What neurodiversity is and 9 ways to support neurodivergent people at work

What is neurodivergence?

Simply put, neurodiversity is the concept that people’s brains process information differently. It is a positive term, seeing these differences as simply that, rather than a deviation or deficit. It is most commonly used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia and ADHD, among others. Neurodivergence is a non-medical umbrella term originally attributed to the 1990s sociologist Judy Singer, and has become part of the neurodiversity movement which started in the 1990s. Between 10% and 20% of the global population is considered neurodivergent, according to Deloitte. It is not a mental illness or a learning disability, but can be correlated with them. It’s simply a way that the human brain works for some people. Modern workplaces need to understand more about neurodiversity in order to be inclusive and make the most of what neurodivergent employees can bring to the business.

The link between employment and neurodiversity

Deloitte report that in the United States, an estimated 8 in 10 (85%)  of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed, compared to 4.2% of the overall population. But that doesn’t mean neurodiverse people can’t work. What it means is that the systems are not set up to enable them to flourish. Within this context, there are numerous variations in how neurodivergence manifests itself. Some people find communication challenging, and may need support. Others are hyper focused and excel in the workplace. The neurological differences can be super beneficial and in most cases an autistic person or someone with another element of neurodiversity can flourish at work. 

And brain differences benefit the business. Harvard Business Review states that teams with neurodivergent professionals in some roles can be a third more productive than those without them and that hiring people who are neurodivergent can be a competitive advantage. Neurodivergent individuals can often see a problem presented differently, communicate in a clear and focused way, and have attention to detail that can help them solve an issue. A company that embraces the fact that the brain works differently is not only more inclusive, but can be more productive and perform better. In fact, the executive director and head of Autism at Work at JPMorgan Chase says in a Fortune article that people on the autism spectrum are highly focused and less distracted by social interaction, and achieve an average of 48% to 140% more work than their typical colleagues, depending on the roles. One big benefit of an inclusive work culture that embraces neurodiversity is that it allows for different approaches to work, fostering diversity of thought and resulting in innovation. Visual thinking, pattern recognition, a visual memory and attention to detail can all help progress ideas and opportunities. Richard Branson says on a blog for Virgin that “The world needs a neurodiverse workforce to help try and solve some of the big problems of our time.”

However, there are also challenges. One study found that nearly three-quarters (70%) of neurodivergent employees experience mental health issues, and autism research charity Austica say that 7 in 10 autistic people have a mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This can be for numerous reasons, including brain functions but also social challenges that come from not feeling included, and existing mental health conditions can be exacerbated. 

So what can employers do to support neurodivergent people in the workplace?

9 ways to support neurodivergent people at work

1. Educate and understand

Although most people are familiar with the term neurodiversity, that doesn’t mean that they understand how neurotypical people operate in the workplace. Education and awareness is the first step towards promoting inclusivity for neurodivergent employees. By understanding the meaning and implications of neurodivergence, employers and colleagues can foster a supportive environment. Employers can organize workshops on neurodiversity, invite guest speakers or specialists to share their insights and encourage employees to share their experiences. Setting up an employee resource group (ERG) of neurodivergent people or those interested in supporting neurological minorities can help create a culture where other brain differences are accepted and people know both how to describe people, what autistic traits might look like, and how best to support neurodivergent individuals.

2. Look at working styles

Everyone works in a different way. Some common aspects of autistic people or those who are neurodivergent is doing well with specifics and repetitive behaviors, and working well with clear instruction. Create an environment where the specific working style doesn’t matter – it’s about getting to the end goal, and give people the freedom and flexibility to get there in a way that works for both them as an individual and for the business.

3. Consider hiring processes

An inclusive recruitment process can help employers tap into the diverse talent pool of neurodivergent individuals and embrace the skills and perspective that they can bring to the workplace. An unbiased hiring process might include plain language job descriptions, providing questions before an interview, clearly explaining the recruitment process and using skills based or task based assessments rather than relying on the traditional CV. It is essential to train HR teams on specific needs and to be inclusive during interviews. And don’t stop there. Maintaining this level of consideration and support throughout an employee’s tenure will improve retention.

4. Create a flexible work environment

A flexible and customizable work environment ensures that all employees, regardless of their neurological background, can be productive and comfortable. It is not about giving a neurodivergent person special treatment, but a way to promote equality and equity. Offer options for remote or hybrid working, ensure that there are adjustable physical workspaces, and provide tools and resources such as noise-canceling headphones or specialized software. 

5. Provide resources for support

Everyone deserves good support, and at Wysa we specialize in providing personalized and tailored mental health support that works for individuals based on their needs and preferences. An employee assistance programme should be available to all employees, but ensure that it is accessible and relevant to neurodivergent people.

6. Have regular training

Ongoing training can help reduce biases, misconceptions around the word neurodivergent and what it means, enable leaders and peers to communicate effectively, and increase understanding. Invite people to share their story, have experts deliver training, and monitor feedback from those affected to see how it can be improved.

7. Open communication

Maintaining open lines of communication ensures that neurodivergent employees can voice their concerns and needs, fostering trust and understanding. Alongside regular one-on-one sessions encourage anonymous feedback through surveys and act on that feedback, implementing any necessary changes. Creating a sense of psychological safety and a feeling that whatever is said will be listened to without repercussions is essential.

8. Celebrate diversity

Research from a 2018 Deloitte report found that companies who have inclusive cultures are six times more likely to be innovative and agile. But as well as good for business, it’s good for wellbeing. Recognizing and celebrating the diverse skills and perspectives of neurodivergent employees can boost their morale and sense of belonging. Great ways of doing this is to organize events or sessions that showcase the talents and successes of employees. 

9. Ask them

Ask neurodivergent employees what they want. Offer a strength-based support system where you identify specific strengths, goals and attributes and ask people how best to support them to achieve that. This will ensure a tailored workload and workplace that they can thrive at and in.

There is no reason that neurodivergent people can’t be some of your very best employees – if given the support and resources to do so. Fostering an inclusive environment where everyone is enabled to work in a way that leads to success is essential – for workers and business.

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