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Kenan Institute 2023 Grand Challenge: Workforce Disrupted
Market-Based Solutions to Vital Economic Issues
Kenan Insight
Feb 24, 2023

Neurodiversity and a Skilled, Diverse Workforce

Part of our series on Workforce Disrupted

Recent years have seen a welcome increase in attention paid to the types of diversity we experience in our daily lives – including in our workplaces. While there is still a long way to go toward achieving equity and widespread recognition of the lived experiences of people who have these diverse identities, progress has been made. Examples include, for many organizations, the implementation or expansion of equality, diversity and inclusion roles; funding allocated toward understanding and improving the work experiences of people of a range of identities; and specific hiring practices that seek to attract talent from more diverse backgrounds (Mahto et al., 2022).

Typically, when organizations refer to efforts to improve diversity, they are referring to different genders, races, religions and cultures (Roberson, 2019). Organizations or individuals who are focused on creating truly diverse and inclusive workplaces consider another type of diversity – neurodiversity – but this type of consideration occurs much less frequently. This oversight has crucial implications for workplace productivity and general life satisfaction. By developing a basic understanding of the concept of neurodiversity, the value of embracing a neurodiverse workforce, and the steps individuals and organizations can take to create neurodiversity-affirmative workplaces, businesses can recruit and support a skilled and diverse workforce.

Defining Neurodiversity

In understanding neurodiversity, it is important to delineate the concept itself, the paradigm with which it is associated, and the larger political movement. The term “neurodiversity” refers to the naturally occurring variations in cognitive functioning that we see throughout the human species (den Houting, 2019); it can be thought of in much the same way as biodiversity. Typically, functioning that has deviated from the “norm” has been pathologized and viewed as a deficient way of being and doing. The neurodiversity paradigm pushes back against this traditionally held belief and instead suggests that variations in functioning should be viewed as differences, void of value indicating whether they are “good” or “bad.” Again, this can be considered in the same way that a range of species fulfilling many roles are necessary for biodiversity and the health of our environment.

The term “neurodiversity” refers to the naturally occurring variations in cognitive functioning that we see throughout the human species (den Houting, 2019); it can be thought of in much the same way as biodiversity.

Importantly, this paradigm does not suggest that people who identify as having cognitive functioning that deviates from the norm – otherwise known as people who are neurodivergent1 – do not have any support needs. Several things can be true at once. Many types of cognitive functioning can be naturally occurring and void of negative connotations while also meaning that those individuals may require specific support to address the needs arising because of their neurodivergence (den Houting, 2019). As such, the neurodiversity paradigm is the perspective and way of being/researching/practicing that embraces neurodiversity as a welcome form of diversity rather than something to eliminate or change. The neurodiversity movement is distinct from the paradigm; this refers to the social justice movement that formally opposes any efforts to diminish the rights of neurodivergent people or to reduce or eliminate forms of neurodivergence (e.g., efforts to “cure autism”; Leadbitter et al., 2021).

Understanding the Value of Neurodiverse Workforces

An improved understanding of neurodiversity and the conditions associated with this term and paradigm does not require that organizations and their employees attempt to become expert diagnosticians or interventionists. Rather, an improved understanding of neurodiversity will enable organizations and their employees to create and maintain spaces – both physical environments and team cultures – that recognize this important form of diversity, are accessible to all team members, and promote well-being for all.

The case for increased awareness around neurodiversity is often justified by the value that neurodivergent employees can add to a business. Indeed, the Harvard Business Review published an article in 2017 titled “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage” that described how many organizations were failing to engage with the neurodivergent talent pool and, thus, missing out on their many skills. Certainly, neurodivergent people often have specific skills that may be related to their neurodivergence in some way (e.g., someone with ADHD being very creative; an autistic person being excellent at making sense of many small details). As a result, many large organizations like JPMorgan Chase & Co., Microsoft and Google have launched programs that specifically seek to recruit autistic and otherwise neurodivergent employees.

These programs can play an important role in combating the high level of unemployment that many neurodivergent groups experience (e.g., Deloitte reported that as much as 85% of the autistic population in the U.S. was unemployed as of 2021) and for spreading awareness of practices that make recruitment, onboarding and work experience more equitable for everyone. In this way, these programs are crucial for ensuring that neurodivergent people are being given opportunities to engage in any career they would like.

Organizations should be motivated to embrace a neurodiversity-affirmative ethos because it will improve the work experience and general life satisfaction of all employees.

However, I believe that there is danger in promoting the value of neurodivergent workers as the central reason to improve working environments and implement inclusive practices. Rather, organizations should be motivated to make improvements and embrace a neurodiversity-affirmative ethos because it will improve the work experience and general life satisfaction of all employees. Neurodivergent employees working in teams that are unsupportive and lack understanding of their needs are likely to have much poorer experiences at work. These negative experiences are often, quite logically, associated with worsening mental health, too (Burton et al., 2022). The link between general life satisfaction and work productivity is well established (e.g., Bellet et al., 2019), so providing spaces in which neurodivergent people feel happy and able to work will undoubtedly bring benefits to the wider organization.

Immediate Changes for More Inclusive Environments

I suggest that organizations truly committed to creating neurodiversity-affirmative workplaces for a diverse and skilled workforce should consider three main points of action. First, they should consider the low-hanging (and, often, low-effort and low-cost) changes they can make that, while seemingly minor, could have far-reaching positive implications for creating better working environments for all employees, especially those who are neurodivergent. Such changes might include reconsidering policies around hot-desking and requirements to spend time in the office when a role can be effectively done remotely. Some employees, including some people with ADHD, might appreciate the flexibility of a dynamic working environment that includes different workspaces allowing for movement and collaboration, but other employees, including those who have anxiety or are autistic, may find the lack of consistency that comes with hot-desking to be anxiety-provoking and detrimental to productivity. Consider how employees can be allowed autonomy regarding opting into hot-desking arrangements or their remote or hybrid work agreements. Along with this, it is advisable to measure an employee’s productivity by their outputs and their progress toward agreed-upon benchmarks and goals rather than how much they appear to be working when they spend time in the office.

Additional changes that organizations can make include having flexible policies around the items that people may use to meet their specific needs; this might include sunglasses, ear defenders or noise-canceling headphones, and fidget objects. There are few reasons that would be compelling enough to justify telling an employee that they cannot have access to these supports while at work. For those organizations that are largely operating in-office, having clear procedures around noise levels in shared spaces can be helpful for those employees who are affected by auditory sensory input or who are more easily distracted. There are a huge number of small adjustments that can be made that can drastically improve the experience of working in that environment, and the benefits are likely to extend beyond the neurodivergent employees.

Responding to Individual Needs

When considering other, more specific changes that might be needed to make working environments and cultures more neurodiversity affirmative, nothing replaces the information that can be gleaned from asking employees directly – the second point of action that I recommend. If an employee has disclosed that they are neurodivergent (though it’s important to remember that an employee has every right not to share this information), speak with them to learn how the organization, manager and wider team can best support them. While some methods of support might overlap with previous suggestions for wider company policies, such as allowing the use of noise-canceling headphones or flexible seating, other areas of need might be more specific. Employees might request that information is shared with them in a specific way (e.g., in writing or explained verbally), or they may request more frequent check-in meetings with a manager. Any number of individual support strategies can improve someone’s work experience, productivity and, most crucially, their well-being.

Shifting Policies Throughout the Organization

Working with individual employees who have identified themselves as being neurodivergent to find the individual adjustments to best meet their needs is necessary and important. However, the third point of action again shifts the focus toward implementing policies across the organization that create an environment that is respectful of various preferences and needs without requiring that someone disclose any information about their cognitive functioning. A fundamental key of creating workplaces that affirm neurodiversity is making it the norm to ask people for their communication preferences and support needs, making processes like interviews and promotion meetings more accessible by sharing the questions ahead of time, and providing more flexibility to all employees. These policies help organizations to be proactive in supporting neurodivergent employees; then, for those employees who have needs that are not completely supported by wider company policies, decisions can be made at the individual and team levels as supplemental, reactive supports.

A fundamental key of creating workplaces that affirm neurodiversity is making it the norm to ask people for their communication preferences and support needs, making processes like interviews and promotion meetings more accessible by sharing the questions ahead of time, and providing more flexibility to all employees.

When working to implement these companywide policies, organizations should seek out the perspectives of neurodivergent people – both those who work for the organization and others – to better understand their lived experiences and the effects of policies and procedures. Similarly, there are a range of resources available online and in books that have been written and developed by neurodivergent people with an aim of helping organizations and neurotypical people develop a better understanding of neurodiversity. These resources should be used and circulated widely.2

1 Someone who is neurodivergent might have one (or more) of the following conditions: autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, sensory processing disorders and Tourette syndrome. However, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Some people consider mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders, to be forms of neurodivergence, too, as well as numerous other acquired and developed conditions that could change someone’s cognitive functioning (Cleveland Clinic, n.d.).

2 For more resources on neuroinclusion, Dr. Friedman recommends the following: How to be inclusive of autism in recruitment practices; What to do when interviewing an autistic person for a job; How To Be More Neuro-Inclusive In The Workplace: A Guide for HR; Pete Wharmby – Autistic Speaker and Writer; and The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.

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