Neurodiversity in the Workplace: 5 Ways to Foster It
An estimated 15-20% of the world’s population is neurodiverse. Yet, few companies consider learning and thinking differences when building out their diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging programs, or when formulating strategies for hiring and retaining diverse talent. That's likely one reason why people with autism, for example, continue to experience such high rates of unemployment – up to 85%.
Neurodiversity in the workplace is a competitive advantage for companies that embrace it. It brings creativity, honesty, and innovation to professional teams. Here’s what companies need to know about neurodiversity and how to support neurodiverse individuals in the workplace.
What is neurodiversity?
If you want to recruit, hire, and maintain a neurodiverse workforce, it’ll require first making a better ally of yourself by understanding the definition of neurodiversity and which identities are considered neurodivergent, as well as some other key terms and ideas.
No single neurodiversity definition is helpful unless we understand that neurodiversity describes a full spectrum’s worth of neurological uniqueness, as seen in different characteristics and behaviors. The term “neurodiversity” itself was coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in 1997. It refers to the concept that people think, interact, and process the world around them in different ways.
According to Harvard Health, neurodiversity emphasizes that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, learn, or behave. Some neurodiverse people may identify as disabled, but many do not. Neurodiversity advocates seek to embrace people with neurological differences in all aspects of society. This goes for neurodiversity in the workplace as well.
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Recruiting, Retaining, & Elevating Neurodivergent Talent
Types of neurodivergent identities
About 1 in 44 children in the U.S is diagnosed with autism. Neurodiversity is often used to refer to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), but it also includes ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Tourette’s syndrome, depression, anxiety, hallucinations, and more. Importantly, neurodiversity includes those with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities as well as those with learning disabilities. If you want to create a program to foster neurodiversity at your organization, you should be clear about the amount of variety within this umbrella term, and be transparent about the particular kinds of neurodiversity is able and aiming to support.
When we fail to do this and instead operate under a limited understanding of neurodiversity, that’s what winds up being reflected in companies’ hiring and retention efforts – which I think is well summarized by the quote on our next slide.
Neurodiverse and neurotypical
Neurotypical (NT) is an adjective that originated from those in the autistic community as a way to refer to individuals with what’s seen as typical intellectual and cognitive development. A neurotypical individual doesn’t have the same social, behavioral, or communication challenges as a neurodiverse (ND) person.
Terms not to use
“High-functioning” and “low-functioning” are not appropriate ways to refer to neurodivergent folks, despite a long history of these terms being used. In addition, the term “Asperger” — once considered a distinct type of autism — is now outdated, with Asperger’s syndrome having been officially retired from the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 in 2013. That said, although it’s no longer an official diagnosis, some within the community still identify with the label and proudly refer to themselves as “aspies.” You should of course observe whatever terms individuals want to be referred to by.
Why does neurodiversity matter in the workplace?
The benefits of neurodiversity at work, like the benefits of biological diversity to the planet, are significant. Just as we seek to protect and cultivate biodiversity in the environment, the same applies to neurodiversity at work. Neurodiversity in the workplace in 2022 means a creative, innovative, empathetic, honest, and productive team.
Research shows people with ADHD to be extremely creative and generate more ideas than neurotypicals. Dyslexic individuals often rank high for complex problem-solving. Other neurodiversity articles suggest that ND teams are 30% more productive, 66% more loyal and 32% more innovative than others.
More and more employers are beginning to understand the benefits and develop hiring initiatives that focus on neurodiversity in the workplace. These efforts have proven beneficial for businesses of all sizes in a variety of industries. Hiring and retaining ND talent means maintaining well-rounded teams, as well as making sure your products and services appeal to ND individuals in the marketplace. This provides companies with a competitive edge that brings measurable benefits, in terms of both finances and workplace culture.
How to support neurodiversity in the workplace
If you want neurodiversity in the workplace, you need neurodivergent folks to thrive at your company. That means understanding neurodivergence to be a wide umbrella. And you need to be thoughtful in how you build your culture, execute your retention strategies, and set your career advancement frameworks in order to help neurodivergent people succeed.
1. Write inclusive job descriptions.
Inclusive job descriptions keep neuroinclusion in mind. Traditional methods of screening talent can leave neurodivergent people out. Entry-level neurodivergent talent has it doubly tough. After overcoming educational barriers, neurotypical behavioral expectations are often embedded in hiring efforts.
Rather than a laundry list of skills, pare job descriptions down to the essentials. Use unambiguous language. A vague description like “strong communication” can make some neurodiverse individuals, like those with dyslexia or autism, apprehensive about applying. Be clear or don’t include it.
In addition, ever considered a captioned video in addition to a text-based job description? Consider how these choices affect who the job description attracts.
2. Consider what you expect to see in interviews.
We all have unconscious biases. To improve neurodiversity in the workplace, interviewers should be sensitive to these. Take care not to make assumptions based on eye contact, handshakes, or unexpected gestures.
As in the job description, be specific rather than abstract. Open-ended questions such as, “What do you bring to the table?” is more confusing than asking directly, “Describe a time when you added value to a project at work.”
When you can, make interviews a hands-on test of actual job requirements — and give feedback so people can learn how to improve. For added accessibility, consider sharing interview questions with candidates in advance. Not all jobs require spontaneity.
3. Make your onboarding clear and explicit.
Instead of waiting for candidates to take the initiative and be great networkers, consider how neurodiversity in the workplace affects onboarding.
Formalize things like expectations, team structures, key processes, and workplace best practices to help neurodivergent talent have a smooth start. Segmenting this info into different stages of onboarding can reduce the chance of people feeling overwhelmed.
Don’t be afraid to ask how a new hire would like orientation to go. Inviting input helps a new team member feel valued and welcome from the start.
4. Make allies out of your neurotypical workers.
First things first, state that you value neurodiversity and see it as a priority. From there, put words into action. Research shows that “tolerance” and “acceptance” aren’t enough. Rather, companies should foster belonging so that every employee feels they are a supported and valued member of the team.
Ask ND team members to lead workshops about neurodiversity, rather than neurotypical people always defining what is the norm. Neurotypical employees can gain new insight, empathy, and compassion via training and role-plays that allow them to experience situations from a neurodivergent perspective.
Valuing input can earn the trust of the neurodiverse talent you already have. It makes a clear case to other neurodiverse talent that you’re a safe, supportive place to work.
5. Promote neurodivergent-friendly environments.
Be clear about your efforts to create ND-friendly work environments. Neurodiversity experts in PowerToFly’s network point out that we should avoid the term ''accommodations'' and refer to various forms of support as success enablers.
Success enablers include letting people have agency over:
- when to work - offering asynchronous meetings
- how to work - avoiding on-camera requirements for video meetings, offering noise-canceling headsets and other focus aids
- where to work - providing flexibility and teleworking options
At working age, many ND employees know what lighting, temperature, and noise controls they need to be most productive. Consider creating “How to Work With Me” documents and share productivity ideas within your teams to avoid potential issues.
To support neurodiversity in the workplace, the most important aspect of any success enabler is to confer with individual employees about their specific needs. Allowing people to choose and customize their work environment goes a long way towards making people feel a sense of belonging.