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How Leaders Can Support and Embrace The Untapped Potential of Neurodiverse Talent

What can we do as entrepreneurs and business owners to support neurodiverse folks in the workplace? Include them in our DEI plans.

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When we think of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), we often think of race, gender, sexual orientation and physical disability. But what about mental and cognitive diversity? These days, more and more people are coming out as neurodiverse. An estimated 15-20% of people worldwide are neurodivergent and that could include folks in your workplace.

While neurodiversity qualifies as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), what a neurodivergent person may need in order to feel welcomed, safe and productive at work may differ from what's available. What can we do as entrepreneurs and business owners to support neurodiverse folks in the workplace and include them in our DEI plans? As a diversity and inclusion practitioner for more than 20 years, I'll share the answers to these questions — and more — in this article.

What is neurodiversity?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, "the term 'neurodivergent' describes people whose brain differences affect how their brain works. That means they have different strengths and challenges from people whose brains don't have those differences. The possible differences include medical disorders, learning disabilities and other conditions."

In a nutshell, neurodiversity is a different functioning of the brain that can affect someone's social skills, ability to focus and a host of other issues. Folks who are neurodivergent may also have:

We've all worked with folks with ADHD, autism and other conditions for a while now, but we may not have known how to create environments that allowed them to produce their best work or showcase their best selves. That's where including them in our DEI plans can be useful. But first, we should talk about how neurodiversity can show up in the workplace and ways we can create a more inclusive environment for neurodiverse individuals.

Related: 5 Steps to Building a Supportive and Inclusive Workplace for Neurodiverse Employees

How neurodiversity shows up in the workplace

One reason neurodiversity may be overlooked in DEI is that people don't know what it actually looks like in real life. If we can't identify neurodiversity in the office, how can we expect to adapt our policies, practices and culture?

Here are three scenarios describing how neurodiversity may look in the workplace.

  • Employee #1 may be mildly autistic but doesn't show typical symptoms at work. But at home, they may be antisocial which may impact their work relationships.
  • Employee #2 may be neurodivergent and struggle with job interviews. However, once on the job, their skillset shines and they perform outstanding work.
  • Employee #3 may struggle with focusing in noisy environments, but having quiet rooms to work in can support them in producing their best work.

Each employee in these scenarios adapted differently to their environment and found their own way to thrive in the workplace. However, neurodivergent folks shouldn't have to do all of the work to adapt. Here are a few ways your organization can take the weight off of their shoulders and help them thrive in the workplace.

4 ways to support neurodivergent individuals at work

Keep in mind that each individual is different, as illustrated in the examples above. There's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to supporting employees, whether they're neurodivergent or not. However, there are a few ways you can keep a listening ear open and become more attentive to the needs of neurodivergent workers.

1. Find a manager or employee to be their success partner and ally

If there's a manager or someone who works side-by-side with a neurodivergent individual, make it a point to train that person on how to practice active listening and compassionate communication. I usually suggest hosting team talks for situations where listening and receiving feedback are helpful in solving inclusivity issues. However, for individuals, it can feel isolating and "outing" to have group conversations about inclusion and be the "only one" with a particular identity at the table.

For individuals, it's better to have one-on-one conversations with someone they trust who can offer a listening ear. A manager is an ideal candidate to be a successful partner or ally because managers are charged with listening to their employees' needs and have the simultaneous authority to access leadership and request inclusive policy and practice changes. This is an example of when compassionate listening meets action.

Related: Here's How to Have the Most Powerful DEI Conversations

2. Design different physical spaces that accommodate various employee preferences

One way your business can be mindful of neurodiversity is to create dynamic spaces in the office that meet various work needs. Workspaces can be quite important to neurodivergent individuals. Some may prefer to be alone in a closed-door office while others may prefer a certain style of furniture, wall colors or a pleasant aroma.

Creating physical workspaces that meet the needs of group meetings, individual working and pleasant places to rest can stimulate and calm certain individuals in the workplace. The best part is, that having different spaces will help not only neurodivergent individuals but neurotypical employees, too. Building dynamic spaces can help all employees find their best working environment and feel comfortable completing their tasks.

The goal is to create spaces that support, not inhibit, workers with different working styles to do their best work. Creating dynamic physical spaces can be an investment in your employees' wellbeing as well as their inclusion and comfort.

3. Avoid labeling neurodivergent people as "different" or othering them

One mistake we make as employees and business owners is wanting to categorize individuals and put them into boxes. I shared earlier that neurodiversity can sometimes overlap with ADHD, autism and Tourette's syndrome. While that's true, it's important not to "out" or label neurodivergent people as different or as having "different needs."

As leaders, we have to walk a fine line between supplying workers with what they need to do their jobs while making sure they don't feel exposed or embarrassed by making personal requests for their work and wellbeing.

Be sure to train managers and fellow employees who work with neurodivergent people on how to be sensitive to their needs and embrace their requests without othering them. As mentioned earlier, while one change to the physical or cultural environment may benefit a particular neurodivergent person, it may also be appreciated by other employees.

Related: How to Talk About Disability Diversity in the Workplace

4. Encourage other employees to value the different working styles of others

The challenges organizations face when adapting to neurodiversity in the workplace may actually begin with fellow employees. Not everyone may be as intentional as leadership when creating an inclusive workplace. Some employees may not understand why a certain individual chooses to be alone in their office while company functions are occurring or why an individual is so sensitive to the noise of the coffee maker in the background.

Instead of leadership overlooking employees judging or looking down upon individuals who are neurodivergent, host a training or workshop that can help them spot the behaviors of neurodivergent individuals and find ways to be compassionate and respectful in those scenarios.

A warm, inclusive and compassionate work culture can make or break a neurodivergent individual's ability to work and thrive. Sometimes having allies and success partners amongst fellow employees can be an invaluable support system to a neurodivergent person — even when leadership hasn't quite caught on yet.

Final thoughts

As you think through your DEI plans and strategies, you may be thinking of how your organization can support racial, ethnic, gender and sexual orientation minorities. However, don't forget about those with mental and cognitive disabilities that may not be as apparent. These individuals are in need of the same respect and inclusion.

Create an environment where employees and team members with physical and mental disabilities can feel supported. This can include physical spaces that smell, feel or sound a certain way. Or it can be training managers and employees on what allyship looks like for neurodivergent individuals. No matter how you do it, keep folks with mental disabilities in your DEI plans this year and beyond.

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