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Embracing the Spectrum: Unlocking the Full Potential of Neurodiversity at Work

By Caitlin Collins
May 21, 2024
9 minute read

Conversations about workplace diversity often focus on visible traits like race, gender, and physical abilities. One often overlooked but important set of differences is neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity is more common than you might think. About 1 in 7 people are considered neurodivergent, a term that encompasses autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and more. This means that in any given organization, there’s a significant portion of your workforce that processes information differently from the neurotypical majority. 

If this surprises you, consider this a call to action. By recognizing and supporting neurodiversity in your organization, you can unlock a wealth of talent that’s too often overlooked or underutilized.

The benefits of creating a workplace that supports neurodiverse employees are immense and extend far beyond making individual accommodations. When workplace policies and systems are designed with neurodiverse workers in mind, everyone benefits. Inclusive practices lead to more innovative problem-solving, higher employee engagement, and a stronger, more cohesive work culture. 

What is neurodiversity? 

Neurodiversity is a concept that acknowledges the vast diversity in human brain function and cognitive processing. It shifts the perspective from viewing neurological differences as deficits to understanding them as natural variations of the human condition. Just as people vary in physical characteristics, they also differ in how they think, learn, and process information. This inclusive approach recognizes autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, anxiety disorders, and others are as much a part of the spectrum of human experience as those of their “neurotypical” colleagues, friends, and family.

This recognition is crucial for creating environments where all people can thrive. For neurodivergent individuals, the workplace, in particular, can present unique challenges. Traditional work settings often prioritize uniformity and standardization, which can be at odds with the needs of many neurodiverse employees. 

Creating environments where neurodivergent individuals feel safe to be themselves can reduce the need for what’s known as “masking,” in which neurodivergent people, consciously or unconsciously, mimic the behaviors, mannerisms, and communication styles of neurotypical individuals to avoid standing out or being judged. 

It takes a lot of energy to keep that mask up. Masking collapses in an environment where neurodivergent employees are put under stress.

“Creating environments where neurodivergent individuals feel safe to be themselves can reduce the need for what’s known as ‘masking,’ in which neurodivergent people, consciously or unconsciously, mimic the behaviors, mannerisms, and communication styles of neurotypical individuals to avoid standing out or being judged. It takes a lot of energy to keep that mask up.”

Caitlin Collins, Organizational Psychologist and Program Strategy Director, Betterworks

Why embracing neurodiversity in the workplace matters

Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace is more than just the right thing to do — legally and ethically—it ‌ also provides strategic advantage. HR professionals are uniquely positioned to lead this charge by implementing policies and practices that support neurodiverse employees and creating more inclusive cultures. 

First off, let’s cover the legal ground. In the U.S. the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for all employees with disabilities, including neurodiverse conditions like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. Complying with the ADA isn’t optional—it’s mandatory. Making sure your workplace is accessible and supportive for neurodiverse employees is a legal necessity that helps you avoid potential lawsuits and ensures fair treatment for everyone.

Beyond legal obligations, there’s a strong ethical imperative to support neurodiversity. Creating an environment where everyone can succeed and contribute meaningfully goes beyond just following the rules. It’s about providing the right accommodations, training your staff to understand and respect neurodiversity, and ensuring every employee feels safe and valued. When you foster a culture of acceptance and support, you align with the core values expressed in your DEI statement, demonstrating a genuine commitment to inclusivity.

Supporting neurodiversity isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s also a smart business move. By unlocking the full potential of their workforce, companies drive innovation, engagement, and success. According to Harvard Business Review, research data from one study in Australia found that neurodiverse teams were 30% more productive than others. 

Neurodivergent employees often bring unique strengths to the table, such as exceptional attention to detail, innovative thinking, and problem-solving abilities. For example, many autistic individuals excel in pattern recognition, while those with ADHD often thrive in dynamic, fast-paced environments that require multitasking. When they’re matched to the right role in your organization, their perceived weaknesses can‌ become strengths.

A commitment to neurodiversity can significantly enhance your company’s reputation as an inclusive employer, attracting top talent from a wider pool. This not only supports diversity and inclusion goals but also fosters a culture where all employees feel valued and understood. Companies that consider neurodiversity as they are practicing DEIB in the workplace are often seen as progressive and forward-thinking, which can be a major competitive advantage.

“A commitment to neurodiversity can significantly enhance your company’s reputation as an inclusive employer, attracting top talent from a wider pool. Companies that consider neurodiversity as they are practicing DEIB in the workplace are often seen as progressive and forward-thinking, which can be a major competitive advantage.”

Caitlin Collins, Organizational Psychologist and Program Strategy Director, Betterworks

How to create an inclusive environment for neurodivergent employees

Historically, people with neurodiversity have struggled to succeed at work. A startling 85% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed, according to Deloitte, while employees with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tend to earn less than their neurotypical peers, Forbes reports

Creating a welcoming environment for neurodivergent employees is essential for fostering inclusion and maximizing everyone’s potential in the workplace. Simple adjustments and accommodations can make a big difference in enabling your neurodivergent team members to perform at their best.

Design more inclusive hiring processes

Traditional interviews can be challenging for neurodivergent candidates. For example, some may not interview well because their communication skills or mannerisms are atypical. They might lose their train of thought and not focus as well during candidate tests or conversations, and others may express high or low energy. A few simple adjustments can help level the playing field, while also reducing bias in the process across the board.

  • Provide questions in advance: This gives candidates time to prepare and reduces anxiety.
  • Allow for breaks: Long interviews can be overwhelming, so breaks can help candidates stay focused.
  • Use clear and direct language: This ensures that instructions and questions are understood without ambiguity.

Most importantly, hiring should be based on clear, objective measures of a candidate’s fit for the role, not an interviewer’s “gut reaction” or ease in connecting with the candidate in a single interview. Managers need to be trained to look at what makes someone a good person for a role on their team. While we have many notions of what makes for a good employee — good communication skills, teamwork, sociability — neurodiverse individuals may not exhibit all of those in the limited context of an interview. Workarounds can include reconstructing job interviews into a different format that’s more conducive for neurodiverse individuals. Doing so may require working with government or non-profit organizations to design an appropriate alternative. 

Support flexible work arrangements

Flexible work arrangements are essential for meeting the varied needs of all employees, including those who are neurodivergent. Options like different work schedules, remote work, and quiet spaces in the office can help everyone find their most productive environment. For example, not everyone can focus in noisy open workspaces, so offering quiet areas or allowing headphones helps those who need a calm setting to perform their best.

These adjustments are crucial for supporting neurodiverse employees, for whom such environments are not just preferable but necessary. Allowing them to choose where and how they work reduces the need for masking, decreasing stress and promoting better mental health. Overall, flexible work policies create a more inclusive workplace, increasing job satisfaction and employee retention.

Tailor your communication strategies

Implementing tailored communication strategies is crucial, especially when you’re supporting neurodiverse employees in the workplace. Understand that each employee, particularly those who are neurodivergent, may have unique communication preferences — such as a preference for written instructions, detailed verbal discussions, or visual aids.

Managers should actively engage with employees from the start, asking questions like, “How do you learn best?” and “What communication method works best for you?” This approach should be ‌standard practice not just during onboarding but throughout their tenure.

By adapting communication to fit individual needs, managers not only make tasks clearer but also help neurodiverse employees feel valued and understood. This consideration fosters a positive and inclusive work environment. Tailored communication not only enhances productivity but also boosts engagement and job satisfaction among neurodiverse team members, contributing to a more harmonious and effective workplace.

Provide predictable performance feedback

Predictable performance feedback is another critical element in creating an inclusive environment for neurodiverse employees. Neurodiverse individuals may find sudden and infrequent feedback disorienting or stressful, as it can conflict with their perception of their performance. Imagine going through a world where no one tells you anything and you think you’re doing fine, and all of a sudden, you’re told that you’re doing a bad job. 

Regular, structured feedback helps to avoid surprises and provides a clear framework for development. Make sure your performance evaluation process is as transparent as possible, with criteria clearly communicated from the start. This predictability allows neurodiverse employees to understand how their work is assessed and what they can do to meet or exceed expectations.

6 best practices for neurodiversity training and awareness

Creating a workplace that truly understands and supports neurodiversity starts with effective training for managers and staff. This isn’t just about ticking boxes; it’s about taking steps to foster a healthy culture where neurodiverse employees feel safe, valued, and empowered. Here are six best practices to help you build high-impact neurodiversity training programs.

Develop a culture of openness and trust

Before diving into the nitty-gritty of training, it’s essential to build a foundation of openness and trust. Encourage employees to share their needs and experiences without fear of judgment or repercussions. Create an environment where everyone feels safe to express themselves and where diverse thinking is genuinely valued.

Top management must champion this culture for it to permeate the entire organization. Diversity in leadership sets the tone from the top down, making it easier for an open and trusting environment to thrive throughout the company.

Highlight the range of neurodiversity

Start your training by educating employees about what neurodiversity means and the various conditions it encompasses, such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. Highlight the strengths and challenges associated with these conditions to dispel myths and reduce stigma. Emphasize that neurodiversity is a natural variation in the human genome that enhances workplace diversity.

Focus on empathy, not diagnosis

One crucial aspect of neurodiversity training is to avoid diagnosing or labeling individuals. No workplace wants “pseudo therapists” who might misinterpret behaviors and symptoms. We don’t want to go into too much detail about the psychological aspect because we don’t want to create red herrings. 

Focusing too much on labels takes away from the person. Instead, focus training on understanding and supporting individual needs rather than trying to identify those needs clinically. This underscores the need to equip managers with the right tools and mindset to effectively support their teams, particularly those who might be neurodiverse, by being observant and responsive to their unique needs.

Implement role-playing and scenario-based training

Include role-playing exercises and scenario-based learning in your training sessions to better prepare managers and staff for real-life interactions. These activities help participants practice empathetic and effective responses to various situations involving neurodiverse colleagues. For example, they can learn how to handle situations where a neurodiverse employee is overwhelmed by sensory inputs in an open-office environment.

Regularly update training content

Neurodiversity awareness and best practices are constantly evolving. Regularly updating your training programs ensures that all employees are equipped with the latest research and insights. This keeps your strategies fresh and effective in supporting neurodiverse colleagues.

Encourage feedback and continuous Improvement

Training programs should be dynamic, evolving based on participant feedback, especially neurodiverse employees who can provide firsthand insights into what works and what doesn’t. Implement feedback mechanisms like surveys or suggestion boxes and foster an upward feedback cycle to ensure your training remains relevant and impactful.

By incorporating these best practices, you can create a workplace that not only supports neurodiverse employees but also thrives on the unique perspectives and strengths they bring to the table. It’s a win-win for everyone involved, fostering a culture of inclusion and innovation.

The future of neurodiversity in the workplace

As more companies recognize the value of neurodiversity, the workplace of the future will likely look very different from today. Advanced technologies, such as AI and machine learning, can help create more tailored support systems and personalized work environments. Virtual reality training programs can simulate real-world scenarios, helping managers and employees better understand and support their neurodiverse colleagues.

As the conversation around neurodiversity evolves, we can expect to see more research and best practices emerging. Companies that stay ahead of these trends will not only benefit from a more diverse and innovative workforce but also contribute to a more inclusive society as a whole.

Let’s celebrate and support the unique talents and perspectives of neurodiverse individuals. Because when we do, we all stand to benefit from the brilliance that diversity brings.

Want to learn more? Discover 9 effective diversity and inclusion strategies.

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Caitlin Collins is an Organizational Psychologist and Program Strategy Director at Betterworks. She is an expert on performance enablement, change enablement, and learning and development, and works with global organizations to align outcomes with business strategy.