To mark National Autism Awareness Month, Retail Week Be Inspired examines the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce and what can be done by leaders and their teams to become more inclusive of neurodiverse colleagues

The number of people diagnosed with autism – a form of neurodivergence – is on the rise “with the growth cutting across racial, ethnic and geographic lines”, the Harvard Business Review reported in February.

However, the rate of unemployment for people with autism in the UK is almost 80%.

For autistic people and others with neurodiverse conditions, career support can be minimal and often overlooked as part of business’ I&D agendas, meaning it has never been more important for retailers to be inclusive of neurodivergent employees. 

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Defining a neurodiverse workforce 

Neurodiversity typically refers to people with diagnostic conditions such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette’s syndrome and other neurological conditions. 

The term refers to the diversity of the human brain and the different ways in which people think, process, learn and behave. A person who is neurodivergent has a brain that diverges significantly from the social standard or ‘norm’ when it comes to thinking and processing information or interacting with other people.

A neurodiverse workforce is one that enables everyone, whether neurodivergent or not, to thrive and feel included regardless of how their brain works, says Laura Watkins, chief executive of The Donaldson Trust – one of Scotland’s leading charities for neurodiversity.

“A neurodiverse workforce is a well-balanced workforce that creates, innovates and breaks new boundaries”

Theo Smith, Neurodiversity at Work

“A neurodiverse workforce is a workforce that is not only aware of neurodiversity but also accepts and embraces it. It is a workforce where each employee can celebrate the differences and diversity of each other and, importantly, accept themselves” says Watkins.

Theo Smith, founder of Neurodiversity at Work – a consultancy supporting businesses to create neuro-inclusive workplaces – agrees, citing examples of well-known neurodivergent people who have made exceptional contributions to society: 

“Neurodiversity has powered science via incredible people such as  Albert Einstein and [challenged] climate change via activists such as Greta Thunberg. A neurodiverse workforce is a well-balanced workforce that creates, innovates and breaks new boundaries; fearless in their pursuit of excellence and dynamic in their exploration of solving problems.”

The business case for neurodiversity 

An estimated one in seven people in the UK are neurodivergent. For retailers, this means there is a high chance neurodivergent people make up a significant proportion of their workforces and customer bases.

It is essential to ensure your organisation is taking the right steps to adapt and include neurodivergent individuals. 

“Twenty per cent of your workforce could be underperforming because they are neurodiverse and have not been given the correct support to excel in their role” says Smith.

“Imagine improving the productivity of 20% of your workforce and it didn’t require changing that workforce, it just required a small amount of time spent making suitable adjustments.”

Increased productivity is just one of many benefits of a neurodiverse workforce, alongside greater innovation, as neurodivergent individuals can often bring out-of-the-box thinking and creative solutions to problems that a neurotypical brain might not otherwise be able to solve.

“Businesses will lose competitive advantage if they fail to champion neurodiversity successfully in the workplace”

Richmal Maybank, National Autistic Society

Creating an organisation inclusive of neurodivergent colleagues not only boosts business’ recruitment opportunities and retention rates through improved mental health and wellbeing, it enables those colleagues to fulfil their potential. 

For example, strengths associated with dyslexia might include an above-average ability in visual processing, while autistic people can display high levels of reliability, punctuality and attention to detail. 

What is key to maximising these strengths, however, is an inclusive workplace that enables every neurodivergent employee to thrive, whatever the circumstances of their condition. 

Watkins adds: “The key benefits of having, celebrating and promoting neurodiversity in the workplace are that organisations improve culturally through maximising the talents of all their employees as a result of developing greater sensitivity to individual needs.”

Retailers are missing out on top talent

The National Autistic Society is the UK’s leading charity for autistic people and their families. Its employment engagement manager Richmal Maybank describes the lack of autistic people in work as a “huge waste of talent” and Watkins agrees that organisations who fail to adapt are missing out: 

“Businesses will lose competitive advantage if they fail to champion neurodiversity successfully in the workplace. They will lack the advantages of having a diverse workforce with a range of characteristics that could competitively develop the organisation through increased productivity, creativity and focus,” she says.

Not only that, organisations that are not inclusive of neurodivergent people risk discriminating against employees and customers with neurodiverse conditions, as Smith explains: “More and more people are becoming aware of their rights and therefore will not accept being marginalised or system-impacted anymore. Some incredible talent with the perfect skills for the future of work will be looking closely to see how organisations treat neurodivergent talent.”

How retailers can make a difference

What can be done to make retailers more inclusive of neurodivergent colleagues and customers? 

First, Maybank is keen to reassure businesses that taking small steps can have a big impact.

“With often small changes to recruitment processes and the workplace such as routinely circulating agendas before meetings, using plain English and clear planning, autistic people can be a real asset in any industry,” she says.

Recruitment is a particularly key area where retailers such as Asda have been able to make great strides. Their store in Bangor, Northern Ireland, partnered with local charity Orchardville to facilitate work placements for young adults with autism, as well as interview practice sessions with their HR team to aid applicants’ understanding of the retail sector and develop their skills for future employment. 

“Autistic people have so much to give, they just need a chance”

Richmal Maybank, National Autistic Society

The initiative was spearheaded by Asda store manager Laura Elliott who drew on her own knowledge of neurodiversity as the mother of three autistic sons, demonstrating the power of centering the lived experiences of neurodivergent people when making workplace processes more inclusive.

Outside of retail, the sector can draw inspiration from organisations such as the BBC whose internal neurodiversity programme CAPE (Creating A Positive Environment) encourages neuro-inclusive workplaces that cater to the different sensory responses neurodivergent people might have depending on their condition. 

For example, mitigating unnecessary noise and distraction in the physical workplace or during virtual meetings can hugely benefit people with auditory sensitivities. Retailers such as Superdrug, Sainsbury’s and Tesco have demonstrated awareness of this issue through the introduction of in-store quiet hours for the benefit of neurodivergent customers and colleagues – reducing lighting, music and intercom announcements for a shopfloor experience with less sensory stimulation.

Above all, Maybank says one of the most important things businesses can do to engage with neurodivergent people is to find out what is best for them on an individual basis.

She says: “It’s all about everyone having a basic understanding of autism and the employer working with each person to find out what works for them. Autistic people have so much to give, they just need a chance.”

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