Before I begin, I’d like to note that I am not writing from the perspective of a mental health professional or as someone in a leadership role. This blog is written from lived experience and after conversations with mental health professionals and other neurodiverse individuals.
What Is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is an umbrella term describing conditions like autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, dyslexia, and beyond. We know that language around ability matters, and the term neurodiversity aims to acknowledge that conditions in the brain like those listed above are differences and not inherently negative. In fact, hiring neurodiverse individuals can greatly benefit an organization by offering different perspectives on innovation and a wider variety of skills. What follows are a few steps any leader can take to support neurodiversity in the workplace.
Supporting Neurodiversity in the Workplace
1. Challenge Your Biases
As both leaders and coworkers, we need to constantly check our biases that may be affecting how we treat neurodiverse employees, preventing us from fully supporting neurodivergence in the workplace. Many of us think neurodiversity looks and sounds a certain way. This can lead to neurodiverse employees feeling invisible and invalidated, that is, if they even get past the hiring process. Being proactive in hiring, maintaining, and creating safe work environments for all people should be a never-ending process that starts from the top and is deeply valued by the organization as a whole.
As both leaders and coworkers, we need to constantly check our biases that may be affecting how we treat neurodiverse employees.
2. Start with Strengths
At ACHIEVE, we believe in taking a strengths-based approach and encourage other organizations to do the same. We can apply this thinking to all employees in the workplace, whether they’re neurodiverse or neurotypical.
Employee exploration can help start conversations that lead to deeper understanding of neurodiversity and other differences. Quizzes, assessment tools, blogs, professional development books, and news articles are just a few ways to get employees and leaders on the same page about strengths and struggles.
Start with curiosity instead of judgement
One of our mottos at ACHIEVE is to shift judgement to curiosity. This mentality is critical when approaching anyone in our lives and can be incredibly helpful when working with someone that we may not understand. Social awkwardness, distraction, hyper-focus, and other qualities typical in neurodiverse people can be challenging for others to understand. Instead of judging someone and labelling them as lazy, inattentive, etc., get curious about why they may be behaving in a certain way.
During our interviewing process, we always ask candidates how they stay organized. There’s not really a wrong answer, but we ask this to make sure that interviewees have a system that works for them. We do not force employees to get organized the way we think we need them to – we allow them to organize themselves in the way that works for them. While there is still an expectation to meet deadlines and work with their team, we are flexible in how people approach their tasks.
3. Redefine Employee Engagement
Both inside and outside the workplace, many of us have ableist definitions of what it looks and sounds like when someone is engaged in what we are saying or when they are performing a task or participating in an activity.
A lack of eye contact is a common marker of neurodivergence, but it can also be a sign of trauma or even just shyness. Throw out your assumptions that eye contact is necessary for competency and respect.
Stimming is defined as repetitive movements or noises that bring comfort and help neurodiverse folks cope with overwhelming situations. This can include rocking, tapping, humming, chewing on an object, hand movements, or watching something that is visually stimulating. Supporting neurodiversity in your workplace may include encouraging employees to express themselves freely and providing fidget toys to those who want them.
Whether it’s in a Zoom meeting or around a conference table, neurodiverse participation in the workplace may look a bit different. Some neurodiverse employees may find the crush of sound overwhelming, effectively shutting them out of the ability 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.
When leaders assign tasks to neurodiverse employees, it may help to provide context, colour, and reasoning behind the task.
4. Rethink Open Concept
Remember when open-concept offices were the hottest trend? Not only did COVID-19 send us back to the drawing board, but it was also already the bane of many neurodiverse folk’s existence. Open concept, while handy for a few reasons, creates a hub of noise and distraction.
Although some offices may not be able to undo the open concept layout, consider your neurodiverse employees in your return-to-work plan. Working from home or 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.
5. Paint it Done
Some neurodiverse employees (particularly those with ADHD) struggle with something called executive function. In short, executive function is responsible for organization skills, time management, problem-solving, and planning. Ambiguity surrounding timelines and expectations can cause more stress than usual for neurodiverse employees.
In Brené Brown’s book, Dare to Lead, she shares a concept called paint it done, which “means not just assigning a task, but explaining the reason—clarifying how the end product will be used.”
When leaders assign tasks to neurodiverse employees, it may help to provide context, colour, and reasoning behind the task. “Sharing the reason for a task helps uncover stealth expectations and stealth intentions, cultivates commitment and contribution, and facilitates growth and learning.”
Clarity is kindness, and it helps us stay motivated to get stuff done!
There are many ways leaders, and all of us can make our workplaces more welcoming to neurodiverse individuals from all backgrounds, with different strengths and struggles. Above all else, be open to new information and seeing the world through a new lens.
A special thank-you to Vicki Enns for her support and guidance on this project.
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