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The value of neurodiversity

And considerations for your company

By Rob Hahn

July 15, 2020

There's some irony I'm writing this for the MNCPA.

My dad was a CPA his entire professional life before retiring in 2002 (and a former MNCPA member), while I dropped the one accounting course I took in college. A business owner for more than 20 years, I've come to enjoy reading spreadsheets and appreciate the value of a good accountant. And, while I'm not neurodiverse,  I write and speak often about the value of neurodiversity in schools and businesses.

What, you might ask, is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is a term that recognizes certain individuals' brains function differently and includes people on the autism spectrum, as well as those with dyslexia or ADHD, among other conditions. Too often referred to as disabled, a plethora of neurodivergent individuals are extremely bright and talented; they're just a little different. Businesses can benefit in many ways, including financially, by taking a different approach to neurodiversity.

My older son Bobby has Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, and it was during his college admissions process four years ago I realized schools, as well as businesses, don't fully understand — much less value — neurodiversity.

I later created “The Neurodiversity Challenge” to encourage institutions of higher education and businesses to more actively recruit as well as admit and hire individuals who are neurodivergent, many of whom are extremely talented in certain disciplines.

The pool of prospective neurodiverse employees is expansive. In the United States, an estimated 200,000 young adults on the autism spectrum are expected to enroll in college in the next 10 years, according to the National Center for Special Education Research. One in 10 Americans and 20% school-age children have dyslexia. More than 6 million children between 4 and 17 have ADD or ADHD.

Businesses are changing

The corporate world has slowly begun to recognize neurodiversity as an opportunity, and Ernst & Young LLP, Microsoft and other influential companies have helped lead the way by making a commitment to hiring neurodiverse workers. Sir Richard Branson, who is dyslexic, has spoken openly about the value of neurodiversity in the workplace. Freddie Mac recently launched a “Neurodiversity at Work” program, and Universal Music UK Chairman CEO David Joseph embraces neurodiversity as a key to the future.

But so much more needs to be done. For example, a study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found people on the autism spectrum gravitate to STEM (science, technology, engineers and math) majors, yet a recent survey found a shortage in STEM workers. To spotlight neurodiversity as part of a jobs creation platform should come naturally for companies looking to differentiate themselves from the rest of the field.

Suggestions for organizations

Here are five suggestions for companies and, more specifically, hiring leaders to improve how they handle neurodiversity.

  1. The application. Consider providing a specific option on the application for someone to voluntarily disclose they are neurodiverse and make it clear the self-identification will be used only to the applicant's benefit and not in a detrimental manner.
  2. The phone screening. Many neurodiverse individuals, especially those on the autism spectrum, are not comfortable talking on the phone. Instead of a standard interview via phone, consider providing questions via email and let the prospective employee dictate their answers into their phone and send the audio file.
  3. The in-person interview. If a neurodiverse person doesn't make eye contact or seems distracted, don't infer they're not interested in the interview.
  4. The workplace environment. Some neurodiverse individuals function better in certain conditions such as a quiet room or working while listening to music on headphones.
  5. An employee resource group (ERG). A few companies have found success in creating an ERG specifically for neurodiverse employees.

Neurodiversity offers excellent opportunities for businesses, but it first requires business leaders to think differently about people who think differently.

Rob Hahn is a small-business owner in Saint Paul. He's currently working on a documentary film about neurodiversity and can be reached at