neurodiversity in the workplace

Supporting Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Being a relatively new term (just a couple of decades old), the word neurodiversity may be unfamiliar to many people. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, “the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population.” In other words, it refers to the diversity of human neurotypes, or, “types of brains.” Common types of neurodivergence include ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and dyspraxia. When you have both neurotypical and neurodivergent people within a group, that group would be considered neurodiverse.

Why is Neurodiversity Important in the Workplace?

Just as with any other type of diversity, neurodiversity is essential to a strong workforce, leading to higher levels of creativity, innovation, and productivity. But people who fall outside the typical “brain type”—referred to as neurodivergent—may find working in a typical work environment difficult. In fact, many neurodivergent people are often screened out during the hiring process due to poor performance in traditional interviews, even if they have an established track record of outstanding achievements in their field. 

Neurodivergent people quite literally think differently from the majority of the population, often detecting patterns neurotypical people cannot. Many neurodivergent people have valuable skills such as the ability to hyper-focus for long periods of time, incredible attention to detail, complete dedication to specific areas of interest (leading to deep expertise), the ability to conceptualize complex visual data, and much more. So, what can organizations do to encourage and support neurodivergent workers, and create a stronger, more innovative, neurodiverse workforce? 

Understand the Basics

Most people, unless they personally have neurodivergent friends or family members, do not have a good understanding of the different types of neurodivergence or the specific strengths and challenges people with these neurotypes may face. While every person is different—in the famous words of Dr. Stephen Shore, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”—having a baseline knowledge of neurodivergence is a great starting point. 

The following are very brief and basic descriptions of common types of neurodivergence and how they might be expressed in the workplace. Note that not only do these neurotypes have a lot of “overlap” between them, but many neurodivergent people may experience more than one of these. For example, many individuals with autism also have ADHD and dyspraxia. 

ADHD

Short for Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD is probably the neurotype most familiar to people. People with ADHD may struggle with organizing and managing tasks. Prone to sensory overwhelm, they may also have problems maintaining focus. The flipside of these characteristics is that people with ADHD can often hyperfocus for hours when they are working on something of interest to them. And they can be great team leaders when their abilities include working well under pressure, flexibility, resilience, and creativity.

Autism

Autism is sometimes referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. Employees with autism generally have some degree of increased sensitivity and may frequently experience anxiety-inducing “sensory overwhelm” from sights, sounds, and smells that may not be bothersome to neurotypical people. They can find schedule changes, vague language, and unspoken social rules to be challenging. Their strengths frequently lie in creative problem-solving, incredible attention to detail and intense prolonged focus. Most people with autism have “special interests,” or things that they are incredibly passionate about. When these special interests and workplace needs align, the results can be an enthusiastic employee with deep expertise to offer their organization. 

Dyslexia

Dyslexia affects the brain’s visual processing abilities. A person with dyslexia can have trouble with reading, writing, or spelling, as well as short-term memory and concentration. But while a person with dyslexia may struggle with written language, their ability to process and interpret visual data can be extraordinary. They may be able to see patterns, trends, and connections not readily apparent to others. This can be expressed as exceptional problem-solving skills. And people with dyslexia are frequently very good at communicating verbally, including storytelling—a great asset for many different types of employment.

Dyspraxia

Dyspraxia affects the connection between the brain and the body, leading to difficulties with physical coordination. People with dyspraxia can have trouble with common work-related tasks such as handwriting or typing. They may also experience problems with organizing their workload. Short-term memory challenges can make following verbal instructions and taking part in discussions difficult. But they also tend to be highly creative, strategic thinkers, brilliant at solving complex problems through innovation. In the workplace, they are typically highly motivated to succeed, while expressing a strong sense of empathy and understanding for their teammates.

Support Recruitment, Inclusion, & Advancement of Neurodivergent Talent

Fostering a neurodiverse workforce starts with recruitment. Social anxiety and overwhelm is very common for neurodivergent people, so it is unlikely that you will find them at job fairs or company hiring and networking events. For this reason, employee referrals can be a more effective way to recruit. Many companies are employing language in their external recruitment messaging to formally encourage neurodivergent candidates to apply, and this should apply to internal referral messaging as well.

As mentioned above, many neurodivergent candidates may be eliminated from consideration during the hiring process before they have a chance to prove themselves as valuable team members. Candidates with autism, for example, may find eye contact challenging, and are often judged harshly in job interviews if they’re unable to maintain eye contact. Providing candidates with interview questions beforehand as well as offering practical assessments are just a few ways to encourage and support neurodivergent candidates. And just as with any other recruitment process, making sure your interviewers have undergone unconscious bias training is essential to ensuring potential employees are treated equitably

Within the workplace, creating an environment of inclusion for neurodivergent employees is also crucial. For example, consider that many neurodivergent people struggle with sensory overload, and being expected to work in an “open” office plan surrounded by many people can be extremely detrimental to their productivity and even mental health. Providing the option for a quiet space to work for an employee with ADHD is just like providing ramps for an employee in a wheelchair—both allow for accessibility in the workplace. If you need inspiration for neurodiversity inclusivity programs, look no further than companies such as SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Microsoft, and Ford. [1]

Provide Individualized Support—If Needed

Keep in mind that it can be very stressful and scary for an employee to disclose their neurodivergence. There is still unfortunately a lot of stigma around things like autism and dyslexia, so people can be justifiably hesitant to share this information with their supervisors or with HR. If met with some degree of understanding for their neurotype, employees will feel much more confident and safer in their workplace, and their performance will reflect that.

Once an employee has disclosed their neurodivergence, the best way to help them is first to ask them if they need support. If the answer is yes, let the employee share what they know will help them succeed in the workplace. This might be flexible working hours and the ability to work from home, or a quiet place to concentrate and noise-cancelling headphones. There are also many assistive technologies available for a variety of needs, including talking calculators, visual scheduling apps, and tasking software with built-in reminders. Essential to the discussion will be which communication type works best for that employee—written, verbal, or visual? Keep in mind as well that everyone in a workplace can benefit from straightforward communication styles, not just neurodivergent team members. 

By their very nature, neurodivergent employees think “outside the box,” offering the kinds of innovation and competitive advantage that many companies are looking for. Because of this, companies with neurodiversity initiatives in place have seen gains in productivity, quality, innovation, and employee engagement. Companies with neurodiversity programs have also found that their managers are learning to better leverage the talents of all employees through greater sensitivity to individual needs. [1] An equitable hiring process that considers neurodiversity, as well as a workplace culture that supports team members no matter their “brain type,” are the keys to cultivating a successful neurodiverse workplace that benefits employees and organizations alike.

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I’m Dr. Sangeeta Gupta, and I founded Gupta Consulting Group to help CDOs and HR leaders create and implement DEI programs that meet their organization’s unique needs. 

Schedule a conversation with me today to learn more about our DEI solutions.

[1] https://hbr.org/2017/05/neurodiversity-as-a-competitive-advantage

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