In a world where individuals often have to come together to work as one, the more diversity — and neurodiversity in the workplace — the more likely you may be to cover every angle.
Diversity in the workplace has long been encouraged, even demanded by law in many circumstances.
People of all shapes, sizes, colors, and genders can provide a workplace with unique insight and creative opportunities.
The above benefits can exist by including neurodiversity in the workplace as well. People living with atypical neurological function can often provide “out-of-the-box” perspectives, and may be exceptionally strong in certain areas of cognition.
Neurodivergent employees can help employers view services and products from an all-inclusive standpoint while strengthening workplace culture for everyone.
Neurodiversity is the nonmedical term used to describe anyone living with brain function outside of what’s typical for the majority (those known as neurotypical).
While often used in reference to people living with autism spectrum disorders, neurodivergent is an umbrella term for many conditions with altered cognitive function.
Other neurodiverse examples include:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Tourette syndrome
Neurodiversity as a concept asserts that neurological differences, once traditionally viewed as disorders, are just a part of natural human variation and are not “disabilities.”
What is ableism?
Ableism is a form of discrimination or prejudice against people living with differing abilities. It’s a preference for people who are considered “abled,” and not “disabled,” that shows up as implicit bias in:
- perceptions and stigmas
Neurodiversity in the workplace has potential benefits for both neurodivergent workers and neurotypical workers.
Allison Tyler, is a licensed clinical social worker from Wayne, New Jersey, who specializes in ADHD.
She explains that the importance of neurodiversity in the workplace centers around creating a team of co-workers with different learning patterns and ways of thinking that leads to a more creative and supportive environment for everyone.
“Individuals with ADHD, autism, Tourrette [syndrome] or other neurodevelopmental diagnoses may feel more comfortable as companies and organizations address their needs and embrace different learning, communication, and socialization styles,” she says.
By creating a culture of acceptance and inclusivity, employees and consumers alike may feel as if their individual needs are being respected.
“A diverse-thinking team has a competitive advantage,” says Dr. Kristina Kasparian, a neurolinguist and author from Montreal.
“From a human perspective, neurodiversity is important on the job to foster mindful communication and break down stigmas that create barriers for neurodiverse individuals.”
She explains there are a number of ways employers can support neurodiversity in the workplace, including:
- flexible work hours, or inclusion of flexibility with core work hours common to everyone
- flexible work location
- quiet areas
- headphones to prevent distraction or overstimulation
- offering color filters and font changes to accommodate different reading, learning, and communication styles
- breaks during long meetings
- workplace training for bias checks and awareness
- collaboration encouragement
- community building incentives
Tyler also recommends support options for employers, including:
- in-house behavioral health programs or professionals
- eliminating mandatory attendance at work social events
- decreasing social event size to help reduce social anxiety (special interest lunches, for example, instead of entire office parties)
- listing reasonable accommodations for neurodivergence during the hiring process
- cultivating a workplace focused on positive problem-solving and positive feedback
- encourage open communication about neurodivergent workers’ needs and what’s worked for them in the past
- offering “as needed” breaks to allow employees to re-center (e.g., after meetings, before presentations)
- holding regular one-on-one meetings to keep real-time awareness on workplace culture and health
- showing support and interest in unique hobbies or passions neurodivergent employees may have
Everyone is different, and what helps you thrive in your workplace is unique.
Changing what you can in your personal space can be a great way to start improving your work environment. Removing harsh lighting, adding water or nature features, and bringing in reminders of comfort (e.g., family and pet pictures) can all help create a safe space at work.
“I don’t schedule meetings in the morning or on Mondays,” says Kasparian, who lives with synesthesia, a sensory phenomenon that causes an overlap of senses. “I eliminate distractions, especially my phone or loud sounds.”
For neurodivergent employees, she suggests other ways to improve their workplace, such as:
- discuss any needs for accommodations with your workplace HR controller or human resources department
- letting co-workers know if you’re doing something that requires focus or if you’re on a task that can be interrupted
- keeping other mediums available during deep thinking, like a notepad to jot down thoughts while on the computer
- taking 5-minute breaks during meetings to stretch and regroup
- communicate to others if there are sensory or other learning accommodations you’d appreciate them using (if you work well with colored notes, for example, you might prefer important emails are written in red)
- leaning on allies and advocates
Dr. Christine Henry, a licensed psychologist in Houston, encourages neurodivergent employees to actively engage in professional therapy to help break down communication barriers.
“We often think that we are asking too much and that we should just be able to deal with it,” she says.
“This is a message that we all have received growing up. Our concerns are invalidated and shut down. Working with a therapist who is neurodivergent-affirming can help you work through that.”
Above all, getting to know neurodivergent co-workers can help you find ways to work with them in harmony.
Kasparian recommends asking them what their preferences are, what they find distracting, and what you can do to best support them.
Casual conversation can be a great way of finding out this information without appearing as if you’re targeting your co-worker or going out of your way to acknowledge they’re neurodivergent.
How can you use conversation without unintentional ableism?
Bluntly asking a neurodivergent co-worker about their needs may cause them to become self-conscious or guarded.
By opening up about yourself, first, you can show your support by revealing that everyone — not just neurodivergent employees — have preferred work processes.
You can convey your own needs and find out the needs of your co-worker at the same time. For example:
“Hey, I have a hard time when I get too many questions in one email. I like to let everyone know to send me separate messages. Can I do anything on my end when emailing you?”
Other ways you can support a neurodivergent co-worker, according to Kasparian, include:
- challenging your personal biases or blind spots regarding neurodiversity
- asking yourself what you can do to make sure everyone is comfortable at work
- finding new ways to incorporate interpersonal styles into your presentations, communications, and interactions
- putting empathy and flexibility first
Neurodiversity in the workplace can be just as important as other forms of diversity. It can help improve the culture, creativity, and supportiveness of a job for all employees.
Your efforts can go a long way for creating a workplace that thrives with neurodiversity through:
- open communication