Neurodiversity in the Workplace: Embracing Diversity, Enhancing Performance

Feb 22, 2024 | Employee Engagement, HR Trends

Increasingly, organizations are realizing they must actively address the presence of neurodiversity in the workplace. Providing tailored support for neurodiverse (or neuroatypical) employees is a crucial element of supporting workplace diversity and inclusion. In this article, we’ll explore strategies for making workplaces more accommodating for neurodiverse employees, from flexible work arrangements to clear communication practices.

First, let’s discuss what neurodiversity is and how stigma has affected neurodiverse employees. We’ll then discuss the strengths of many neurodiverse employees and how to support them in achieving their full potential. 

Table of Contents

1. Understanding Neurodiversity

2. The Strengths of Neurodiverse Employees

3. Common Challenges and Misconceptions

4. Measuring Success and Continuous Improvement

Understanding Neurodiversity

“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,” write Nichole Baumer and Julia Frueh in Harvard Health Publishing. In other words, neurodiversity causes people to process information and communicate in different ways. This encompasses a vast array of conditions, such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia (which affects coordination), and Tourette’s. 

These conditions occur on a spectrum; they look different from one person to another, as Baumer and Frueh explain. Neurodivergent people have different strengths and challenges. While one person with autism may struggle with verbal expression, another may have no perceptible difficulty in this area.

Neurodiversity has always existed, of course. But today, awareness is growing, leading to the recognition of its prevalence in the modern workplace. Consider these telling statistics:

  • In the U.K., 15–20% of employees are neurodiverse, says Mercer.

Despite their capability, barriers to entry and success have led neurodiverse people to be highly underrepresented in the workplace. And too often, neurodiverse (ND) people don’t feel safe disclosing their needs to employers. Difficult past experiences lead many to fear speaking up.

Organizations today must combat the stigma that ND people have faced for years. By doing so, everyone benefits. Companies can tap into a wealth of talent, while ND people get to fully use their capabilities.

The Strengths of Neurodiverse Employees

Neurodiverse individuals bring unique skills and perspectives to a team, such as attention to detail, creativity, and innovative problem-solving. Hence, neurodiversity in the workplace can be a competitive advantage

JP Morgan Chase found that neurodiverse new hires are a whopping 90–140% more productive than long-term employees who had been with the company for 5–10 years. And satisfied neurodiverse employees tend to have a high retention rate, says Forbes.

Deloitte has found that teams with neurodiverse employees in some roles can achieve 30% higher productivity than other teams. Innovative thinking arises from having a diversity of approaches. Particular individuals could have strengths in areas like pattern recognition, propensity for reorganizing ideas, visual thinking, and attention to detail as well. A neurodivergent person could approach a problem in an unconventional way, generating novel solutions, as Korn Ferry says. And because many neuroatypical people have overcome substantial adversity, they often have strong problem-solving abilities, they add.

Numerous companies are launching initiatives to hire neurodiverse employees, given their high level of potential. Freddie Mac intentionally hires people with autism, ADD, ADHD, and dyslexia for key roles like enterprise risk management, information technology management, and loan processing, reports Deloitte. Budding from an internship program for autistic individuals, their efforts have provided high-caliber talent for these critical positions.

Common Challenges and Misconceptions

Let’s debunk some prevalent misconceptions about neurodiversity, so we can move beyond stigma to real understanding.

Deficit-Centred Thinking

Too often, ND people face an assumption that their natural behaviours are a deficit they must compensate for. In the past (and too often, still today), these conditions have been viewed as something to overcome. A more enlightened view embraces a person’s unique neurological functioning as a core component of their identity. Rather than trying to erase it, managers and leaders can work to create supports that allow the person to shine as their authentic self. These efforts form a vital part of workplace diversity and inclusion.

“The research-backed view, emerging in recent years, is that NTs [neurotypicals] and NDs are merely speaking different, but equally valid, social languages,” writes JD Goulet in Harvard Business Review. So, NT people share responsibility for bridging the communication gap, they assert. Most importantly, NTs should never refer to another person’s condition as a disorder.

Connecting Divergent Behaviour with Incapability

Today, organizations often expect employees to display a certain set of desired interpersonal behaviours. However, don’t assume that lack of certain behaviours signals lack of capability, empathy, or conscientiousness. Keep an open mind, getting to know the whole person.

When conducting interviews, use techniques that allow neurodiverse individuals to excel. Some companies are using strategies like providing interview questions in advance, says Korn Ferry. This can help many neurodiverse candidates to organize their thoughts effectively. Meeting them at the door rather than expecting them to navigate a new environment on their own can also help put them at ease.

Creating an Inclusive Environment

HR managers working together to create an inclusive work environment.
Credit: Ketut Subiyanto /Pexels

A company’s HR staff and leadership must play a crucial role in fostering inclusivity. Designing a truly inclusive organization has two core components, says Korn Ferry: behavioural inclusion and structural inclusion. The first involves mindsets and understanding. The second entails processes, structures, and practices. Let’s discuss some practical steps for creating a neurodiverse-friendly workplace in both of these areas.

Support and Accommodation Strategies

To support neurodiverse employees, leverage strategies such as personalized work plans, mentorship programs, and access to supportive resources. The U.S. Job Accommodation Network (JAN) shares a list of questions to help determine appropriate accommodations for neurodiverse employees:

  • What limitations are affecting the employee? 
  • In particular, what tasks do these issues impact? 
  • How does this affect performance?
  • What accommodations could mitigate these issues?
  • Do the manager and/or coworkers need training on neurodiversity?

Equipped with the answers to these questions, you can take the following steps to support employees.

Design Personalized Work Plans

Managers should collaborate with employees to tailor work plans to their needs, following these steps:

  • Begin by asking how the employee prefers to communicate, learn, and carry out work. 
  • Outline clear tasks and steps for assignments, along with written instructions. Goal-tracking software may help neurodiverse employees stay on track.
  • Try to share any changes in advance, as Baumer and Frueh recommend. 

Through regular check-ins and adjustments, managers can accommodate individual needs. Instant feedback tools may prove very helpful for this purpose as well, allowing managers to share clear and concise requests or input.

Look out for signs of overload, like “stimming” or seeming to zone out. These will vary by person. Talk to the employee in advance about what tends to help them when they feel overwhelmed.

Create Flexible Work Arrangements

Flexible work arrangements can allow neurodiverse employees to work in optimal ways. Taking breaks as needed can allow some employees to recharge and refocus, for instance. And setting their own hours can allow them to work when they have the greatest mental clarity. 

Offer a Quiet Workspace

Sensory-friendly spaces are critical for many neuroatypical people. Many neurodiverse people have trouble focusing in a chaotic or busy environment. So, make sure they have access to their own private workspace to promote focus. Talk with employees to identify triggers of sensory overload, then work to minimize them.

Provide Mentorship Programs

A mentor can help an ND person navigate workplace processes and dynamics while building a strong skill set. Mentors can help them understand social cues and strengthen their interpersonal network as well as their confidence.

Address Issues Tactfully

Specify rules for workplace etiquette rather than assuming everyone is on the same page. If a behaviour becomes disruptive (like interrupting), you can tactfully address it one-on-one, says Goulet. Discuss strategies for supporting the development of new behaviours. 

Eliminate Ambiguity

Engage in clear communication, avoiding ambiguity and idioms, as Goulet says. Euphemisms and sarcasm can easily be misinterpreted by many ND people (and, let’s face it, NTs as well). Presume the speaker will understand your words literally.

Share Supportive Resources

Make sure ND employees know how to access counseling opportunities that can help them cope with the stressors of work. Connect them with mental health resources, making sure your benefits directory includes therapists with a background in neurodiversity.

Provide Training and Sensitization for Teams

HR managers working on team training and sensitization around neurodiversity.
Credit: Kindel Media /Pexels

To nurture workplace diversity and inclusion, ensure that all employees understand and support neurodiversity. Through awareness and training programs, you can cover topics like the following:

The Importance of Checking Assumptions

When ND people don’t demonstrate the expected social cues in interpersonal interactions, NT people often perceive them as rude, as Goulet says. Fidgeting or lack of nonverbal cues like eye contact may cause NTs to perceive NDs as not listening, when they’re actually listening closely, for instance. Help all employees understand that this isn’t necessarily a fair assessment.

Clear Communication Principles for Neurodiverse Workplaces

Clear communication practices will promote genuine understanding and strong relationships. Share the principles for clear communication described above. If particular neurodivergent employees have specific requests or preferences, share them as well (with permission). For example, one employee might prefer asynchronous communication (e.g., an email) to a phone call.

Consider using webinars, videos, and other materials to accentuate your in-house training. The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion shares some useful ones. EARN, the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion, shares educational resources that may be useful in your trainings, as does the Neurodiversity Hub. You could also bring in a consultant with expertise in this area. 

By sharing your commitment to supporting neurodiversity, you’ll encourage more ND people to speak up. In turn, you can ensure that each person has the tools to excel in their role.

Measuring Success and Continuous Improvement

Assess the effectiveness of neurodiversity initiatives in the workplace periodically. Use analytics software to track whether performance has risen since implementing these strategies. Consider the performance not only of neurodivergent individuals, but of their teams as well.

Ask neurodivergent employees about their satisfaction with the support they’re receiving, too. Listening to employees will provide vital feedback on how to improve. Then promote continuous learning and adaptation based on feedback and outcomes.

Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace brings substantial benefits for both employees and organizations. A neurodiverse workforce is an asset to a company, and fostering workplace diversity and inclusion means learning to support neurodiverse individuals in achieving their full potential. As you take steps to create a more inclusive and dynamic business environment, your company as a whole will increase its capabilities.

Continue to evaluate and enhance your company’s approach to neurodiversity over the long-term. To support your efforts, explore Primalogik’s suite of tools to facilitate more effective management of a diverse workforce.

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