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Culture and Engagement

Neurodiversity in the workplace. What it is, and how to nurture it. 

Employees with conditions like autism and dyslexia often have extraordinary skills to offer workplaces. Here’s how to best support neurodivergent employees.

6 minute read
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The workplace is an enormously diverse environment. 

We all come with our own unique life experiences, personal preferences, and personality. It all shapes how we work, how fast we work, and how we complete tasks. 

But when we think about diversity in the workplace, we often overlook one huge component: neurodiversity. 

Neurodiversity is defined as diversity in the human brain, such as autism, ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive-Disorder) and dyslexia. It relates to differences in the way we think, process, learn, and even behave. Approximately 1 in 5 people are neurodivergent, meaning their brain functions differently in one or more ways than is considered standard or typical. Even traumatic brain injuries like a concussion can impact personality long after an initial injury, as the way we process and understand information can change.  

While some of us may correlate neurodivergent conditions with communication challenges, or emotional outbursts, these are at the extreme end of how neurodiversity might manifest, and feeds into negative stereotypes. Most neurodivergent conditions actually present in much more subtle ways. For example, accomplishing tasks may simply take much more effort than it would for someone who was neurotypical (not displaying or characterized by autistic or other neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behavior). 

While this may suggest neurodiversity negatively impacts employees, research shows that neurodivergent people can actually be 30% more productive than their neurotypical colleagues. Neurodivergent individuals often offer out-of-the-box thinking, and creative solutions to complex problems. 

This, however, is contingent on allowing neurodiverse individuals to work to their strengths.  The challenges neurodiverse people face often stem from a mismatch between the way they can work and communicate comfortably and the environments they encounter in the workplace. Workplaces have historically, and mistakenly, focused on trying to change the employee, rather than the changing the environment. 

Neurodiversity is an extremely broad spectrum, and each of these neurodiverse conditions will be experienced differently by every individual. As Dr. Stephen Shore famously said, “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism”.

Despite the vast spectrum there are still a few ways to help support neurodivergent employees in your workplace, while fostering an inclusive environment. 

Support hybrid working (if possible)

While not every workplace has the ability to support remote or hybrid work, it can be particularly advantageous for neurodivergent employees. By allowing a neurodivergent employee to work from home, you are empowering them with control over their work environment. This helps them limit distractions, set preferred working hours, and move around more freely. It also helps them avoid masking, which is the artificial performance of social behaviors deemed more “socially acceptable” in a neurotypical culture.

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Support your managers with training

As the majority of us do not have experience and awareness for supporting neurodiversity, it’s important to ensure your managers have the training and skills required to support their employees, and develop empathy for neurodivergent perspectives.

Revamp your interview process

Although neurodivergent employees excel in many areas, some challenges can be exacerbated during the interview process. For example, autistic people often fail to establish good eye contact, or can be overly honest about their shortcomings and weaknesses. 

To attract neurodivergent talent, a growing list of companies have reformed their HR processes. For example, some have initiated a hangout type atmosphere. This consists of a casual gathering, where potential job candidates can demonstrate their abilities in informal interactions with potential managers. Other organizations have established a soft skills module to help candidates who have never worked in a professional environment become familiar with the norms of the setting. Extending the assessment process allows time for neurodivergent candidates’ true capabilities to surface. 

Consider assistive technology

Assistive technology is any device, software, or equipment that helps support people with disabilities. It can assist with mobility, memory, communication and literacy challenges. Examples of assistive technology include: 

  • Screen readers and speech recognition software
  • Text to speech software and digital reading guides
  • Digital recorders and digital timers
  • Electronic spell checkers and word prediction 

Make internal accommodations

As mentioned, neurodivergent employees may require specific workplace accommodations to perform at their best.  This may include headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation, or a quiet space to enable deep concentration. Other considerations could include permitting flexible work schedules, the ability to block no-meeting days/times, and changing communication styles between verbal and written.

Final thoughts

Most of us are familiar with the advantages organizations have by creating more diverse and inclusive environments. Benefits from neurodiversity are similar but more direct, with many organizations reporting an increase in fresh new perspectives. 

SAP’s neurodiversity program, Autism at Work program is just under ten years old, however managers say they are already paying off in ways far beyond reputational enhancement. Those ways include productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and broad increases in employee engagement. 

Historically, workplaces have sought unity by desiring employees to fit together. But that level of thinking requires employees to leave their differences at home—differences organizations need to innovate and stay competitive!