Thinking differently: is neurodiversity really a competitive advantage?

Meena Srinivasan

Silicon Valley finance veteran, Meena Srinivasan has led growth at high-profile Silicon Valley technology startups including FitBit, Stratify and mental healthcare unicorn Ginger. And as a passionate advocate for neurodiversity in the workplace, she is also a board advisor at Ultranauts, an engineering start-up that employs cognitively diverse teams. As we prepare to welcome her to the panel of speakers at the 2022 everywoman Global Summit, we talk to her about the power of enabling this talent to come through the pipeline and why creating a flexible and supportive working environment is a goal that suits neurotypical employees every bit as it does neurodiverse workers. 

Why are you so passionate about neurodiversity in the workplace? 

I used to look at the world through a narrow lens of neurotypical thinking, but my son is neurodiverse and it was through raising him that I really began to understand the challenges of fitting in as a neurodiverse individual. The world is tailored to neurotypical thought and that makes it really difficult for neurodiverse people socially, as well as from a learning perspective and eventually from a work perspective. It’s not just a small percentage of people  — studies indicate that 20 to 30% of the human population is neurodiverse, displaying a variety of conditions including autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia — but only a small fraction of those are employed. Often the behaviours of neurodivergent people run counter to common notions of what makes a good employee—solid communication skills, being a team player, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, salesperson-type personalities, the ability to network and conforming to standard practices without special accommodations. Such criteria systematically screen out neurodivergent people.  My son is grown up now and is fortunate to work in a supportive company where he is learning and growing, but many neurodiverse conditions can be invisible and as a result many organisations are unfamiliar with their traits. That means interview and management processes are generally not set up to include these individuals, and when we evaluate people from a deficit mindset it makes it challenging for them to pass a standard interview process or be successful in a work environment, as well as creating a lot of stress. 

How has neurodiversity grown in recognition, and does it still lag behind other more visible diversity in workplace initiatives? 

Compared to 20 years ago, we’re way ahead in some ways. I remember attending early meetings of the Stanford Neurodiversity Project about six years ago and there were 20 people around the table talking about how to promote neurodiversity in the workplace. Last year, the Stanford Neurodiversity summit conference had nearly 800 attendees. More and more companies are looking at setting up programmes around neurodiversity. Tech has been the first industry to really start to look at it as a potential advantage, but there are neurodiverse people everywhere and in all industries — SAP, Microsoft, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and Charles Schwab, for example, have high-profile neurodiversity programmes, as well as Florida car wash chain Rising Tide, and California animation studio Exceptional Minds. When I was at Ginger, we hired a couple of people from the Stanford Neurodiversity Programme and we’re really proud of what they’ve done and of our managers for supporting them in a way that allows them to shine. But I still think we’re largely at the beginning in the workplace generally. These are still special programmes we’re talking about —  a neurodiverse individual can’t just apply for any job and get the support they need. Even today, you need a mentor or somebody who takes a personal interest in a neurodiverse individual in the workplace to help them succeed — otherwise it’s an uphill battle. 

How can businesses create an inclusive workplace around issues of neurodivergency? 

An example someone gave at a recent talk was to imagine a conference room on the first floor, and somebody in a wheelchair at the bottom of the stairs. You say, ‘Everybody is welcome here, we include everybody’, but then you tell the person who’s in the wheelchair, ‘Just come up here and you can be part of every conversation’. That person can never get up there – you have to provide the ramp. In the case of neurodiversity, those ramps include using skills assessment and work simulations in recruitment versus accruing talent based on past work experience for all applicants, not just divergent ones. Designing for neurodiversity also means having learning paths that are accessible and effective for a cognitive diverse group of learners, while performance reviews should have a transparent process and formula for calculating ratings and promotion readiness assessment, making things more objective and clearer to people. And a focus on wellbeing is so important. Ultranauts  conducts a daily poll to assess the team’s wellbeing— are they feeling valued? Understood? Comfortable sharing their needs? In this way, managers understand how employees might be feeling without them actually having to talk about it. Finally, provide flexibility as a norm. Sometimes you have neurodiverse individuals who have a hard time getting going in the morning, for example, but work much better in the evening. In designing this kind of ‘universal workplace’ it’s important to recognise too that what works for the neurodiverse person also might work very well for a neurotypical person. 

What do well-supported neurodiverse people bring to teams and companies? 

Strengths vary from individual to individual, but the first thing you will have is someone who is going to be loyal and committed to your organisation. Many neurodiverse individuals can think outside the box and come up with solutions others simply don’t see or find. And there’s often high creativity, deep focus and concentration, with many having excellent long-term memory and superior fact recall. Dr Nancy Doyle runs an organisation called Genius Within and talks about neurodiverse thinkers as being specialist thinkers, whereas the neurotypical thinker is a generalist thinker. She says that neurodiverse individuals have a ‘spiky profile’ with some heightened abilities, but struggle with other things. If you can support neurodiverse individuals with those areas, then they can function to a very high level in an organisation. 

Does the growing emphasis on emotional intelligence and soft skills provide a challenge to appreciating certain neurodiversity conditions? 

Navigating social cues and social interactions can be really difficult, especially for the autistic population, and the expectation that everybody should communicate a certain way makes it harder. Having a work environment that values every individual for what they bring to the table and looks at people from a strengths approach as opposed to a deficit-based approach is how we can get the best out of all individuals. 

What are the biggest biases around neurodiversity?  

The idea that autistic people all have extraordinary abilities can be a tempting tool for well-intentioned advocates to push back against the public discourse that frames autism as a disorder, but autistic people on the whole don’t have heightened abilities. In fact, 25-30% are nonverbal. However, there are studies that show that the autistic population is more likely to have certain strengths such as pattern recognition or creative problem solving when compared to the general population. Saying something has a high likelihood is not the same as a universal truth though, and to claim that all autistic people have heightened abilities is unhelpful and suggests that such individuals need to be exceptional in order to be accepted. While many of the autistic employees at Ultranauts are exceptional, some are ‘just’ committed, creative, compassionate professionals who are good at their jobs — and that is all we ask of any other teammate.  

Is neurodiversity really a competitive advantage in business? 

I think we just don’t have enough data to answer that question in any meaningful way at the moment. So few neurodivergent people actually find and keep employment that we only have anecdotal information. SAP’s autism at work initiative has yielded excellent results, but for every successful neurodivergent employee, there are scores of others who never even make it far enough in the hiring process for us to know. But, in general, organisations thrive when they embrace diversity – it prevents groupthink, makes existing employees more limber at anticipating and dealing with uncertainty, and creates respect for the company in the community. There’s no denying that neurodivergent individuals bring unique perspectives to life and business. Neurotypical employees do too, but pressure to conform can sometimes suppress this side of them, especially in established company environments. But a neurodivergent employee is likely to push back at convention if it doesn’t make sense. Is that a valuable attribute to have in the mix? I think so. I also believe that an organisation that has to constantly adapt in order to be more inclusive will also be uniquely positioned to adapt to other changes it faces. I’d like to believe that I have experienced a significant amount of personal growth as a result of parenting a neurodiverse child; I am extrapolating from this! 

For you, is neurodivergence a disability or difference? 

Obviously, we’d prefer for it not to be thought of as a disability, rather just a difference. But recognising that neurodivergent individuals have some needs that require support is also important. Calling it a ‘disability’ can often highlight the need for that enhanced support. The downside is that individuals who need this extra support may not advocate for their needs in the workplace because the word disability can be stigmatising. There needs to be some nomenclature around this that can be accepted by the neurodivergent population without them feeling disrespected and stigmatised. I shared Nancy Doyle’s work with my son around generalist and specialist thinkers and he said, ‘Ah, there are some things I can do really well and certain things I struggle with’. Finding that language made it much easier for him to talk about his needs.  

What advice would you give to a neurodivergent person looking to maximise their career?  

The first thing is to accept and advocate for yourself. Learn more about accommodations you can ask for during the interview process and after being hired – you have the right! The Job Accommodation Network ( has lots of good information. Get coaching in order to learn the language to communicate your needs within your team and your company. There are many wonderful organisations such as Neurodiversity Pathways, Stanford Neurodiversity Project, and Genius Within that offer comprehensive programmes to prepare neurodiverse individuals to learn to become more effective self-advocates and equip organisations with the mindsets and knowledge to provide an empowering and supportive work environment for neurodiverse employees. Find those people that can support you — and there are many of them out there. For example, the compassionate support my son received from his first manager was a key reason that he has been able to succeed — in addition, of course, to all his own hard work. I tell my son all the time, ‘If you don’t tell people what you need, how are they going to know how to support you?’  


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