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Neurodiversity at work and how to accommodate it

There has been a significant rise in attention paid to mental health at workplaces. Many discussions are going on about diversity, inclusivity and wellbeing for both employers and talents. Yet, there is an issue that sometimes goes overlooked in these conversations: neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity can be a hard topic to talk about: it’s a relatively new area for many, but not for those who live their lives experiencing it. There is a discrepancy between the neurodivergent workforce and unaware employers. For the benefit of everyone, it needs to be addressed and eliminated. As a neurodivergent worker, I wanted to write this article to inform and show any reader the reality of living and working as a neurodivergent professional.

What is neurodiversity?

Nicole Baumer, MD, MEd explains neurodiversity  as “… the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.

The term “neurodiversity” stands for differences in cognitive abilities as an umbrella term. It refers to neurological and developmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia.

This concept might remind you of mental health, however, the two are not the same. Mental health encompasses psychological conditions. It refers to conditions like depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar personality disorder. Neurodiversity, on the other hand, is about neurological variables that manifest as differences in:

  • learning
  • processing new information
  • behavior and executive function.

We all are part of a society that has only recently tried to understand neurodivergent individuals. There are a lot of stereotypes about this community, insensitive words such as “unmotivated”, “lazy”, “slow”, or “difficult” are thrown around. These adjectives, of course, do not pair well with a prospective talent. This lack of awareness is among the reasons why almost 80% of the neurodivergent population in the US, for example, is currently unemployed.

What is the experience of the neurodivergent community?

As an adult woman who got her ADHD diagnosis only a couple of years ago, I can sum up life as a neurodivergent individual as confusing and exhausting, especially when you’re not diagnosed and don’t have the right tools. We live in a world set up for neurotypical individuals, from our school schedules to standardized tests, exams, work, job interviews, even friendships.

Imagine yourself being confused by how effortlessly other people learn, complete their tasks, set goals, stick to schedules, complete projects or do other tasks that are sometimes impossible to do–no matter how much you want to do them. Being considered as “lazy” or “slow” is upsetting for neurodiverse people, because we already feel extremely upset when we see our differences highlighted in people’s expectations of us.

The reality is, our brains just work in a different way. We can learn very effectively using different tools. A person on the autism spectrum might not feel comfortable maintaining eye contact. Which might make them seem like they’re uninterested, rude or distracted. But, that person would perform better at, let’s say online meetings, if they’re allowed to turn off their camera and focus on the discussion. A person with ADHD might have difficulty finding motivation to start a task, as ADHD is related to dopamine deficiency. However, provided with the right professional motivation, you’ll see that they perform excellently at high-pressure roles.

Neurodiversity at work

The historical trend for neurodivergent employment is disheartening. But there has been some effort put forward into hiring and training neurodivergent professionals. Recently, companies including Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, Ford and SAP have transformed their HR recruitment processes to attract neurodiverse talents. Many others like IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Caterpillar, Dell Technologies and Deloitte are also working towards implementing a similar change.

This is because employers have started to realize neurodiversity is not something to be apprehensive of. Rather, it is something that can be the missing link to success. Companies that spend the time on educating themselves about neurodiversity “look at the pool of diverse humanity and see—in the middle—the range of different thinking that’s made humanity’s progress in science and the creative arts possible”, as scholar in residence and co-chair of the Neurodiversity Working Group at the College of William & Mary, John Elder Robison points out.

Teams with neurodivergent professionals in some roles can be 30% more productive than those without. Research shows that neurodivergent people can be more inclined to:

  • have stronger skills in mathematics, memory and pattern recognition,
  • spot irregularities quicker,
  • sustain attention to detail,
  • keep focused on repetitive or complex tasks for a longer time.

All of these are excellent skills for succeeding at a career. Employing neurodiverse talents can seem challenging at first, and this is true in some sense. If an employer wants to be accommodating to neurodivergent professionals, they will need to face and unlearn their prejudices and adjust their recruitment and management style accordingly.

How to accommodate neurodiversity at work

By willing to put the necessary effort, employers make neurodiverse talents feel more welcomed at work. Here are some tips on how you can make your neurodivergent talents feel welcomed and address their needs.

Change your recruitment process

Let’s start at the beginning. If you’re looking to transform your company into a welcoming organization for neurodiverse talents, you should start with reconsidering your hiring process.

One idea can be emphasizing your efforts in accommodating neurodiversity in your job listings. For the interview process, you can try departing from the standard back-to-back online interviews and offer different assignment options for candidates to show their skills. Also, you can do the interviews with a group of candidates, allowing neurodivergent people who have difficulty with one-on-one meetings to communicate more easily.

Offer different work models

Several articles and research papers prove that the remote working model has a positive impact on mental health. This can be true for neurodiversity as well. For example, one of the difficulties some people on the autism spectrum go through is “masking”. Masking is the term for the behavioral change neurodivergent people willingly perform in order to fit in or blend with their environment.

This can help imagine how difficult working at an office would be for a neurodivergent person. Feeling the need to “mask” every single day requires great energy. This psychological would in turn cause a decline in performance. That is one of the reasons neurodivergent people might feel more comfortable working remotely. In the end, a working space perfectly tailored to one’s needs is hard to come by in traditional offices.

Operating with flexible working models allows employees to make the best decision for themselves to perform at their best. On the other hand, some neurodivergent people might find flexibility overwhelming. For example, organization, self-scheduling and time management are usually skills weaker in people with ADHD. An employee with ADHD might perform much better if they are given a set schedule, deadlines and clear instructions.

Just like how companies integrate “flexibility” differently, the same can be said for neurodivergent people. They can be comfortable with flexibility to some extent, but might need help in some areas. The key concept here is autonomy. If your talents feel that they have the freedom to choose how they work, they might be more open to trying out new tools to make flexibility work for them, like digital management and organization programs.

Provide resources

There are resources that can help create a welcoming environment to neurodiverse talents. Some of them are for in-office models and some for remote work settings. These resources can include:

  • Professional counseling
  • Health insurance coverage for psychiatric treatment
  • Dedicated quiet areas in the office
  • Mental health sick days protected by company policies

Train other workers and managers

It’s always important to keep learning. If you value transforming your organization with the changing landscape of society, you can train all talents (including team leads and managers) on the correct ways to accommodate neurodiversity in the workplace.

You don’t need to arrange training and write up guides from scratch by yourself. You can use outside sources on neurodiversity to educate yourself and your employees. CIPD, a non-profit HR and development organization has an amazing guide to neurodiversity at work to check out for a start.

Communicate

Social interactions and communication might be harder than usual for neurodivergent people. You can alleviate this challenge by directly asking your neurodivergent talent what you can do in order to make them comfortable enough to effectively communicate. Conversational, professional and social cues might also be harder to recognize for neurodivergent professionals. Thus, codifying implied rules might be immensely helpful.

One important thing to remember is that all neurodivergent people are different. Neurological and cognitive conditions present in different ways for different people. Not every person on the autism spectrum has the same sensitivities. And not every person with ADHD has problems controlling hyperactivity.

When I was diagnosed with ADHD, my psychiatrist explained how differently ADHD presents itself in women when compared to men. To give an example, one of the most well-known ADHD symptoms, hyperactivity, very rarely presents in women.

Final notes

If you’re an employer: Communication is key to effectively working with neurodivergent people. Employers should ask their neurodiverse talents their needs and expectations at a workplace. They should be willing to figure out how to implement the necessary changes. Remember to stay empathetic to conditions you might not experience or understand yourself but affect people every day.

If you’re a neurodivergent professional, you can start the conversation by having a chat with your team lead. Try to communicate what tools or changes you would require to keep working at your best. Neurodivergent people aren’t “lacking” because of their condition. There is nothing to be ashamed of if you require different accommodations. This conversation might be difficult to have, but it might lead to a better working environment for you in the end.

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Işınsu Unaran
Fascinated by new media and storytelling, wholeheartedly enjoys the dynamic landscape of content creation. Enthusiastic about workers' rights, women's rights, and mental health among many things.

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