Neurodiversity in science

Could neurodiversity be the solution to STEM’s long-term skills shortages?

Innovation. Original thinking. Problem solving. All of these are vital components for any modern company. But for pharmaceutical, clinical and engineering companies, they are even more critical. These core skills facilitate clinical breakthroughs, deliver new products, and make businesses money. In today’s world, organisations need to embrace original thinking from people who approach problems from new perspectives in order to be successful.

Worryingly, data from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills suggests that 43% of STEM vacancies are hard to fill because of a shortage of applicants with the required skills and experience. So where are companies going to find the candidates with highly specialised skills? This is where neurodiversity enters the fold.

What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome. This represents new and fundamentally different way of looking at conditions that were traditionally pathologized

John Elder Robison
Neurodiversity is a movement that seeks to change the way we think about differently wired brains. Whereas neurological differences were once seen as diseases, neurodiversity advocates celebrate them as alternative ways of seeing — equal in value to a neurotypical mind. In other words, we positively address autism, ADHD, and other neurological states of mind, understanding that they can offer new perspectives, rather than being diseases that require a cure.

Why you should hire neurodiverse staff

In the UK, only 16% of ASD adults are in full-time employment. At the same time, 77% of ASD people want to be in work. What this suggests is that there is a huge talent pool eagerly waiting to enter the workforce. And science, clinical and engineering companies should be amongst the first to welcome them.

Though it is wrong to generalise about the truly unique skillsets that people on the autism spectrum have, many ASDs have core skills including being detail-focused, high levels of concentration, and an ability to solve complex problems. All of which are beneficial to science, clinical and engineering professions. Creativity is also a big factor — with different perspectives comes new insights and ideas to long held problems.

Big organisations like Google, Microsoft and the BBC have already embraced neurodiversity - with success across the board. The more STEM organisations see neurodivergence as an asset, the more chance we have of welcoming the most creative, analytical and scientific minds into our industries.

Potential challenges of a neurodiverse workforce

With so many potential plus points, it may seem like an obvious choice to embrace neurodiversity. But it is important to understand that it can sometimes come with challenges. Every neurodiverse individual is different, however, and not every neurodiverse hire will present challenges. They will, however, always bring original thinking and new perspectives.


Another potential challenge is the different communication channels that neurodiverse employees use — with ASDs preferring less people-focused channels such as email and one-to-ones over big team meetings and phone calls.

Whilst this may not seem essential, when it comes to progress reports, updates and logging problems, an email might not seem sufficient. But with mentorship, education for current employees, and some moderate changes to the way you work, these challenges can be easily tackled. More often than not these changes are cost-free too. The benefits of hiring neurodiverse staff far outweigh a few simple changes to the way you work.

Unlocking ideas

One issue that teams could come across is unlocking the potentially great ideas that neurodiverse people have. If traditional communication paths aren’t there, and your neurodiverse hire doesn’t interact in a neurotypical way with your team, finding out what they are really thinking could be an issue. But if you follow the suggestions above in creating new communication paths and  educating your existing team so that they can encourage teamwork in a different way, those great ideas will come to the fore.


With simple adjustments, neurodiverse staff can be easily integrated into almost any working environment. In fact, 40% people working in STEM are already known to be systematic workers according to neuroscientist Simon Baren Cohen’s 2004 study — so some of the traits exhibited by neurodiverse workers will already be familiar.

There are vast pools of neurodiverse talent out there. From those people still at school, to those in employed in different industries, we should drive to attract the very best neurodiverse talent. New ideas are key to pushing clinical, scientific and engineering knowledge forward. With shortages of talent across STEM industries, this is not only a great opportunity to give under appreciated  people an opportunity to make the most out of their natural abilities, it could be the difference between discovering the next breakthrough drug, and not.

Further Reading on Neurodiversity at Work


For more fascinating insights into the ever-changing world of the life sciences sector, stay tuned to all SRG Blogs. 
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