Working with Neurodivergent Clients, Part 1: How Career Practitioners Can Support the Job Search

By Ashley Cross

The terms neurodiversity and neurodivergence were coined in the 1990s by Judy Singer, an autistic rights activist and sociologist (Khaliq, 2023). These concepts have gained traction in recent years, normalizing neuro-cognitive differences in how individuals perceive and engage with the world, instead of classifying them as learning disabilities, psychological disorders, or other neurological conditions. It is estimated that 10-20% of the global population is neurodivergent (Mahto et al., 2022). Several diagnoses that fall under neurodiversity include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, mood disorders, Tourette syndrome, and traumatic brain injuries.

Understanding Neurodivergent Client Self-Identification

To create a mutually respectful and trusting relationship, practitioners should ask if their clients have a preference for self-identification. Some might identify as neurodivergent (ND), while others may refer to themselves as disabled, living with a disability, or not attach themselves to either label. Others might not be ready to disclose.

If a client self-discloses as ND, there are some questions practitioners can ask to further guide the conversation:

  • What language do you prefer when we discuss these identities? For example, for a client disclosing autism: Do you prefer the term autistic (identity-first language) or to be called a person with autism (person-first language) (Diament, 2022)?
  • What else would you like me to know about your experience as an ND?
  • Are you interested in ND-specific resources to support your job search?

Common ND Challenges in the Job Search

ND clients face several challenges in the job search and interview process that can carry over into the workplace. Some of these issues include:

  • Communication: tendency to be too honest, direct, literal, or tangential; difficulty with open-ended questions or instructions
  • Social Nuance: challenges with implied or situation-specific social norms; difficulties with eye contact, “reading the room,” and small talk
  • Sensory Processing: significantly increased or decreased sensitivity to external stimuli such as background noise, repeated movements, and harsh lighting; delayed reactions or responses due to auditory processing
  • Executive Functioning: difficulties directing attention, energy, or time; hyperfocusing; forgetting to eat, hydrate, or take breaks; challenges with organizing projects, tasks, and managing or changing routines (ProblemShared, n.d.)

NDs tend to compensate for these challenges by adopting skills such as:

  • Stimming” is short for self-stimulatory behavior: a repeated action used to self-soothe in times of anxiety or to focus attention (Gurash, 2023). Some examples include flicking a hand, rocking back and forth, pulling their own hair, or tapping a foot excessively.
  •  “Masking” refers to a behavior that makes someone appear neurotypical. For example, they might stare over a person’s ear to appear as if they are making eye contact. While masking can be helpful in some situations, in the long-term, it can lead to feelings of overwhelm, lowered self-esteem, and increased likelihood of depression and anxiety (Stanborough, 2021).
  • Grounding” increases a client’s mindfulness and awareness, redirecting nervous energy and attention toward one’s physical senses. This might include rubbing fingers against a textured surface or taking a sip of cold water (Hindman, 2022).
  • Organization and rehearsing, including creating checklists and to-do lists, using timers and reminders, and practicing conversations in advance.

Istock 600055386 Credit Monkeybusinessimages

Supporting ND Clients During Coaching and Job Search Sessions

According to a recent Deloitte study (Mahto et al., 2022), ND employees contribute to increased profitability, productivity, creativity, and retention. The demand to attract and retain these employees in technology, finance, consulting, and healthcare has grown significantly in the past few years.

It is important for career practitioners to recognize and highlight their ND client’s strengths to best support their career and job search goals. These strengths may include creativity, curiosity, intelligence, problem solving, pattern recognition, desire for innovation and efficiency, and willingness to challenge the status quo. Practitioners can apply their knowledge of ND-specific traits and strengths to lead productive and effective sessions with ND clients using the following strategies.

  • Establish a structure and clear expectations for each meeting
    • Introduce the plan/goal at the start of the session and review key takeaways at the end.
    • Limit open-ended questions asked to the client
    • Suggest specific action items for the client and propose a deadline. For example, “Complete 5 applications by Sunday at 2pm.”
    • Explain the reason for making a recommendation and ask if it works for the client
    • Send the client a summary of next steps after the session
  • Support executive function with visual aids
    • Instead of providing generic comments on the resume or other job portfolio documents, strikethrough the text and rewrite the content together
    • Provide samples of resume bullets and interview questions and answers that the client can reference and build upon
    • Develop a checklist of items that the client should bring to an interview
  • Practice social situations and provide real-time feedback
    • In a mock interview, practice one question at a time. Provide feedback and let the client try again
    • Create scripts to answer behavioral questions and practice them together
    • Brainstorm topics and engaging questions for small talk. Use a timer or stop-watch to cue the client when they should let the other party talk
    • Discuss and practice discrete stimming techniques during mock interviews and sessions


By understanding an ND client’s communication, sensory processing, and executive functioning styles, career practitioners can create job search strategies that best leverage their strengths to address individual challenges. A second part of this article, to be published in 2024, will focus on supporting an ND client’s disclosure to employers and requests for workplace accommodations.



Diament, M. (2022, December 2). ‘Autistic’ or ‘person with autism’? It depends. Disability Scoop. https://www.disabilityscoop.com/2022/12/02/autistic-or-person-with-autism-it-depends/30154/

Gurash, N. (2023, March 1). What is stimming and why do neurodivergent people do it? Spectrum Connection Therapy. https://spectrumconnecttherapy.com/what-is-stimming-and-why-do-neurodivergent-people-do-it/

Hindman, S. A. (2022, July 6). Regulating the autonomic nervous system via sensory stimulation. Counseling Today. https://ct.counseling.org/2022/07/regulating-the-autonomic-nervous-system-via-sensory-stimulation/

Khaliq, R. (2023, August 18). A guide to neurodivergence and types of neurodiversity. MedVidi. https://medvidi.com/blog/types-of-neurodiversity

Mahto, M., Hatfield, S., Sniderman, B., & Hogan, S. K. (2022, January 18). A rising tide lifts all boats: Creating a better work environment for all by embracing neurodiversity. Deloitte Insights. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/topics/talent/neurodiversity-in-the-workplace.html

ProblemShared. (n.d.). Neurodiversity and executive function. AXA Health. https://www.axahealth.co.uk/business/member-articles/neurodiversity/neurodiversity-and-executive-function/#

Stanborough, R. J. (2021, November 19). Autism masking: To blend or not to blend. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/autism/autism-masking#effects


Ashley CrossAshley Cross is a Global Career Development Facilitator with 10 years of career coaching experience. Ashley is nonbinary (they/she), neurodivergent, and an associate director of career services at Carnegie Mellon University, working with STEM graduate students. Ashley holds a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Rollins College and also helps therapists explore career options outside of the mental health sector. They are an active member of the MBA/Specialty Master's Career Services & Employer Association, Pennsylvania Career Development Association, and NCDA. Ashley can be reached at acrosscareers@gmail.com,  https://www.linkedin.com/in/acrosscareers/, or via her website at https://www.acrosscareers.com/

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1 Comment

Sofia Kospanos   on Tuesday 12/05/2023 at 07:35 PM

Excellent and very relevant topic that is very important in career coaching! I hope more and more career practitioners learn about neurodivergence.

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