I’ve always suffered from insomnia. My mind wanders so feverishly that it outruns sleep. On a recent REM-less evening I watched some binge-worthy content about the rain forest. The footage was so immersive, the drip drop of tropical rain so mesmerizing, that I was transported miles away from Brooklyn; first to the heart of Brazil, then to my elementary school.
I had the privilege (in all meanings of the word) of attending a peculiar private school called Crighton. There were only a few dozen children, and as the school’s founder, Carole Kurtz, put it during an interview with The New York Times in 1985, it was “for the above-average child.” She continued: “For some, public school is the answer, but others need a more-personalized education if they are to reach their potential.” Were the students gifted? Many were. Complicated? Universally. The school was filled with unique minds—from those with ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) to OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder)—that would struggle in a more traditional environment.
Neurodiversity offers a different view of the myriad psychological traits that make our brains so profoundly individual. Instead of seeing common diagnoses (like placement on the autism spectrum) solely as a disadvantage, neurodiversity advocates for embracing the potential accompanying strengths. This is the philosophy Crighton applied to education instinctively, long before such terms were used clinically.
Let’s take my particular ailment, ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder). I was diagnosed at around 7 years old, and to this day fit much of the pathology: trouble sitting still (including epic pacing), a highly auditory approach to retaining information (no notes!), propensity to leap from topic to topic with seemingly no through line, impulsivity, easy distractibility, as well as the ability to hyperfocus. That last quality is seen as a benefit by some, and it has certainly benefited me.
In fact, it was during elementary school that I learned how to control my ability to focus obsessively on a singular topic until I felt I had depleted my brain of its potential contributions. My teachers actually devised a plan to trigger hyperfocus. They would pop in a CD of rain forest sounds, and have me put on headphones so I could dive deeply into any assignment. That’s how I ended up teleporting from TV streaming to evening daydreaming: rain forest sounds.
The care my teachers took to make me feel not strange or broken, but unique, impacted my entire life. They helped me feel comfortable building a company in which I could proudly display these qualities without shame even as I continuously work on managing them (I am certain my pacing unsettles new employees). I’m committed now more than ever to building a culture where neurodiversity isn’t an exception, but a given.
Nothing has tested the modern workplace like the pandemic-induced switch to remote work. It has made leaders like me reevaluate their approach to workplace mental health. Are we creating an environment where people feel safe going to HR with problems that are existential in nature? Have we figured out how, when possible, to bend our organization to better support the unique qualities of our employees instead of pressuring them to conform? Do we do the same for their personal issues and challenges? Not yet. We’ve made great strides, but we have much ground to cover.
So here are five achievable things we’re committing to that can help you pursue a more neurodiverse environment, too.
1. Hire outside your industry
Every industry shapes people, then seeks to replicate that shape. Make a habit of hiring outside of your industry to bring in neurodiversity, especially if your industry, like mine, disproportionately rewards a single type. Or at a minimum, search within your industry for the exceptional people who aren’t typical candidates.
2. Spark discussions about brain diversity
For the most part, we hold our diagnoses, challenges, and issues close to the vest, even with friends. Privacy is important, but destroying stigma can only help. Bring in experts to facilitate discussions around neurodiversity and deep-level diversity that help your company better understand why talented colleagues who may struggle interpersonally are part of what makes your workplace successful.
3. Lead by example
I see therapists and much of my team knows it (and the others surely do now). I’m proud of the time I set aside every Tuesday. And I’m not the only manager talking openly about my challenges. Sharing is voluntary, but it helps when it’s led by example.
4. Give employees tools and time
Offer access to platforms like Talkspace or Health Advocate to enable employees therapeutic lifelines. And don’t just allow employees to take time off and recharge: Encourage it. We offer unlimited/flexible PTO (paid time off) because everyone needs to rejuvenate at their own pace.
5. Be flexible
We’ve never had an official start time. We’ve never censored websites. We try to accommodate our employees’ personal ways of working best (this piece is coming from a night owl), getting inspired, and getting what must be done . . . done. So create latitude up to the point where it inconveniences somebody else’s way of working unfairly.
We’re in the midst of a massive sea change, a long-overdue reckoning, which must lead to more ethnically diverse workplaces at every level. That’s priority No. 1. My hope is that a companion pursuit will be the creation of a safe space for these diverse minds to thrive, collaborate, and succeed. Because diversity requires brain space as much as it does desk space.
Chris Sojka is cofounder and CCO of Madwell.