Why Supporting Neurodiversity in the Workplace Needs to be a Priority

CoachHub · 7 September 2022 · 7 min read

Imagine living in a world where everyone else understands each other. Nobody seems to say what they mean, and everyone thinks you’re difficult or weird or mean, or all the above. 

Now, imagine that same world is your workplace. Your employer claims to be diverse and inclusive. But, your boss disciplines, or fires you for exhibiting the same differences they hired you for. How would you feel? Gaslit? Like you were on an episode of The Twilight Zone? 

At least 20% of the adult population identifies as neurodivergent. If you don’t think you currently have any neurodiversity in your workforce, think again. 

To become more inclusive, employers must learn what it’s like to be neurodivergent in a world designed with only neurotypical people in mind. 

That’s a difficult prospect. 75% of neurodivergent employees do not disclose their status to their boss or human resources (HR) department. Moreover, 50% of employees who do disclose later regret that they did.

“Having disclosed an autism diagnosis, it’s open season on my social and verbal communication skills if the manager doesn’t like me.”

 

“My first few staff reports started with the words ‘this officer will never be suitable for promotion as he is dyslexic.”

 

“I’ve been badly bullied and abused. One employer fired me and said, ‘employers want people who can be normal.’’

– National Autistic Society, 2016; Westminster Achieve Ability

Commission, 2018

What is neurodiversity? What is neurodivergence?

We’ve thrown around some complex terms – neurodiversity and neurodivergence. What do those two words mean?

 

Neurodiversity

The concept of neurodiversity emerged in the 1990s. Autistic sociologist, Judy Singer used it first. But what does it mean? 

According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN):

“Neurodiversity refers to variation in neurocognitive functioning. It is an umbrella term that encompasses neurocognitive differences.” 

Neurocognitive differences include:

  • Autism (ASD)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Dyslexia
  • Tourette syndrome
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Depression
  • Intellectual disability
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder 
  • And ‘normal’ neurocognitive functioning, or neurotypicality

The idea of neurodiversity includes neurotypical people because no two brains are the same. But, neurodiversity also encompasses the inclusion of all types of neurological functioning. 

 

Neurodivergence and Neurodivergent

Neurodivergence refers to having an atypical neurological development or neurological state. A neurodivergent person is someone who’s brain processing differs from a neurotypical person. 

It’s important to note that people are not neurodiverse. For example, one may have a neurodiverse group of people made up of neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals. 

Many websites define neurodiversity as autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Tourette’s Syndrome. But neurodiversity encompasses all types of neurology.  Thus, a neurodivergent person is anyone who has a learning difference, neurological developmental difference or neurological processing difference. It’s an identity-based term and not a diagnosis. 

neurodiversity

Common challenges for neurodivergent employees

Most neurodivergent individuals have had others define their identity and way of being for them. Everyone from teachers to parents and employers have told them what it means to be them and what their limitations are. 

Many neurodivergent people also experience people denying or downplaying a diagnosis. Other common experiences include, bullying, gaslighting and social isolation. Some neurodivergent employees master the art of “masking” neurodivergence to “fit in.” The last strategy is exhausting and many neurodivergent employees experience burnout. Others leave the workforce. 

The unemployment rate for neurodivergent adults is somewhere between 30% and 80%. That’s three times higher than for other disabilities. It’s eight times higher than people without disabilities

So far, we’ve only explored challenges that “invisible” neurodivergent employees face at work. What about employees hired because of a specific diagnosis (e.g., autism)?  Perhaps they are non-speaking and use assistive communication. Maybe they self-regulate by rocking, pacing, vocalizing, etc.

Both “visible” and “invisible” neurodivergent employees face similar challenges:

  • Segregation and isolation from colleagues
  • Lack of advancement opportunities
  • Underemployment 
  • Unemployment 
  • Discrimination
  • Prejudice
  • Gossip 
  • Bullying
  • Disciplinary action, including dismissal
  • Ableism

In addition to the above issues, many neurodivergent employees will have more than one neurological difference or diagnosis. For example, an autistic employee might also have ADHD and dyspraxia. 

There are also challenges that are less general and more specific to a particular neurodivergent individual. As with any other human being, it’s not okay to make assumptions about challenges based on a disclosed or nondisclosed, visible or invisible difference. For example, one would never say to a female employee, “you’re a woman, therefore you find X difficult and need Y as a result.” It’s always best to ask a neurodivergent person what their specific challenges are and if there are preferred accommodations that can help prevent or alleviate those specific challenges.

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How to support neurodiversity in the workplace

If the challenges faced by neurodivergent employees and the necessary accommodations they need to succeed at work are often specific to the individual, how can an employer support neurodiversity in the workplace? What about when an employee hasn’t disclosed a diagnosis that falls within the neurodivergent category?

 

Communicate with your neurodivergent employees

They may or may not need or want accommodations. Don’t make assumptions based on their neurodivergent status or their specific diagnoses. Don’t make assumptions based on your own experiences. Instead, ask them. 

If a neurodivergent employee communicates in a way that is different from most neurotypical people, don’t assume they can’t understand you. If they have a coach or assistant, treat the coach the same way you would an interpreter for a person who speaks a different language from your own. That means speak to your neurodivergent employee and not the coach or assistant.

 

Provide quiet zones

Don’t force segregation of neurodivergent employees. Separating employees based on differences is never a good idea. 

Focus your neurodiversity efforts on all employees. Provide quiet zones or areas that any employee who needs to work in a quiet area can access. Make these areas optional to use and always available. 

If a neurodivergent employee needs their own dedicated quiet space, that’s ok too.

 

Make the entire facility sensory friendly

Don’t force people to sit under fluorescent lights or other bright overhead lighting. Use dimmer switches and provide desk lamps, so employees can dim overhead lights or turn them off. Avoid piping music throughout the entire organization. Not everyone likes to work or focuses well while music is playing. 

Allow employees to wear noise cancelling devices. Allow and support the use of fidget gadgets and don’t punish “fidgeting “or “stimming.” 

Normalize the need for sensory and focus breaks. Remove the stigma many neurodivergent individuals face for behaviors they don’t control, help them function and make them more productive, successful employees.

 

Use clear, concise, direct, inclusive communication

This is always a good idea with all people, inside and out of work. Clear, concise, direct, inclusive communication helps everyone in your company, but it’s critical for many neurodivergent employees. Also, in official documents, avoid wherever possible, non-literal language such as sarcasm, metaphor and common sayings (e.g., “don’t let the cat out of the bag,” “keep your eyes peeled,” etc.). Use inclusive language in all communication:

  • Job descriptions
  • Handbooks
  • Presentations
  • Documented processes and procedures
  • Emails
  • Instant messages
  • And other documents

In conversations, ask if an individual enjoys humor, metaphor, sarcasm or prefers to keep things literal. When in doubt, ask yourself how you would treat any other person regardless of differences or identity.

 

Embrace multiple communication styles

Is the way you judge applicants during interviews biased? Are your corporate trainings ableist? Do you penalize employees for behaviors that might be considered neurodivergent, regardless of disclosure or requests for accommodations? 

Evaluate and redefine traits that are often seen as desirable in the professional world. For example, is there more than one way to be “assertive,” express empathy, connect with others in meaningful ways beyond “small talk?”  

Some neurodivergent people use a style of communication to connect called “info-dumping” or better “information sharing.” This type of communication involves sharing information about an experience or interest with another person.  It’s a form of connecting with peers that’s often misunderstood. It’s different from the neurotypical way of connecting that involves “small-talk.” 

One way of connecting and communicating isn’t more correct, merely different. Normalizing different communication styles can help alleviate biases. It also serves to make all employees feel included, valued and understood which benefits everyone, including the company.

There are many other ways to support neurodiversity in your organization. Hiring neurodivergent people has innumerable benefits. People with neurocognitive differences can increase company innovation and bring unique ideas and ways of solving problems to the table. 

Moreover, rather than looking at neurodiversity and overall diversity and inclusion efforts through a commodity and resource lens, view employees as unique individuals and as diverse human beings. Doing so will then improve morale, increase innovation that can only result in stronger returns for the business.

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