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Neurodiversity: The untapped solution to the future of the water industry

Neurodivergent individuals can possess distinct skills

The water sector in Australia is facing a skills shortage and an aging workforce, hindering its ability to address pressing water management challenges. This article explores the potential of neurodivergent people, such as autistic, attention deficit or dyslexic individuals, and their contributions to the sector. Neurodivergent individuals can possess distinct skills, including attention to detail, intense focus, creativity, and strong memory, which can greatly benefit the capability of work teams.

However, there are challenges associated with employing and accommodating neurodivergent individuals, such as communication difficulties, sensory issues, and social stigma. To overcome these challenges, inclusive hiring practices, tailored accommodations, and supportive work environments are crucial.

Several success stories from companies like Microsoft, Ernst & Young, and SAP demonstrate the positive impact of employing neurodivergent individuals. By embracing neurodiversity and providing the necessary support, the water sector can tap into a valuable talent pool, leading to innovation, productivity, and diversity of perspectives, ultimately driving the industry's success in addressing water management challenges.

The authors acknowledge the nuances associated with identity-first as opposed to person-first individuals when referring to neurodivergent individuals. As such, this article refers to neurodivergent individuals using identity-first and person-first language interchangeably.


In June 2022, the Financial Review reported that Australian businesses are grappling with one of the country’s largest labour shortages. It was reported that despite high demand for workers, businesses are struggling to fill vacancies. Most businesses attributed their struggles to applicants not having the required skills (59%) and a lack of applicants (79%).  (Kwan, 2022).

The water sector is not immune to these challenges and is simultaneously grappling with the observed and projected impacts of climate change. Climate change is expected to cause significant changes in the water cycle. Extreme weather events are making water more scarce, more unpredictable, more polluted or all three. These impacts throughout the water cycle threaten our water supply’s ability to meet current and future demand alongside the needs of biodiversity. The water sector is central to managing these climate stresses while working to mitigate the threats of climate change through building resiliency, adaptation, and greenhouse gas mitigation.

It is crucial that the industry has sufficient skilled personnel to meet the urgent water management challenges that lie ahead. However, a report by the Water Services Association of Australia found that the skills shortage is emerging as a key constraint in Australia’s water sector.

This skills shortage has been exacerbated by a boom in infrastructure spending in the Australian economy. In the past, this was particularly evident in the mining sector (WSAA 2008) and it is possible that similar events will occur during the development of Australia’s prospective green energy (hydrogen) economy.  

It has been observed that whilst water utilities tend to be relatively competitive in salaries for business support roles, many are not competitive for core water sector roles. This has resulted in further challenges to talent acquisition for the industry. It has also been reported that in working towards a solution to these challenges, some water utilities struggle to balance recruiting people with ‘ready-now’ skills and recruiting and developing people with appropriate aptitude.

On average, water utility workers are reported to be older than employees in other Australian workforces, suggesting that a significant number of impending retirements can be expected. This has implications for attraction, retention, knowledge transfer and succession management.  (WSAA 2008)

The workforce is also reported to be relatively long-tenured. Long workforce tenure has the benefits of stability, intellectual knowledge, experience and loyalty. However, typically this may have disadvantages in terms of reducing innovation, and enthusiasm for change. This may be an impediment to the industry.

Studies have identified that the key current or potential future gaps in skills and capabilities of the water sector workforce include leadership, digital literacy, critical thinking skills and customer centricity. The water sector needs to stay ‘ahead of the curve’ considering shifting workforce and broader industry trends. An understanding of these developments will enable service providers to develop staff and build capacity to meet future requirements. This includes identifying and attracting the required talent.

Research by WSAA has identified the top skills and capabilities that will be required in the water sector. (WSAA December 2017) Two of the key topics featured in the list include:

  • Digitisation: Digital / technological literacy and competence with gathering and analysing data
  • Critical thinking: Problem solving, strategic planning and innovation

The water sector is transforming from a traditional engineering and asset focus to a more technology-enabled data-centric focus. The transformation is impacted by the emergence of new consumer and network technologies, the global trend of digitisation and other factors. Within the sector, the impacts include (amongst others):

  • Development of new asset and customer technologies and digitisation of services;
  • Increasing automation of routine tasks
  • A significant focus on operational improvement and efficiency (i.e. cost reduction).

New technologies are rapidly disrupting all sectors. Examples include chatbots, autonomous vehicles, augmented or virtual reality, artificial intelligence, internet of things, and global connectivity. For the water sector, an example initiative is Intelligent Water Metering (i.e. automatic meter reading and data management).  Key considerations include devices, connectivity, data & analytics, etc. Skill sets associated with such digitalisation are now in high demand and include data specialists, cyber security specialists, and software and application programmers.

The existing workforce will be required to adapt to emerging demands of climate change, environmental management, new technologies, and the multidisciplinary nature of sustainable water management. Some key skills gaps, such as modellers, are limiting progress on some initiatives already. Modelling and mapping will play an increasingly important role in condition assessments and asset management.

In addition to requirements for modelling and digital technology, emerging trends within the water sector (such as scarcity of water, circular economy, emerging contaminants and new water treatment technologies) introduce an opportunity (and in many cases also a need) for alternative perspectives to brainstorm, analyse and plan for the future. The utilisation of “Adaptive Pathways Planning” (a non-linear flexible method of planning allowing for potential future changes) is a key tool now used by the industry. These strategic thought processes benefit significantly from the involvement of a diverse group of participants.


Mal Shepherd, Chief Development Officer at Sunwater and a Director of WaterAid, said “We need to supplement technical skills with creative problem solving, thinking more deeply about diversity, inclusion, and communication to generate solutions that create intergenerational benefits.” (Engineers Australia, 2022)

Within a contemporary workplace, the focus on diversity typically includes demographic diversity as well as the diversity acquired from individual experiences. Water sector businesses in Australia have significantly lifted their focus on inclusion and diversity in recent years. There is growing acknowledgement that diverse workforces make better decisions, improve innovation, and deliver better outcomes for the community. Unconscious bias is now recognised as a key barrier to inclusion and diversity progress and efforts are being made, through training programs etc, to overcome this. (WSAA March 2017)

Diversity covers a broad range of topics including, but not limited to, gender, race, age, ability, experience, education and more. This paper specifically focuses on the topic of neurodiversity to acknowledge the importance of recognising and nurturing different thinking in the workplace.

Neurodiversity is a term that is used to recognise and embrace the wide range of unique brain functions and behavioural traits that exist within the population. There is no “normal” way for a brain to work. Instead, there is a wide variation in how people perceive, experience and respond to the world, and these differences are to be embraced and encouraged. According to a 2020 research article published in the British Medical Bulletin, between 15 and 20% of the population is considered neurodivergent whilst the remainder is referred to as neurotypical. Examples of neurodivergence include (amongst others):

  • Autism
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity (ADH) or Variable Attention Stimulus Trait (VAST)
  • Dyslexia
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Down syndrome
  • Dyscalculia
  • Epilepsy
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Acquired brain injury.

Traits and skills of neurodivergent individuals
The authors contend that neurodivergent individuals often encounter barriers and discrimination in society and workplaces that do not value or accommodate their diversity. It is important to note that each individual is unique and that not all neurodivergent individuals have the same traits and skills. Some common traits and skills associated with neurodivergent individuals are presented in Figure 1 together with their relevance to the water sector.


Figure 1: Examples of applying a strengths-based approach to engaging neurodivergent individuals in the water industry 

It's important to recognise that these traits and skills can be both strengths and challenges, depending on the situation and context. Neurodiversity should be celebrated and embraced, and accommodations should be made to help individuals with neurodivergent traits thrive in their environments.

Employment of Neurodivergent Individuals

Despite their potential strengths and abilities, many neurodivergent individuals remain underemployed.

Due to a range of factors, including non-inclusive schooling environments, a lack of supportive and inclusive pathways to higher education (both TAFE and university), unsupportive programs at universities, and a lack of understanding and acceptance and historic non-inclusive processes in the workplace, the following situation exists in the workforce amongst this untapped talent pool.

  • In Australia, the unemployment rate for autistic people is 31.6 per cent. This is three times the rate of people with disability, and almost six times the rate of people without disabilities.
  • More than half of unemployed autistic Australians (54%) had never held a paid job, despite often possessing the skills, qualifications and a strong desire to join the workforce.
  • More than half of employed autistic Australians would like to be working more hours and given a more challenging role, with 45% reporting that their skills are higher than required in their current job.
  • More than half of unemployed autistic people who had previously held a paid job have been out of employment for three or more years. 20% of autistic people reported having lost a job due to being autistic.
    (AMAZE 2018)

According to the University of Connecticut, unemployment rates for neurodivergent adults can be as high as 30-40%. Typically, they face two employment processes that become obstacles for them: the traditional interview and a lack of workplace accommodations. The traditional interview process is often not designed to accommodate neurodivergent people’s needs, which can lead to them being overlooked for positions they are qualified for. In addition, neurodivergent people may require accommodations in the workplace that are not typically provided (such as flexible work schedules, quiet workspaces, and certain communication styles). Without these accommodations, neurodivergent people may struggle to perform their job duties effectively and may be more likely to leave. (Forbes, 2022).

Neurodivergent individuals may face unique challenges when it comes to gaining and maintaining employment. Some of the challenges they may experience include:

  • Discrimination: Neurodivergent individuals may face discrimination in the hiring process due to negative stereotypes or misconceptions about their conditions. Employers may be hesitant to hire individuals whom they perceive as having limitations or challenges.
  • Social skills: Some neurodivergent individuals may struggle with social communication and interaction, which can make it difficult to navigate the workplace environment and build relationships with colleagues.
  • Sensory issues: Many neurodivergent individuals have heightened sensitivity to sensory input, such as noise or bright lights. This can make it challenging to work in certain environments or with certain types of equipment.
  • Executive functioning: Neurodivergent individuals may struggle with executive functioning, which can impact their ability to manage time, prioritize tasks, and stay organised.
  • Interview process: The interview process can be particularly challenging for neurodivergent individuals, who may struggle with the social cues and unstructured nature of the conversation.
  • Accommodations: Many workplaces are not set up to accommodate the needs of neurodivergent individuals, such as providing a variety of workspaces, quiet spaces for sensory breaks, flexible work arrangements, or assistive technology.
  • Stigma: Neurodivergent individuals may face stigmatisation and negative attitudes from co-workers or managers, which can impact their job satisfaction and overall well-being.

It is important to recognise that neurodivergent individuals have unique strengths and skills that can be beneficial in the workplace. To support them in gaining and maintaining employment, it's important to provide accommodations, educate co-workers and managers about neurodiversity, and create an inclusive and supportive work environment.

The authors contend that water sector employers would value a greater understanding of
A)    the benefits of employing neurodivergent individuals
B)    how to better accommodate neurodivergent individuals already in the workplace  

Benefits of employing neurodivergent individuals
Employing a neurodiverse team can bring many benefits to an organisation and the sector more generally. Examples of these benefits are outlined in Table 1.


Table 1: Benefits of Employing Neurodivergent Individuals

Overall, employing a neurodiverse team can bring a range of benefits to an organisation, including enhanced creativity, productivity, and diversity of perspectives. By embracing neurodiversity, employers can create a more inclusive and innovative workplace culture.

Addressing the challenges of employing neurodivergent individuals
Employing neurodivergent individuals can bring many benefits to an organisation, but there are also some challenges that employers may face. 
For the purposes of discussion, this article presents some common challenges and accompanying strategies to overcome them below. However, it is important to note that neurodiversity is not a homogenous experience. Whilst these challenges are examples of challenges commonly faced, they ultimately demonstrate the value in actively working with neurodivergent employees to shape their best work environment in their respective circumstances and address challenges accordingly.  

Here are some of the common challenges and strategies for overcoming them:

  • Communication: Neurodivergent individuals may have different communication styles or struggle with social interaction. To overcome this challenge, employers can provide clear guidelines for communication and social expectations, offer training for managers and co-workers on neurodiversity, and provide accommodations such as quiet spaces for breaks.
  • Sensory issues: Many neurodivergent individuals have heightened sensitivity to sensory input, such as noise or bright lights. Employers can create a sensory-friendly environment by providing options for adjustable lighting, noise-cancelling headphones, or flexible work arrangements.
  • Accommodations: Employers may need to provide accommodations such as assistive technology, flexible work arrangements, or tailored training programs to support neurodivergent individuals in the workplace. Employers can work with disability consultants, occupational therapists, or other experts to identify appropriate accommodations and ensure that they are implemented effectively.
  • Recruitment and hiring: Employers may need to adjust their recruitment and hiring processes to ensure that they are accessible and inclusive for neurodivergent individuals. This could include providing alternative application formats, adapting interview processes, reviewing employment prerequisites or partnering with neurodivergent employment specialists.
  • Stigma and bias: Neurodivergent individuals may face stigma or bias in the workplace from co-workers or managers who do not understand or appreciate their unique strengths and challenges. Employers can combat this by promoting education and awareness of neurodiversity, providing sensitivity training to co-workers and managers, fostering a culture of inclusion and respect and promoting a focussed Employee Resource Group or Affinity Group, if the organisation utilises these to allow employees to focus on particular areas of interest.

Overall, employing neurodivergent individuals requires a commitment to creating an inclusive and accessible workplace culture. By providing accommodations, education, and support, employers can create a positive and supportive environment for all employees.

In addition to fostering a collaborative culture that supports and accommodates their needs and challenges, a strengths-based approach can also help individuals discover and develop their unique talents and abilities and allow them to be assigned roles and/or tasks that are best aligned with their strengths and interests. This ultimately provides benefits to the individual, organisation and broader industry sector.

Demonstrated Success for Neurodivergent Employees

GHD is an official network partner of the Neurodiversity Hub that supports and provides ongoing opportunities globally for neurodiverse individuals who may never make it into the workforce due to lack of opportunities, differences in communication skills or other factors.

GHD has recruited multiple individuals who identify as neurodiverse and various of these are engaged in the water sector. For example, Jack Lyons, who is autistic, joined GHD as part of its 2020 graduate cohort to work in the Melbourne office's Digital Design team on water projects. Jack has gained skills in the use of design documentation modelling software which is helping further his passion for 3D modelling; a skill that is becoming increasingly valuable in the sector due to a growing focus on digitisation.

Elsewhere, there is the example of the experiences of Ian Spruce, a Principal Process Engineer with SMEC. Ian is a skilled technical specialist in the process design, implementation and commissioning of water and wastewater treatment facilities. In a recent paper presented at Ozwater 2023, Spruce explains his personal experience surrounding some of the challenges of engineering with his ADHD. (Spruce 2023)

Other examples of companies that have successfully employed neurodivergent individuals are described below:

  • Microsoft has been a leader in employing and supporting neurodivergent individuals, with a program called "Microsoft Autism Hiring Program" that specifically recruits individuals with autism. The program provides tailored interview processes, job coaching, and other accommodations to support the success of neurodivergent employees. The program has been highly successful, with over 100 neurodivergent individuals hired since its inception in 2015.
  • Ernst & Young launched a program in 2016 to recruit individuals with autism into their workforce. The company has developed a structured onboarding program and offers support and accommodations such as assistive technology and mentorship to help these employees succeed. The program has been successful, with many neurodivergent employees making significant contributions to the company.
  • Walgreens has been actively recruiting individuals with disabilities, including neurodivergent individuals, for many years. The company has developed training programs to support these employees and has seen success in roles such as pharmacy technician and customer service.
  • SAP, a software company, has also been a leader in employing and supporting neurodivergent individuals. They launched a program called "Autism at Work" in 2013, which provides training and support for neurodivergent employees, including job coaching, mentorship, and accommodations. The program has been highly successful, with over 200 neurodivergent individuals employed across 13 countries.
  • Freddie Mac, a mortgage finance company, has been actively recruiting autistic individuals since 2017. The company has developed a customized training program and provides ongoing support and accommodations to help these employees succeed. Many neurodivergent employees have made significant contributions to the company in roles such as data analysis and software engineering.
  • Ultranauts is a software testing company that specifically employs autistic individuals. They provide a supportive and accommodating work environment, with flexible work arrangements and tailored training programs. The company has been highly successful, with a 95% retention rate among its neurodivergent employees and a high degree of satisfaction among customers.
  • JPMorgan Chase has a program called "Autism at Work" that specifically recruits and supports neurodivergent individuals in their technology division. The program provides job coaching, mentorship, and tailored training programs to support the success of neurodivergent employees. The program has been highly successful, with over 100 neurodivergent individuals hired since its inception in 2015.

In the programs that Untapped Talent has been directly involved with, there have been some impressive results:

  • Autistic teams undertaking software-testing roles in an Australian Federal Government Department demonstrated 30% higher productivity
  • A team in another Government Department were provided with a significant backlog of firewall security event logs. The backlog was assessed as likely to take 18 months to clear. However, the new team were able to clear it in 4 months and redesigned the process at the same time.
  • Cybersecurity analysts start at a level one and normally progress to level two after five years. In some cases, in an autistic team in an Australian bank, some trainee analysts were writing level two reports after only five months.
  • In early 2018, a major Australian bank commenced their Autism At Work Program. Their initial cohort of nine trainees were proficient four months earlier than expected, returning 12 months' value in five months and delivered an over 50% increase in productivity. In April 2019, the bank took on its second cohort of trainees. Within four months, this team had created detection rules in the security/intelligence tools used and moved from a process that was mainly manual to the automation of more than 78% of the process – resulting in an ongoing saving of hundreds of hours per month.
  • A team at another Australian bank, that implemented a program in May 2019, was achieving 26% higher productivity than a comparable neuro-typical team within 2 months.
  • There are also numerous examples through the programs of autistic individuals gaining meaningful employment for the first time – leading to financial and living independence, including buying a house and starting a family.

The following quotes from autistic individuals that have gained employment, their co-workers and family members shed even more light on the benefits of employing neurodivergent individuals:

  • Sense of purpose and meaning in life
    “What is important isn’t the money, it’s giving something back to society that’s important. I can get by on a little bit of money, I’m ok, that’s not important. Without a job, I feel like I’m a drain on society… I feel like I’m not giving anything back, I feel it’s my duty – it’s the right thing to do… we have an understanding of how society works, even if we don’t fit in”
    “…the job provides a purpose […] a challenge, it's a positive challenge like the puzzle that's continually ahead of you [...] you're looking forward to getting up in the morning to go to work.” 
    Candidate in an Autism@Work Program

  • Empowerment & contribution to home life
    “…he can be a contributing member to the household […] it’s massive to his self-esteem and his ability to say he can better himself, and that he has more potential than he realizes […] he has got a very positive outlook about his future now…” 
    “…instead of becoming a financial burden, I actually became a significant augmentation to the house income.”
    “…the change for me has been [to] greatly increase [my] self-esteem relating to other people…”
    “The job provides a purpose, you're looking forward to getting up in the morning, to going to work. It is challenging yes, sometimes stressful, but in the end I know that I've done good.”
    “Before here I was anti-social and mostly stayed at home 90% of the days, never go out except when I had to. Now I spend time out in town, hang out with friends, and I’m quite social at work.”

  • Contribution to the workplace
    “They've actually helped sharpen up some of the thought processes amongst the teams. They'll ask questions where others fear to tread…”
    “I'm always proud to say that I work in an organisation that accepts diversity and in fact looks at it as an advantage...”
    “…the quality of the work that that team did for testing was absolutely fantastic […] focused, driven, competitive in a good way […] I have some comparative data to be able to compare that to in terms of previous projects and testing results that we've achieved. It was very, very good quality.
    “…much of the process is quite repetitive and some of the autistic trainees have actually built tools that we can use whilst we're performing our job and that's actually made my job easier.”

(Hedley, D 2017)

Overall, these success stories demonstrate that employing neurodivergent individuals can be highly beneficial for both the employees and the organization. By providing tailored accommodations, training, and support, employers can create a positive and inclusive workplace culture that benefits all employees. The companies mentioned have recognised the value of neurodiversity and have taken steps to actively recruit and support neurodivergent employees.


In conclusion, the water sector in Australia is facing a critical need for skilled personnel to address the evolving challenges of water management, climate change, and technological advancements. This paper highlights the potential of embracing neurodiversity in the workforce to fill this skills gap and drive innovation within the industry.

Neurodivergent individuals possess unique strengths and abilities, including attention to detail, intense focus, creativity, and analytical thinking, which can greatly contribute to the water sector's goals of sustainability, efficiency, and resilience. However, they also face challenges such as discrimination, communication barriers, and a lack of workplace accommodations.

By adopting inclusive hiring practices, providing tailored support and accommodations, and fostering a supportive work environment, the water sector can unlock the untapped talent pool of neurodivergent individuals. Several success stories from leading companies demonstrate the benefits of employing and empowering neurodivergent individuals, resulting in enhanced productivity, diverse perspectives, and improved overall job satisfaction.

To fully harness the potential of neurodiversity, it is essential for water sector employers to recognise the value of neurodivergent individuals, educate their workforce about neurodiversity, and create inclusive policies and practices. By doing so, the sector can build a more diverse, resilient, and innovative workforce that is better equipped to tackle the complex water management challenges of the future.


AMAZE (2018), “Autism and employment in Australia” -

DEWHA (2009), “Water for the future – National Water Skills Strategy”, Australian Government, Department of the Environment, Water, heritage and the Arts, December 2009

Engineers Australia (2022), “Looming water challenges mean engineers need new skills”, (accessed 14/06/2023)

Forbes (2022), “How To Hire And Retain Neurodivergent Employees”,  (accessed 14/06/2023)

Kwan, C (2022) “Why we don’t have enough workers to fill jobs (in four graphs)”, Financial review, 27 June, 2022

Hedley, D (2017) “Benefits of employing people on the autism spectrum”, Autism@Work Forum, Sydney, September 2017 (La Trobe University – Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre)

Spruce, I (2023) “Engineering with a neurodivergent brain (ADHD in my case)” and “The challenges of engineering with ADHD”, Australian Water Association, 10 February, 2023

Sustainability Matters (2008), “Water Industry to address skills shortage”, (accessed 14/06/2023) 

WSAA (2008), “An assessment of the skills shortage in the urban water industry”, WSAA Occasional Paper No 21 March 2008, Water Services Association of Australia

WSAA (March 2017) “Tapping the power of inclusion and diversity in urban water”, 8 March 2017, Water Services Association of Australia

WSAA (December 2017) “Workforce skills of the future”, 4 December 2017, Water Services Association of Australia