7 Ways To Support Neurodiversity In The Workplace
We’ve all come across people within the workplace who seem a little different. Perhaps they don’t like to talk quite as much as other people, but are meticulous and analytical thinkers. Maybe they never seem to be able to focus on one task for too long, but are stunningly creative with seemingly limitless energy. You may even be one of these people. Such qualities are associated with neurodiversity, and nowhere near as rare as you might imagine. In fact, 30-40% of the population is estimated to be neurodiverse.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity describes the concept that people interact with and experience the world in a variety of different ways, and that there is a whole spectrum of ‘normality’ when it comes to how the human brain operates. Additionally, just because certain neurological traits are less common, doesn’t mean they aren’t normal, or indicative of a medical condition. The term ‘neurodiversity’ is believed to have been first coined by US journalist Harvey Blume in 1998, who went on to state that “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.” All humans vary in terms of our neurocognitive ability, and everyone has talents as well as things they struggle with. For neurodiverse people, however, the variation between each of these can be more pronounced. This can result in extraordinary talents, but can also sometimes cause significant struggle. Although most people associate neurodivergence with autism, the term also incorporates individuals with ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysnomia, dyscalculia and Tourette’s syndrome.
Within the workplace, it’s commonly accepted that diversity of thought is one of the biggest drivers of progress, and neurodiverse employees are the kings and queens of thinking differently - we only need consider some of history’s great ND innovators, such as Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Isaac Newton. It’s not surprising, therefore, that organisations willing to embrace and promote neurodiverse talent can gain a significant competitive advantage. To explore this topic further, let’s examine seven practical ways companies can support neurodiverse employees in the workplace.
1. Revamp your hiring practices
Most of us have a stereotypical idea of what makes a ‘good candidate’: someone with great eye contact who’s friendly and personable, a skilled communicator, with bags of confidence. However, these notions are based on superficial norms that place neurodiverse candidates at a disadvantage. For instance, candidates with autism may find it difficult to maintain eye contact with an interviewer, and an interviewee with ADHD may appear easily distracted and hop between topics. Hiring managers, therefore, may need to reassess their own ideas of what top talent looks like at the interview stage. It’s also vital that employers are asking the right questions in order to properly assess a candidate’s skill. For instance, interviewees with autism may struggle with open-ended questions, instead preferring to be specific and to the point. It’s important to remember that for neurodiverse individuals, a CV is unlikely to tell the whole story. For instance, just 21.7% of autistic people are employed, which is not a reflection of their abilities but rather lack of accommodation within the workforce. Remember, no neurodivergent candidate is required to disclose their condition to you prior to, during, or after an interview. It’s therefore useful to make it clear during the application process that you welcome ND candidates, so that they feel comfortable disclosing this at the outset of the process.
2. Be ready and willing to accommodate
Some neurodiverse employees may be more sensitive to noisy, bright, and overstimulating environments. You may therefore need to provide them with somewhere quiet to work, where they’ll face fewer distractions. Similarly, people with ADHD may struggle to sit through long meetings, or stay focused for more than a few hours at a time. Here, the ability to take regular breaks and benefit from a flexible working schedule can be very helpful. It’s also vital to be accommodating even of common neurodivergencies such as dyslexia. For instance, employers should be aware that this condition does not only affect a person’s ability to read and spell, but can also impact information recall, the ability to meet deadlines, follow complex instructions, and more. This should be taken into account when planning a dyslexic employee’s workload.
3. Communicate clearly
Employees with autism may become confused if messages aren’t conveyed in a simple way. For this reason, it’s useful for employers to avoid sarcasm, euphemisms, or idioms, and to provide concise verbal and written instructions for tasks. Additionally, it’s helpful to provide guidance to employees on workplace etiquette, as what may seem obvious to a neurotypical employee may not be obvious for a neurodivergent one. It’s also common for people with autism to want to stick to a routine, and not to have plans disrupted last minute. It can therefore be very helpful to enable them to work set hours or days, and to give plenty of advance notice if plans are changing. And, as always, be patient, be kind, and avoid making assumptions if a neurodivergent employee breaks a rule – chances are, it wasn’t intentional.
4. Provide the right training and coaching
Neurodiversity training can serve several different purposes. Firstly, it can help organisations to attract, hire and retain talent that thinks differently. It can enable employees to be more understanding and accommodating of their colleagues’ differences, and what they can do to help them succeed. Training can also assist management in understanding the challenges that some team members can face, and the ways in which they can best offer support. Neurodiversity training can also benefit ND employees themselves, by demonstrating that an organisation is empathetic to their struggles, as well as providing them with coping strategies and even training on assistive technologies when appropriate. Finally, it’s really important that management as well as employees at all levels of the company receive education on the benefits that different ways of thinking can bring to the workplace. Otherwise, ideas that come from neurodivergent team members are far more likely to be dismissed.
5. Engage with community groups
Your organisation may be ready to reap the benefits of hiring neurodiverse talent, but you still may find it tricky to attract enough applications from ND candidates. This applies especially to applicants whose neurodivergencies may be more outwardly obvious, such as those with Tourette’s or autism, whose confidence may be low. It can therefore be a great idea for organisations to form a relationship with community groups that work with neurodiverse individuals on a regular basis, such as non-profits, government agencies, vocational rehab centres, or educational institutions. Organisations such as these can be beneficial not only in terms of recruitment, but can also be useful sources of advice and training.
6. Commit to recruitment targets
Back in 2013, German software company SAP launched its Autism at Work programme, and has set a target that 1% of the its workforce will soon be made up of autistic employees – a proportion in line with the general population. Professional services network Ernst & Young have set similar targets, and IMB have also committed to making their hiring process fully neurodiversity friendly. Although it’s still early days for most of these programmes, managers say they are already paying off in numerous ways including gains in productivity, quality improvement, boosts in innovation, and an increase in employee engagement. With clear benefits such as these, there’s no reason your organisation shouldn’t set similar recruitment targets and start reaping the benefits.
7. Use positive, inclusive language
It’s vital that your ND employees realise that they are a valued and respected part of your company, so ensure your organisation’s values, vision, and mission statement reflect a strong culture of inclusivity. All company communications, whether it be your HR policy, employee handbook, advertisements or job descriptions, should reflect this commitment. This strong public stance will also have the added benefit of attracting more neurodiverse individuals to apply for positions with your company.
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