Imagine trying to live under a system that determines what and how you live your life. It dictates your actions 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year. It is a structure that is so integral to your life that it puts food on your table. Now imagine if that structure was built for someone else. Someone who thought differently, acted differently, and communicated differently from you.
This was my life for most of my career. I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the age of 31 and I spent much of my adulthood not understanding why I didn’t fit into that typical structure.
I grew up in a small rural Oregon town in the 90s, in a time when the medical field was just starting to make progress on understanding autism–when only non-verbal children or those with severe traits were being diagnosed.
I remember being scolded by my parents and teachers for stimming (self-stimulating behavior common in autistic individuals). I would hold my hands at chest level and flap them, like a frantic Tyrannosaurus rex.
In high school and college, I squeaked through academically and completely flunked socially. Most of my time was spent alone, in my room, engaging in one special interest or another.
In one of my first job interviews, I was given the feedback that I “didn’t look excited to be there,” “didn’t make eye contact with the interviewer,” and “talked too slowly.”
I remember struggling to come to terms with my career choice in human resources, an industry often defined by relationship building, big smiling faces, and lots and lots of small talk.
However, when my son was diagnosed with autism in the spring of 2020, it pushed me to turn inward and reflect on my own feelings about my autism. Fear of judgment, a decade’s worth of shame and confusion, and a head full of too much pride were keeping me from being comfortable with my own differences. How could I teach my son to be comfortable with himself, when I hadn’t learned to do so myself?
That’s when I took the leap to disclose my autism to my management team. They were supportive and understanding; curious, but not overwhelmingly so. Disclosing helped me feel more comfortable being myself. The energy I was previously putting into masking my autistic traits was now redirected toward my work. It was also an invitation to my managers to get to know me on a more personal level. This has helped with the way they assigned work, identified projects for me, and just generally understood what I needed to be supported.
But my circumstances are more an exception than the rule. The thought of disclosing this deeply personal information to an employer can be terrifying for many people. They may be afraid of judgment, overwhelmed by shame, or even worried about risking their employment opportunities. Over the last several years, companies have placed new emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Employers have seen the reputational and productivity rewards that have come with offering these programs. But many of these efforts overlook those with neurodivergence.
To be clear, neurodiversity refers to variations in the neurocognitive functioning of individuals. It includes cognitive differences like autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyscalculia, Tourette’s syndrome, and others. It also includes what many would consider “normal” neurocognitive functioning, or neurotypical. Neurodivergent individuals are those whose cognitive functions vary from what is considered neurotypical. For those neurodivergent individuals, employment can be a nightmare. This can present as difficulty with changes and transitions (a constant in employment), lack of productivity and performance due to sensory sensitivities or rigid work processes, or even just getting through the interview processes (especially without accommodations).
In recent years, the neurodiversity movement has made strides in earning acceptance and understanding for its community. However, very few employers have explored the potential of neurodiversity in the workplace. But the time has come for that to change.
Employers can create a workplace that adapts to employees, rather than requiring employees to adapt to it. Here are five simple steps that employers can take that support neurodivergent employees and applicants.
1. Educate employees
One of the biggest barriers to a neurodiverse workforce is an understanding of neurodiversity. Employers can provide training to all employees and managers on the basics of neurodiversity that would cover understanding the spectrum of neurodiversity, communication styles, and dispelling myths and misconceptions. It’s also important to educate managers on best practices for providing different types of accommodations for neurodivergent individuals, such as adjustments for temperature, light and sound, or extra time for projects. Once team members have a basic understanding of how neurodiverse individuals operate, they’ll be better able to communicate and collaborate with their neurodiverse colleagues.
2. Foster inclusive recruiting and hiring
Recruitment and interview processes are the single largest barrier to the employment of a neurodiverse workforce. It is also the area that employers can most easily change to convey a welcoming company to neurodivergent individuals. For example, asking all applicants if they need any accommodation during the interview process is one of the simplest and most impactful actions an employer can take. Providing accommodations is also a requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I’d suggest asking in the application process and encouraging applicants to reach out if they have any specific needs. Some examples of accommodation that can be made during the interview process include adjustments for sensory sensitivities (temperature, lighting, sound, and so on), providing extra time or removing time limits for interview tasks, and providing a clear understanding of what the interview process will look like in advance so the individual understands what to expect when they arrive. Additionally, examine if you are assessing “social norms” during the interview process and whether social interactions are critical to the position–for example, lack of eye contact, fidgeting, or non-verbal cue misses. And finally, consider “working interviews.” Sometimes it is easier for a neurodivergent person to show you what they can do rather than tell you. After all, the goal should be to hire someone who can do the job, not explain how they can do the job.
3. Offer flexibility
It’s important to remember that neurodivergent employees are still individuals. They don’t neatly fit into boxes that employers can check off. All workplaces will require some sort of structure, but employers should adopt a mindset of flexibility when needed. For example, some neurodivergent employees find prioritization or time management incredibly difficult at work. This can be important in some industries tied to strict deadlines. But today’s technology can do wonders to help with this hurdle. This is where project management software or even shared work calendars can help immensely. Employers shouldn’t let the rigidity of “typical” employment models blind them from the opportunity to bring diversity of thought to their teams.
4. Support socializing appropriately
Many neurodivergent individuals struggle with social interactions or recovering from them (especially those of us on the autism spectrum). Unfortunately for us, work culture in the U.S. places an unnecessarily high value on an employee’s ability to “fit in” socially. How often do we hear “Oh, they just weren’t a great fit”? Don’t let an employee’s professional progression depend on their ability to socialize, but rather on what they can add to your team and their ability to perform the job. That doesn’t mean that neurodivergent individuals can’t socialize or won’t socialize. Some of us might be practicing improving our relationship-building skills. In fact, I still recommend employers provide a wide variety of optional social opportunities that allow employees to pick a size, setting, and time that works for them. In this way, neurodivergent individuals can build relationships and socialize at their comfort level, without concern as to whether it will be considered in their next performance review.
5. Ask for help when needed
There’s no shame in bringing in an expert. Understanding of neurodiversity is constantly evolving. HR professionals (if a business even has them) may not have the expertise or bandwidth to make big adjustments by themselves. There are many organizations and consultants that work to provide guidance and/or training on neurodiversity and its various cognitive differences in the workplace. Bringing on an outside expert can make a huge difference toward creating a truly inclusive environment that benefits everyone.
In a working world where so many things are uncomfortable for neurodivergent individuals, small adjustments can make all the difference. It would not only make people feel comfortable, but also valued for the unique skill sets they bring to the workforce. While the employment landscape is ever-changing, embracing neurodiversity is an important (and often missed) opportunity for companies to advance their business.