Work can be an intimidating and frustrating experience for neurodivergent individuals, as they can struggle to fit in with coworkers and adhere to organizational culture expectations. Conversely, employers and colleagues can feel challenged when working with neurodivergent team members. Through awareness and a few workplace changes, the benefits connected to a neurodiverse workforce can be optimized.
As the world of work continues to evolve, neurodiversity is getting more attention. This begs the question - how will your organization adjust to employees’ growing demand for recognition and workplace modifications?
The best way to find an answer to this is by first understanding what neurodiversity is and looks like.
According to Harvard Medical School, “Neurodiversity describes 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.” Statistically speaking, 15-20% of the world’s population is neurodivergent. Dyslexia, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) represent, in order, the three most common types of neurodivergence.
So, how can an organization foster neurodiversity at work?
The key concept surrounding neurodiversity is to improve inclusivity for all people. This requires recognition of each individual’s skills, abilities, and strengths, as well as support for their differences. Many organizations, supervisors, and teams may already be adjusting their routines and practices. Raising awareness and intentionally modifying etiquette can ensure employers and employees don’t miss out on the significant opportunities a neurodiverse workforce provides. Here are some examples of how to promote a neurodiverse work environment:
- For Sound Sensitivity: provide quiet spaces or white noise areas, give advance notice of auditory disruptions such as loud noises or consistent sound (tapping, hammering) whenever possible, and allow noise-cancelling headphones to be worn in the workplace.
- For Motion Sensitivity: conduct standing or walking meetings, allow fidget toys or other movement tools, provide stretch/yoga spaces for brief movement breaks, and invite alternative seating options (exercise balls, floor cushions, etc.).
- For Touch Sensitivity: allow physical space differences (patting on back, no touching, handshakes or fist pumps only, 3-6 feet between people, etc.) and alternative surfaces and equipment (smooth or textured work surface, fabric/wood/metal/plastic seating, feel of writing utensil, etc.).
When an organization encourages a few basic “rules of the road”, it can dramatically increase employee engagement, innovation, creativity, and productivity. For example, DO place focus on communicating clearly and concisely – avoid implied messages or meaning. Be ready to break tasks down into small steps to ensure understanding and work with individuals to identify their preferred learning style; some may learn best with written instructions while others thrive through auditory direction. And, whenever possible, announce any changes to plans in advance to give people a chance to adjust to this change.
However, DON’T make assumptions. Before interpreting someone’s behavior, ask them about their preferences, needs, and goals. Inform people of workplace etiquette before accusing someone of rudeness or rule breaking, and provide the opportunity for individuals to ask clarifying questions that foster understanding.
Mentra has also put together a list of their ‘Top Ten Accommodations’ for neurodiverse employees that can be very helpful:
- Noise Cancelling Headphones
- Written, concise instructions
- Uninterrupted work time
- Interviewer experienced with neurodiversity
- Flexible schedule
- Email/Calendar organization
- Extra time
- Job coaching or mentoring
- Allowance of fidgeting devices
- Closed captioning and recorded meetings
Neurodivergent individuals may be overlooked in traditional recruiting practices and that is a definite loss in talent for organizations. Work environments that acknowledge and support neurodiversity can outperform their competitors through innovation, engagement, dedication, and output. But without the right tools, training (a recent study found that only 23% of HR professionals have had specific neurodiversity training in the last year), and workplace practices, many employers can find themselves struggling to gain access to this vast pool of talent.
Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020