Understanding and supporting neurodiversity at work

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Published: June 20, 2024 | by Natasha K. A. Wiebusch, Brightmine Marketing Content Manager

Neurodiversity in the workplace could be your superpower. But are you creating an environment where neurodiversity can thrive? If unemployment statistics can provide any insight, the answer for most companies is likely no.

According to some estimates, the unemployment rate among neurodiverse talent is between 30% and 40%. Unfortunately, neurodivergent people often experience discrimination in the workplace, which contributes to these higher rates of unemployment and other challenges at work. Given the unique and valuable strengths neurodivergent employees have, this is a loss for employees and employers alike.

Employers that do create a thriving environment for neurodiversity, however, have an opportunity to leverage an underrecognized talent pool. To help you be one of those employers, this article provides foundational information about neurodiversity at work.

Defining neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is a term used to describe the differences in how people think. It recognizes that there is a broad spectrum of cognitive thinking, and this diversity among people is normal.

Neurodiversity vs. Neurodivergent

Neurodiversity and neurodivergent are similar terms, but they mean slightly different things. While neurodiversity describes the existence of different ways of thinking, neurodivergent is a term used to describe a person who thinks in a way that is not typical.

Though neurodiversity recognizes differences in thinking, it does not reference which types of cognitive thinking are more common than others. Neurodivergence does, as it identifies those who fall outside the most common ways of thinking. Those who do fall into common ways of thinking — or what societal norms deem “normal” — are called neurotypical.

What’s under the neurodivergent umbrella?

Neurodivergent thinking can be difficult to define, as neurodiversity among people is vast. To help contextualize neurodivergence, it’s often described as an umbrella term that encompasses all types of thinking or cognition that are not considered common.

People who identify as neurodivergent generally have conditions that impact their cognitive thinking. Examples include:

  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Autism.
  • Aspergers.
  • Dyslexia.
  • Dyspraxia.
  • Dysgraphia.
  • Down syndrome.
  • Bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • Social anxiety.

Neurodivergent conditions are wide ranging, and some conditions have a greater impact on a person’s daily life than others. Doctors and schools often diagnose children with these types of conditions early on. This is common because the medical field classifies some of these conditions as learning disabilities.

However, many neurodivergent individuals are unaware of their condition under later adult life. Often, they become aware because of the challenges they face in the workplace.

What is neurodiversity in the workplace?

Neurodiversity in the workplace describes the diverse ways employees think, problem-solve, percent and experience life at work. It also refers to the presence of neurodivergent employees at work. Employers that support neurodiverse people are employers that support and celebrate neurodivergence.

Employers that support neurodiversity recognize that neurodivergence impacts how employees exist in and navigate the workplace. Most importantly, they recognize that these employees’ unique ways of thinking provide valuable skills, such as:

  • Excellent problem-solving skills.
  • Attention to detail.
  • High levels of innovative thinking and creativity.
  • High empathy.
  • Logical reasoning.

Workplace challenges

Unfortunately, today’s work environments often create unnecessary hurdles for neurodivergent employees. In many cases, neurodivergent employees experience discrimination in the hiring process and throughout their employee journey.

Workplace environments often don’t support neurodivergent employees because they process information differently from the majority of employees. For example, many workplaces include pages and pages of written materials in employee onboarding. For an employee with dyslexia, onboarding with these materials will take longer if the employee does not have a screen reader.

Neurodivergent people also face challenges in the interview process. For example, people with autism often struggle to navigate the interviews because interviewers often scrutinize social cues and interactions. Interviewing also often includes group presentations, which can be uniquely stressful for folks with autism.

AI interview analysis software may make interviews even more challenging and discriminatory for neurodivergent candidates, as these tools analyze facial expressions, eye-contact and body language – all of which are often different for employees with neurodivergent conditions.

These challenges are not only contributing to discrimination against neurodivergent employees, but they are also causing employers to lose out on in-demand skills.

How to support neurodiversity in the workplace

Employers that can create an environment that supports and celebrates neurodiversity inclusion are at a competitive advantage. They have access to a largely untapped talent market, and they are creating an inclusive environment where all employees can thrive. The following are key recommendations for creating such an environment:

Gain buy-in

Gaining buy-in from cross-functional leadership to support neurodiversity at work is essential. Buy-in ensures leaders, managers and employees understand the organization’s priorities surrounding neurodiversity. It also helps the organization align its efforts to increase neurodiversity with the greater people strategy.

To gain buy-in, communicate the business case for neurodiversity. Leaders should understand both the people and business benefits of neurodiversity. Specifically, help leaders understand the connection between increased neurodiversity and improvements in:

Gaining buy-in will also improve outcomes for neurodiversity initiatives. If leaders understand the need for neurodiversity inclusion, they’re better prepared to change in their own practices and behaviors.

Make hiring practices neurodiversity-friendly

Typical hiring practices are notorious for the hurdles they often create for neurodiverse individuals. For example, a neurodivergent person with dyslexia will likely struggle with written pre-employment tests. The format puts candidates at a disadvantage from the outset. And, candidates are much less likely to request accommodations in the interview process because they fear being judged.

This is just one of example of how modern hiring can put neurodiverse candidates at an unfair disadvantage. There are, however, changes hiring teams can make to improve the process for everyone:

Communicate inclusivity often

Communicate the availability of accommodations in the interview process from the beginning. Ensure that all communications with the candidate have an accommodation notification along with contact information. Also, be sure to use people-first language in these communications.

Space out interviews

Organizations are often keen to hire employees as quickly as possible. However, clustering interviews back-to-back or asking candidates to socialize multiple days in a row can be overstimulating.

Audit all AI recruitment tools

AI recruitment tools, such as interview or resume analysis software, have a high propensity for discrimination. Auditing these tools can help you identify and eliminate potential discriminatory practices. Keep in mind that some states already require employers to audit their tools to prevent discrimination.

Leverage technology to promote inclusivity

You can also use hiring technology to promote inclusivity. Consider investing in technology that provides employees with embedded accommodations, such as information in multiple formats.

Create an accessible workplace

Employees are often uncomfortable asking for accommodations, particularly when they’re new or interviewing. Creating an accessible workplace proactively and/or anonymously wherever possible can help employees perform at their best and feel welcome. This may include:

  • Ensuring screen readers are available to all employees.
  • Providing important information in multiple formats.
  • Ensuring office spaces are not overstimulating or overly bright.
  • Creating quiet spaces or meditation rooms at work.
  • Offering virtual interview options or extending the time allowed to complete tests.
  • Increasing flexible work options, such as remote and hybrid work.

Aside from increasing accessibility, communicate regularly that the organization has and supports accessibility and accommodations in the workplace. This may include regular communications from HR, but it should also include communications from team leads.

Also, remember that some forms of neurodiversity are disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, employers must engage in a collaborative accommodation process with employees who request accommodations.

Train employees and managers

Beyond raising awareness, neurodiversity training prepares the workforce to create a more inclusive workplace for their colleagues. Training managers can help them understand what adjustments to work may help neurodiverse employees, such as adjustments to communications and meetings. It also provides managers with the soft skills to be able to communicate about neurodiversity at work. And from a compliance perspective, training managers ensures compliance with the ADA and other relevant anti-discrimination laws.

Similarly, training employees provides many benefits beyond awareness. In addition to creating an inclusive environment and destigmatizing neurodivergent thinking, it also prevents potential instances of illegal discrimination.

Celebrate neurodiversity

Celebrating neurodiversity at work increases awareness, helps neurodivergent employees feel welcome and sets the tone for the organization. Celebrating can include recognizing Neurodiversity Celebration Week, creating awareness campaigns and encouraging managers to discuss neurodiversity in team meetings.

Neurodiversity Celebration Week, which is the last full week in March, is a global initiative celebrated in many countries. It seeks to debunk stereotypes of neurodivergent individuals and bring awareness to the challenges both children and adults face. To bring awareness to neurodiversity at work, consider celebrating this week with communications, training and guest speakers.

Discussions of neurodiversity shouldn’t be limited to leadership and HR. Encourage managers to celebrate neurodiversity in their teams. This may include micro-trainings to help employees understand neurodiversity, or conversations about how to create an inclusive workplace. Of course, managers should be careful to not out neurodivergent employees or imply someone has a neurodivergent condition.

Importantly, celebrating neurodiversity can promote self-identification from employees. People data like this will help you personalize and improve support systems and accommodations for neurodivergent employees.

Leverage data

Robust people data helps create a better employee experience for neurodivergent employees by providing insights into individual needs. People data also helps you understand whether your efforts to improve neurodiversity inclusion are working.

To leverage data on neurodiversity, be sure to consider the quality of your data (e.g., whether enough employees have self-identified), what people analytics capabilities you have and what you’d like to measure. Because people data of this nature contains sensitive employee information, be sure to loop in your local counsel.

A final word

Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace is a strategic advantage for organizations. By recognizing and accommodating the unique strengths of neurodiverse individuals, companies can foster an inclusive environment that promotes innovation, creativity and high performance.

If you need additional guidance on unlocking untapped talent pools and creating a more inclusive workplace, explore Brightmine.