What Does a Neurodivergent-Inclusive Workplace Look Like?

Read this article to learn strategies for creative inclusive workplaces for neurodivergent employees.
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  • Neurodiversity hiring refers to hiring neurodivergent people.
  • Neurodivergent people face significant barriers to employment.
  • Nearly 42% of autistic young adults have never worked for pay in their early 20s.
  • Ableism creates many barriers to employment for neurodivergent people.

Neurodiversity includes everyone. Neurodivergent people face more barriers to employment than neurotypical people. Ableism creates many of these barriers.

Neurodivergence covers many neurotypes, but it's worth noting that 42% of young adults on the autist spectrum never had paid employment in their early 20s. That's why it's important to create neuro-inclusive workplaces.

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Consider job interviews. Many neurodivergent people don't perform the same way socially as neurotypical people do. People misread us and assume we're disinterested, anxious, incompetent, or arrogant.

This article shares some ways to ensure workplaces are neuro-inclusive.

What Is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is the diversity of human minds. Acknowledging and accepting neurodiversity means accepting and celebrating that there is no one right way of thinking, learning, and behaving.

Neurotypical minds are significantly different from neurodivergent minds.

  • Neurotypical describes how society is currently designed and operated, which explains why many neurodivergent people consider society a neurotypical society. This also explains why many neurodivergent people identify as disabled.
  • Neurodivergence encompasses any cognitive profile (or neurotype) that is not neurotypical. It includes dyspraxia, Tourette's, ADHD, autism, and common learning differences like dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and dyslexia.

Neurodiversity is the foundation of the neurodiversity paradigm. The neurodiversity paradigm is a perspective that follows the social model of disability, which states that disability results from the way a person interacts with their environment.

Under this framework, disablement is an action — something that is done to someone. The social model of disability, like the neurodiversity paradigm, is a social movement created by disabled and neurodivergent advocates who seek full societal inclusion.

Advantages of Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Neurodiversity has always been in the workplace. All humans are neurodiverse, and neurodivergent people work in every field at every level. There remains, however, high unemployment rates for neurodivergent people due to discrimination and known and unknown bias.

The obvious advantages to hiring neurodivergent employees are the unique styles of thinking illustrated by atypical minds. Diversity of minds means diversity of thought, including the generation of original ideas.

Theresa Haskins, an associate professor at the University of Southern California and CEO of Haskins Consulting Group, says including neurodivergent employees requires managers to be flexible in their approaches and adaptable to change.

  • "Neurodivergent employees process information and engage with the world atypically," Haskins said. "This means that they will see problems and issues from a unique perspective which can influence the development of creative and holistic solutions."

Many neurodivergent individuals are logical thinkers, skilled with concepts and systems. The high connectivity of neurodivergent brains also means that neurodivergent individuals commonly express natural skills in conceptual thinking, analytical thinking, fairness, honesty, and attention to detail.

Hiring neurodivergent employees also increases our quality of life. Employment helps us thrive and improves our self-esteem. This can help reduce neurodivergent suicide rates, which are higher than neurotypical suicide rates. Inclusion saves lives. Neurodivergent people are loyal to people who treat them well.

"As someone who is dyslexic, for example, I feel like I had to “entrepreneur” my way through school, which has taught me valuable skills that I still use in my career each day," Marcus Soutra, president of Eye to Eye said. "Those struggles gave me a certain empathy that allows me to read situations in a way others may not be able to and understand myself and the unique strengths I bring to the table."

How to Create a Neurodivergent-Inclusive Workplace

Employers can support neurodivergent employees by framing neurodiversity as a natural biological fact that includes all humans. This means using inclusive and neurodiversity-affirming language whenever possible. Employers can also provide diversity and inclusion training to help employees learn about unconscious biases.

It also means coworkers should welcome a neurodivergent employee's strengths as assets to be encouraged and nurtured, no matter how unique or "unusual."

Haskins recommends the following:

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    Promote an environment of open communication and psychological safety so employees feel they can raise issues, ask questions, and obtain additional support if required.
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    Talk to your employees about how much autonomy versus direction they need to do their best work.
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    Have clear performance metrics and regular check-ins, so employees have a routine way to report on their work progress.
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    Appreciate your employee's regular contributions to the team and recognize major milestones and noteworthy achievements.

At Eye to Eye — an organization run by and for people with learning disabilities — Soutra encourages what he calls a 20/20, 20/20 policy. Twenty days of structured time off, 20 days of flexible time off, 20 hours of structured work and 20 hours of flexible work.

"We've found this mix of structure and autonomy works well for all employees and makes them more productive and comfortable," Soutra said.

Employers who include neurodiversity in the workplace should avoid perpetuating misinformation about neurodiversity and neurodivergence — including using "neurodiversity," "neurodivergent," "neurodivergence," and "neurodiverse" interchangeably. None of these words are synonyms.

"Neurotypical" is not a slang term, nor is "neurotypical" a disparaging term. "Neurotypical" was created by neurodiversity advocates at the start of the neurodiversity movement in the 90s to identify the way of living from which neurodivergent people diverge.

In her book "Neuroqueer Heresies,"Dr. Nick Walker, an autistic professor of psychology at California Institute of Integral Studies, says that "neurotypical bears the same sort of relationship to neurodivergent that straight bears to queer."

Autistic professor of organizational psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California, Ludmila N. Praslova writes that neurodivergent people make great leaders. Still, many people believe that neurodivergent people can't be leaders. Society brands neurodivergent leaders — including Charlotte Valeur, Charles Schwab, Elon Musk, Greta Thunberg, and Richard Branson — as rare exceptions.

Praslova explains these views of "neurodivergent leaders as rare exceptions" result from subtyping, "a mechanism that supports persistence of stereotypes by clustering group members who defy the stereotype into subgroups, such as 'educated immigrants' or 'prominent autistics."'

How to Empower Neurodivergent Employees

Hire neurodivergent people for every role at every level

Look beyond stereotypes when hiring and promoting neurodivergent employees. Neurodivergent people work at every role and at every level, though a majority are employed in roles below their skill level, experience, and expertise.

Use neurodiversity-affirming language

Neurodiversity means differences in minds are no more pathologies than differences in skin color, sexuality, or gender expression. There is no such thing as an abnormal mind or abnormal behavior, so employers should avoid using pathologizing terms from the medical model of disability when talking about their neurodivergent employees.

Avoid using "deficit," "disorder," "condition," "unusual," "odd," "weird," or any other term that might make a neurodivergent person feel abnormal.

Clarify expectations

Many neurodivergent people have logical, orderly minds and do not function in chaos. Senior Director of Associate Experience at Red Hat, Sam Knuth, observes that employers can include their neurodivergent employees by starting and ending meetings on time, clarifying the responsibilities and expectations of each person's role, writing meeting agendas in invitations, and clearly documenting responsibilities and deadlines.

"While neurodivergent employees sometimes approach work differently, these differences do not mean they are less effective or productive than their neurotypical peers," Haskins said. "In fact, research shows that autistic employees outperform their peers at work when it comes to quality and attention to detail."

Encourage Disclosure (and Authenticity)

Disclosure can be challenging because disclosing neurodivergence and disabilities often results in discrimination. A person must, however, disclose to receive accommodations. Talking openly about neurodivergence reduces stigma, promotes trust in healthy environments, and helps people find and create healthy environments. This enables people to come to work as their authentic selves.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Neurodivergent-Inclusive Workplace

What percentage of the U.S. population is neurodivergent?

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An estimated 1 in 5 people is neurodivergent. However, many people don't know they're neurodivergent, and many who learn about their neurodivergence do not immediately accept these identities. Ableism and discrimination make self-acceptance difficult.

Like many members of the LGBTQ+ community, some neurodivergent people remain closeted for fear of discrimination. Society will have a clearer view of neurodivergence when disabled and neurodivergent people are fully accepted and included in society.

How do I know if my company is inclusive?

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Look for your company's inclusion statement. What do they say about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)? Do they say anything about disability and neurodivergence?

Listen to how your company talks about neurodiversity. Many corporations package neurodiversity in misinformative terms that promote the medical model. If a company is neuro-inclusive, they will not use pathologizing or medicalized terms to discuss neurodivergence.

Under the neurodiversity paradigm, all minds are valid, so an inclusive company will talk about neurodivergent people as they talk about all marginalized identities: as members of a socially disadvantaged group or minority group. Neurodivergent people are neuro-minorities.

Neuro-inclusive companies also have policies that encourage disclosure and accommodations, as well as clear and written communication and expectations.

Should I disclose my neurodiversity to an employer?

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No one has neurodiversity. Dr. Nick Walker states in 'Neuroqueer Heresies' that an "individual, by definition, cannot be 'diverse' or 'have diversity.'" Everyone is neurodiverse, just as everyone is diverse. Not everyone is neurodivergent.

For neurodivergent employees, disclosure is a personal choice. There is no "should" -- the neurodiversity paradigm opposes conformity. Whether a person discloses their neurodivergence is up to them. But employees must disclose to receive accommodations.

Employers have legal responsibilities once an employee discloses. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), any employer with at least 15 employees is legally obligated to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees.

Disclosure also contributes to an atmosphere of authenticity. Authenticity is needed to create neuro-inclusive spaces.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Theresa Haskins

Theresa Haskins

Theresa Haskins is an organizational development and disability-inclusion leader with decades of experience working with corporations, nonprofits, and educational institutions to develop leaders and create inclusive cultures where diverse groups of people thrive.

She is CEO of Haskins Consulting Group, a neurodiversity inclusion company that helps individuals and organizations identify and achieve their goals for learning and improved performance.

Portrait of Marcus Soutra

Marcus Soutra

Marcus Soutra is the president of Eye to Eye. Soutra joined Eye to Eye as its first staff member in 2006. He developed much of the innovative curriculum and programming — building the foundation for the organization — and is instrumental in its strategic growth. He steers the organization’s continued evolution as a driving force for change for people with learning and attention issues in education, government, the workplace, and pop culture.

Soutra has given lectures and keynotes at venues across the globe to support the learning disabilities community and, more broadly, the education sector.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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