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How to embrace neurodiversity in the workplace

7 strategies for unleashing the potential of neurodivergent employees 

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Eagle Hill Consulting’s research on neurodiversity in the workplace shows that awareness and action around neurodiversity in the workplace still has a long way to go. 

Neurodivergent employees can add tremendous value to any workplace, with skills and talents such as unique problem-solving; innovation and creativity; heightened attention to detail, accuracy, and concentration; analytical thinking; technical skills; reliability; and perseverance. Yet, organizations can and should do more, both to hire neurodivergent employees and equip them to succeed. 

Here are 7 strategies to help your organization embrace neurodiversity in the workplace and empower neurodivergent employees to reach their full potential

1. Make neurodiversity part of your DEI strategy

Organizational DEI strategies often prioritize visible forms of diversity (such as race, gender, and ethnicity) while overlooking invisible forms of diversity, including neurodiversity. Compounded by a general lack of awareness and understanding about neurodiversity in the workplace, it’s not surprising that neurodivergent individuals often feel excluded from diversity initiatives. 

Organizations can actively embrace neurodiversity by making neurodiversity an integral part of their DEI efforts. To start, clearly define “neurodiversity” in your DEI strategy and how it fits into your organization’s broader commitment to DEI. 

When formulating DEI strategies and policies, it’s critical to solicit employee voices and perspectives across all different facets of diversity, including neurodiversity, through a combination of anonymized surveys, interviews, and “live” listening sessions. Regular employee feedback and input will help your organization keep a pulse on the nuances of different employee group’s needs. Then, you can use that information to tailor specific DEI initiatives and practices accordingly. 

When implementing DEI strategies, be sure to monitor employee sentiment to evaluate how well existing DEI initiatives are improving the employee experience for each group and what further actions may be needed to drive more meaningful change. Using specific examples, communicate with employees as to how their feedback has led to improvements across the workplace and is contributing to a vibrant, neurodiverse workplace.

Benefits consideration

Employer-sponsored healthcare plans should cover services and treatments frequently utilized and needed by neurodivergent individuals, such as executive functioning counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, social skills groups, and pragmatic speech counseling.

2. Revamp traditional hiring approaches

Stereotypical ideas of the soft skills that make someone a “good job candidate”—friendly, outgoing demeanor; great eye contact and conversation skills; apparent confidence—are based on norms that place neurodivergent 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. Your hiring managers may need to reassess their characterization of top talent and ask questions in a manner that allows them to accurately assess a candidate’s skill. For example, some interviewees may struggle with open-ended questions, and do much better when conversation is specific and to the point. 

Furthermore, because neurodivergent candidates are not required to disclose their condition prior to, during, or after an interview, interviewers must learn to recognize candidates’ potential differences and have the know-how to adapt their interview style so that all candidates feel welcome.

Finally, to attract more neurodivergent employees to your candidate pool, ensure your organization’s values, vision, and mission statement reflect a strong culture of inclusivity. Company communications, including your HR policy, employee handbook, and job descriptions, should reflect this commitment. 

3. Foster an inclusive culture, beginning with a check for biases

As both leaders and coworkers, we need to check how our biases may affect how we treat neurodivergent employees and prevent us from fully supporting neurodivergence in the workplace. Limited understanding of the breadth of neurodiversity means many people think neurodiversity always presents in certain ways. This misconception can lead to neurodivergent employees feeling excluded—IF they even get hired.

Focus on creating an open and supportive culture where people feel comfortable talking about neurodiversity. To raise awareness, understanding, and empathy around neurodiversity in the workplace, run an information campaign leveraging multiple pieces of content (e.g., videos, infographics) through a variety of channels (e.g., in-person meetings, online communications) to reach all employees. 

Raising awareness among all staff of neurodiversity and the importance of a neuroinclusive workplace can help to build understanding and consideration of others’ working styles and preferences. Start talking about neurodiversity, based on an understanding of what it means and its benefits for teams and organizations. 

People will more readily ask for the workplace supports or adjustments they need to perform at their best, if they feel psychologically safe that others won’t judge or make inaccurate assumptions. This will lead to practices that help neurodivergent employees feel welcome, productive, and successful.

4. Redefine employee engagement

Most of us have preconceived ideas of what engagement looks and sounds like. However, neurodivergent employees might not show their engagement in a task or conversation in typical ways. For example, lack of eye contact is a common marker of neurodivergence, so throw out your assumption that eye contact alone indicates competency and respect.

Another common marker of neurodivergent employees is stimming. Stimming is repetitive movements or noises such as rocking, tapping, humming, chewing on an object, hand movements, or watching something that is visually stimulating. These actions can bring comfort and help neurodivergent individuals cope with overwhelming situations. You can support employees by encouraging them to express themselves freely and providing fidget toys to those who want them.

Participation in meetings might also look a little different for neurodivergent employees. Whether it’s in a Zoom meeting or around a conference table, some neurodivergent employees may find certain noises to be overwhelming, making it difficult for them to participate. Others may take over the conversation when they are passionate about the subject matter, unintentionally drowning out other opinions. Respectful leadership during these meetings can help make sure everyone feels heard without being put on the spot.

Tips for engagement

  • It’s common for neurodivergent individuals to want to stick to a routine. Allow employees to work set hours or days, and to give plenty of advance notice if plans must change. 
  • Similarly, people with ADHD may struggle to sit through long meetings or stay focused for more than a few hours at a time. The ability to take regular breaks can be beneficial.

5. Level up DEI training for supervisors and explore additional career supports 

Equip leaders to manage neurodivergent employees effectively by providing hands-on supervisory training, actionable strategies, and ongoing support. 

Train your managers to accept learning and cognitive differences and explore alternative approaches to work. Encourage them to take a strengths-based approach when assigning tasks, focusing on leveraging the talents of neurodivergent employees, rather than on their limitations. Finally, teach supervisors to provide structured feedback at regular intervals, with actionable steps to support neurodivergent employees in their career growth. DEI enhancements such as these not only build key leadership skills, but they also signal to neurodivergent employees that the organization respects and wants to lessen their struggles. 

Apart from training supervisors, your organization may also consider creating mentorship and professional development opportunities for neurodivergent employees. To build an effective mentoring program, you can reach out to community groups that support people diagnosed with neurological and developmental conditions. These groups often can provide practical solutions aimed at creating a welcoming and supportive environment.

6. Communicate clearly

Some neurodivergent employees (particularly those with ADHD) struggle with executive function (for example, organization skills, time management, problem-solving, and planning). Ambiguity surrounding timelines and expectations can cause more stress than usual for these employees.

When leaders assign tasks to neurodivergent employees, it is important to provide context and reasoning behind the task. Break down assignments for neurodivergent employees and provide clear and concise instructions (written and verbal). People with neurodivergent conditions may struggle with processing information quickly, so this approach helps them understand what’s expected of them. 

Similarly, employees with autism may become confused if messages aren’t conveyed in a straightforward way. For this reason, managers and team members should avoid sarcasm, euphemisms, or idioms. Instead, provide concise verbal and written instructions for tasks, ideally in a “scripted” or stepwise fashion.

7. Consider neurodivergent employees when designing office space

Organizations should solicit all employees’ input when it comes to workplace design, so that the physical spaces where individuals work are optimized to help them meet their individual needs and realize their potential. 

For example, to best support neurodivergent employees, organizations should create a sensory-friendly workspace by minimizing bright lights and noise (providing quiet spaces or noise-canceling headphones, for instance). 

If you’re not able to adequately accommodate neurodivergent employees in your current office space layout, consider your neurodivergent employees in your return-to-work plan. Working from home or providing the option to close an office door can be the perfect solution for those who need to eliminate outside distraction, so they can stim freely without distracting others.

Workplace accommodation considerations

  • Minimized exposure to noisy, bright, and overstimulating offices. Provide noise-canceling headphones, quiet workspaces, additional breaks, and special equipment or other technological aids.  
  • Flexible work arrangements to accommodate the needs of neurodivergent employees who may benefit from remote work or alternative schedules. Remote work offers greater control over one’s environment, which can be particularly advantageous for individuals with sensory sensitivities or social challenges.