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How to Help Your Neurodiverse Workforce Thrive

With inclusion at the center, everyone wins.

Key points

  • Cultivating a thriving neurodiverse workforce is good for employees, business, and society as a whole.
  • To do so, organizations can prioritize inclusion in marketing, hiring, training, and management practices.
  • Organizations can create systems that incentivize personal growth and innovation, not conformity.

By Eric Levine, Ed.D. with Courtney Kelly.

Having a neurodiverse workforce is good for your employees. It's good for your business. And it's good for all of society. But how can you ensure your organization is a good place for individuals who have neurodevelopmental conditions to work? Given that no two people with any diagnosis have the same exact preferences or needs, there isn't any one-size-fits-all set of dos and don'ts we can (or should) give you. Instead, we encourage you to cultivate a maximally adaptive, accessible, and equitable work environment—one in which everyone can thrive. The best way to do that? Center inclusion in everything you do.

Inclusion in Marketing

This should be clearly evident from the moment someone encounters your brand. "Publicly express the fact that cultivating a thriving neurodiverse workforce is one of your priorities. Do this on your website, your brochures, any outward-facing material," explained Alison Hamrick, Neurodiversity Enhancement Coordinator at CooperRiis Healing Community. Then, follow through on your statements by making details about your efforts to hire and serve employees with neurodevelopmental conditions readily available for those who want to learn more.

In order for this to be effective, information about your organization online should be perceptible to folks with a variety of needs and preferences. Include alt text in your images for those with vision impairments. Use clear, straightforward language in all of your copy. Tell your story through many different kinds of media, including text, images, and videos. Help website visitors find the most important material by making it available via multiple pathways. Then, help them focus on it by avoiding webpage clutter. Efforts to consider a wide range of experiences will go a long way toward attracting a neurodiverse pool of job candidates.

Inclusion in Job Listings

It's not uncommon for highly qualified professionals with neurodevelopmental conditions to self-select out of a job opportunity because of the way it's listed. Those who have autism, for example, are more likely to interpret lists of skills and qualifications as non-negotiable rather than nice-to-have. "They may avoid applying because they lack one of the bullet points you listed, or because they have 4.5, not 5 years of experience," said Hamrick. "If you're willing to consider candidates with a range of skills, backgrounds, and experiences, explain what that range encompasses."

In addition, be mindful of the fact that Individuals with conditions like autism, ADHD, or dyslexia may have educational or career backgrounds that differ from the "norm." Competencies can be acquired in all kinds of ways, so we recommend doing some research on alternative skill acquisition pathways before slapping "college degree required" on your listings. It can be a challenge to craft qualifications sections that are both unambiguous and inclusive, so we recommend consulting with local neurodiversity advocates for support.

Inclusion in Hiring

Very few people would call interviewing easy. But for folks with neurodevelopmental conditions, it can be an insurmountable barrier to gainful employment. Maintaining eye contact, interpreting figures of speech, engaging in impression management, processing questions and preparing responses simultaneously—all of the tasks interviews require can be extremely difficult for individuals who have autism or ADHD.

This doesn't mean those same individuals won't excel within particular roles at your organization. In fact, their cognitive processing differences can offer massive competitive advantages. "The IDF’s Special Intelligence Unit 9900, which is responsible for analyzing aerial and satellite imagery, has a group staffed primarily with people on the autism spectrum," reported a Harvard Business Review article. "It has proved that they can spot patterns others do not see."

When hiring for a job that does not heavily rely on interpersonal skills, consider adapting your hiring process so that you don't prematurely eliminate candidates who struggle in interview settings. You could have all applicants for a quality assurance position actually test software, for example. Or you could assign prospective writers a small copywriting project. Individuals with neurodevelopmental conditions may have a much easier time showing rather than explaining what they're capable of, and by offering all candidates the opportunity to do this (for applicable positions), you ensure your hiring practices are both inclusive and fair.

Combine this with a dedicated neurodiversity education program for your HR reps, recruiters, and other hiring decision-makers, and you'll open up a lot of doors for folks typically shut out of career advancement opportunities. Team members screening applicants who have an awareness of the way that cognitive, behavioral, and relational differences can manifest in folks with autism, ADHD, and related conditions are empowered to avoid mistaken assumptions about who's best qualified for any particular role.

Inclusion in Training

Powerpoint presentations and at-home reading material may be straightforward to create, but for some with neurodevelopmental conditions, they're anything but straightforward to consume. To foster an inclusive learning environment for all your employees, we encourage you to beef up your training programs with a variety of teaching methodologies. For those that learn best independently, you can assign self-paced modules. For those who prefer hands-on learning, you can offer apprenticeship opportunities.

For everyone, take time to explain the relevance of what you teach. All people retain information best when they understand why it's important, but those with neurodevelopmental conditions may need that importance spelled out. This doesn't mean they're not capable learners, just that they process information differently than employees without these types of diagnoses.

Statements like, "We're going over our style guide because we don't want people on our engineering team to be confused by the copy they're given," or, "I'm walking you through our sales funnel so you'll know where to pick up with new customer onboarding" position employees with autism, ADHD or related conditions for success. As can offering them opportunities for social-emotional learning. Communication is a skill just like any other; providing employees with avenues to refine it will help them grow as professionals.

Inclusion in Management Practices

For Hamrick, effectively managing neurodiverse employees comes down to the same thing that effectively managing anyone does: "cultivating positive relationships. Neurodevelopmental conditions can manifest in all kinds of ways, so have regular conversations with employees about how you can best support them." Don't limit these conversations to your employees with neurocognitive conditions. Everyone should have the space to advocate for themselves at work.

Just as it's important to create the space for your employees to advocate for themselves, it's also important to communicate openly and directly with them about the needs that they express. This way, you can collaborate with them to creatively identify appropriate accommodations that support the essential functions of their jobs and satisfy all legal requirements. At the same time, you can help them understand the big picture of your organization.

To minimize the dysregulating effects uncertainty has on individuals with autism, ADHD, or related conditions, managers and team leaders should communicate frequently with them about how roles, expectations, and processes relate to one another across your organization. This practice has the added benefit of offering insights into where/how flexibility can be built into established systems. "Managers are often balancing a lot of different HR requirements, so the more they know about their employee's day-to-day experiences, the better equipped they'll be to address individuals' needs while satisfying organizational constraints," said Amanda Mastroianni, human resources director at CooperRiis Healing Community.

Delivering targeted support to a whole team can be a lot to ask of one manager or leader, so we recommend distributing employees' needs across established support networks. These networks could include colleagues and, in the case of individuals with neurocognitive conditions, partners from advocacy groups. By designating peer resources and connecting folks to local experts, you take the guesswork out of asking for help, making it a lot more accessible for individuals with neurodevelopmental conditions.

Inclusion in Work Systems and Culture

The culture of a creative, productive workplace is vibrant and multifaceted—it celebrates (not just tolerates) diversity. It also celebrates (not just tolerates) failure. Embrace mistakes as valuable learning opportunities, and recognize failure for what it is: a sign innovation is in the works. A culture that supports innovation is one in which employees can own and take pride in their courage to try something different, even if their efforts didn't pan out. When employees feel safe to take risks, they can invest their cognitive energy into problem-solving rather than avoiding problems.

In order to create a culture like this, it's important that all your employees are aware of the differences individuals with neurocognitive conditions may exhibit. This way, non-distracting behavior that deviates from the norm is not stigmatized, and people are freer to be themselves at work. "We have some folks who bring knitting or fidget spinners to meetings, others who prefer quieter settings," commented Mastroianni. "The key is everyone respects the fact that we all process information differently and we all have different social needs."

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