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Neurodiversity in government

A powerful answer to government’s workforce crisis lies in thinking outside the box. 

Listen to the report

Eagle Hill Consulting research on the topic of neurodiversity in government finds that more than half (55%) of U.S. government employees are unaware of working with anyone who is neurodivergent. 

Recruiting and retaining neurodivergent employees has rapidly gained interest in the U.S. government—just when agencies at all levels struggle to fill open jobs. Neurodivergent individuals have valuable analytical and technical skills, but their social and other struggles traditionally have gotten in the way of their hiring and promotion. With neurodivergent individuals making up an estimated 15-20% of the population, that translates to a lot of untapped workforce potential. 

The term neurodiversity gives a framework for recognizing that differences in some individuals’ brain function and behavioral traits are exactly that—differences, but not deficiencies. Neurodiversity encompasses a number of differences, including autism spectrum conditions, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette syndrome, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia, among others.

We note that neurodiversity won’t always be readily recognizable to others and not all people who identify as neurodiverse will choose to be public about this aspect of themselves. Additionally, not all those who identify as neurodiverse will need or seek special accommodations. However, Eagle Hill Consulting believes understanding neurodiversity in its many forms, and taking steps to adapt physical workspaces, work processes, communications and management styles—while respecting individuals’ preferences and privacy—can help every employee minimize their struggles and capitalize on their strengths at work. 

Hiring struggles mean it’s time to embrace neurodiversity in government 

The United States Chamber of Commerce reports that the country is missing 1.7 million Americans from the workforce compared to February 2020. Last summer, Government Executive reported that the Social Security Administration’s staffing levels are at a 25-year low, despite an ever-increasing number of beneficiaries, while a survey of local government human resource officers found that more than half the respondents had to frequently reopen recruitment processes for lack of enough applications.

Agencies have taken note of successful efforts in the private sector to pursue neurodiversity in the government workforce more thoughtfully. In the public sector, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has expanded on its successful pilot program (the first of its kind in the federal government) to recruit people with autism. What will it take to turn heightened government interest into across-the-board momentum? What’s the current state of neurodiversity in government and what clear paths to progress can we see? We surveyed government employees across the U.S. to find out.

The government workforce fares marginally better than the private sector when it comes to awareness of neurodiversity at work

When asked if they understand what neurodiversity is, only 38% of government employees reported yes. Similarly, only 29% of government employees know whether they work with a neurodivergent individual. While our research on neurodiversity in the workplace finds that these figures are stronger in government than they are for the U.S. workforce at large, awareness of neurodiversity is still an issue for more than 60% of government workers. 

Most government employees lack access to basic sensory stimuli adjustments at their workplace

Our physical environment has a significant influence on how well we work. For many neurodivergent individuals, a heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli can make noise, light quality, temperature, or distracting visuals overwhelming to the point of hampering productivity. 

Our research found that several simple accommodations to improve sensory stimuli in the physical workplace are consistently unavailable to most government employees. These relatively low-cost and easy-to-implement adjustments represent potential quick wins with outsized impact.

Government employees show strong interest in accommodations for different working styles

Consistently, our research found that most government employees—whether they self-identify as neurodiverse or not—would value accommodations that make it easier for neurodivergent employees to participate more fully in the workplace. 

For example, two-thirds of government employees would find it helpful to have options for different ways of taking in and communicating information, including oral vs. written reports, videos vs. lectures, and typed responses vs. in-person meetings. Sixty-five percent say it would be helpful to have the ability to communicate via text vs. videoconference. And 68% say they would appreciate technological supports for managing time and schedules, such as smartphone alarms, calendars, and other time-management software.

Government recognizes the importance of supporting a neurodiverse workforce, but still needs to improve workplace management practices

Interestingly, the three areas of accommodation where government employers appear to outstrip employers across the private sector by the largest margin occur outside the traditional workspace. Our research shows that 50% of government employees report having the option to work from home, compared to 41% of the private sector workforce. Likewise, 39% of government employees, compared to 27% of the private sector, say their employer offers neurodiversity-relevant best practice health benefits and 52% of government employees have access to  training that encourages sensitivity to social differences (versus 40% of private). Perhaps this indicates a greater willingness in the public sector to offer supportive solutions that go beyond traditional benefits.

Neurodivergent employees face significant barriers to advancement in government 

Just over half (53%) of government employees said their employer carves out jobs that make the most of an individual’s strengths without unduly challenging their weaknesses. Similarly, just 58% said their employer assigns tasks and projects based on an individual’s strengths and preferences.

While government employees are nearly twice as likely as their private sector counterparts to say their workplace has had formal conversations about neurodiversity (28% vs. 14%), nearly three-quarters of government employees have not had these important conversations at work. Similarly, only 26% say their organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion programs include neurodiversity as a focus. 

Perhaps most concerning are the seeming barriers to advancement for neurodivergent individuals in government. Our research found that 85% of government employees said they would hire or have hired an individual who identifies as neurodiverse and only 6% report that a neurodivergent teammate has been unable to do their job. Yet 73% say they are unaware of a single neurodivergent employee who has been promoted. 

These findings seem to indicate that despite a professed willingness to hire neurodivergent employees and a belief in their abilities, performance management and career advancement practices are letting down neurodivergent employees in government.  

Want to learn how you can improve your workplace environment for all employees while increasing productivity and overall satisfaction?

Read our guide, How to Embrace Neurodiversity in the Workplace: 7 Strategies for Unleashing the Potential of Neurodivergent Employees 


These findings are from the Eagle Hill Consulting Neurodiversity in Government Survey conducted by Ipsos from January 11-18, 2024. The survey included 1,261 respondents from a random sample of full- and part-time adult employees across the United States, including 502 government employees. Respondents were polled on the topic of neurodiversity in the workplace.