All Tech Voices: Why Neurodiversity is an asset to Software Development


Diffusion has launched All Tech Voices to help advance the debate on how increasing representation and understanding of diverse audiences can strengthen the technology sector. This month we invite Lisa Ventura, award-winning cyber security consultant and founder of Cyber Security Unity, to discuss why neurodiversity is such an asset in the technology sector.

In today’s world of equality and diversity, and in the drive for productivity and quality top software organisations such as Microsoft, Amazon, and SAP are looking forwards a new source of software developers – those whose brains are wired differently compared to others. With the knowledge that everyone’s brain operates very differently, these organisations and others hope to leverage the strengths in those differences to improve their software development processes. They recognise that being neurodiverse can be a huge asset in software development.

Neurodiversity in the Workplace: A Mixed Picture

Before we delve into why those who are neurodiverse are well suited to careers in software development, let’s look at what it actually means. Neurodiversity is an “umbrella” term that covers a wide range of health conditions including ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette’s syndrome. In a workplace environment, neurodiversity means that there are diagnostic labels used to explain the diverse ways of thinking, processing, learning and behaving, and being neurodiverse comes down to “being different” in how and what we communicate, how we fit in and socialise, how we think as well as what some will view as quirky behaviour, in particular with physical mannerisms. This can often lead to significant friction between neurotypical and neurodiverse colleagues.

Why does Neurodiversity in the Workplace Matter?

Neurodiversity matters because many businesses will still focus on the cultural fit of candidates when hiring and will often exclude neurodiverse individuals for fear that existing employees will not or cannot accept those who are different. The trend towards hiring for diversity and inclusion rather than a cultural fit is gaining traction as a way of welcoming diverse thinking and views to a business from those who are different for many reasons, not just disability. This, however, is taking time to bed in and business are still reticent to hire those who are neurodiverse.

Why Software Companies are Looking to the Neurodiverse in Their Hiring Processes

Software companies who are always looking at turning bugs into features are discovering that adults with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) for example can be a huge and valuable asset to their workforces and will often bring unique skills and perspectives to their organisations. Some on the autistic spectrum can focus for longer on patterns and details and can outperform neurotypical people when it comes to repetitive tasks such as image analysis, cyber security or software QA.

Systematic thinkers can see connections and patterns much more easily and this may explain why some individuals with ASD show improved performance in areas such as data analysis and pattern recognition. These skills are often critical to cyber security and big data, and while some neurodiversity programs look for ASD workers who have the patience for repetitive tasks there are many examples of other jobs with more varied responsibilities in software development that are well suited to those who are neurodiverse.

Organisations often find that having neurodiverse employees deliver some less obvious benefits, for example, many companies report that those who are neurodiverse are extremely dedicated and loyal employees who bring positive effects on the morale and culture of their organisations. In addition, organisations often report that when neurotypical employees are educated about autism and work closely with neurodiverse employees, it inspires greater dedication and appreciation from everyone in the company. In the very competitive job market, these employees love their roles and help to motivate their co-workers.

The Benefits and Challenges of Hiring Someone who is Neurodiverse

However, while there are many benefits to hiring those who are neurodiverse in software development, there are also some challenges too. Firstly, when it comes to the application process, one of the biggest challenges that those who are neurodiverse face is getting past the application form. The main obstacle here is that many forms are driven by artificial intelligence (AI), and if being neurodiverse has impacted your career there will be evidence, for example, employment gaps. While being neurodiverse would typically be disclosed in the confidential equal opportunities section, many AI CV reading technologies often don’t correlate the two. Therefore, the bias remains, and AI may automatically reject the application without adjusting for someone being neurodiverse.

Using assessment centres are also problematic – group exercises are not straightforward, and neurodiverse people will often struggle to integrate with people they have never met before. This will make it difficult to reach a consensus or deliver successful project outcomes. Psychometric testing is also not ideal for those who are neurodiverse, with many reporting “brain freeze” when it comes to verbal tests.

Some of the main challenges that those who are neurodiverse face once they get into the workplace include

  • Asking too many questions
  • Being too blunt in emails and meetings 
  • Being misunderstood.
  • Misunderstanding others 
  • Productivity – it can take those who are neurodiverse longer to deliver solutions
  • Difficulty with small talk and socialising
  • Adapting to different views within a company
  • Being too honest – those who are neurodivergent often just tell it like it is

In Conclusion

The software industry is at the forefront of neurodiversity hiring, and it is not hard to see why. Most software executives know there are already many who are on the autistic spectrum in their companies. The industry is already accustomed to developers who code all night or seem to have a gift for solving certain types of problems. They also appreciate that intellectual innovation and diversity are often inherently linked. The best software products will often come from gender diversity, racial diversity, and neurodiversity. It is easier to think outside the box if you already live there.

Neurodiversity programs in the software industry are a huge step in the right direction, as they help to deploy the significant skills needed of an often-overlooked segment of the population and give organisations a huge competitive edge. The programs that have been pioneered by these organisations have overcome many challenges including identifying individuals with unique skills, integrating them into a neurotypical workplace and accommodating their unique needs.
Most of them understand they will learn faster if they “open source” their experiences and share their success stories, and there are now many summits and events popping up dedicated to neurodiversity in the workplace, such as SAPs Autism at Work summit.

We are only just starting to see the potential benefits of neurodiversity in software development, and the industry is leading the way at a rapid pace. It has never been a better time for those who are neurodiverse to consider a career in software development.