The Power of Thinking Differently: Neurodiversity and Problem Solving

By Sarah Duggan, CP
April 2023

April 2, 2023, marks the 16th annual observance of World Autism Awareness Day. This year, the observance is organized by the United Nations Department of Global Communications and Department of  Economic and Social Affairs in collaboration with the Institute of Neurodiversity (ION), a global community committed to “creat[ing] a world where neurodivergent individuals feel accepted, represented, included, empowered, and heard.”[1]

With an estimated 15-20% of the global population exhibiting some form of neurodivergence,[2] this likely means more than one in 10 job applicants, existing staff, and customers showcase the infinite variety of neurodiverse gifts and abilities.[3] According to an article published in a special issue of the Journal of Management and Organization titled, “The Advantages and Challenges of Neurodiversity Employment in Organizations,” individuals with disabilities are also half as likely to be employed as their nondisabled peers. By embracing and leveraging the strengths, lived experiences, and cultural contributions of all neurotypes, we harness the potential of what a neurodiverse workforce can bring to the legal profession and beyond.

Neurodivergence and Neurodiversity Explained

The term neurodivergence was coined in 1999 by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist who identified as autistic and postulated that different brains are a natural and valuable part of the human experience.[4] Journalist Harvey Blume further popularized the term in a 1998 issue of The Atlantic, stating that “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment?”[5] Forms of neurodivergence range from learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia, to neurodevelopmental and mental health conditions, such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, or depression. Some forms of neurodivergence can also be acquired through incidence of brain trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Strengths and Challenges of Neurodiversity

Despite facing unique social and communication challenges, auditory sensitivities, and difficulties with executive functioning skills, such as attention regulation and time management, neurodiverse individuals display hidden superpowers that include, but are not limited to, the following:[6]

  • Creativity and consistency in work that is routine or repetitive in nature
  • Solving problems through dynamic or innovative decision making
  • Assimilating and retaining detailed factual knowledge
  • Identifying trends, patterns, and irregularities in data
  • Providing transparent and honest feedback free from confirmation bias
  • Evaluating and executing calculated risks
  • Maintaining composure in high-pressure situations

Since neurodiverse individuals have become accustomed to navigating a world shaped largely by neurotypicals, they sometimes mimic the behavior of their neurotypical colleagues to fit in (referred to as masking), or deflect attention from any of their own perceived weaknesses or irregularities (referred to as passing).[7] Laura Boxley, Ph.D., director of Clinical Neuropsychology Training in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, further describes how neurodiversity encompasses “the idea that people experience or interact with the world around them in many different ways — some that may not be considered typical. It is based on the framework that ‘different’ is not the same as ‘deficient.’”[8]

Serving as the director of the Stanford Neurodiversity Project, Lawrence K. Fung is a scientist and psychiatrist specializing in autism and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavior Sciences at Stanford University. In an article titled “Neurodiversity: An Invisible Strength?”, Fung emphasizes embracing the characteristics of neurodiverse conditions and pivoting to the strengths and interests of neurodivergent individuals because they often “bring new perspectives to the world, some of which could be groundbreaking.” For example, Fung mentions Alan Turing building the first computer to crack the Enigma during World War II and Albert Einstein’s revolutionary strides in theoretical physics.

Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Since there is no one-size-fits-all approach to neurodiversity in the workplace, employers often struggle with how to create and implement an equitable, ethical, and efficient approach to sourcing and retaining neurovariant talent while balancing business concerns, such as cost and corresponding risk.[9] Research suggests that employers who strive to recruit, hire, train, retain, and advance this untapped talent pool not only experience an exponential increase in productivity and innovation but also observe employee engagement benefits and develop a competitive edge with measurable financial and cultural benefits.[10] Haley Moss, a neurodiversity expert and the first openly autistic attorney in Florida, mentions in her book Great Minds Think Differently: Neurodiversity for Lawyers and Other Professionals how “businesses that hire people with disabilities and have the most inclusive environments for disabled employees outperform their competitors, averaging 28% higher revenues and 30% greater economic profit margins, and twice the net income of their industry peers, according to a 2019 Accenture study in conjuncture with Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities.”[11] For example, one team at SAP that included neurodiverse employees helped develop a technical fix worth an estimated $40 million in savings.[12]

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) outlines that accommodations for disabled individuals must be requested, reasonable, and not cause an undue hardship on the employer. According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), 56% of accommodations cost employers nothing to implement. Employers who shift toward customized working conditions often observe greater productivity amongst all employees and discover intrinsic value in playing to the individual strengths and talents of each employee, regardless of one’s neurotype.[13]

Best Practices for Supporting Neurodiverse Colleagues
  1. Communicate clearly
  • Use comprehensive, plain language and discern communication preferences, such as sign language, facial expressions, augmentative, alternative communication apps (AAC), etc.
  • Ask specific or direct questions since open-ended questions may be interpreted literally due to differences in social skills or in reading social cues.
  • Communicate clear deadlines in managing expectations and indicate priority in completing tasks, along with written or recorded instructions for reference.
  1. Be mindful of sensitivities
  • Implement a fragrance-free working environment for sensory access needs.
  • Provide access to noise-cancelling headphones, along with designated quiet areas.[14]
  • Recognize the power of the pause in giving time to assimilate and apply information.
  1. Emphasize strengths
  • Develop customized working conditions that play to individual strengths and talents.
  • Offer practical skills assessments, such as mini apprenticeships, where neurodivergent individuals can showcase their skills in the workplace.[15]
  • Propose workplace coaching or mentoring programs, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), to enhance profitability, productivity, and customer loyalty.[16]
  1. Amplify the message
  • Support or become involved in organizations committed to neurodiversity awareness and allyship, such as Autism Speaks, Different Brains, or the Institute of Neurodiversity (ION).
  • Invite neurodiverse coworkers to take on a leading role in workplace trainings focused on company-wide diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging efforts, such as the impact of universal design principles or mental health awareness.
  • Research and share websites with your colleagues that offer free courses, skills trainings, and networking opportunities, such as Neurodiversity Network and Neurodiversity Hub.

Neurodiversity in the workplace is often complex, nuanced, and invisible. According to a November 2020 article published in The Leadership Issue of The American Bar Association’s Law Practice Magazine, “Neurodiverse assets are already on firm payrolls; now it is a matter of identifying and building channels for their strengths.”
[17] In this nascent area of the diversity, equity, and inclusion movement, we must elucidate and lay the groundwork for a culture of caring that leads with empathy and cultivates a sense of belonging for all neurotypes, where ability rather than disability is emphasized.

Additional Resources

Neurodiversity Inclusion: Checklist for Organizational Success (EARN)

Neurodiversity in the Workplace (EARN)

Neurodiversity in the Workplace Resources (EARN)

Disability Language Style Guide (National Center on Disability and Journalism)

Autism @ Work Playbook (Disability:IN)

Stanford Neurodiversity Project


Haley Moss – Neurodiversity Expert








[7]Moss, Haley. Great Minds Think Differently: Neurodiversity for Lawyers and Other Professionals (2021).




[11]Moss, Haley. Great Minds Think Differently: Neurodiversity for Lawyers and Other Professionals (2021).