As more companies and business leaders have begun to recognize the necessity of comprehensive DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging) efforts in the workplace, conversations have arisen around how these efforts could be optimized to include certain marginalized or underrepresented groups of people more effectively. Recently, this has sparked an increase in conversations about neurodiversity.
Simply put, neurodiversity is the viewpoint that neurocognitive differences (such as ADHD, autism, and dyslexia) are just natural variations in the human mind, rather than “deficits” or “abnormalities.” In fact, neurodivergent people - those with brains that function differently than those of neurologically typical (AKA “neurotypical”) people - offer a wide range of talents, perspectives, and abilities that can be uniquely beneficial in many work environments.
Read on to learn more about neurodiversity, its importance, and some things that your company can do to improve support for neurodivergent candidates and employees.
What is Neurodiversity?
The term “neurodiversity” was coined in the late 1990s by sociologist Judy Singer, who is on the autism spectrum herself. Singer’s objective in defining and discussing the concept of neurodiversity was to shift the focus away from the typical stigma, stereotypes, and misconceptions typically associated with neurocognitive conditions. Instead, Singer wanted to help people understand that neurocognitive differences aren’t grounds to assume that a person with them is any less talented, capable, productive, or intelligent than the average neurotypical person. In fact, in some cases, quite the opposite may be true.
Who’s Included Under The Neurodiversity Umbrella?
The conditions and neurological differences encompassed under the umbrella of neurodiversity vary between different sources, and ideas about how the term should be applied are constantly evolving.
While there isn’t a single, universal source of truth covering all the possible cognitive differences that could fall under that umbrella, The Autistic Self Advocacy Networkrecognizes the following in their definition of the term:
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
How Employers Can Benefit From Neurodiversity
Cognitive differences can create or contribute to the development of various skills, strengths, and advantages for neurodivergent people. According to the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN), employers who hire neurodiverse employees “note their aptitude for roles that require attention to detail, ability to detect patterns and capacity for inferential reasoning, as well as strong skills in mathematics, coding, and other data-driven processes.”
Additionally, neurodiverse employees offer more innovative perspectives that can help companies improve policies and procedures as well as increase their bottom line.
As noted in the AMA Journal of Ethics, “People diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), for example, appear to have strengths related to working with systems (e.g., computer languages, mathematical systems, machines) and in experiments are better than control subjects at identifying tiny details in complex patterns.”
Meanwhile, several studies have found that adults with ADHD tend to be more creative in comparison to those without ADHD and excel at thinking out of the box. People with ADHD may also be more likely to function well under pressure, with research showing higher rates of the disorder amongst those in more fast-paced, high-stress work environments such as E.R. doctors and nurses, law enforcement officers, rescue workers, journalists, stockbrokers, and pro athletes.
Some strengths that neurodiverse employees possess include the following:
Strong ability to detect errors
Strong recall and detailed factual knowledge
High levels of concentration
Appreciation for routine and repetitive tasks
Supporting Neurodiversity In The Workplace
While efforts made to support DEIB in the workplace should be applauded, neurodiversity -- or recognizing and understanding the range of differences in brain function and behavioral traits -- also needs to be valued and supported. Some people with neurodivergent features may spend a lot of time trying to adjust to their work environment. They may need to manage their social impressions or find ways to block out distractions.
To provide accommodations for neurodiverse people, consider:
Providing sound-canceling headphones to prevent overstimulation
Making sensory objects available
Creating quiet spaces within an office design
Providing recorded or written instructions that can be referenced at a later date
Ensuring a fragrance-free environment for sensory sensitivity
Offering image-based task lists to provide examples of work at various stage
Providing image-based calendars to mark projected milestones
Other things employers can do to support neurodiversity in the workplace:
Educate and create awareness: Ensure that the workforce the neurodivergent employee is coming into understands the importance of DEIB and that everyone is to be treated as an equal.
Strive for inclusion: Make a clear accommodation process, encourage disclosure, deter bullying, and focus on the strengths and abilities of these employees rather than seeing only their disabilities.
Create jobs: Consider where neurodiverse people can best serve the organization and create that job for them. Just because the position doesn’t currently exist doesn’t mean that it is not needed to help propel the business forward.
Allow for different work schedules: Change the schedule and environment to accommodate the neurodiverse person to allow them to perform at their best.
Consider changing the design of the work: Work processes don’t have to stay “the way we’ve always done it.” Make changes to accommodate the neurodiverse person. Solicit their input and empower them to get creative in the change.
Ask the neurodiverse person: Seek to learn what is the best communication style of the neurodiverse person. Also, find out their learning preferences and use the information to customize learning and communication tools for them.
Hiring And Managing Neurodivergent Employees
When considering hiring neurodiverse people, employers should first ensure job descriptions use inclusive language, and that it is made clear that the organization welcomes neurodiversity. Write job descriptions that avoid generic or cliched requirements. If the task isn’t really required, don’t include it. Make the job description truly fit the open position. Job descriptions with unnecessary information can make some neurodiverse individuals, like those with dyslexia or autism, apprehensive about applying.
For some neurodiverse people, you may not want to ask open-ended questions like, “What can you bring to the team?” Instead, you will want the questions to be more detail-oriented to avoid confusion. Having questions that relate to the neurodiverse candidate's skills and experiences ensures they can give a definitive answer.
Explain to the neurodiverse employee that performance reviews will be conducted on a regular basis. Use the same format you would use for neurotypical employees. For some neurodiverse employees, there may need to be more one-on-one meetings and on a more frequent basis to ensure the employee is performing the right tasks in the right way. Find out if the employee prefers more verbal or written feedback, or both, and allow for that accommodation.
Finding Neurodiverse Talent
To find neurodiverse people to hire, consider the many resources available on the US Department of Labor website. Also, incorporate the following strategies to experience greater success in hiring:
Use non-traditional hiring and interviewing procedures: Rethink the way your organization uses online hiring tools to better accommodate neurodiverse candidates
Train managers and employees: Make sure everyone is educated on how to welcome, manage, and work with neurodiverse people.
Companies should celebrate the strengths that diversity can bring, all while being proactive in their support to empower neurodiverse employees. The smart players in business adopt the approach that being inclusive can lead to changes that can improve the work environment. Companies such as Microsoft, SAP, J.P. Morgan, Ernst & Young, and Hewlett Packard have neurodivergent recruitment programs in place to help the neurodivergent talent pool land their dream career.
Within the realm of DEIB efforts, neurodiverse people should be sought out, but not simply for inclusion to be labeled a diverse company, but for the incredible knowledge, skills, and abilities these folks can bring to your team.
To embrace the often untapped talent of neurodiverse people, begin with presuming competence, which is the foundation that facilitates self-empowerment. Throw out all stereotypes and look for the competence the neurodiverse employee offers. Listen to what these employees are communicating and provide for them the tools they need to succeed. As with all employees, their success will ultimately lead to the organization’s success.
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