5 tips for neurodivergent job seekers

If you’re someone who identifies as neurodivergent, navigating the job market can feel even more overwhelming.

In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter that we all process our thoughts and experiences in different ways. This kind of diversity would be embraced - and accounted for - during the recruitment process, as your strengths may include creative thinking, logical thinking, high degrees of emotional intelligence and many others.

But if you identify as neurodivergent, you may experience extra challenges during your job search. What steps can you take to make the interview process easier? 

De-bunking neurodivergence myths  

Neurodivergence is an umbrella term used to describe neurological conditions that are part of the normal variations of the brain. There is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, and neurodivergence is not considered a disability. It’s also not uncommon, it’s estimated that about 15 to 20 percent of the world’s population is neurodivergent.

David Smith is Managing Director of Employ for Ability, which helps organisations understand the benefits of hiring neurodivergent people. He says that while there is no standard definition of which conditions are considered neurodivergent, the most common are autism, ADHD and dyslexia. 

“There are others, like dyscalculia, which is a condition that makes it hard to do maths,” he says. There’s such a range of conditions that can be seen as neurodivergent, Smith notes it’s important to remember that the reasonable adjustments that one neurodivergent person needs may be different to another. 

Challenges for neurodivergent job seekers 

If you identify as neurodivergent, you may experience some challenges that are in addition to the usual job hunting stressors. These additional challenges will vary from person to person and might encompass anxiety related to your neurodivergence as well as self-esteem issues. There are organisations like Employ for Ability that can help you navigate your way through the job hunting process and can help reduce these additional stressors.  

One of the common challenges faced by neurodivergent job seekers is that many job ads and interview processes don't account for diversity of thinking, learning and behaving. 

“One of the challenges that people often face is the first step - the job ad,” says Smith. “For example, there may be five ‘must haves’ written in the description, and a neurodivergent applicant may read that and think, ‘I don't have one of those five things, I'll not apply’.” 

Smith adds that job ads often list the requirements for candidates to be ‘strong communicators’, but this is sometimes not an essential element of the job. If a neurodivergent person is not a strong communicator, he says this requirement can prevent them from applying. 

The interview process can also pose challenges. For example, some questions may sound quite abstract, such as ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’. The context of this question might be clear for a non-neurodivergent person – they know it’s referring to their career. Some neurodivergent people may not understand the context and think it applies to their life outside of work too.  

The way an interview room is arranged may also pose challenges. If direct eye contact makes you feel anxious, for example, it may feel uncomfortable to be facing an interview panel of three people. 

Tips for your job search 

Neurodivergence encompasses a diversity of conditions but, like all people in the job market, you have strengths too. If you’ve come across extra challenges during your job search, here are some tips that may improve your experience.  

1. Apply for the job even if you don’t fit all the requirements 

Even if you don’t think you have all the ‘must haves’ listed in the job ad, you may still be a good fit, so apply for the jobs that you really want. Data from SEEK shows 33% of candidates would not apply for a role if their skills/experience didn’t match the selection criteria, so it’s a common issue for many candidates.  

However, hiring for transferable skills is not as uncommon as you may think and counts for a lot in hirers’ minds. SEEK research has found that nearly all employers (97%) are willing to compromise on experience if a candidate has transferable skills.  

2. Focus on timing, context and framing  

It's essential to carefully consider when to talk about your neurodiversity in your job search. If you decide to share, it's most effective to talk about the subject when you feel safe to do so and it's relevant to the conversation.  

When discussing your strengths and weaknesses in an interview, this can be a good opportunity to explain how the strengths that come with your neurodivergence will make you a good fit for the job. But there are also some accommodations you may require.  

For example, you could say, 'I have an ADHD diagnosis, and so I'm good at X, Y, and Z, which would make me a great fit for this job because... and these are the reasonable adjustments I need to be at my best at work.' This might include wearing noise-cancelling headphones, or some flexibility with start times.  

Give real examples from your past that show how these strengths have helped you perform in different roles. The focus then becomes less on your limitations and more towards recognising your personal strengths. 

3. Consider asking for some adjustments before your interview 

Many employers will be happy to make adjustments to accommodate all candidates, but they may not know what you need unless you ask them. 

“Some accommodations to request may be to see the interview questions before, or to request to do a video interview instead of a face-to-face,” says Smith.   

“You could also request that the interview room be less formal, so instead of three people sitting on one side of the table and you on the other, like a big panel interview, can you each sit at a four-sided table?” 

“If it's a one-on-one interview, you could ask if the interviewer can sit next to you rather than across from you,” adds Smith. “You can say to them before the interview, if we sit next to each other and we are not directly looking at each other, it's less challenging, because then I can just be myself and answer the questions.” 

If you are not comfortable in an interview situation, Smith suggests requesting to do a two-hour trial, so you can show what you can do, rather than explain it.  

“Fair Work allows somebody to do an unpaid work trial if it's reasonable,” he says. 

4. Practise your interview skills 

Like all job interviewees, it’s wise to research the organisation and the role ahead of time so you feel as prepared as possible. You can also consider practising your interview skills with a friend, advocate or family member, and practice interviewing in some of the conditions you find challenging, like sitting opposite someone rather than next to them.  

Also like all candidates, it's wise to anticipate and prepare for the questions you think you'll get asked. But also keep in mind that you may be asked some questions you haven't expected or prepared for. 

5. Look for equal opportunity employers 

The phrase “equal opportunity employer” is often used in the job ads and career pages of organisations that embrace diversity and inclusion. Many of these employers may be more proactive about accommodating your requirements. 

Smith suggests that if you identify as neurodivergent, acknowledge your condition and talk about what reasonable adjustments you need. If the employer is reluctant to make these adjustments, it’s great to find this out early.  

“If the employer has no idea what you're talking about and is judging you because you need reasonable adjustments, they're not the employer you want to work for anyway,” adds Smith. 

Neurodivergent conditions are variations in the way the brain functions. While you may experience more challenges than others during your job search, the strengths that you can bring to a workplace should not be underestimated. Look for equal opportunity employers, be open and positive about your condition and don’t be afraid to request the reasonable adjustments that you need to show you are the right person for the job. 

Source: Independent research conducted by Nature on behalf of SEEK. Interviewing 4000 Kiwis annually. Published March 2024.