How to Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Neurodiversity accepts and embraces differences in brain functions and behavior. Here’s how to foster a neurodiverse workforce.

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How to Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace
Ways to support neurodiversity

Just like people have different physical abilities, people have different mental and behavioral abilities as well. We’ve come to understand the importance of ensuring that variations in physical abilities are catered to. But, in many ways, we’re still just figuring out that accommodating neurodiversity in general — workplace included — is just as important.

Plus, if you’re looking to ensure that you’ve got the best talent around, that means understanding that talent comes in many forms. Imagine conducting an interview and the candidate is highly qualified … except that they have avoided eye contact the entire time or might have blurted out a couple of verbal tics along the way.

Unless eye contact is for some reason deeply necessary for the job, is that really a good reason to pass on an impressive new hire just because they don’t seem to behave the way that most other people do?

From hiring to retention and making the most of diverse teams, if you’re looking to create an inclusive workplace, you simply can’t ignore neurodiversity in the workplace.

What is neurodiversity?

According to Harvard Health, neurodiversity is a term that describes the fact that people experience and interact with the world in many different ways.

For those unfamiliar, according to Harvard Health, neurodiversity is a term that describes the fact that people experience and interact with the world in many different ways — that there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, behaving, or being in general.

While the term is obviously broad, it’s often used to refer to those:

  • On the autism spectrum
  • With attention disorders
  • With learning disabilities

While the term has gained traction in recent years, the movement for neurodiversity actually takes back to the 90s. The movement for neurodiversity is largely a social justice issue aimed at reframing how we view and understand neurodiverse people.

Neurodiversity doesn’t make someone an abnormal “other.” Instead, neurodiversity is about understanding that everyone is simply themselves in a world where we’re learning more and more about the variations in cognition that make each of us exactly who we are.

The unique advantages of neurodiversity in the workplace

By now most of us are familiar with autism and savant syndrome — someone who is on the spectrum and, along with that, has some kind of prodigious talent. Perhaps they’re able to rapidly calculate large sums, or they have a picture-perfect memory. There’s a ton to be gained from making the most of these unique talents in the workplace, whether they reach the level of savant or not.

Hiren Shukla, the leader of the Neuro-Diverse Centre of Excellence at EY, told Great Place To Work that programming by the company’s neurodiverse workforce shrunk laborious tasks that once took several hours into just a few minutes. This is all thanks to their ability to see things differently than their neurotypical counterparts. “Their thought processes and their delivery are different to what we’re used to,” Shukla said. But that’s exactly where the magic happens.

Without attention to neurodiversity in the workplace, this potential goes untapped. Besides, from a diversity, equity, and inclusion perspective, it’s also simply the right thing to do.

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How to support neurodiversity in the workplace

Supporting neurodiversity in the workplace is no small task. As Deloitte explains, it’s estimated that 85% of those on the autism spectrum in the United States are unemployed, compared to 4.2% of the overall population. Clearly, this is far from something that everyone is doing.

It can be hard to blaze your own trail, but luckily a bit of reframing and rethinking your business processes can go a long way.

it’s estimated that 85% of those on the autism spectrum in the United States are unemployed, compared to 4.2% of the overall population.

Rethink your hiring process

Neurodiversity can show up in a variety of ways. One way to avoid unintentionally omitting neurodiverse applicants is to get less strict about imperfections. A couple of typos on a resume, for example, might not be the lack of attention to detail that most people assume it is. Interviewing takes time, but that’s the point of the process where you can really evaluate someone one-on-one. Naturally, having (neuro)diverse hiring managers and leaders helps immensely with hiring a diverse workforce.

Expand the qualifications for your roles

Does everyone really need to have an immaculate attention to detail? If the ability to hone in on the little things is really what you’re looking for, get specific about that. Especially if you have roles in which neurodiverse people could really excel, consider tailoring roles to their strengths and leaving out anything unnecessary that other people can easily take care of.

Foster an inclusive company culture

Creating an inclusive culture is not the easiest thing to do in the world, but it’s an area in which you can start leading by example today. If you hear anyone making comments that are insensitive to neurodiversity, gently correct them with the facts. Focus on neurodiversity in your DEI training or other company training — education is almost always an excellent solution. Offer flexible scheduling as much as you can so that neurodiverse people with different scheduling needs can get their work done on their time. A flexible work-from-home option is often a good idea for employees with different needs. On the other hand, some neurodivergent people love structure, so provide that when necessary.

Remember, especially if you’re new to understanding and fostering neurodiversity in the workplace, that it’s ok to learn as you go. You don’t have to boil the ocean on day one. Do what you can, bit by bit, until it accumulates over time. The important thing is to make progress — even if it’s slow — down the right path.

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