How to create a culture of neurodiversity in the workplace

How to create a culture of neurodiversity in the workplace
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In the United States, an estimated 85% of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are unemployed. That’s a staggeringly high number, especially compared with the overall population’s unemployment rate of 4.2%.[1]

But when you consider the needs of neurodiverse workers, it’s easy to see why this is the case. 

Many neurodiverse people struggle with sensory inputs like bright lights, high temperatures, and restrictive office-appropriate clothing.

And beyond that, the social norms of a typical workplace present unique challenges for people with social impairments – or conditions like Tourette’s, which could be alarming to employees not trained in disability awareness.

Any organization aiming to be inclusive needs a clear strategy to accommodate neurodiversity in the workplace. 

From the start of the hiring process to the last day at work, neurodivergent employees deserve to feel safe and supported.

In this article, we look at what neurodiversity looks like, how it could benefit your company, and how you can foster a neuroinclusive culture at work.

What is neurodiversity in the workplace?

Neurodiversity is the range of normal, natural variations in how individuals’ brains work. 

It involves mental and cognitive differences that fit within the social model of disability – an approach arguing that our inaccessible world primarily limits disabled people.

“Neurodiversity in the workplace” describes a workplace’s attitude and approach to neurodiversity. 

Does it offer accommodations to support neurodiverse candidates and workers? Does it train its non-neurodiverse managers to support all their staff? Most importantly, does it actively work to create a culture of neuroinclusivity?

Your company’s answers could affect its access to neurodiverse talent.

Different types of neurodiversity and neurodivergence

Neurodiversity isn’t a one-size-fits-all condition. 

To promote neuroinclusion in your workplace, you need to understand the different types of neurodiversity and what they mean for your employees.

Here’s a quick guide to the most common types of neurodivergence.

Type of neurodivergence

What it involves

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Social skills and sensory processing challenges, which

may vary in presentation according to gender

and include avoiding eye contact and different ways to process information

Sensory processing disorders

Heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, including light, sound, and texture

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Challenges in focusing attention, combined with “

hyperactivity and impulsivity

” in the form of fidgeting and overtalking

Learning disabilities like dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, and dysgraphia

Challenges in processing and reproducing certain types of information and pattern recognition

Down syndrome

Physical differences, intellectual challenges, and developmental delays caused by an extra chromosome

Tourette syndrome

Uncontrolled, repetitive movements or sounds called tics

Epilepsy

Repeated and unpredictable seizures

Bipolar disorder

A mental health condition that includes extreme mood swings, from mania to depression, over periods of months

Social anxiety

Heightened stress and fear in social situations

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive and intrusive thoughts that trigger anxiety and can lead to compulsive behaviors

The most common types of neurodivergence are:

  1. Dyslexia (10%)[2]

  2. ADHD (9.8%)[3] 

  3. Autism Spectrum Disorders (1.1%-2.5%)[4]

It’s worth remembering that neurodiversity tends to be underdiagnosed, especially in adults. Although studies estimate that 15-20% of people around the world are neurodivergent, 50% are not aware of it.

Why is neurodiversity in the workplace important to your organization?

Research from Drexel University shows the severity of the neurodiversity employment gap. Only one in six autistic employees have a full-time position, and 58% are unemployed.[5] 

Traditional hiring methods pigeonhole candidates and reject them based on irrelevant experiences or standards.

Traditional hiring practices affect neurodiverse candidates disproportionately, creating a systemic problem of hiring discrimination.

Several factors are driving the neurodiversity employment gap:

  1. Job requirements: restrictive work history and education requirements which exclude many candidates with disabilities

  2. Bias: harmful misconceptions that lead interviewers and hiring managers to write off neurodiverse candidates, whether consciously or unconsciously 

  3. Misinformation: inaccurate representations of the neurodiverse experience by non-neurodivergent people, which fuel bias and undermine neurodiverse people’s confidence

  4. Workplace pressure: workplaces not designed for a neurodiverse workforce cause neurodiverse staff to feel overwhelmed, stressed, and unhappy at work

You can address all of these factors and offer neurodiverse candidates an equitable chance in the world of work. However, companies need to work to help these candidates succeed.

Think of it as leveling the playing field. By taking concrete action to address the neurodiversity employment gap, you aren’t giving neurodiverse candidates an unfair competitive advantage. 

You’re removing their unfair disadvantages, so they start from the same position as their non-neurodiverse colleagues.

The benefits of neurodiversity at work

So how does it benefit your firm to hire and retain neurodiverse staff? 

Let’s look at the benefits of neurodiversity within your organization.

Wider talent pool when hiring

Neurodiverse workers have the skills and abilities they need to succeed in work. 

Slightly more than half of neurodiverse people report having more skills than they need to do their jobs.

Traditional hiring processes don’t account for this. Instead, they demand extensive work histories and academic qualifications that are hard for neurodivergent people to complete.

Plus, unconscious bias leads interviewers to discount neurodiverse candidates based on their presentation during the interview process, so skilled candidates get passed over undeservedly.

Companies using skills-based hiring approaches are better equipped to bypass unconscious bias and identify the best employees for open roles – regardless of how their minds work.

Improved productivity

A careful hiring process that matches neurodiverse applicants with jobs that suit their skills and interests results in extra productivity. 

It shows what’s possible when companies are prepared to work with neurodiversity – not against it.

If your company is willing to support and accommodate its neurodiverse talent, it could enjoy an increase in productivity and efficiency as soon as onboarding begins.

Increased employee loyalty

Neurodiverse employees tend to be loyal to companies that treat them well. 

There are a few reasons this happens:

  • Certain types of neurodiversity, including ASD, involve struggles with change

  • Neurodiverse workers are aware that it’s rare to find a supportive employer, so they stick with good work environments when they find them

  • Neurodiverse workers can be highly productive – it’s valuable for employers to retain them

Whatever the reason, this tendency toward a high job retention rate is great for employers. 

The cost of replacing an employee ranges from half to twice their annual salary. 

Hiring neurodiverse employees and treating them well could save your company from high employee turnover costs.

Broader range of perspectives

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace come with a vast range of benefits. 

A good diversity and inclusion policy creates a broader range of perspectives at work, leading to increases in innovation, creativity, and productivity

A broader range of perspectives is important when it comes to neurodiversity. 

After all, neurodiverse workers think differently. 

They’re also more likely to have experienced disability discrimination, which puts them in good stead to create more inclusive products and experiences for clients.

Hiring neurodiverse workers is a crucial step in your broader diversity and inclusion policy and one with advantages for your firm’s competitiveness in the marketplace.

More neurodiverse role models

Representation matters to marginalized people, including neurodiverse people.

Misinformation and bias affect many of them, damaging their confidence by telling them they don’t have what it takes to succeed.

Bias keeps neurodiverse candidates from applying to jobs they have the skills and abilities to do well – effectively driving the neurodiverse employment gap.

But if neurodiverse people see people like themselves succeeding in the workplace, it creates a virtuous cycle.

Neurodiverse candidates who see neurodiverse role models succeeding at work are more likely to believe they can succeed, too.

Neurodiverse representation begets more of the same and an equitable chance at employment for all.

More inclusive employer brand

Monster’s 2022 Future of Work survey revealed that 62% of candidates would turn down a job offer if it didn’t come from a company with a diverse, inclusive culture.[6]

An inadequate level of commitment to neuroinclusive initiatives could be hurting your company’s brand and costing it top talent.

On the other hand, businesses that openly advocate for diversity and inclusion are more likely to enjoy a good reputation – and attract the best candidates.

By showing that you’re committed to hiring on a neuroinclusive basis, you improve your workplace’s chances of finding and attracting stronger candidates – whether neurodiverse or not.

Creating a culture of neuroinclusivity: 9 best practices for supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

List of 9 best practices for supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

Given all the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace, you should build an inclusive, neurodiverse workplace. But how?

These best practices provide a clear path toward creating a more welcoming and supportive environment for your neurodiverse staff.

And if you want more advice on neurodiversity in the workplace, check out our in-depth guide to creating a neuroinclusive workplace.

Neuroinclusivity at a glance

Best practice

How it helps

Build awareness of neurodiversity at work

Undercuts unconscious bias and promotes understanding

Offer staff training on neurodiversity

Empowers your staff to support their neurodiverse colleagues

Prevent disability discrimination at work

Creates a psychologically safe work environment for neurodiverse individuals

Create a culture that encourages and accepts flexibility

Offers neurodiverse staff the room to work in ways that accommodate their individual needs and challenges

Focus on skills over experience when hiring

Limits unconscious bias when hiring and gives neurodiverse candidates a fairer chance of success

Offer tailored career paths

Accommodates the challenges neurodiverse workers often face in building linear careers and work schedules

Provide support and reasonable accommodations

Creates an equitable work environment in which neurodiverse staff have an equal chance of success

Offer to mentor and coach neurodiverse workers

Reduces feelings of isolation and boosts employee satisfaction and retention

Set up an employee resource group

Empowers your neurodiverse employees to advocate for themselves and their needs at work

1. Build awareness of neurodiversity at work

In a recent webinar, two of our neurodiverse employees here at TestGorilla spoke about the importance of awareness in the workplace. 

They agreed that being treated with respect and sympathy by colleagues and managers is vital to create a neuroinclusive workplace.

But awareness isn’t just creating a comfortable environment for neurodiverse workers.

It also helps counteract unintentional bias, which can damage the confidence and wellbeing of neurodiverse workers.

Disability awareness training is a great way to start a conversation about neuroinclusivity at work. A good disability awareness training program should:

  1. Cover all types of disability, including neurocognitive disabilities

  2. Explain the challenges faced by people with disabilities

  3. Explore what non-disabled staff can do to support their colleagues

  4. Challenge biases against neurodiverse and disabled workers

Awareness leads to greater understanding between neurodivergent and non-neurodivergent workers. It’s a big step toward a neuroinclusive culture.

2. Offer staff training on neurodiversity

Disability awareness training is a good starting point – but it isn’t the whole story. 

By its nature, disability awareness training is wide-ranging and doesn’t focus on the specific challenges neurodiverse workers face.

That’s why you must provide specialized training on neurodiversity to all your staff.

Train all your workers, including co-workers, managers, and leaders, on what to expect from their neurodiverse colleagues. Ensure the training program covers all the challenges that can arise and explores ways to overcome them.

Training is relevant because it ensures that neurodiverse workers have the support they need from the people they work with. That way, when things go wrong, they can trust their managers to help get them right.

Like disability awareness training, this approach helps reduce unconscious bias and miscommunication in workspaces. It also increases trust and fosters better collaboration, which improves productivity and efficiency.

3. Prevent disability discrimination at work

In 2021, 37.2% of all discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were disability discrimination charges. 

That makes disability the most common reason for employees to claim discrimination.

Discrimination based on protected characteristics is illegal. It’s also a form of workplace bullying

As an employer, you must follow the regulations and protect your disabled staff from unfair treatment at work.

But the law shouldn’t define your approach to disability discrimination. Go above and beyond for your workers by taking discrimination as seriously as possible. 

Don’t just take the minimum legal action. Instead, do what is necessary to protect your staff.

Here are some steps you can take to ensure a strong stance against disability discrimination and foster psychological safety at work:

  • Write clear policies outlining what discrimination is and what actions you will take when workers report it

  • Train managers to recognize and address discrimination

  • Take decisive action against offenders (with specific consequences depending on whether the action was intentional or not)

4. Create a culture that encourages and accepts flexibility

Neurodiversity takes many forms. 

Even two people with the same neurotype could have different needs and experiences.

That’s especially true of flexibility. It’s a truism that neurodiverse workers benefit from flexible working because it enables them to work in ways that are comfortable for them without tying them to a particular schedule or environment.

But neurodiversity isn’t a monolith. Some neurodiverse staff benefit from strict routines and clear expectations.

Your business needs to be ready to adapt to the employees’ needs to accommodate all neurodiverse workers. 

That means encouraging and accepting flexibility for those who need it – and keeping in mind that some workers experience benefits from a rigid workplace instead.

This approach is a kind of flexibility in its own right and an important one to encourage and accept. 

It shows your staff that it doesn’t matter when or where the work gets done, as long as it’s done on time and to a high standard.

5. Focus on skills over experience when hiring

Hiring neurodivergent individuals is valuable for your company. 

It enables workers to harness their skills – but only if you can identify those skill sets during the hiring process.

As we’ve discussed, many neurodiverse candidates face serious challenges when looking for work. Their work history could be sporadic or nonlinear, and their academic background could be patchy. 

But these difficulties result from a society that’s unwilling to accommodate neurodiverse individuals.

Because employers aren’t prepared to look beyond inconsistent work histories that look questionable on resumes, neurodivergent candidates don’t have a fair chance at success.

Skills-based hiring is the key to finding out what neurodiverse candidates can do. 

It enables interviewers to look past their lack of experience and identify their transferable skills.

Replacing resume screening with skills testing gives neurodiverse applicants a fair chance to shine. 

Follow up your chosen tests with structured interviews to get to know neurodivergent candidates even better.

6. Offer tailored career paths

Neurodivergent people with any work history to speak of tend to have more wide-ranging, less linear careers than their non-neurodiverse counterparts.

That’s because neurodiverse workers prioritize finding companies willing to accommodate and support them, regardless of the field. 

It isn’t always easy for a neurodiverse worker to pursue a linear career path when getting a promotion means moving to a workplace culture that isn’t supportive or accepting.

Whether intentionally or not, many neurodiverse workers build career portfolios instead of pursuing career paths. 

By accepting and welcoming that approach, you can support neurodiverse staff and reap the benefits of career portfolios:

  • Improved employee retention

  • More widely-skilled, adaptable workers

  • Fewer internal silos

  • Better succession planning

This approach works for everyone. Your neurodivergent workers can enjoy professional mobility without taking chances on new organizations. 

Your business can forge long-lasting relationships with its staff by encouraging them to grow and develop.

7. Provide support and reasonable accommodations

Reasonable accommodations enable organizations to provide their disabled workers with a chance of success. 

As our guide to reasonable accommodations explains, they don’t give disabled workers an unfair advantage. Instead, they counteract their disadvantages to give them equality of opportunity.

Throughout their employee life cycle, neurodiverse employees may need accommodations like:

  • Assistive technology (particularly for remote or hybrid workers)

  • Uninterrupted quiet time to work

  • Specific approaches to communication (such as written instructions for tasks)

  • Flexibility in working hours or locations

  • Additional 1:1 support like mentoring or coaching

In the US, employers have a legal duty to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled workers.

But it’s important not to treat the process of agreeing on accommodations as an adversarial one. It should be a conversation between parties, and it should take into account everyone’s needs. 

Remember, your company benefits when your employees are empowered to do their best work.

On that basis, you owe it to yourself as a leader to accommodate your neurodiverse staff.

8. Offer mentoring and coaching to neurodiverse workers

Workplace mentors help workers with personal and professional development, and coaches focus on developing workers’ skills. Both approaches are an invaluable part of training and upskilling your employees.

Mentoring and coaching can be reasonable accommodations for those who need them to perform their jobs. 

But even for those who don’t, they can be a real asset. Having a designated mentor or coach at work:

  • Gives employees a point of contact for questions about social norms within the workplace

  • Helps workers understand work expectations, especially as a new hire

  • Reduces feelings of isolation and alienation at work

  • Improves employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention

Mentors and coaches are also well-placed to give neurodiverse workers advice on career development so they don’t end up stagnant in a role.

Mentoring and coaching schemes give neurodiverse workers a better chance of understanding and making themselves understood at work. 

They anchor staff more thoroughly in the culture so they feel included and welcomed.

9. Set up an employee resource group

Employee resource groups (ERGs) are volunteer groups led by staff. 

They comprise workers who have an experience or characteristic in common, and they aim to reduce bias and promote employee voice in the workplace.

ERGs emerged in response to the racial tensions of the 1960s and now exist to support workers of color, LGBTQ+ workers, and disabled workers – including neurodiverse employees.

They provide a psychologically safe space for workers with experiences in common to support each other, network, and raise concerns collectively.

If a neurodiverse employee faces challenges at work, they can talk to the ERG for advice and support.

ERGs are great for workers who benefit from community and self-advocacy in the workplace. 

But ERGs are great for employers, too. They give leaders an easy way to hear employees’ concerns and use them to direct their approach to diversity and inclusion.

The feedback provided by an ERG for neurodiverse staff could help your business promote neuroinclusivity more effectively for everyone.

Embrace neurodiversity in the workplace and enable your employees to thrive

You shouldn’t see neurodiversity as scary in an inclusive workplace. It’s just a difference – and in the workplace, a difference is invaluable.

Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace and fostering a culture that celebrates differences make companies more productive, efficient, and well-equipped to hire and retain top talent. 

By building a neuroinclusive culture and initiatives, you put your company in good stead against its competitors – and enable your workers to flourish, regardless of how they think.

Next, you can learn more about how to improve the wellbeing of all your employees.

And check out our Leadership and People Management test, which you can use to hire managers with the skills to support neurodiversity. Sign up for your free plan, or book a free, live 30-minute demo of our software so you can see it in action and ask any questions you may have.

Note that this article was written by an autistic person. #actuallyautistic

Sources

  1. Mahto, Monika, et al. (January 18, 2022). “A rising tide lifts all boats”. Deloitte. Retrieved May 21, 2023.https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/topics/talent/neurodiversity-in-the-workplace.html 

  2. “Dyslexia Statistics and Myth-Busting Facts”. (n.d.) The Reading Well. Retrieved May 21, 2023.https://www.dyslexia-reading-well.com/dyslexia-statistics.html 

  3. “Data and Statistics About ADHD”. (August 9, 2022). Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved May 21, 2023.https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html 

  4. “Increase in Developmental Disabilities Among Children in the United States”. (May 16, 2022). Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved May 22, 2023.https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/developmentaldisabilities/features/increase-in-developmental-disabilities.html 

  5. Roux, Anne, et al. (August 8, 2015). “Employment Outcomes of Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum”. Drexel University Life Course Outcomes Research Program. Retrieved May 21, 2023.https://drexel.edu/autismoutcomes/publications-and-reports/publications/Employment-Outcomes-of-Young-Adults-on-the-Autism-Spectrum/ 

“The Future of Work”. (n.d.) Monster. Retrieved May 21, 2023.https://media.monster.com/marketing/2022/The-Future-of-Work-2022-Global-Report.pdf

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