Neurodivergent refers to people whose thought patterns, behaviors, or learning styles fall outside of what is considered “normal”, or neurotypical. This includes autism, ADHD, dyslexia, tourettes, and more.
A 2020 study estimated 15-20% of the population is neurodiverse. That is a significant piece of the population, yet neurodivergence is still misunderstood. The business world is no exception, and sees divergence as a liability, rather than an asset. Thus, neurodivergent people spend their days masking, in an unwelcoming, unaccommodating environment.
This must change. Companies must welcome and support people who span the spectrum of the human mind and body. Divergent brains come with struggles, but also unique strengths and perspectives. Think of the perseverance it takes to live in a society not built for you. Our brains may work a little different from the “norm”, but that is an asset to any organization.
The majority of accommodations come at no cost to the company. A shift in mindset starting with management and simple policy changes go a long way. Let’s look at a few areas that make a huge difference in the work environment.
Every job starts at the interview. The traditional interview process does not set neurodivergent folks up for success. For those with sensory processing issues, interviews are a gauntlet of overstimulating distractions. Eye contact, small talk, and busy offices are overwhelming and make it difficult to focus. Interviews often put too much emphasis on people skills and social standards. This can be detrimental to those of us who have communication styles that are not “typical”. Interviews should primarily focus on the technical skills required for the position.
Tips for interviews:
- Make job listings straightforward and clearly outline the responsibilities of the position.
- Ask direct, position related questions. Open-ended hypothetical questions can be challenging, especially for people who think more literally. Don’t ask vague questions that leave the interviewee guessing what you want to know.
- Conduct the interview in a quiet space without harsh lighting.
- Those of us who struggle with social cues can get long-winded, especially if we are passionate about the topic. Straightforward questions help. Making clear the details you want answered can prevent rambling
- Small talk is awkward; move into the meat of the interview.
- Consider providing interview questions ahead of time. This can reduce anxiety and allows for more thoughtful answers. Processing information on the spot can be difficult.
- Have candidates complete role-specific tasks to test their skill set. This is more informative than arbitrary social tests most interviews center around.
An accommodating culture improves employee morale and productivity, as individuals feel valued and supported in their work. Your organization should not only make efforts to hire a diverse population, but embrace the fact that we all learn, relate, and process in different ways.
The most important step towards inclusivity is establishing open communication. Neurodivergent employees must feel supported and comfortable asking for accommodations and expressing concerns. Every person is different and their needs will be different.
Tips for an inclusive culture:
- Promote open communication at every level and within every department.
- Discuss with each employee what level of autonomy vs. oversight will help them succeed. Some people prefer to seek help as needed, while others appreciate someone checking in more frequently.
- Clearly define job expectations and task requirements. Because every brain processes information differently, it is important everyone is on the same page.
- Schedule meetings in advance, and end them on time. Schedules are important for many neurodivergent individuals to prevent overwhelm.
- Also if you would like someone to contribute during a meeting, give them advanced notice so they can gather their thoughts.
- Autism can make it difficult to pick up on sarcasm or subtext, so make sure you are direct and say exactly what you mean when giving direction
- Provide agendas for meetings, written and verbal instruction for projects, and clear deadlines.
- Make recordings of meetings for those who process information better auditorily.
- Create and support policies that prohibit harassment, bullying, or discrimination in the workplace.
- Offer criticism and address issues in private. Calling someone out in front of others is overwhelming and could cause them to shut-down.
It never hurts to be overly clear. Defining expectations and ensuring that everyone is well informed will make your workplace run smoother. Additionally, check back in to ensure everything is going well and to determine if further improvements are necessary.
Neurodiversity training is becoming increasingly important in today’s workplace. This type of training is designed to educate employees and employers about the different ways in which people’s brains work. Accurate knowledge and awareness of neurodivergence is not widespread. Stereotypes are still prevalent to the detriment of neurodivergent folks. Investing in neurodiversity training creates a culture that values the contributions of all employees, regardless of their neurological differences.
A few points to focus on:
- Understanding what the spectrum of neurodiversity can look like.
- Familiarity with differing communication styles.
- Dispel myths and misconceptions around neurodiversity.
- Educate about stimming and how it can help people regulate their nervous system.
Media does not do a great job portraying neurodivergence, so people often have a skewed version of what it is like to live with a neurological difference. Thus, thorough education is essential to recruiting and maintaining a diverse workforce.
Many companies put too much emphasis on fitting in socially, and employees feel they are losing out on growth opportunities if they opt out or do not interact in specific ways. Company events and parties can be a great way to promote company morale, but they can be a nightmare for some neurodivergent folks. Socialization can be difficult and exhausting. By the end of the day many of us do not have the energy to take part in a company happy hour.
Offering an array of optional social events will let employees take part in activities more their speed. An office book club could feel more approachable versus a company-wide picnic. Create a company softball team and a trivia team. Have a myriad of options to allow employees to engage where they feel most comfortable. Also make it clear that work organized activities are completely optional, and have no bearing over one’s position at work.
Necessary accommodations will vary greatly from person to person and they can change over time. Discuss with each employee what they need to thrive, and schedule periodic check-ins to see if any other accommodations are needed. Sensory overload is particularly challenging in a work environment. Sights, sounds and smells we have no control over can make focus impossible. Fortunately there are options to help work around these distractions, and help your employees do their best work.
Examples of accommodations:
- Allow for remote or hybrid work schedules.
- Provide designated quiet spaces for work and/or breaks
- Replace fluorescent lights with softer lighting options.
- Avoid any room sprays, perfumes or cleaners with strong odors.
- Provide workspaces away from high traffic areas.
- If there are uniforms, make sure there are sensory friendly options. Soft fabrics, no tags, and no bulky seams are all helpful.
- Support the use of headphones, earplugs, tinted glasses and fidget devices.
Every person is different and our brains are all unique. Embracing everyone’s differences and offering support where needed, will make the work environment more pleasant and productive for all.
Becoming a neurodivergent-friendly workplace can seem overwhelming, but it is really quite simple. Focus on open, direct communication, and continue to learn about neurodivergence. Staying up to date on new information and applying it within your company, will help you attract and retain a diverse workforce.
Cognitive differences are truly an asset to any company. Neurotypical or neurodivergent, we are all unique and deserve to feel safe, seen and supported. Diversity and inclusion efforts are always worthwhile and help build vibrant, forward-thinking organizations.