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  1. Blog
  2. Diversity
  3. February 24, 2023

How to Foster & Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Plus, why inclusive management tactics mean better support for everyone

Puzzle pieces
Photo courtesy of Ashkan Forouzani

No two brains are exactly alike. Neurodiversity underlines the fact that people experience and interact with the world in many different ways—there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of learning, thinking, and behaving.

An estimated 15 to 20 percent of the population is neurodivergent. Despite how common it is, neurodivergent employees, and employees who are disabled, continue to face barriers and discrimination at work. Half of managers and leaders say they wouldn’t hire a neurodiverse employee, and workers with severe disabilities make around $1,000 less at their full-time jobs than their counterparts without disabilities. Additionally, the unemployment rate among people with autism spectrum disorder, which is among the conditions considered to be neurodivergent, remains high, with some estimates at over 80 percent.

Why does this happen? Ableism—discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities. Stereotypes, microaggressions, and blatant discrimination in hiring and promoting are common, since ableism is rooted in the belief that neurotypical people are superior.

“Many disabled people face discrimination throughout the hiring process,” says Emily Deaton, a disability expert at The Roots of Loneliness Project. “Even well-meaning employers may often have ableist beliefs about disabled people—for example, thinking that a person with a disability that affects [their] mobility means that person is automatically less intelligent or less qualified.” 

Here, learn more about neurodiversity, how it impacts the way people work, the benefits it brings to the workplace, and how managers can be more supportive and inclusive of neurodivergent employees. 

Read more: Ableism in the Workplace: What It Is & How to Combat It

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is a nonmedical umbrella term used to describe anyone living with neurological differences or altered cognitive function. Neurodiverse conditions can include ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, epilepsy, Down syndrome, and other learning disabilities. 

Judy Singer, a sociologist with autism, first introduced the term into scientific literature in the 1990s, emphasizing the idea that people with cognitive differences aren’t disabled, but rather have different ways of processing and relating to information.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Jessica January Behr says, “Neurodiversity is just another aspect of our diverse human presentation. Just as it’s important to make room for various cultural presentations in the workplace, allowing neurodivergent individuals the opportunity to work in the way that suits them best allows for a more fruitful and dynamic work environment and world.” 

Neurodiversity must be considered and incorporated into diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) plans and programming to build a truly inclusive and accepting workplace. 

“Workplaces aren’t lowering or changing standards by allowing for accommodations for neurodivergent individuals, but instead, they are allowing creativity and diversity in how their work gets done, understanding that there are many paths to reach the same destination,” says Behr.

Read more: Defining Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI): The Terms + Why They Matter Now More Than Ever

How neurodiversity benefits the workplace 

All workplaces should strive to be a safe, welcoming, judgment-free zone where anyone can be themself. Celebrating diversity always benefits the workplace, but it’s also simply the right thing to do. Everyone who wants and needs a job should feel respected. 

We already know diverse teams have competitive advantages. Investors want to invest in diverse companies, employees from diverse backgrounds add insight value, and diverse teams typically generate higher profit. Neurodiversity is just another piece of the pie—neurodivergent people have unique strengths and skills that position them as especially valuable employees.

For starters, research suggests teams with neurodivergent professionals in some roles can be 30 percent more productive than those without them. 

The National Autistic Society says people on the autism spectrum are more likely to have skills that are highly valued by employers, such as the ability to recognize patterns and irregularities and to focus on complex, repetitive tasks over a long period of time, with a high attention to detail. Plus, a report from JPMorgan Chase & Co found that professionals in its Autism at Work initiative made fewer errors and were 90 to 140 percent more productive than neurotypical employees. 

People with dyslexia tend to think outside the box and are more likely to produce innovative ideas—a sought-after quality for creative companies.

How to support neurodiverse employees at work

Each neurodivergent person is unique, and unfortunately, many workplaces weren’t built with neurodiverse populations in mind, creating accessibility challenges. As a result, neurodivergent employees sometimes require accommodations in order to reach their full working potential. 

“Neurodivergent individuals may have different social capacities than neurotypical individuals,” says Behr. They may require more or less breaks, movement, silence, or interaction than their neurotypical counterparts.”

It’s beneficial to embrace an open-minded approach to the different ways in which people work and communicate. When both employers and employees feel comfortable having discussions about neurodiversity and inclusion, it can help remove stigmas and increase a sense of belonging at work.

One of a manager’s main goals should be to create a supportive environment for employees and encourage everyone to bring their whole self to work. While many people with disabilities or neurodivergent conditions qualify for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), many employees won’t ask for accommodations unless they feel psychologically safe enough to do so.

Behr says managers can support neurodivergent employees by asking all employees their working preferences and habits. “Do you benefit from taking breaks, using a standing desk, working in groups, or working in silence? Getting a sense of everyone's preferences can increase both inclusivity and productivity in the workplace. Basically, this is a way for employers to offer accommodations to their staff to best support a diverse range of processes.”

It’s also so important to never make assumptions. Severe anxiety or depression, ADHD, and dyslexia are all cognitive disabilities that can have a significant impact on the lives of those they affect, but they aren’t always visible conditions. 

Basically, you never know what someone else is going through. Making comments about someone else’s behavior—how they’re always tired, or they never attend any company outings, or they can never focus on their work—can be extremely upsetting and harmful to people who are dealing with less-visible disabilities. 

“Offering alternative options for employees can help workplaces support their neurodivergent colleagues. Less rigidity in the requirements for how work gets done can be helpful,” says Behr. “Offer varying settings for quiet or more active work settings, standing and sitting options, social and solitary opportunities. If the emphasis in the workplace is adjusted to the quality of the output rather than a specific requirement for how the work is completed, it will increase inclusivity.”

There are several workplace adjustments managers can take to increase inclusivity: 

  • Accommodate any sensory needs, including those related to sound sensitivity (you can offer a quiet break space, communicate expected loud noises like fire drills, or offer noise-canceling headphones), touch (you can allow modifications to dress codes or uniforms), or movement (you can allow the use of fidget toys or offer flexible seating).

  • Use a clear communication style. Avoid sarcasm, euphemisms, and implied messages. Provide concise verbal and written instructions for tasks. 

  • Inform employees about workplace etiquette and don’t assume anyone is intentionally breaking rules or being rude.

  • Offer workplace training and culture-building exercises.

  • Give advance notice if plans are changing, when possible, and provide a reason for the change.

  • Stay away from office gossip and don’t make assumptions—ask about individual preferences, needs, and goals.

  • Offer flexible work hours, mental health days, or core work hours.

Overall, be kind and be patient. Leaders don’t have to wait until they hire a neurodivergent employee to start making necessary accommodations—these types of policies should be built into company culture from the very beginning, creating an inclusive and welcoming foundation. Managers can check in with direct reports often and ensure there’s ample room for discussion and feedback.

Read more: A Word-for-Word Guide to Discussing Mental Health with Direct Reports

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