in the UK; the recent Buckland Review of Autism Employment from Sir Robert Buckland KC MP and the Department for Work and Pensions sets out a range of recommendations for employers. One of these recommendations urges companies to join the Neurodiversity Employers Index (NDEI®), an initiative we have developed, to promote inclusive employment practices and capitalise on the strengths of neurodivergent workers.

The NDEI® provides insights and tools for companies, not about making reasonable adjustments for a small number of people, but in making changes that benefit everyone – good for business, good for people, good for society.

For the engineering sector, the integration of neurodivergent talent is not merely a matter of corporate social responsibility or simply being nice; it’s smart business. It’s about creating an inclusive workplace culture and through valuing the contributions of neurodivergent employees which engineering firms will only seek to benefit from embracing this innovation, precision, and problem-solving that can give them the edge in this competitive global market.

James Cusack is the CEO of Autistica, a charity which funds and campaigns for research to understand autism, improve diagnosis, and develop evidence-based interventions.