Matthew Keegan
Apr 25, 2023

Neurodiversity in advertising: the benefits of tapping into the world’s largest minority group

Great minds don't always think alike. This Autism Awareness Month, we're moving the dial on DEI to discuss why accessibility is still not high on the marketing agenda and why adland needs to think differently to make neurodiversity an asset.

(Photo: Shutterstock)
(Photo: Shutterstock)

It is estimated that between 15 and 20% of the global population is neurodiverse. This includes up to 10% of those with dyslexia, 6% of those with dyspraxia, 5% of those with ADHD, and 1-2% of those with autism.

Yet, despite making up the world’s largest minority group, accessibility for neurodivergent and disabled communities is still not a marketing priority for brands.

"Ultimately, brands and marketers are losing out on customers if they don't pay attention to accessibility," says Rachel Worsley, founder and CEO of Neurodiversity Media. "Just as marketers and brands had to adjust to digital marketing as more people ventured online, eventually more marketers and brands will have to make accessibility a priority as that is where a huge customer base awaits."

Why accessibility is still not a marketing priority

Marketing that engages neurodiverse or disabled people is still uncommon, yet, by being inclusive, brands could win as many as one in 10 buyers.

"It is difficult to make the case that featuring accessibility messages in marketing (reflecting the perspectives of a minority that is highly fragmented) will resonate with a brand’s typically broad audiences," says Rashmi Vikram, chief equity officer, Dentsu APAC. And the lack of neurodivergent or disabled talent in the industry, particularly in leadership positions, is a major barrier to improving accessible marketing, adds Vikram.

“Without authentic representation and leadership from within companies by individuals who have personal experience with neurodivergence and disability, it is even more of an uphill battle."

Nevertheless, some brands are beginning to recognise the importance of the neurodiverse community and are targeting them with sensory-friendly products and experiences.

Last year, global toy company Mattel launched the first autistic character in the iconic Thomas & Friends franchise. Called Bruno, the character was developed in collaboration with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and Easterseals Southern California, as well as writers and spokespeople with autism.

Together with key partners, Mattel carefully curated Bruno’s character to ensure an accurate fictional representation of an autistic child in the real world. Photo: Mattel

“Bruno’s introduction organically embraces a global audience that is underrepresented and deserves to be celebrated in children’s programming,” said Christopher Keenan, senior vice president of global content development and production at Mattel. “So much care and thought went into the development of his character, and we can’t wait for audiences to meet and love Bruno as much as we do.”

And organisation's like the National Autistic Society, the UK’s leading charity for autistic people, have collaborated with many brands to create various sensory products for autistic children, young people and adults.

These include collaborating with Hovia to create four unique wallpaper designs, which feature gentle blue, green, neutral and pink colours, aimed at reducing visual stimulation for autistic people who experience hypersensitivity.

Liverpool-based Hovia recreated four of their most popular murals through the lens of how people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) perceive their environment and react to it. Photo: Hovia

And last year, they worked closely with Thomas & Friends and to develop an autism-friendly Thomas & Friends clothing range for autistic children and young people aged five to 16. The clothing range is made with soft fabrics and includes loose-fitting t-shirts, jumpers, and tracksuits, all designed for easy dressing.

"It’s brilliant that more and more brands are thinking about inclusion and how to adapt their ranges to be more accessible," said a spokesperson for the National Autistic Society. "Almost everyone has heard of autism, but not enough people understand what it’s actually like to be autistic. Many autistic people and their families often tell us how sensory sensitivities can mean they struggle with certain clothes, products or environments. Hence, it’s really important for brands to think about how they can be more autism-friendly." 

The untapped revolutionaries

A creative industry like advertising would be perfect for people with unique and diverse perspectives on the world. Yet there needs to be more visibility and representation in the neurodivergent community, particularly in leadership roles where real change can be made.

"What the industry needs to understand is that the most progressive, counter-canonical ideas tend to come from those who live on the margins and even more so, those who 'think on the margins' as many neurodivergent people do," says Vikram. "This can lead to out-of-the-box innovation." 

Vikram adds that brands and agencies must do more to include and support neurodivergent people, not least because they have a broader responsibility to do so.

"We wield tremendous power over popular narratives and can reverse the perception that being neurodivergent or disabled is inherently a disadvantage," says Vikram. "It doesn’t have to be."

Indeed, there have been significant shifts in thinking when neurodiversity has been tapped into, as in the examples of Steve Jobs, who had dyslexia, and Greta Thunberg, who is autistic, to name just a few. We will improve our work, culture, and the representation and quality of life of all disabled people as we make the modifications required for an inclusive and accessible workplace.

In a telling interview with The Guardian, Thunberg described her autism as a "superpower". Photo: Getty Images

"Accessibility can make experiences more inclusive and higher quality for everyone," says Marie-Claire Barker, global chief people officer, GroupM.

"Many young people use subtitles when consuming video media, for example – once that option was available, it made experiences better for the consumer. Many of us use accessibility modes like speech-to-text as a hands-free option. Inclusive and accessible design is good design for everyone." 

How best to support and include neurodivergent people

Generally, in APAC, initiatives to support the thriving of neurodivergent in the workplace should be talked about in the public sphere, hence making it difficult to gauge what companies are doing behind closed doors. 

Compared to APAC, the UK ad industry has been more active in promoting the concept of neurodiversity. A survey by Creative Equals in 2020 found that 18% of employees in advertising, marketing and media in the UK live with one or more neurodiverse conditions.

"Neurodivergent thinkers can be brilliant at all types of jobs in agencies, but they need colleagues and line managers to understand how best to work with them," says Camilla Bruggen, global head of diversity, equity and inclusion, Wavemaker.

To that end, Wavemaker has taken several measures to include and support their neurodivergent employee’s day-to-day experience.

"Our London-based, neurodivergent colleagues worked with the facilities team to create ‘Quiet Spaces’ for people with sensory sensitivity; with dim lighting, soundproofing and no food and drink, to ensure that we offer an inclusive physical environment for people who find the open plan spaces distracting and overstimulating," says Bruggen. "We are exploring how to make Grammarly available to all colleagues so that anyone with dyslexia can access the service without having to disclose their condition." 

What can be done to attract more neurodiverse talent into the industry? 

Rashmi Vikram, chief equity officer, Dentsu APAC, says that for an industry whose key (and only) real resource are people and competitive advantage hinging heavily on people-led creativity, ensuring a culture of belonging and psychological safety is key to attracting and retaining neurodivergent talent.

"Alongside recruitment, where most inclusion efforts hit real roadblocks, is ensuring a culture of true belongingness on the shop floor, and it’s here that company employee resource groups and handholding for (and from) people managers, as they include neurodivergent talent in their teams, will pay off in terms of fostering true diversity," says Vikram. "Our managers are a microcosm of the agency and its culture, and having a manager attuned to one’s need and unique skillsets creates a sense of psychological safety that can truly unlock an individual’s potential."

Vikram adds one word of caution: “Attracting neurodivergent talent doesn’t automatically mean we’re hiring an individual of extraordinary capability. The savant syndrome, popularised by films like Rain Man and the recent South Korean drama, Extraordinary Attorney Woo, creates an expectation from neurodivergent individuals that often only add to the stress of navigating a workplace designed for neurotypical folk.”  

According to Rachel Worsley, founder and CEO of Neurodiversity Media, attracting more neurodivergent talent to the advertising industry requires a multifaceted approach that takes into account the unique needs and strengths of neurodivergent individuals. Worsley recommends the following:

  • Promote awareness and understanding of neurodiversity: Companies can help to promote awareness and understanding of neurodiversity among their staff and clients. This can include training programmes, workshops, and awareness campaigns that help to break down stereotypes and misconceptions about neurodivergent individuals.
  • Implemented specialised recruitment processes: Companies can implement specialised recruitment processes designed to attract and accommodate neurodivergent talent. This can include alternative interview formats, such as video or written submissions, and accommodations for candidates with sensory sensitivities or other needs.
  • Provide accommodations and support: Companies can provide accommodations and support for neurodivergent employees to ensure success. This can include flexible working arrangements, sensory accommodations and access to coaching or mentoring programmes.
  • Highlight the strengths of neurodivergent talent: Companies can help to highlight the unique strengths and perspectives that neurodivergent individuals can bring to the industry. This can include showcasing examples of successful neurodivergent individuals in media and advertising roles and promoting the value of diverse perspectives and experiences in media and advertising content creation. 
  • Foster an inclusive culture: Finally, companies can foster an inclusive culture that supports and celebrates neurodiversity. This can include regular training and awareness campaigns and diversity and inclusion initiatives involving all employees in creating a more inclusive workplace culture. 


Campaign Asia

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