April is Autism Acceptance Month, which means it’s a fantastic time to have a conversation about how to build a truly diverse and inclusive workforce, as well as how to support neurodiversity in the workplace.
When it comes to building inclusive and diverse workplaces, many people unconsciously reduce diversity to an issue of visible factors, like skin color. While racial and ethnic diversity are incredibly important, diversity comes in many different forms, including age, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, cultural background, disability status, and more.
Other factors that contribute to a diverse workforce aren’t easy to spot from the outside, like people who are neurodiverse or who experience invisible illnesses.
What is neurodiversity, and why does it matter at work?
The term “neurodiversity” was coined by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, who wanted to highlight the uniqueness of each person’s brain across humanity. The term is often used to describe specific groups of people, like individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, Singer intended for the term to be used on a broader level.
Like biodiversity, which is defined as the “variety of life on earth…including all species of plants and animals and the ecosystems that support them,” neurodiversity represents the state of humanity. We all have unique brains, and it’s important to create space for those differences – especially within the workplace.
Even though everyone is unique, it’s important to understand the differences between what is considered “neurotypical” or “neurodivergent.” The term neurodivergent, created by Kassiane Asasumasu, refers specifically to the groups or individuals whose brain functionality differs from what is considered common. As a result, we often categorize people with ASD, ADHD, dyslexia and the like as neurodivergent, while those who fit more closely with so-called norms are considered neurotypical.
So why does this matter, especially in the workplace?
One, autistic people are significantly underrepresented in the workforce. Studies suggest that while 20% of the population is neurodivergent, these numbers aren’t reflected in the workplace. In fact, a staggering 50-75% of the 5.6 million autistic adults in the U.S. are unemployed or underemployed. Unfortunately, this is often fueled by negative stigma, with one survey in the U.K. discovering that 50% of hiring managers report bias against autistic job seekers.
Two, when we recognize the value of neurodiversity across the spectrum – acknowledging that every brain is different, and those differences should be accepted and encouraged – then we can work to create space for those who fit outside the norm. Embracing neurodiversity is the first step toward solving a broader problem: the overall need for a more inclusive workplace.
It’s not enough to simply acknowledge that people are different. Instead, we should intentionally seek to combat our biases and work toward building truly inclusive workplaces that support, celebrate and hold space for all people – especially those who are neurodivergent.
What are the benefits of a neurodiverse workplace?
It’s no secret that diverse workplaces are more successful. Research shows that diverse and inclusive teams are often more creative and innovative, they make better (and faster) decisions, and even drive increases in revenue. This is particularly true for neurodiverse workplaces, where neurodivergence can become a competitive advantage.
Instead of viewing neurodivergence as a deficiency, it’s critical to readjust your thinking. For example, many people have a negative bias regarding ADHD. Those with ADHD are often incorrectly labeled as impulsive, lazy and forgetful, and many assume the condition only impacts young, white men. In reality, ADHD is estimated to impact 3.4% of adults worldwide, and it often goes undiagnosed in women and in marginalized communities, especially among people who are Black or Latino.
Historically, ASD and ADHD have been viewed as “bad,” but there’s rising evidence to suggest the contrary. In fact, many of the world’s top athletes, artists, performers and entrepreneurs are neurodivergent. Perspective is everything, and neurodivergent people can truly thrive when they are placed in companies and positions that match their skills, interests and abilities.
For example, did you know…
- People with ADHD are often more creative, better at thinking outside of the box and more willing to take risks
- Autistic professionals can demonstrate skills like higher attention to detail, the ability to focus for long periods of time as well as high levels of trustworthiness, reliability and integrity
- Neurodivergent employees can be up to 140% more productive than other employees, even when compared to those who have been at the company for five to ten years
Neurodivergence can be a massive benefit to the workplace at large. When companies only hire specific types of people, it’s easy to get “stuck” in a certain way of thinking. Embracing the full spectrum of neurodiversity at work is a great way to invite new and unique perspectives into your organization.
How can workplaces support neurodivergent employees?
As organizations recognize the value of neurodiversity, it’s not enough to simply hire people who are neurodivergent. Every individual is unique, meaning they bring different skills, talents and experiences to the table. However, great employees can only thrive in the right environment. While this is true for everyone, it’s even more important when it comes to supporting people who are neurodivergent.
Here are some tips to help:
1. Pay attention to your company culture.
When it comes to supporting neurodivergent employees, start by addressing your company culture. There’s a difference between saying you value diversity, equity and inclusion, and actively demonstrating your commitment to those values.
Employees thrive in environments where they feel a sense of belonging and support, and this is especially true for neurodivergent employees. One academic report interviewed autistic people who emphasized that “flexible, accepting workplaces, supportive and respectful supervisors, and direct communication,” were vital to supporting success at work.
2. Be proactive with accommodations.
Another key to supporting neurodivergent employees is through workplace accommodations. From a legal perspective, many types of neurodivergence are considered disabilities – including ASD, ADHD, dyslexia and more. This means neurodivergent employees are protected from discrimination under Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As part of the ADA, employees are also entitled to reasonable accommodations in the workplace.
These accommodations vary from person to person, but there are many things you can do to make your workplace more accessible to neurodivergent people. Things like:
- Private offices and/or designated quiet areas
- Access to noise-cancelling headphones and/or the ability to listen to music while working
- Adjustable lighting and temperature
- Remote and/or hybrid work options
- Flexible work schedules
- Written or typed instructions or task lists
Keep in mind that none of these accommodations are about lowering standards of performance or eliminating essential duties. Instead, as the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) notes, “Implementing these types of supports and accommodations in the workplace…means modifying the work environment or enhancing the way to perform and complete tasks in a manner than can help workers successfully perform their job duties.”
3. Update your hiring process.
When it comes to supporting neurodiversity in the workplace, inclusive recruiting and hiring practices are critically important. If you want to attract and hire neurodivergent candidates, start by:
- Auditing your job postings and hiring process, ensuring they’re as accessible as possible
- Using non-interview assessment techniques
- Shifting away from relying solely on “personality-focused” hiring strategies
- Emphasizing training to combat bias in hiring professionals
It’s important to remember that most job advice is written by and for neurotypical individuals. This advice might not work for people who are neurodivergent, especially for autistic people, who may feel pressured to mask autistic traits both in the hiring process and at work, which can lead to stress, depression and burnout.
4. Don’t skimp on training.
Finally, creating an inclusive workplace requires a strong emphasis on training. This shouldn’t just apply to new hires or neurodivergent employees – ensuring that onboarding and training processes are accessible and accommodating – but also training team members, managers, human resources and leadership.
According to one survey, 64% of neurodivergent employees believe their organizations aren’t doing enough to support people who are neurodivergent. In fact, 34% reported difficulties with the hiring process, 56% experienced communication issues at work, and 61% encountered stigma at the office.
Unfortunately, only 23% of HR professionals and 29% of senior leadership have received training on neurodiversity within the last 12 months, according to a U.K. survey. This highlights a major opportunity for organizations to tap into training and development on both sides.
The Bottom Line
Understanding and embracing neurodiversity in the workplace is a massive differentiator. Not only does this allow organizations to tap into increasingly diverse talent pools, but it also plays an important role in combatting the stigma around autism, ADHD, dyslexia and other types of neurodivergence. While change is difficult, creating space for neurodivergent employees to thrive can drive both individual performance and organizational success.
Jandra Sutton is a public relations manager at Vaco Holdings in Nashville. She’s also a content creator and ADHDer who loves writing about mental health, productivity and the future of work. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, Entrepreneur, Business Insider and Fast Company, to name a few.
Mike Smith is a neurodiverse INTP ADHDer who heads internal talent acquisition for the Northeast and leads finance sourcing efforts for priority Vaco jobs nationwide. He is a passionate content curator and contributor, both for his personal network and for Vaco. He is passionate about writings that position neurodiversity as a superpower, and he loves to share uplifting stories and thoughts on the power of positivity.