Neurodiversity and self-employment

The growth in awareness and acceptance of neurodiversity in recent years has largely been positive, although there’s still a long way to go in terms of diagnosis and support. As a term it can cover a wide range of cognitive variations including autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, anxiety and more. And it’s not surprising that there’s a common and often beneficial link between neurodiversity and self-employment. 

Around 15-20% of the UK population is neurodivergent, and the percentage is likely to be much higher within the 6.5 million freelancers and self-employed workers in the UK. Along with delays in getting an official diagnosis, many people have encountered significant issues with employers due to the challenges of being neurodivergent. 

What is neurodiversity?

It’s a term which has attracted some controversy and debate, but it’s estimated that around 1 in 7 people in the UK have some kind of neurodivergence. Various studies have suggested that figure is likely to be higher for CEOs, company founders and the self-employed, with 20% of UK business entrepreneurs having dyslexia, for example. 

There are many examples of how brains process information differently, and some may be included under the term neurodiversity by people, but kept separate by others. Broadly speaking, some of the common types include: 

  • Autism or Autism Spectrum Conditions 

  • ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) 

  • Anxiety 

  • Dyscalculia 

  • Dyslexia 

  • Dyspraxia or Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) 

  • Cognitive functioning difficulties or executive dysfunction 

  • Dysgraphia 

  • Misophonia 

  • Slow processing speed 

  • Stammering 

  • Tourette’s syndrome 


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This isn’t intended as a definitive or exhaustive list, but it does show the wide range of cognitive differences and the different associated challenges many people face in both employment and everyday life. It’s also important to recognise that many of these conditions exist on a spectrum, and each neurodiverse individual will have different and personal traits from others with the same diagnosis. And many people may display traits of neurodiversity without a clear diagnosis. 

Why could neurodiversity be more common in the self-employed?

With studies showing higher rates of dyslexia among the self-employed, it’s also likely that there are larger numbers of other neurodiverse people choosing to work for themselves for various reasons. 

A key driver for moving to self-employment is likely to be a lack of support and potential prejudice from employers. Many freelancers and business owners have shared their experiences of struggling in a conventional work environment, and the benefits of being able to shape their work and environment in a way that’s more beneficial.  

Another prominent reason is that cognitive differences mean you may look at business differently, and feel that the only way to pursue that approach is to work for yourself. 

Famous examples include Richard Branson (Virgin), Ingvar Kamprad (IKEA), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX), but there are examples of neurodivergent individuals at all levels of self-employment and freelancing. Including IPSE members like Andrew Comley and podcast guest Laura Wallis


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What are the benefits if you’re neurodiverse?

Many of the benefits of being self-employed are amplified for the neurodiverse, particularly when it comes to the freedom to choose your work, hours, and environment. 

You can focus on what you do best, and either remove elements of work that are a particular struggle, or find automated or outsourcing solutions to avoid them being an issue. It also allows you to choose how you prefer to manage client communication and meetings. For example, if you’re dyslexic, you might want to meet in-person or handle things on the telephone, whereas someone on the autism spectrum may prefer structured and detailed emails for work requests. 

Whether you’re working at home or in an office with colleagues or employees, you’re also able to shape the environment and your working practices to be supportive of neurodivergence. Sensory issues and time management are common challenges faced by those on the autism spectrum or affected by ADHD, particularly in employment. But working for yourself can allow you to design practices which encourage ADHD hyperfocus, for example. 

Being aware of your own neurodiversity also allows you to look for colleagues and collaborators with skills and preferences that compliment your own talents. And to employ tools and techniques which can lighten the load of both managing your own business, and the challenges of being neurodiverse, whether that’s focus apps, automation software, project management tools, or even just specific work playlists and routines. 

Common challenges for neurodiverse freelancers and the self-employed

One of the biggest and most common challenges for freelancers and the self-employed is whether to disclose any neurodiversity to clients. It may be less of an issue if you’re an entrepreneur running a business selling to customers, but there’s an understandable anxiety about disclosing information and setting boundaries when you rely on client work. 

And there’s no ‘right’ answer to any individual situation.  

For some people, being open and public about their situation will help set expectations and boundaries with clients. But you shouldn’t feel pressured or required to reveal any neurodiversity if you’d rather keep things private, and it could limit the potential opportunities for projects. 

The flipside is that keeping quiet, and masking or hiding your neurodiversity, can become overwhelming and lead to miscommunication, burnout or overcommitment. 

Ultimately, you’ll need to decide what works best for you, your business, and each individual client relationship. 

Another issue can come from clients, colleagues and other people expecting to see stereotypical traits associated with a particular type of neurodivergent condition. Each individual will experience and exhibit ADHD, autism, dyspraxia, etc differently, and may be accustomed to masking it in personal ways. And that can further confuse and complicate the relationships with those people.  

It’s also important to understand the potential risks that can come with the freedom of freelancing. If you’re prone to distraction and poor time management, which can often be associated with ADHD, then it can be important to set regular routines and boundaries to ensure that you’re not putting off client commitments because you’ve disappeared into researching increasingly obscure topics, or missing deadlines.  

Being responsible for your own business gives you the opportunities to prioritise the areas you excel at or enjoy more. But it can also indulge your ability to put off and ignore the areas you find more challenging, sometimes to a problematic level if you’re skipping over invoicing, taxes and other necessary admin. 

One solution is to find someone to provide some accountability external to your business, whether it’s a mentor, coach, or one or more fellow freelancers. 

More support for neurodiversity and self-employment 

Whether you’re been formally diagnosed or think you may have certain traits of neurodiversity, the important thing is to remember that you’re far from alone. And you’re not the only person who may need help, advice, or support with some of the challenges you may face, especially with long waiting lists for referrals. 

You can find a wide range of general mental wellbeing support from organisations including; 

Along with advice and help focusing on specific areas of neurodiversity including; 


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