How do neurodiverse and neurotypical software engineers differ in the workplace?

Date Updated
4/29/19

Research findings comparing the experiences of neurodiverse employees with neurotypical employees at a large company revealed differences between the two groups. In the study “neurodiverse employees” were defined as individuals with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and/or learning disabilities. “Neurotypical” employees were defined as individuals without one of these disabilities. Responses in interviews and to a large survey, suggest that neurodiverse employees’ experiences in the workplace were different than those of neurotypical employees.

  • Neurodiverse employees reported challenges with making an appropriate response when colleagues’ code did not strictly adhere to style guidelines, completing some mundane tasks, displaying appropriate emotions at work, and/or responding professionally to critique.
  • More neurodiverse than neurotypical employees felt that they had poor interpersonal communication skills, causing stress in interactions such as team meetings and job interviews as well as routine communication with colleagues. Some had difficulties with successfully meeting responsibilities in management roles.
  • More neurodiverse than neurotypical employees reported difficulties dealing with distractions in the work environment, time management, task prioritization, or organizational restructuring.
  • Many neurodiverse employees reported advantages in being neurodiverse, including noticing patterns, visualizing information, maintaining focus on a project, strictly adhering to style guidelines, and devising creative solutions.

It is important for employers to consider these differences in order to support employees with disabilities that make them “neurodiverse” or to recruit and retain such employees. The study found the following:

  • Most neurodiverse respondents had not requested accommodations. Accommodations that could potentionally benefit these individuals include strategies to minimize social interactions (not sharing a hotel room during business travel, a private office, or working from home) or assistance understanding work assignments (key information sent via email, detailed and clear instructions, regular meetings with their supervisor).
  • Many neurodiverse employees were not diagnosed until adulthood. Some of these individuals were self-diagnosed. For some, having a child or family member diagnosed with ASD or a bad performance review at work prompted their diagnosis. Having a diagnosis can be beneficial in that in leads to strategies for managing ASD.
  • Many neurodiverse employees choose not to disclose at work for fear of being judged or facing workplace discrimination. The majority of respondents had not experienced such discrimination.

Because neurodiverse employees may not disclose their disabilities or even have a diagnosis, employers may underestimate their prevalence and the importance of addressing their special needs.

For more information about this research study, consult Understanding the Challenges Faced by Neurodiverse Software Engineering Employees: Towards a More Inclusive and Productive Technical Workforce by Meredith Ringel Morris, Andrew Begel, and Ben Wiedermann from the Proceedings of the 17th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers & Accessibility.

For assistance in locating resources about individuals with disabilities in specific career fields visit the Knowledge Base article Where can I find resources about individuals with disabilities in specific career fields?