Embracing Neurodiversity: Unlocking the Power of Differences in the Workplace-Erica Blackwood
October 11, 2023
OCTOBER IS NATIONAL DISABILITY EMPLOYMENT AWARENESS MONTH!
Observed each October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) celebrates the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities past and present and showcases supportive, inclusive employment policies and practices that benefit employers and employees. With this year's theme of “Advancing Access and Equity,” let's take a moment to celebrate disabled talent, and review the reality of the Disability Divide and how it impacts opportunity in society. As part of a new series, Each month we will be sharing new information highlighting disabilities and sharing ways to be more inclusive in your organization. This month’s highlight is for working with neurodivergent folks in the workplace. Be sure to check back each month for continued conversations regarding inclusive workplaces and closing the disability divide.
Embracing Neurodiversity: Unlocking the Power of Differences in the Workplace
In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. While diversity often refers to various dimensions such as gender, race, and ethnicity, it is crucial not to overlook the concept of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity encompasses the natural variations in the human brain, including conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurological differences. Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace not only fosters a more inclusive environment but also unlocks the untapped potential of individuals with unique perspectives and abilities.
Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving and differences are NOT viewed as deficits. The word neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or learning disabilities. The neurodiversity movement emerged during the 1990s, aiming to increase acceptance and inclusion of ALL people while embracing neurological differences. The term was first coined by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, who coined the term “neurodiversity” to promote equality and inclusion of “neurological minorities”. While it is primarily a social justice movement, neurodiversity research and education is increasingly important in how our movement views and addresses certain disabilities and neurological conditions. Neurodiversity challenges the traditional notion of “normal” by celebrating the diversity of cognitive styles and neurological conditions. It recognizes that neurological differences are not inherently superior or inferior, but are simply variations of the human experience. Just as biodiversity is crucial for the health and balance of ecosystems, neurodiversity is vital for the growth and innovation within organizations.
What Conditions Can a Neurodivergent Person Have?
People who identify themselves as neurodivergent typically have one or more of the conditions or disorders listed below. However, since there aren’t any medical criteria or definitions of what it means to be neurodivergent, other conditions also can fall under this term as well. People with these conditions may also choose not to identify themselves as neurodivergent.
Some of the conditions that are most common among those who describe themselves as neurodivergent include:
- Autism spectrum disorder (more on this below).
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Down syndrome.
- Dyscalculia (difficulty with math).
- Dysgraphia (difficulty with writing).
- Dyslexia (difficulty with reading).
- Dyspraxia (difficulty with coordination).
- Intellectual disabilities.
- Mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and more.
- Prader-Willi syndrome (a rare genetic condition that affects metabolism) .
- Sensory processing disorders.
- Social anxiety (a specific type of anxiety disorder).
- Tourette syndrome (uncontrollable movements and vocal sounds called tics).
- Williams syndrome (a rare, neurodevelopmental, genetic condition characterized by many symptoms including unique physical features, delayed development, cognitive challenges and cardiovascular abnormalities).
Neurodiversity and Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is associated with differences in communication, learning, and behavior, though it can vary from person to person. People with ASD may have a wide range of strengths, abilities, needs, and challenges. In example, some people with ASD are able to communicate verbally, have an average or above average IQ, and live independently. Others might not be able to communicate their needs or feelings, may struggle with impairing and harmful behaviors that impact their safety and well- being, and may be dependent on support in all areas of their life. Additionally, for some people with autism, differences may not cause any suffering to the person themselves, instead, the suffering may result from the barriers imposed by societal norms, causing social exclusion and inequity.
Benefits of Neurodiversity in the Workplace
- Enhanced Creativity and Innovation:
- Neurodiverse individuals often possess exceptional problem- solving skills, unique perspectives, and creativity.Their ability to think outside the box can lead to fresh ideas, alternative approaches, and innovative solutions to complex challenges.
- Attention to Detail and Accuracy:
- Many neurodiverse individuals excel in tasks that require a high level of attention to detail, precision, and accuracy. Their ability to focus intensely on specific areas can be a tremendous asset to organizations.
- Diverse Skill Sets:
- Neurodiversity brings a wide range of skills and talents to the table. While some individuals may excel in logical and analytical thinking, others may possess exceptional artistic or technical abilities. By harnessing these diverse skill sets, organizations can create dynamic teams that complement each other’s strengths.
- Increased Productivity:
- When workplaces embrace neurodiversity, they create an environment where individuals can thrive based on their unique strengths. This leads to higher job satisfaction, increased motivation, and ultimately, improved productivity.
Creating an Inclusive Workplace
To foster an inclusive environment that embraces neurodiversity, organizations can take several steps:
- Promote Awareness and Education:
- Educate employees about neurodiversity and the different neurological conditions to foster understanding and reduce stigma. Provide training sessions and workshops to create a culture of empathy, acceptance, and inclusion. There are a wealth of great resources available. Some organizations to check out are:
- Autism Self- Advocacy Network - autisticadvocacy.org
- Neurodiversity Network- neurodiversitynetwork.net
- Neurodiversity Media- neurodiversitymedia.com
- Neurodiversity Hub- neurodiversityhub.org
- Flexible Work Arrangements:
- Implement flexible work arrangements that accommodate neurodiverse individuals’ needs, such as allowing remote work, flexible schedules, or providing quiet spaces for focused work.
- Accommodations and Support:
- Offer accommodations and support tailored to individual needs, such as providing assistive technologies, sensory- friendly workspaces, or offering alternative communication methods. The following articles give examples of useful accommodations:
- Sensitize Recruitment and Hiring Practices:
- Review recruitment and hiring practices to ensure they are inclusive and considerate of neurodiverse candidates. Focus on skills, abilities, and potential rather than relying solely on traditional interview formats. For example, Neurodiversitymedia.com has an extensive resource library that includes articles such as How To Interview A Neurodivergent Candidate.
- Foster Collaboration and Teamwork:
- Encourage Collaboration and teamwork by creating diverse project teams that bring together individuals with different strengths and perspectives. This promotes mutual learning, creativity, and the exchange of ideas.
There are many things people can do to be supportive of neurodivergent individuals. Some of the most important things you should keep in mind include:
- Listen. People who are neurodivergent may feel misunderstood or left out. Be willing to listen to them. Let them know you hear them and respect them and their choices.
- Communicate in ways that help them. Sometimes, people who are neurodivergent prefer written communication such as instant messaging, texting or emails over a phone call or face-to-face conversation. Give them the time and tools they need to communicate.
- Avoid value-based labels. Experts recommend against using the terms “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” to describe conditions like autism. They often assume a person’s level of function based on how much they behave like someone who’s neurotypical.
- No two neurodivergent people are the same. The personalities and preferences of neurodivergent people can be widely different, even when they have the same underlying condition.
- Don’t assume that anyone is incapable or unintelligent. People who are neurodivergent often have conditions or preferences that make them stand out or appear different.
- Treat everyone with respect. You can “normalize” and provide others with accommodations in a way that honors their human dignity.
“Neurodiversity” is a word used to explain the unique ways people’s brains work. While everyone’s brain develops similarly, no two brains function just alike. Being neurodivergent means having a brain that works differently from the average or “neurotypical” person. This may be differences in social preferences, ways of learning, ways of communicating and/or ways of perceiving the environment. Because of this, a neurodivergent person has different struggles and unique strengths. People who are neurodivergent can benefit from education and programs that help them develop their strengths using them to their benefit to live happy, healthy lives.
Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace is not just a moral imperative but also a strategic advantage for organizations. By creating an inclusive environment, employers can foster a workplace culture where employees are respected and empowered to contribute equally, as well as be supported with access to the same resources and opportunities, regardless of individual demographics and neurologically diverse backgrounds.