The value of diversity in an organization is becoming more widely understood, with increasing investments being made in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. These initiatives often focus on diversity of identities, such as gender, ethnicity, and cultural background. While supporting diversity of identities is hugely important, it is also crucial to understand how to value and support neurodiversity–the range of differences in brain function and behavioral traits–within our companies.
Neurodiversity is not uncommon. The CDC reports about 1 in 6 children are diagnosed with neurodevelopmental differences in the US, and a 2015 Cambridge University study found that “people working in science and engineering jobs are more likely to have autistic-like traits than less technical professions.” A Harvard Business Review article explores this higher population in STEM fields, explaining that “research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.”
Neurodiversity can benefit a company’s ability to innovate and problem-solve, yet many employees with neurodevelopmental differences have encountered less-than-ideal experiences getting hired, being supported at work, and growing in their careers.
According to Allison Brooks, a licensed psychologist focusing on neurodevelopmental disorders, the solution is likely two-sided, requiring complementary changes in behavior and perspective from both employers and employees. Brooks explains that “it is important to make cultural improvements in an organization as well as teaching employees with neurodevelopmental differences the skills they need to self-advocate, because often times the flip side of our greatest weaknesses is often our greatest strength.”
Michael Goodwill, the director of employment services at AtWork, agrees with this dual-sided approach, explaining that “most of the folks with neurodevelopmental differences that we work with want to provide value to their companies, and get that value back in return. It’s about finding that comfortable space within their employment.”
There are several ways in which both sides can play a role in creating a positive experience for employees with neurodevelopmental differences.
There are some well-documented best practices for providing accommodations in recruiting, onboarding and training talent that is neurodiverse – including a thorough guide compiled by Specialisterne – so this article will not attempt to recreate that wheel. However, in talking more deeply with these experts, there are some unique ways in which companies and individuals can approach the need for sensory and cognitive accommodations.
First, one impactful action a company can take is to provide easy access to common accommodation needs, in an effort to reduce the barriers to asking for them. This could include keeping items like noise-canceling headphones, balance balls to sit on, and sensory objects in stock or making them part of an expense policy; giving all employees desks that can convert from sitting to standing; and having dedicated quiet/calm spaces that offer retreat. It’s also important to make accommodation policies easily accessible, mentioning available accommodations during interviews, during onboarding, and in employee communications.
As Goodwill explains, “we often take for granted what our ‘natural supports’ are – the relationships and environments that make us comfortable. Recognizing the natural supports that an employee with neurodevelopmental differences might need can make it easier for them to come in and be successful.”
To create a successful work experience for employees with neurodevelopmental differences, it is necessary for all parties to explore a deeper level of flexibility.
Brooks explains that “one way to do this is to reframe sticking points in ways that are more productive, more respectful—and more accurate. For example, someone with a neurodevelopmental disorder may have persistently uncomfortable interactions with others that could be dismissed as a ‘personality issue,’ when it really is because of differences in cognitive flexibility, part of the brain’s executive function system.” When this is the case, she recommends that the employee and the employer use a “flexibility strategy—recognize and acknowledge that something felt challenging, then let it go and move on”
Managers and colleagues can do a lot to provide more flexibility as well. This can include leading inclusive meetings so that people with different communication styles have space to participate, providing prolonged feedback periods for making big decisions, and providing flexibility in how and where employees get their work done. As Goodwill shares, “it is a process, and the relationship between the employer and employee is continuously developing. Employers need to be patient with that, and value what the employee is bringing in.”
The communication style of individuals with neurodevelopmental differences can often lead to a disconnect with managers and colleagues. Goodwill suggests that the first thing an employee can do is “share that ‘this is my communication style; this is my learning style.’” By naming potential differences in communication and learning, a manager is more likely to understand and support those differences. In addition, Brooks shares that it can be helpful for individuals with neurodevelopmental differences to learn communication behaviors and styles that are better received in the workplace. This can include making eye contact, striving to remember personal details about people, and taking the time to imagine what someone else’s perspective might be. She says that “sometimes this requires explicitly teaching skills that some people do not automatically understand or learn simply by watching.”
Individuals who are neurotypical have room to improve their communication styles as well. Goodwill shares that managers should not take for granted that all employees understand a situation, and that they should “notice those moments that result from something not being fully communicated, so that they can communicate more explicitly next time.” Brooks points out that having more neurodiversity in a setting can also lead to a higher frequency of situations in which two people come away from the same social encounter with very different feelings or perspectives. An employee who is neurotypical might walk away from a heated discussion thinking everything is fine, where an employee who is neurodiverse could be left spinning over it. She says this can often be resolved by explicitly saying “I recognize that was hard for you, and that it felt like a difficult interaction. We are good; we can move on.”
Overall, support for neurodiversity takes intention, and at times requires a different type of inclusion than other DEI efforts. The efforts are well worth it though, as they result in more perspectives and differing skill sets for the company, more opportunities for people of all neurological profiles, and expanded circles of influence for everyone involved. As Brooks points out, “it’s not just about the opportunities that people with neurodevelopmental differences are missing out on, but also about what everyone else is missing out on by not having the opportunity to connect with more neurodiverse coworkers. It goes both ways.”