Understanding Neurodiversity in the Workplace

This article was written by Ann Divine, CEO, and Lillian Searl, Project Manager and first voice neurodiverse person of Ashanti Leadership & PDS Inc.

Increasingly organizations are having to look at their employees’ individual needs more closely, recognizing that everyone is different with unique abilities, learning styles, and multiple identities.

When addressing difference in the workplace or workspace, employers are encouraged to think beyond what is traditionally known in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) conversation: race, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical disability, etc.

The term Neurodiversity is becoming more familiar and included in the spectrum of DEI. Neurodiversity is a sociological term which acknowledges that brains function differently. Though this diverges from neurotypical individuals, neurodiversity is simply a variation of normal brain function and is not something that needs to be “fixed.”

“Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome,” notes John Elder Robison, a scholar in residence and a cochair of the Neurodiversity Working Group at the College of William & Mary, who himself has Asperger’s syndrome. “Indeed, many individuals who embrace the concept of neurodiversity believe that people with differences do not need to be cured; they need help and accommodation instead.”

“According to Deloitte, everyone is to some extent differently abled (an expression favored by many neurodivergent people), because we are all born different and raised differently. Our ways of thinking result from both our inherent ‘machinery’ and the experiences that have ‘programmed’ us” (CIPD, 2022).

Statistics show that 90% of disabilities are invisible; 3 to 5% of the population have ADHD; 10 to 20% are dyslexic; 5% are dyspraxic; 2% have Tourette’s syndrome; 7% may have mental health needs; and 2% of the Canadian population have an acquired brain injury.

Drexel University, Philadelphia, US, found that the national autism indicators report 51% of workers on the autism spectrum have skills higher than their job requires and fewer than 1 in 6 adults with autism are gainfully employed. A lot of people living with autism have degrees but work in entry level jobs because their eccentric behavior is not socially accepted.

It is believed that a sizeable proportion of our workforce are neurodiverse across age groups, regionally, and it is estimated that 10 to 20% of the global population is considered neurodivergent. These individuals tend to experience higher rates of unemployment as compared to the general population. For example, in the United States, it is estimated that 85% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed as compared to 4% of the overall population (Deloitte Insights, 2022).

Following the pandemic, organizations are having to look at different talents including those who were previously overlooked. This requires recruiters to look at different talent pools and diverse groups of people. There is an urgency for organizations to pay attention to a growing number of people who have not yet been considered for the uniqueness they bring to the workforce. Their creativity, innovation, ability to process information, and function at a highly productive level must be recognized.

Having neurodiverse people in your workplace benefits the whole organization. Neurodiverse people may possess skills necessary for roles in advanced technology; artificial intelligence; Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM); and IT processing. They may also hold the ability to provide sustained attention to detail. Neurodivergent persons bring unique perspectives, skills and experiences that are often undervalued and overlooked.

Organizations are now having to think about how they will engage with what we call Ashanti Leadership’s 5As:

Analyze and examine the needs of the workforce.

Adjust so that everyone in the workspace recognizes the changing working environment.

Adapt. HR and hiring managers must have an open mind regarding the prospects they interview and how the interviews are conducted. The entire organization will need to have a shift in this mindset.

Accept difference and make every effort to raise awareness within the workforce of differences.

Accommodate the unique needs of everyone.

Organizations are having to challenge their long-established traditional operations, attitudes, and biases from their hiring process. These demands must be operationalized in the workplace. Inclusive organizations are accepting of all differences and what everyone brings to benefit the organization.

Even before individuals join the organization, employers must educate themselves and gain the knowledge, skills and emotional intelligence (EQ) – including self-awareness, self-regard, and empathy – to guide their workforce. Everyone must be onboard. The notions of a “one size fits all” approach or the need for the “right fit” for job opportunities are dated. Neurodiverse people have long had to self-advocate in the workplace. With the benefit of substantial research, all employees have a responsibility to support and advocate for change in this regard.

To successfully integrate neurodivergent people into the workspace there must be buy-in from leadership, middle management and the broader workforce that will inevitably engage with these individuals. Conversations need to be had at all levels so that the workspace is a safe place for everyone. Communication should be initiated with groups within the community that work with or include neurodiverse adults to seek guidance.

Organizations and neurotypical employees may have to reconfigure their offices. There are individuals who experience social anxiety. Their abilities may involve visual thinking, attention to detail, and creative thinking. Neurodivergent people process information in different ways. Virtual and hybrid communication can be a struggle for some employees so this area can be reviewed to consider alternative arrangements. Their unique abilities may set them apart from their neurotypical colleagues; steps should be taken to allow variations in workspace settings and supportive environments.

Institutions such as the Centre for Autism Research, Deloitte and Drexel University offer useful insights about how to approach and support neurodiversity in the working environments. These considerations are paramount, and their deep insights offer hiring managers the confidence they need to work better with all personality types. The hiring process is fundamental to any organization. It is the aspect of the work where human resource managers have significant powers, discretion, and leverage.

Organizations need to start by learning how to communicate effectively with neurodivergent candidates in the same manner that they have learned to communicate with neurotypical persons. The Fourth Industrial Revolution – the notion of how the physical, virtual, and biological worlds come together – has given us many tools that enable us to successfully communicate with others. Recruiters can use alternative methods for interviewing candidates. Many neurodiverse candidates experience social anxiety, and the traditional face-to-face interviews may not work for them. Some of their expressions or attributes can be misinterpreted.

The same steps organizations have taken to recruit an ethnically diverse workforce is the same steps they need to take to recruit neurodivergent adults. Businesses need to have opportunities for those who are, for example, Black and who have brains wired differently. Employers must ensure that people who live in this intersectionality are welcome to work in the organization but also given the opportunity to progress as well. People who live within these intersections should not be considered simply to tick off two diversity boxes; rather, they can be great assets to…business (Tumi Sotire, The Black Dyspraxic, 2020).

Creating a neurodiverse workspace can benefit your company to be innovative, to be leading problem solvers and to have contented and happy employees. By providing assistive technology, proper lighting, and less distracting workspaces where people can escape the noise, organizations can provide an ideal experience for all while supporting retention.

When seeking to engage new recruits, organizations should consider trial work periods. Provide opportunities for candidates to demonstrate their skills and arrange collaborative interviews. Addressing stereotypes about neurodivergent people is critical to the employment process. Be mindful not to categorize those who may possess differences.

Deloitte (2022) invites professionals to be respectful of individual differences. Many neurodiverse people “may have different working styles: some may need clear, multistep instructions once; some may need regular reiterations; others may be comfortable with broad asks…” (Deloitte Insights, 2022, Harvard Business Review).
Organizations need to be adaptable especially when working with employees who are neurodiverse; for example, by fostering a culture of flexibility, and creating policies and practices to accommodate difference.

In conclusion, an inclusive culture that encompasses all employees’ unique attributes positively impacts the entire workforce. Making inclusive spaces that cater to neurodiverse employees means a productive, safe, and healthy environment for all its members.

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