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How leaders can support neurodiverse talent in the workplace

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When we think of diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI), we often think of race, gender, sexual orientation and physical disability. But what about mental and cognitive diversity? Today, more and more people are coming out as neurodivers. An estimated 15-20% of people globally are neurodivergent and that could be people in your workplace.

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

What is neurodiversity?

According to the Cleveland ClinicThe term ‘neurodiversity’ describes people whose brain differences affect how their brains work. That means they have different strengths and challenges than people whose brains don’t have those differences. The possible differences include medical disorders, learning disabilities, and other conditions. .”

In a nutshell, neurodiversity is another brain function that can affect a person’s social skills, ability to concentrate, and a host of other problems. People who are neurodivergent may also have:

We’ve all been working with people with ADHD, autism, and other conditions for a while, but we may not have known how to create an environment where they could produce their best work or showcase their best selves. That’s where it can be helpful to include them in our DEI plans. But first, we need to talk about how neurodiversity can manifest in the workplace and how we can create a more inclusive environment for neurodiverse individuals.

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

How neurodiversity is expressed in the workplace

One of the reasons neurodiversity in DEI is overlooked is that people don’t know what it is actually looks like in real life. If we can’t identify neurodiversity in the office, how can we expect to change our policies, practices and culture?

Here are three scenarios that describe what neurodiversity can look like in the workplace.

  • Employee No. 1 may be mildly autistic, but shows no typical symptoms at work. But at home, they can be antisocial, which can affect their working relationships.
  • Employee #2 may be neurodivergent and have difficulty with job interviews. But once on the job their skills shine and they do an excellent job.
  • Worker #3 may have trouble concentrating 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 people shouldn’t be doing all the work to adapt. Here are a few ways your organization can take the weight off their shoulders and help them thrive in the workplace.

4 ways to support neurodivergent individuals at work

Keep in mind that every individual is different, as illustrated in the examples above. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to supporting employees, whether they are neurodivergent or not. However, there are a few ways you can listen and pay more attention to the needs of neurodivergent workers.

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

If there is a manager or someone who works side by side with a neurodivergent person, make it a point to train that person in active listening and compassionate communication. I usually suggest having team conversations for situations where listening and receiving feedback are helpful in solving inclusivity issues. For individuals, however, it can feel isolating and “getaway” to have group conversations about inclusion and be the “only one” with a certain identity at the table.

For individuals, it is better to have one-on-one conversations with someone they trust and who can lend a listening ear. A manager is an ideal candidate to be a successful partner or ally because managers must listen to the needs of their employees while also having the authority to access leadership and request inclusive policy and practice changes. This is an example of when compassionate listening and action come together.

Related: Here’s How To Have The Most Powerful DEI Conversations

2. Design different physical spaces to suit different employee preferences

One way your company can take neurodiversity into account is by creating dynamic spaces in the office that meet different work needs. Workspaces can be very important for neurodivergent individuals. Some may prefer to be alone in a closed office, while others may prefer a certain style of furniture, wall colors or a pleasant aroma.

Creating physical workplaces that meet the needs of group meetings, individual work and pleasant rest areas can stimulate and calm certain individuals in the workplace. Best of all, having different spaces helps not only neurodivergent individuals, but neurotypical workers as well. Building dynamic spaces allows all employees to find their best working environment and feel comfortable performing their duties.

The goal is to create spaces that support, not hinder, employees of different work styles to do their best work. Creating dynamic physical spaces can be an investment in the well-being of your employees, as well as in their inclusion and comfort.

3. Avoid labeling neurodivergent people as “different” or different people

One mistake we make as employees and business owners is that we want to categorize and categorize individuals. I previously shared that neurodiversity can sometimes overlap with ADHD, autism and Tourette’s syndrome. While that’s true, it’s important not to “exclude” or label neurodivergent people as different or as people with “different needs.”

As leaders, we must walk a fine line between providing employees with what they need to do their jobs and making sure they don’t feel exposed or embarrassed by making personal requests for their work and well-being.

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

Related: How to talk about diversity in the workplace?

4. Encourage other employees to appreciate the different work styles of others

The challenges organizations face in adapting to neurodiversity in the workplace can actually start with colleagues. Not everyone may be as intentional as leadership in creating an inclusive workplace. Some employees may not understand why a particular person chooses to be alone in the office while corporate functions are taking place or why a person is so sensitive to the sound of the coffee machine in the background.

Instead of leadership overlooking employees who judge or look down on individuals who are neurodivergent, organize a training or workshop that can help them recognize the behavior 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 among colleagues can be an invaluable support system for a neurodivergent person — even if leadership isn’t quite there yet.

Final Thoughts

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

Create an environment where employees and team members with physical and mental disabilities can feel supported. These can be physical spaces that smell, feel, or sound a certain way. Or it could be managers and employees to learn what alliance looks like for neurodivergent individuals. However you do it, keep people with intellectual disabilities in your DEI plans this year and beyond.


Shreya has been with australiabusinessblog.com for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider australiabusinessblog.com, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

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