Increasingly, organizations are looking at their employees’ individual needs more closely. They’re recognizing everyone is different with unique abilities, learning styles, and multiple identities that can’t be separated, but rather must be seen as integrated and accommodated.
When addressing difference in the workplace/workspace, employers are encouraged to think beyond what is traditionally assigned to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) conversation, such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical disability, etc.
The term neurodiversity is becoming more familiar and included in the DEI spectrum. Neurodiversity is a sociological term that implies brains function differently, which is normal and not something that needs to be repaired.
“Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome,” says John Elder Robison, a scholar in residence and a cochair of the Neurodiversity Working Group at the College of William & Mary, in a blog on Psychology Today’s website.
Robison, who himself has Asperger’s Syndrome, says, “Indeed, many individuals who embrace the concept of neurodiversity believe that people with differences do not need to be cured; they need help and accommodation instead.”
According to Deloitte, everyone is to some extent differently abled (an expression favored by many neurodiverse people), because we are all born different and raised differently. Our ways of thinking result from both our inherent “machinery” and the experiences that have “programmed” (CIPD, 2022) it.
Statistics show 90 per cent of disabilities are invisible; three to five per cent of the population have ADHD; 10 to 20 per cent are dyslexic; five per cent are dyspraxic; two per cent have Tourette Syndrome; seven per cent may have mental health needs; and two per cent of the Canadian population has an acquired brain injury.
A report from Drexell University (Philadelphia, U.S.) says 51 per cent of workers on the autism spectrum have skills higher than their job requires and fewer than one in six adults with autism is gainfully employed, because finding a job suited to their skillset can be an immense challenge. A lot of people living with autism have degrees and are working in warehouses, kitchens, or retail stores because their eccentric behavior isn’t acceptable.
Many of these individuals are highly educated with Masters degrees and certificates, but find themselves unemployed or underemployed because of their diagnosis.
Following the pandemic, the great reshuffle, the great exhaustion, and onboarding, organizations are having to look at different talents and those who were previously overlooked. They’re having to think about how to upskill and reskill their employees. This requires recruiters to look at different talent pools and diverse groups of people.
Having neurodiverse people in your workplace benefits the whole organization. Neurodiverse people may possess the skills to work on advanced technology, to utilize artificial intelligence to help the environment, perhaps have Science, Technology, Engineer and Maths (STEM) skills, may possess IT processing skills, and may have the ability to provide sustained attention to detail.
It’s believed a sizeable proportion of our workforce are neurodiverse across age groups and regionally. It’s estimated 10 to 20 per cent of the global population is considered neurodivergent. These individuals tend to experience higher rates of unemployment as compared to the general population. For example, in the United States, it’s estimated 85 per cent of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed as compared to four per cent of the overall population (Deloitte Insights, April 2022).
Organizations are now having to think about how they will engage with the Five A’s:
Analyze: examine the needs of the workforce
Adjust: everyone in the work environment must recognize the changing work environment
Adapt: human resources and hiring managers must have an open mind about those appearing before them for interviews and the entire organization needs to shift their mindset.
Accept: embrace difference
Accommodate: create a safe space for the unique needs of everyone
Organizations have to challenge long-established traditional ways, attitudes, and bias in their hiring process.
These demands must be operationalized in the workplace. Inclusive organizations are accepting of all differences and what everyone brings to benefit the organization.
Even before individuals join the organization, employers must educate themselves, have the knowledge and skills, and use their emotional intelligence (EQ = self-aware, self-regard, empathy) to guide their workforce. Everyone must be on board.
There is no longer the notion that one-size-fits-all or finding the “right fit.” These concepts are dated. Organizations and neurotypical employees have to reconfigure their offices. For example, there are individuals who experience social anxiety. Their abilities involve visual thinking, attention to detail, and creative thinking. Neurodivergent people process information in multiple different ways. Their unique abilities may set them apart from their neurotypical colleagues. Neurodivergent persons bring unique perspectives, skills, and experiences that are often undervalued and overlooked.
Institutions such as the Centre for Autism Research, Deloitte, and Dexrell University offer some useful insights about how to approach and support neurodiversity in the workspaces. These considerations are game changers and their deep insights give hiring managers the confidence they need to work better with all personality types.
The hiring process is fundamental to any organization. It’s the aspect of work where human resource managers have significant powers, discretion, and leverage.
Neurodiverse people have long had to self-advocate in the workplace. Now with the benefit of substantial research, all employees have a responsibility to support and advocate for change.
Organizations need to start by learning how to communicate with neurodivergent candidates in the same manner they communicate with neurotypical persons. The fourth Industrial Revolution area has given us many tools to enable us to communicate effectively.
Recruiters can use alternative methods for interviewing candidates. Many neurodiverse candidates experience social anxiety and traditional face-to-face interviews may not work for them. Some of their expressions of attributes can misinterpreted.
To successfully integrate neurodivergent people into the workspace there must be buy-in from leadership, middle management, and the rest of the workforce that will be working close to the person. Conversations need to be had at all levels so the workspace is a safe place for everyone. Communication should be opened up to groups within the community that work with neurodiverse adults to get guidance.
The same steps organizations take to recruit an ethnically diverse workforce are the same steps they need to take to recruit neurodivergent adults. Businesses need to have opportunities for those who are Black and have brains wired differently. Employers must ensure people who live in this intersectionality are welcome to work in a company, but also given the opportunity to progress within the organization. People who live within the intersection shouldn’t be considered just to tick-off TWO diversity boxes, because they can actually be great assets to their business (Tumi Sotire, the Black Dyspraxic, 2020).
Creating a neurodiverse workspace can benefit your company, making it more innovative, a leading problem solver with content, happy employees. By providing assistive technology, proper lighting, less distracting workspaces, and places where people can escape the noise, will provide an ideal experience for all and support retention.
Some companies are seen to be inclusive in terms of ethnic diversity, but may not be as receptive to neurodivergent staff. It’s important to have an employer that allows neurodivergent staff to work to their highest potential and be valued.
We must develop an intersectional understanding of disability that honours our employees with experience being Black, perhaps female, and neurodiverse.
When seeking to engage new recruits, organizations should consider trail work periods. Provide opportunities for candidates to demonstrate their skills and arrange collaborative interviews. Addressing stereotypes about neurodivergent people is critical to the employment process. Be mindful not to categorize individuals, and be patient and thoughtful when engaging with neurodiverse employees. They want to be understood and given the same opportunity as a neurotypical person.
Some neurodiverse candidates attending an interview may not want to shake hands. They might find eye contact difficult. Deloitte research 2022 invites professionals to be respectful of individual differences.
Many neurodiverse people “may have different working styles: some may need clear, multi-step instructions once, some may need regular reiterations; others may be comfortable with broad asks and can break it down into multistep activities for themselves.” (Deloitte Insights, 2022, Harvard Business Review)
Virtual and hybrid communication can be a struggle for some employees.
Organizations need to be flexible, especially when working with employees who are neurodiverse. For example, try fostering a culture of flexibility, creating policies and practices to accommodate difference.
When organizations are truly inclusive, their team members engage in activities that include neurodiverse colleagues. They will be consulted on how they can actively engage in social activities, not feel excluded, and where all feel a sense of belonging.
There is an urgency for organizations to begin to pay attention to a growing number of people who have not been considered for the uniqueness they bring to the workforce. Their creativity, innovation, ability to process information, and function at a highly productive level must be recognized.
In conclusion, an inclusive culture that encompasses all employees’ unique attributes impacts the entire workforce. Making inclusive spaces for neurodiverse employees means the work environment can create a productive, safe, and healthy environment for all.
Ann Divine is CEO of Ashanti Leadership & PDS Inc. Lillian Searl is project manager at Ashanti Leadership & PDS and a neurodiverse person.
Lillian “Missy” Searl is a neurodivergent person and project consultant for Ashanti Leadership & PDS Inc. She is also the provincial coordinator for the Nurturing Strong African Nova Scotian Families parenting program. Searl has always been passionate about making sure she is involved in spaces not generally open to people that look like her or are like her.