Creating a workplace culture with diversity and inclusivity is fundamental to an organization’s success. Research reveals more than 1 in 100 people around the world are somewhere on the Autism spectrum, while upwards of fifteen to thirty percent of the world’s population is said to be neurodiverse (ADHD, OCD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Tourette’s syndrome, and others). This sizeable portion of the workforce requires organizations to provide work environments which proactively address inclusivity and diversity as part of the company culture.
Organizational diversity is not sustainable without policies, practices, and procedures in place which work to create a safe, inclusive, and equitable space for every employee. Having a viable DEIB strategy is no different than any other action an organization takes to acquire and retain talent, as well as create a healthy company culture.
Some common work-related conditions or challenges that neurodivergent employees commonly struggle with, include:
1. Hypersensitivity or sensory overload: Sights, sounds, smells, textures; fluorescent or LED overhead lighting, background noise, or environmental temperature changes.
2. Object permanence or constancy: Forgetting a task or person if no physical marker is present. Stability of relationships and employment if conflict arises.
3. Emotional dysregulation: Actual or perceived rejection causing an intense emotional response. Struggle to experience, identify, and express emotions.
4. Interpersonal and/or communication problems: Understanding office politics, mimicking behaviors, identifying tone, intent, body language, or linguistic expression. Difficulty making or maintaining eye contact.
5. Structural challenges: Adherence or attachment to strict routines, rituals, schedules, or procedures. Issues with time management or organization. Difficulty with change.
Complex neurodevelopmental conditions are not an intellectual, learning, or neurological disorder. Neurodivergent employees’ need for accommodations is not a reflection of their ability to perform the essential functions of a job. When workplace barriers are reduced, neurodivergent workers are shown to be just as skilled and effective as their neurotypical peers. Neurodivergent employees are known to excel in the following areas.
• Extraordinary attention to detail
• Creative and innovative thinking
• Hyperfocus on niche or special interests
• A strong work ethic and high moral compass
• Advanced technical acumen
It’s important to have conversations with employees and establish a work environment that gives autistic and neurodivergent employees the confidence to speak up and ask for what they need (or advocate for changes). There are simple and easy alterations that organizations can adopt into their workplace, which can benefit all types of employees. Some of the most common accommodations offered include:
• Creating quiet zones or quiet office spaces to accommodate hypersensitivities
• Allowing employees with noise sensitivities to wear noise-canceling headphones or earplugs
• Turning off overhead lighting or allowing employees to move or change seats with someone
• Establishing a structured daily routine, including fixed breaks and lunch times
• Outlining the day’s priorities ahead of time to support struggles with time management
• Offering meeting agendas in advance to help employees who struggle with social interactions
• Providing clear and thoughtful performance reviews focusing on helping employees discern how they can improve their performance and grow within the organization or profession
• Using digital tools like Slack or Teams which allow employees to better collaborate for different work environments
• Organizing affinity groups and mentorship programs to foster peer-to-peer connections and appreciation of each other’s contributions
The best accommodations will include transformation within leadership to better understand, empathize, and support neurodivergent workers, including respecting their self-determination, acting with regard for their preferences, playing to their strengths in a non-paternalistic way, acknowledging and celebrating the value of diversity in the workplace, and making the effort to think proactively about how the workplace can be more inclusive.
The needs of any specific workforce will vary, and the best way to ensure that a workplace environment adequately meets the needs of neurodiverse employees is to communicate with those employees directly. Open communication can help increase understanding, positive engagement, foster relationships, and enhance organizational health and growth.
Complete content published in Workplace Options, March 28, 2023.