Neurodiversity In The Modern Workplace
Although neurodiversity as an entity has always been around, acknowledgement of its existence can still be reluctant even in the most modern workplaces. In this guide, we'll look at the challenges and benefits of embracing neurodiversity in an organization, including how hiring neurodiverse employees can give a business an unexpected competitive edge, what legislation employers need to be aware of, and how to help non-neurotypical team members to grow and develop over time.
Neurodiversity is a relatively new concept to some workplaces. Establishing a neurodiverse workplace can be challenging, but it can also come with significant benefits. We’ll cover:
- What is neurodiversity?
- Neurodiversity at work
- Neurodiversity for competitive advantage
- Applicable legislation for employers
- Neurodiverse hiring
- Supporting neurodiverse employees
Neurodiversity is a relatively new expression that is used to refer to variations in how a typical human brain responds to sociability, learning, mood, and similar mental functions. It is essentially a viewpoint that sees brain differences as normal, rather than considering it a defect. Neurodiversity has been explored in the context of children, but it’s still relevant to adults and even more so in the modern workplace.
Neurodiversity can often refer to people that experience dyslexia, autism, dyspraxia, ADHD, and other similar neurological conditions. They are known as “spectrum” conditions that cover a wide range of different characteristics. However, they do share similarities in terms of how people with these conditions learn and process different kinds of information.
As of now, neurodiversity is something that is generally ignored by modern organizations. This is because the majority of organizations have only focused on the challenges that come with working with neurodiverse employees, ultimately pitching it as somewhat of a negative trait. The strengths are typically ignored, and a stigma against neurodiversity may be developed.
In this guide, we’ll be taking a look at neurodiversity in the modern workplace, covering the challenges but also benefits that come with a neurodiverse workplace. We’ll also discuss the competitive advantage of neurodiversity, and also some of the legislation surrounding it. Finally, we’ll end with advice on how to make neurodiversity a workplace strength by supporting neurodiverse employees.
What is neurodiversity in a workplace setting?
Neurodiversity has historically been met with a negative response in workplace settings. Research has shown that neurodiversity is ignored by seven in ten employers, and few employers will make reasonable adjustments to support neurodiverse job applicants. Despite this, there are many characteristics in neurodivergent people that could lead to benefits in the workplace.
Unfortunately, a lot of work needs to be done in order for neurodiversity to be more widely accepted in workplaces. In fact, only 19.3% of people with disabilities in the U.S. are employed and working. This number includes all disabilities such as physical, mental, and emotional. While the numbers may seem skewed, it does show that there is a preference for able-bodied and able-minded employees. This is where the first challenge lies; breaking the notion that neurodiversity is a disability.
Although some forms of neurodiversity are legally classified as disabilities, legislation such as the UK’s Equality Act 2010 has very few conditions that are defined as disabilities. There are currently no neurodiverse conditions that are defined as disabilities under the latest revision, but some people may be able to prove that it counts as a disability depending on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. But regardless of if it’s classed as a disability or not, conflating disability and neurodiversity is a non-inclusive way of speaking about neurodivergent workers.
Challenges and benefits
Neurodiversity has long been seen as a negative in the hiring process. In fact, around 81% of adults with autism are either unemployed or underemployed. Neurodiverse workplaces are ignored and organizations tend to shy away from hiring people on the spectrum. This seems to be a sentiment that is consistent across most industries.
David Kearon, Director of Adult Services with Autism Speaks, says “The behaviors of many people with autism may not fit perfectly to the common ideas of what makes a good employee.” This is typically seen when we look at job descriptions. There are many desirable traits such as strong communication skills, emotional intelligence, and sociability. Unfortunately, these traits are not strong points in people who are on the spectrum. In fact, even a traditional job interview can be a major barrier for neurodiverse job seekers.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t benefits to establishing a neurodiverse workplace.
Here are just some of the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace:
- Neurodiverse individuals make up a large pool of untapped talent. A large majority of these individuals are unemployed due to the stigma against working with people who are neurodiverse. As such, there is a possibility that businesses can fill in skill gaps by tapping into this large pool of potential talent.
- People with dyslexia are often seen as having more creative thinking skills. This allows them to approach problems with unique and innovative solutions through excellent problem-solving capabilities. While there is no reliable data to show this right now, researchers are studying the topic and are asking important questions such as what factors and experiences can determine someone’s creative thinking skills.
- Neurodiverse employees can bring unique experiences to your workplace. As individuals who may have been stigmatized in the past, they understand both the challenges and benefits of working with neurodiversity. As such, they can be excellent consultants that help establish business practices that are friendly towards the neurodiverse population.
- The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity reports that people with dyslexia have high levels of creativity. This is likely the result of the amount of time and dedication it takes for them to explore new methods of learning. This shows that neurodivergent people are more likely to find alternate solutions and will challenge pre-existing processes if they believe that there are more efficient and effective options to solve something.
- Some people on the spectrum may bring an enhanced sense of rule-based thinking. These logical approaches to problem-solving may be what a company needs in order to make breakthroughs in its products, services, and even technology.
- Diversity is a strength regardless of the industry or workplace. It brings different creative minds to the same table, allowing for greater innovations which increases a business’s competitiveness. With more diverse mindsets and backgrounds come more unique perspectives and ideas that your brand can build on.
- Neurodiversity has been proven as a strength in the workplace. It allows companies to outthink and outperform competitors due to the diversity in ideas and talents.
- Lastly, diversity in a team setting is always positive. It allows employees to learn more about people from different backgrounds, to share skills among themselves, and also to improve their personal growth thanks to the inclusive nature of a diverse team.
Neurodiversity may still be seen as a negative for some workplaces, but it’s clear that there are some desirable benefits to consider when establishing a neurodiverse workplace.
A competitive advantage
As of now, neurodiversity is still being explored for its competitive advantages. In fact, there are many companies that are actively seeking out neurodiverse talent.
JP Morgan Chase, for example, has its own “Autism at Work” program that aims to find top tech talent that will help the company be more competitive than its rivals. Between 2015 and 2018, the company hired more than 70 employees with autism.
The director and head of the program mentioned that people on the spectrum are far less likely to be distracted by social interactions. As such, they can achieve anywhere from 48% to 140% more work than their colleagues. This can be a massive competitive advantage for some companies, producing extremely capable and confident employees.
Similarly, the multinational software corporation SAP also has an Autism at Work program. The company focuses on creating a neurodiverse workplace and is proud of its 90% retention rate of hires on the autism spectrum.
The company boasts a “groundbreaking” program that was initially launched in 2013 to leverage the unique abilities and perspectives of people on the spectrum. Their goal was to foster innovation and to tap into an underutilized source of talent. Their secondary motive was to reduce barriers of entry to allow talented and motivated individuals to fully develop their potential in the workplace.
These are just two examples of companies that use neurodiversity to their advantage. It’s clear that neurodiverse people bring unique skills and perspectives to the table, making them valuable assets that would otherwise be overlooked and underutilized.
Progress is being made to help neurodiverse people in the modern workplace. Some regions have already established legislation that aims to support those who are on the spectrum.
A great example is the UK’s Equality Act 2010. This new act came into force in the country on the 1st of October, 2010. It pieces together over 116 separate pieces of legislation into a single act. Most notably, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is an act that makes it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people in connection with employment. This extends to people who have hidden disabilities, such as having some types of neurodiversity.
In addition, these acts also require employers to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that neurodiverse people are not discriminated against once they have been hired. For example, they could offer multiple assistive technologies, they could offer extra in-house training and support, or they could even get funding to help make adjustments to a company’s workflow and technology.
In comparison, the U.S. doesn’t offer protection for conditions such as autism. The current disability laws set by the Americans with Disabilities Act protect people with chronic medical conditions and mental health issues. However, it doesn’t help people who are neurodiverse. In particular, the neurodiverse community has had little success communicating with congress about the challenges they face, meaning that there is still some negative stigma against those who are neurodiverse.
Much work needs to be done in order to support the neurodiverse community around the world. While some countries have definitely taken a step in the right direction, there is little legislation that protects the rights of those who are on the spectrum.
Approaching neurodiverse hiring
When hiring, it’s important to make job descriptions as clear and concise as possible. By separating skills into “must-have” and “good-to-have” sections, it makes it very easy for the neurodiverse community to clearly understand what is expected of them in the particular role. The clearer your job descriptions are, the easier it will be for neurodiverse people to approach you about potentially hiring them.
In addition, it’s a good idea to approach interviewing your applicant differently. Interviews have long been considered the final test before you make the decision to hire someone or not. However, the interviewing process can be extremely intimidating. Those who are on the spectrum may find it challenging to even attend an interview, let alone look their interviewer in the eye while answering their questions. This has historically put people on the spectrum at a disadvantage. Interviewers may see them as awkward and unfit for a position in the workplace.
So what can we do to change the interviewing process and support neurodiversity?
- Don’t surprise your candidate with anything. Give them a very clear description of what the interview will entail, what is expected during the interview, and potentially any questions that you may ask.
- If the candidate asks for a list of questions beforehand, don’t hesitate to offer it to them. This will give them some time to prepare and think about their answers instead of being pressured to come up with a response on the spot. Even if they haven’t specifically asked for it, you may want to be accommodating and make the suggestion.
- Don’t make your questions vague. Be as clear and concise as possible when asking questions, and don’t hesitate to reword things if you think they are unclear. You may want to look over your questions before the interview date so that you can get clearer answers that tell you more about the candidate.
- Don’t rush your candidate. Give them some time to think of a response and don’t pressure them. Let them take the interview at their own pace and try to make them feel comfortable.
- If they have notified you that they are on the spectrum, then you should make the effort to ask them about any particular accommodations that may make them more comfortable. Making your candidate feel at ease and more comfortable is a must if you want to unlock their potential.
- While it can be time-consuming, you may want to consider different ways to interview and assess your candidate’s skills. For example, you may want to consider a remote interview over a video chat program. This will allow your candidate to be more comfortable at home. In terms of assessing one’s skills, you may have success in developing different tests or simply asking for samples of their work instead of pressuring them into a timed examination at the interview location.
- Lastly, avoid associating their performance in the interview with skills that are not necessary for the job. For example, if their position will mostly take place in a solo environment, then eye contact and a lack of interest in small talk are not relevant to their success in the workplace and should not be considered negatives against them. Similarly, if they are not expected to interact with customers, then an unusual tone of voice or stuttering speech should also not be used as negatives.
Whether your company decides to create a different hiring process for neurodiverse candidates or adjusts existing practices to make the interview stage more accommodating, there are many ways to make your company more attractive to people on the spectrum. This can help you attract these talented individuals and puts your company at an advantage over your competitors.
Supporting neurodiverse employees
There are a number of different ways to support neurodiverse employees in the workplace.
Increasing awareness about neurodiversity
It’s recommended that you increase awareness about neurodiverse employees. Employers should be keen to provide information to existing employees about neurodiversity. Because there is usually a stigma against neurodiversity, it’s vital that you educate your staff on how to respect their neurodiverse peers and what kind of boundaries they should set.
If they treat your neurodiverse talent the same as their colleagues, then it can create friction or problems that will lead to difficulties moving forward. By educating your staff with neurodiversity training, they will become more accepting of neurodiversity in the workplace and will better understand how to work in a team with neurodiverse colleagues.
In some cases, it may be necessary for your existing employees to undergo training and courses to help them learn more about supporting their neurodiverse colleagues. Formal training will help them better understand what neurodiversity is and how to correctly approach someone on the spectrum. When they are more sensitive and understanding towards these conditions, it makes it much easier for your team to coordinate and cooperate.
Providing more flexibility
Creating a workplace that supports and encourages neurodiverse employees can be challenging. However, one way to approach this is to be more accepting of flexible conditions. For example, if someone in your workplace finds interactions uncomfortable, then it may be preferable to offer alternative forms of communication or to find a mediator to help them.
Flexibility in working conditions can also help. For example, offering neurodiverse employees the opportunity to work remotely can help them be more productive. If they find that their working conditions are a little more comfortable at home or when they’re away from others, then you can use those conditions to your advantage by supporting flexible working arrangements.
By working with neurodiverse employees, you can develop more flexibility in your work processes which ultimately leads to more productivity and efficiency in the workplace, while also taking advantage of the unique qualities of neurodiverse employees.
Supporting neurodiverse individuals
It’s also important to tailor support to individuals who are neurodiverse. There are a number of ways you can do this and businesses may eventually develop their own strategies that incorporate neurodiverse talent. However, here are a couple of suggestions to get you started:
- Be patient with neurodiverse individuals. Building a group of talented neurodiverse employees can be difficult, and their individual challenges may require some time to overcome. Take it slowly and don’t rush things.
- Be as clear and concise as possible when communicating with neurodiverse individuals. Whenever you communicate with neurodiverse talent, it’s best to communicate without ambiguity and it’s important to give plenty of notice when there are changes. This ensures that your neurodiverse employees are prepared for changes and have time to make adjustments.
- Don’t leave anything up to assumption. This coincides with the previous point about being as clear and concise as possible.
- Understand the benefits of having a neurodiverse workplace, but don’t expect them to work miracles. They may have qualities that help them excel in certain positions, but it’s important not to overestimate what they can do. They are human after all.
- Identify challenges that a neurodiverse employee might face and work with them to solve challenges. While communication may be difficult at times, it’s vital that you work together to solve any issues that could arise.
- Be willing to accommodate. Neurodiverse employees may ask for certain processes to change or for you to approach them differently. It’s a good idea to take this with an open mind so that you have their best interests in mind.
It can be challenging for workplaces to make adjustments that support neurodiverse employees. However, with the right approach, any business can make changes to their workflow that ultimately supports the addition of a neurodiverse pool of talent.
Neurodiversity has always been around, but we’re only just starting to realize how we can support neurodiverse people and how we can take advantage of their skills. While we shouldn’t necessarily hunt for neurodiverse talent and forget about other talented hires, we should certainly be open to the idea of building a neurodiverse workplace. There are certainly some clear advantages to hiring neurodiverse workers, and depending on your workplace there may be positions that are well-suited to them.
There are plenty of resources available that can help us better understand neurodiversity in the workplace. Companies should be more open to neurodiversity in order to take advantage of the many unique benefits. It may take some time to adjust, but it’s not difficult to make your business more accommodating towards this growing pool of untapped talent.