by Brenna Fallon
Companies striving to build diversity, equity, and inclusion into their workplaces stand to benefit from adjusting their work culture to better accommodate neurodiverse employees.
Neurodiversity is one type of diversity that can greatly improve the range of perspectives within a workplace. However, the standardization of many workplaces makes inclusion difficult for many who are neurodiverse. With slight changes to norms and ways of thinking, workplaces could better accommodate these employees who have unique skills to offer.
The Kennedy Krieger Institute defines neurodiversity as “The range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of the normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autism: can also include people with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and other neurological conditions).”
Those unfamiliar with neurological differences may not understand how much of the population fits under this category. In America, 4.4% of adults have ADHD, 2.2% are autistic, and an estimated 2 – 3 million adults have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. These are just some of the many neurological differences that exist within the umbrella of neurodiversity.
Difficulties for Neurodivergent Workers
Neurodiverse people are already a part of workplaces everywhere, but many hurdles can make getting and keeping a job difficult. Some neurological differences, such as autism, fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, meaning larger employers (workplaces with more than 15 employees) are required to provide accommodations when requested. However, the stigma of identifying oneself as neurodivergent keeps some workers from seeking accommodations.
In a 2017 article for the Harvard Business Review, authors Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano point to standard interview practices as an early obstacle for neurodivergent adults in the workforce. The high-pressure social expectations of an interview setting can be challenging for those with neurological differences. Autistic interviewees specifically “often don’t make good eye contact, are prone to conversational tangents, and can be overly honest about their weaknesses.” While these qualities may have no impact on someone’s ability to perform in the job they are applying for, they often disqualify them from making a good impression in traditional interviews.
When neurodiverse workers make it through the application process, they face a decision: ‘Do I disclose my neurological difference to seek accommodations that improve my life and my work productivity, or do I subject myself to a more difficult work environment to avoid being thought of differently by my employers and peers?’
Dr. Jessica Hughes is a professor of communication at Millersville University, where her research focuses on the interconnection between discourse and society, social justice communication, and disability rights. “I think that there’s a lot of stigma around coming out as a person with neurocognitive differences, especially with regard to something like ADHD or mental illness,” she shared. “In a lot of professional spaces, owning up to those differences means others might suddenly call your competence into question.”
Deciding to disclose one’s neurodiversity can bring its own challenges to the workplace. Tony Impietro, a 24-year-old graduate student, has experienced this dilemma as someone with ADHD and autism.
“I always feel like, if I disclosed that to somebody, then they’re just going to treat me badly because ‘oh, that’s the autistic employee,” Impietro says. “I just want to work without the stigma.”
If an employee decides to disclose their neurodivergence and seek accommodations, it may be a small solution to a more significant issue within the workplace culture.
“A lot of times, from the HR perspective, accommodations are treated as addressing a problem located in the employee who is different. So that can be another hurdle, another layer of stigma.” Dr. Hughes explained, “Once someone comes out and says they have these differences and need accommodations, then its seen as kind of this checkbox, ‘well once we do those accommodations, then we’re done.’ A more proactive approach would be, ‘hey, you’re different. Well, what can we do to work together to change our work environment so that it’s accessible for you and for everybody?'”
Benefits of Neurodiversity in the Workplace
Though neurodiverse people can experience many difficulties in the workplace, their presence benefits their coworkers and their employers. Some neurological differences increase individuals’ skills, and diversity of all kinds has been shown to help work communities.
Fostering neurodiverse-friendly workplaces also bring economic benefits to companies.
As Austin and Pisano mention in the Harvard Business Review, “research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.” Similarly, both autism and ADHD can create an ability to ‘hyperfocus’ on tasks, letting one put maximal effort into a task or project.
Autistic individuals often develop “special interests,” topics or concepts they love learning about and working with. This can lead to advanced knowledge and skills in the subject of their focus. Impietro, for instance, is completing a master’s degree in space weather communication and attributes his passion to his special interest.
“I’ve always been interested in the weather, and that literally drove me to get an entire degree in meteorology. I hated half of it because of all the math, but I was just driven through because I just loved the weather.”
Similarly, Jay Margolis is a 23-year-old with a degree in biology who can thank his life-long special interest for his career.
“Researching biology, specifically ornithology and paleontology, has always been, as far back as I can remember, a special interest of mine,” Margolis says.
His special interest has evolved into a biology degree and upcoming participation in a doctorate program dedicated to studying owls.
“It’s definitely a benefit because I do not get tired of repeating the same information about birds over and over. It’s just great. I can info dump all day,” he says.
The ability to devote so much energy to one area can make autistic individuals benefit the workplace in ways many may not expect.
“I find myself very interested with interaction and like how interactions work and how to make interactions very easily understandable.” Lisa Shafer, a 25-year-old IT worker on the autism spectrum, explains. “I read a lot of books with a lot of dialogue as a kid because I liked learning how people talk to each other. All the jobs I’ve been good at have been customer service positions. I like helping other people and trying to figure out how to fix their problems. It’s stuff that I’m not naturally good at but have a lot of talent for because I’ve very carefully developed it for a long time.”
Neurodiverse workers can bring their array of different skills and experiences into the workplace, bringing fresh perspectives to the table. Dr. Hughes points out that this is a benefit of various forms of diversity.
“There’s lots and lots of group communication research that shows that diversity is a value in groups.” Hughes described, “So all differences are really great in any kind of group scenario because you’re bringing in a different way of seeing the world and different ways of understanding problems. All dimensions of diversity in the workplace are super valuable.”
Austin and Pisano point to another unexpected benefit of neurodiverse workplaces, “managers have begun thinking more deeply about leveraging the talents of all employees through greater sensitivity to individual needs.” In contrast to many companies’ goals to standardize as much as possible, developing workplaces that allow for flexibility gives employees the opportunities they need to be maximally productive.
Working Towards Inclusivity
As the general knowledge of the many different kinds of neurodiversity grows, so do the number of resources available to learn and share information about neurodiverse experiences. Dr. Hughes points to this as a resource for both employees and employers.
“I think there is more awareness now than there was even ten years ago about neurodiversity. There are a lot of great resources out there that people can use or pass along so that the burden of educating other people about their neurocognitive differences isn’t solely on them. Finding those resources and being able to share them, I think, is a way of alleviating the burden on the person who’s seeking accommodations.”
In addition to greater understanding, patience is a necessity when learning to work with those who may function differently.
“I think we just have to have more patience,” Margolis said about creating inclusive spaces. “Things that seem to be just annoying or something like that, it could just be neurodivergence.”
Impetrio shared similar thoughts, saying, “We want the same goals. We want to finish the same thing as efficiently as possible. Maybe our brains are making it difficult, but we know the ways to get through the problem.”
When working with a neurological difference, those who experience them often know best what they need.
“Talking with neurodivergent people about what would work for them and getting suggestions from workers about how to change process so that they are more accessible to everybody can be a great first step,” Hughes suggested.
“There are often good reasons why we have processes in place, but a lot of times, the reason is that ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’ It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most accessible way or even the most efficient way of doing things.” Hughes’s words speak to the lived experience of many neurodivergent workers. “When we’re all able to do our best work, in a maximally accessible environment, then the things that we produce end up being a better quality.”