rainbow representing neurodiversity at work
Management & Mindset

How To Support Neurodivergent Employees in The Workplace

It’s estimated that 85% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed in the US. Yes, you read that right, 85%. And of those that are employed, many are underemployed or feel forced to suffer in silence. 

This is all in spite of the fact that neurodiversity at work can give companies a competitive advantage. According to McKinsey, the relationship between diversity and financial outperformance is stronger than ever. And when it comes to neurodiversity, it’s observed that neurodiverse individuals can be 140% more productive than their peers.

Neurodivergent people deserve to thrive in the workplace. This article is going to explore the benefits of embracing neurodiversity at work and how employers can support neurodivergent employees to succeed.

What is neurodivergence?

Neurodiversity is the idea that naturally-occurring variations in the brain cause some people to process, learn, and/or behave in ways that are different from the majority. Rather than be something to 'fix', the unique strengths and challenges of the neurodiverse population are to be understood and supported.

As well as autism, neurodivergence also includes individuals with ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette’s syndrome, and a range of other neurodivergent experiences.

Studies estimate that 15-20% of the population is neurodivergent. However, Bloomberg Law found that only 17% of firms track neurodiversity, making it the least-tracked metric of all diversity types.

Neurodiversity inforgraphic sourced from bloomberglaw.com

Benefits of a neurodiverse workforce

Whether you’re a long-running global enterprise or a small business only just getting a business license, now is the time to welcome neurodiversity at work. Why? Let’s discuss.

Helps solve problems in unconventional ways

Research consistently shows that people with autism tend to have stronger problem-solving abilities. This is thanks to commonly-presented traits such as better rule-based thinking, information processing, hyper-focusing, and the ability to detect patterns and irregularities. 

People with dyslexia are known to have excellent puzzle-solving and out-of-the-box thinking skills that can drive new perspectives. And people with dyspraxia tend to develop bold picture-thinking.

The more diverse your workforce, the more unique perspectives, skill sets, and traits you have to guide strategies and creative problem-solving.

Boosts company’s creativity, ingenuity, and diligence

Neurodivergent people may have difficulties with multisensory information presented simultaneously. However, neurodivergent people often demonstrate unique creativity and ingenuity. This isn’t just because they think differently, but because their experiences have required them to tackle situations in new ways. 

This is explained by Jacob Levy in a recent Forbes article. He recognizes that his neurodivergence is “an opportunity to go an alternate path to arrive at a solution. And it’s on this path where novel and innovative ideas exist.”

It’s also thanks to higher levels of concentration, increased attention to detail, and loyalty to routine that people with autism excel at diligence.

The more diverse your workforce, the more unique perspectives, skill sets, and traits you have to guide strategies and creative problem-solving.

Lowers recruitment costs

A culture of inclusivity opens you up to a larger pool of high-quality talent. It creates supportive recruitment experiences and better employee onboarding experiences that enable neurodiverse employees to onboard with less turnover. With this comes increased talent loyalty and the motivation to advance within the company, all of which lowers recruitment costs.

Drives an inclusive company culture

The steps you take to welcome neurodiverse talent will naturally cultivate inclusivity. This involves educating your neurotypical employees and supporting your neurodiverse employees. Having a connected company culture is essential for productivity, harmony, and job satisfaction.

Reskilling employees ebook cover | 360Learning

Skills are nothing without the right culture.

How to support neurodivergent employees in the workplace 

It isn't enough to just hire neurodivergent employees. As McKinsey rightly states, neurodivergent talent will only remain and thrive in workplaces that support them. But how do you go about it?

Use a nontraditional approach when recruiting

Society tells us that the ‘perfect candidate’ is a naturally confident, personable communicator with great eye contact and a firm handshake. But in placing so much value on these skills in roles where they have little relevance, we deter and disregard exceptional neurodiverse talent.

For neurodivergent job candidates who struggle with eye contact and staying on topic during conversations, the stress of the interview process only amplifies these behaviors. 

Simple adjustments can significantly improve the inclusivity of your recruitment process. Some examples include:

  • Clear job descriptions with a transparent overview of daily tasks.
  • Pre-interview guides.
  • Providing interview questions in advance.
  • Skills-based interviews rather than traditional interviews.
  • Clear and transparent business contracts (using a business contract template like this one from PandaDoc can help you do this).

Celebrate individual strengths and maximize them

A fundamental issue with the modern workplace is that employees are expected to be a jack of all trades. However, this expectation fails to recognize that the key to cultivating a motivated, productive workforce is by aligning tasks with individual strengths.

Neurodivergent employees can bring some incredibly valuable strengths to the table including creativity, diligence, problem-solving, and innovation. However, they may be wary of disclosing their weaknesses due to past experiences with stigma and discrimination. 

It’s therefore critical that you foster a relationship of acceptance and openness from the get-go. This makes identifying and maximizing strengths easier. Remember, rather than focus on what an employee can’t do, you should be focusing on what they can as a way of equalizing the workplace.

Build an external structure to help them self-regulate 

Accommodations for neurodivergent people go beyond the recruitment process and into the work environment itself. To reduce stress and enhance productivity, consider implementing the following:

  • Private or quiet offices are beneficial for employees who are sensitive to noisy or bright environments. 
  • Headphones that play white noise or calming music can improve concentration for employees with ADHD. 
  • Visual voicemail (like Dialpad visual voicemail) can be implemented on your employee's phone system to prevent them from becoming distracted or overwhelmed by incoming phone calls. 
  • Regular breaks and flexible work schedules can assist those who struggle to stay focused for long hours.
  • A daily standup tool, daily planner, or any kind of time-management tool can also help them stay on track with daily tasks.

Create a welcoming and inclusive culture

It’s not enough to just say that you welcome diversity. Creating an inclusive culture involves making sure that your company values, mission statements, and external structures reflect your inclusive initiatives.

For example, many neurodiverse employees don’t feel comfortable asking for adjustments. This is best explained by Jo Lingenfelter in a recent Forbes article. She talks about how previous discriminatory experiences make her feel like a burden for requesting workplace adjustments. She goes on to say: “The process of asking for help can then put a lot of pressure on me that specifically pin-points executive functioning challenges that come with living on the autism spectrum, making it hard to actualize the help.” 

So, how can you create a culture that proactively welcomes inclusivity? Some things that you can put into place include:

  • Anticipate accommodation needs during both the recruitment and onboarding process.
  • Accommodate remote working (and make sure you have the right tools).
  • Implement inclusive adjustments into the core of your workplace.
  • Encourage an open dialogue surrounding diversity.
  • Use people-first language (for example, “people with autism” rather than “autistic people”). 
  • Incorporate inclusive language into all of your company communications: for example, optimize your newsletter, HR policies, business contracts, employee guides, and other important documents.

Organize neurodivergent training and coaching

Neurodiversity training can be implemented in a variety of different ways using a learning management system (LMS). Training serves to foster an informed culture of inclusivity, learning, and development. 

Neurodiversity training for neurotypical employees can educate them on their coworkers' challenges. With enhanced empathy and understanding, neurotypical employees can work to support their neurodiverse coworkers.

Here are some examples from a disability awareness training 360Learning implemented for internal employees last year, including sections on neurodivergence:

The training was set up by 360Learning’s DE&I Disability Team, using the 360Learning platform and a collaborative learning approach.
Courses were designed to be informative and interactive, with employees asking questions and learning from each other on the discussion forum (to the right).

Neurodiversity training for managers educates leaders on what neurodiversity is and how it can be managed in team environments. It breaks down any harmful stigmas by focusing on the benefits of having a neurodiverse workforce. It can also help to build relationships, tackle challenges, and illuminate growth opportunities.

Neurodiversity training for neurodiverse employees is multi-faceted. It can help them develop career-advancing skills, teach them new coping strategies, and provide well-being support. This is particularly important in a climate where one in five employees have left a job because an employer failed to support their well-being, and one in three left because they believed their employer didn’t care about them.

Image sourced from limeade.com

Ensure clear and concise communication

Some individuals, such as employees with dyslexia and ADHD, may struggle to navigate complex written and/or verbal instructions. For individuals with autism, idioms, and euphemisms can cause confusion. Employers should bear this in mind, making sure that any information provided is clear and concise.

You’ll also need to invest in tools to make communication more comfortable. As we mentioned above, a VoIP hosted phone system can ease communications. With video and audio conferencing, for example, there’s less pressure to make consistent eye contact or demonstrate active listening. And people with ADHD and dyslexia can benefit from call recordings, live transcriptions, and automated notetaking.

There’s also VoIP SMS with Dialpad which enables employees to communicate effectively via text. 

Get involved with non-profit organizations and community groups

There are plenty of organizations, agencies, and programs that specialize in placing neurodivergent people in thriving employment. They can also provide continuous advice, support, and training for both you and the employee that they place. 

For more information on connecting with local or state providers, such as American Job Centers and Centers for Independent Living (CILs), visit EARN’s Finding Candidates with Disabilities Resource

Neurodivergent employees deserve your recognition and support

Many of these implementations are relevant for your entire workforce. Everyone deserves to have their needs accommodated and supported by their employer. In the case of neurodiversity at work, however, the conversation is critical. 

Let’s return to our earlier statement: that 85% of people with autism are unemployed. Yet, by simply striving to cultivate a culture of inclusivity through the likes of inclusive accommodation and diversity and inclusion training, it’s possible to significantly lower this number. And in doing so, you can reap the benefits of innovation, creativity, diligence, and loyalty.