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In today’s workplace, neurodiversity is strength

Whether you know it or not, you have a neurodiverse team —  that is, a group in which people’s brains operate differently from each other, in ways that show up in how they work and socialize.

In fact, the chances are high that there are neurodivergent people on your team. Neurodivergence, which encompasses neurological differences like autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, OCD, and ADHD, is more common than many realize: 17% of people are diagnosed with one or more of these disorders.

It is increasingly understood that neurodivergence isn’t an illness or a deficit — differences in cognitive processes are a natural result of variations across the human genome, and often present as many strengths as challenges, if not more.

When considering your organization’s inclusion and equity efforts, have you considered the different needs of neurodivergent people?

HR leaders can do their part to make a more inclusive environment at work for the neurodivergent by educating corporate colleagues, offering accommodations and support, and being open to how someone’s differences can be strengths.

A Bravely Pro’s family journey with neurodiversity

Bravely Pro Beth McCormack shares her journey to becoming an ADHD specialist in her professional coaching practice. When Beth’s son was diagnosed with ADHD seven years ago, her husband had a surprising response to the diagnosis: the symptoms attributed to their son’s ADHD were ones he’d experienced for much of his lifeAnd while they encountered excellent support at their son’s school, Beth’s husband was facing his own hurdle: shame.

Beth explains: “With adults, there is a shadow of shame from childhood, where they were told a different narrative about who/what they are and how that shaped their self-perception.” Adults that go undiagnosed often carry shame, left over from a childhood of being told they were wrong, poorly-behaved, or “broken.” 

At your company, there may be neurodivergent people who have known their diagnoses for a long time. Allow those folks to disclose if they want to, and ask what they need to feel supported. There may be more of a learning curve for the newly diagnosed, as the person overcomes a variety of emotions and learns how to understand what they need, much less ask for it. Even in these circumstances, leaders can be supportive by offering accommodations and understanding. 

How does neurodivergence express itself in the workplace?

Beth works primarily with professionals with ADHD. She recalled a client who had been performing well at their job and earning recognition for a year before hitting a wall. When that client was not considered for a promotion that she thought she deserved, she spiraled. Beth and her client began to unpack and understand some of her workplace behaviors. The themes in this person’s work life matched some of the most common patterns for neurodivergent employees in general. 

Looking for the next adventure: She’s a curious and innovative thinker and has a tendency to get excited about really excited about a new idea… until the next new idea comes along. Her performance suffered from a lack of follow-through.

Thriving with structure and discipline: Daily workflow hygiene tasks like calendar management were hard to follow consistently, and unexpected changes were difficult to recover from.

Organization fascination: This employee was constantly seeking out new project management tools to help her stay organized. These varying methods were usually more distracting than helpful, resulting in a crash in self-esteem as each attempted system failed. She simply couldn’t make herself fit the neurotypical “ideal” of the perfectly organized person.

Of course, these characteristics represent only some of the ways neurodivergence can affect someone’s work. Still, we hope they’re illustrative of the diverse ways your people work.

Some other common neurodivergent traits, as they relate to work, include:

  • High achievement need, or holding oneself to a high standard of accomplishment and expecting recognition in return
  • Interest in patterns and ability to notice them where others might not
  • Strong preference for written communication over other methods
  • Discomfort with “forced socialization,” small talk, or social niceties
  • Sensory sensitivity, including to noise or smells
  • “Peak performance” hours that occur outside of traditional work hours

Under the right circumstances, any of these traits can be strengths. Someone’s neurodivergence might make them particularly adept at noticing errors in a document, completing tasks that require a certain level of focus, or keeping a meeting on topic, to name just a few examples.

“Open your mind to the possibility of leveraging different strengths and experiences.”

Beth McCormack

What can HR leaders do to support neurodivergent employees? 

  • Build psychological safety, so employees feel comfortable to disclose and ask for help when they need it.
  • Leaders are responsible for engaging in an Interactive Process of accommodating disabilities. The same principle — collaborative problem-solving between employee and employer — can apply across all kinds of neurodiversity.
  • Hire for culture-adds, not necessarily culture-fits to increase neurodiversity among the team.
  • Get to know the strengths of your people. Focus on elevating their strengths while mitigating environmental challenges.

Consider universal design 

Universal design suggests that considering neurodivergent people’s needs in designing an office environment or organizational practice/ policy works to the advantage of your entire team — not just neurodivergent employees.

Think about it: the things that make life at work better for neurodivergent people — like clear expectations, an environment free from distraction, flexibility — make life work better for everyone. Let’s continue to evolve for our people and be open to new ways of working.