5 Steps to Building a Supportive and Inclusive Workplace for Neurodiverse Employees
Neurodiverse employees can be valuable, productive members of your workforce if you build a culture that supports them. Here are some guidelines for getting started.
National data shows that neurodiverse people — people with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety disorder and other neurologic conditions — are grossly unemployed or underemployed, with estimates ranging as high as 90%, particularly for those on the autism spectrum. Further, until recently, D&I programs often failed to reach out and be specifically inclusive of neurodiverse people.
But in the last few years, there's been a greater understanding and appreciation that neurodiverse can be extremely talented and effective in very unique ways. But in order to recruit and support neurodiverse employees so they're successful members of the team, organizations need to implement protocols that foster greater inclusion of neurodiversity.
Here are five steps to build a more inclusive workforce for neurodiverse people:
Promote at all levels, and get workforce buy-in
Have leadership start the conversation about neurodiversity and how neurodiversity is another element of diversity and inclusion. Intentionally value the differences brought by neurodiverse people and acknowledge their unique contributions to the team. Allow a "safe" space for people to ask questions and become more informed about neurodiverse people. Have neurodiverse employees anonymously identify best practices to support their working style.
More than anything else, this boils down to working proactively to change both your own and the group's thinking about neurodiversity. According to Denise Brodey, an expert in disability, neurodiversity, and workplace issues and founder of Rebel Talent, it can be as simple as literally saying out loud "Being or thinking different is not a deficiency."
"Just believing it is not enough," says Brodey, who has ADHD and is dyslexic herself. "You might also say something like: "Thinking differently—in patterns, in bursts of ideas, being a visual thinker—are crucial to creative problem solving.' Resolve to say that often at the beginning of meetings."
Create partnerships with community groups
Supporting and including neurodiverse people includes partnering with community groups to specifically recruit people. For example, the Center for Autism and Related Disorders is one group among many that can refer job candidates and inform employers of reasonable accommodations and best practices to support neurodiverse people. CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) is a non-profit organization providing education, advocacy and support for individuals with ADHD. The Attention Deficit Disorder Association is another non-profit organization that provides resources, information and networking opportunities to individuals with ADD. Dyslexic Advantage Organization is another organization that educates, informs, and promotes the unique advantages of people with dyslexia. There are community support groups to provide best practices and information on every condition and it's up to employers to reach out and form those partnerships.
Modify recruitment practices to support inclusion
In addition to sourcing more neurodiverse talent and getting them into the candidate pipeline, recruiters and hiring managers need to be trained on how to interview neurodiverse candidates, who may present very differently than neurotypical candidates. Simple accommodations, such as allowing for a therapy dog or not expecting eye contact may be needed to support the hiring process.
In addition, some key questions to ask neurodiverse candidates include "How do you work best? How are you most productive? How do you like to receive feedback?" These questions signal to a potential employee that you want to work with them and that working for them is tailored enough that everyone can do their best work.
Sponsor training to develop the communication and other team skills required for both neurodiverse and neurotypical employees
Neurodiverse employees may benefit from targeted training that develops teamwork and communication skills to help them be successful. Neurotypical employees also need training and candid conversations about how best to work with and accommodate their neurodiverse co-workers.
For example, employees who are on the autism spectrum may benefit from a communication strategies course to provide guidance to them on which communication techniques to use in specific situations and how to provide co-workers context about their challenges in interpreting non-verbal communication. At the same time, neurotypical employees may need training on common social and communication characteristics of people who are on the autism spectrum. This type of specialized training applies to all types of neurodiverse conditions.
Identify reasonable accommodations to support neurodiverse employees
Neurodiverse people may have needs that aren't very common, such as: flexible work schedules, workspaces that are quiet and private so they can be their most productive, tolerance and understanding for coworkers who don't like to make eye contact or who have difficulty understanding nonverbal communication, among other things. For example, dyslexic employees may need extra support with time management and scheduling deadlines. Employees with manic depressive disorder may need more flexible schedules while employees with ADHD may require a more quiet workspace to reduce possible distractions. There are a number of ways to support neurodiverse employees but it takes candid conversations and identifying the actions that will help people succeed.
As employers renew their efforts to diversify their workforce and ensure everyone feels included, it's time to prioritize neurodiverse employees and realize that with a bit of patience and support, their differences can be strengths for any organization.
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