Neurodiversity in the Workplace: Overcoming Challenges and Celebrating Differences

Neurodiversity in the Workplace: Overcoming Challenges and Celebrating Differences

Supporting neurodiverse employees in overcoming their challenges and utilizing their strengths can give companies a distinct competitive advantage. Many studies show that increasing workplace diversity improves a company’s performance, with higher profit margins, attendance, and overall productivity than organizations who don’t hire inclusively. Yet, despite 22% of Canadians having a disability, only 59% of those Canadians are employed compared to 80% of Canadians without a disability (Statistics Canada).

Neurodiversity describes the diversity of all people but is often used to refer to neurodiverse conditions such as ADHD, autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, and Tourette’s Syndrome. Studies show that an estimated 15% to 20% of the population is neurodivergent (British Medical Bulletin, 2020).

We are all different. People experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving. In our differences, we can have innovation, creative ideas, and new ways of understanding the world and work that we do. Employers who recognize the differences, accommodate for the obstacles, and celebrate the strengths of neurodiversity can unlock the full potential of their organizations and make a positive impact on both their employees and their bottom lines.

Common Characteristics and Strengths

It’s important not to stereotype according to characteristics, but it’s still helpful to be aware of the common traits of neurodivergence.

ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)

  • Affects focus
  • Hyperactive and impulsive
  • Good at urgent tasks and overcoming setbacks
  • Work well under pressure

Autism

  • Difficulty reading or socializing
  • Highly knowledgeable in specialized fields

Dyspraxia

  • Difficulty with organization
  • Affects movement and coordinaton
  • Creative and empathic

Dyslexia

  • Difficulty with reading
  • Out-of-the-box thinking
  • Good at processing visual information

Neurodiverse employees also bring a lot of strengths to your team. With neurodivergent people, the brain functions, learns, and processes information differently. This does not mean there is an intellectual delay; it means there is a different way to get the information in and provide information to the world.

Neurodiverse employees can help organizations excel, and they can often surpass their neurotypical colleagues. A report by JPMorgan Chase found that professionals in its Autism at Work initiative made fewer errors and were 90% to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees (Financial Times, 2020).

While it’s important to recognize that everyone is different and has their own strengths, here are some strengths that your neurodiverse employees and coworkers may have:

  • Ability to recognize where you flourish
  • Listen hard, change fast
  • Absorbing information
  • Innovation
  • Passion for social justice and fairness
  • Challenging old habits
  • Adding purposeful value
  • Questioning how things are currently done
  • Stellar imagination
  • Drawing connections
  • Better understanding of your consumer base

Challenges of Neurodiversity and Workplace Solutions

Part of creating a conducive work environment is respecting individual differences. Some individuals may need clear, multistep instructions once; some individuals may need regular repeat of the information. Others may be comfortable with broad asks and can break them into multistep activities themselves.

Make a start by asking the employee what they feel they need, what they find helpful, what they find difficult, or what makes their work harder. They are the expert on their experiences and can usually provide clarity about the challenges they are facing, what they need, or what has helped them previously.

Here are some challenges neurodiverse employees may face and some workplace solutions to address them:

Miscommunication

Some neurodiverse individuals:

  • Are logical
  • Do not get sarcasm
  • Are blunt and direct in language 
  • Are literal in interpretation
  • Do not understand how things may hurt feelings

Ways to overcome:

  • Avoid sarcasm
  • Say what you mean
  • Stop and break it down in clear and precise language
  • Coach – “Hey this hurt because…”

Behaviour

Some neurodiverse individuals:

  • Are blunt – no filters
  • Lack a sense of humour

Ways to overcome:

  • Why would this person be acting in this way?
  • Maybe this person doesn’t understand this way
  • Have a frank and clear conversation
  • “Are you aware that this might be inappropriate or that this hurt someone?”
  • Coach – “You should avoid this in the future”

Misinterpretation of Processes

Some neurodiverse individuals:

  • Need more clear feedback
  • Require different testing during the hiring process
  • Require different questions for interviewing

Ways to overcome:

  • Explain process
  • Explain the expectations
  • Be forgiving and patient
  • Welcome the strengths

Sensory Issues

Some neurodiverse individuals have trouble focusing when there is:

  • Bright lights
  • Noise
  • Distractions from others in the area

Ways to overcome:

  • Wear shades
  • Earbuds
  • Music or whitenoise 
  • Move to quieter area
  • Dark mode or colour filters on screens

Memory or Information Processing

Some neurodiverse individuals have difficulty with:

  • Organizing and planning
  • Sequencing
  • Thinking literally

Ways to overcome:

  • Breaking down the steps
  • Providing support for planning
  • Project management
  • Ability to think differently
  • Memory tools – auditory vs visual process – screen readers, etc.
  • Provide structure, routine and certainties
  • Literal vs. abstract thinking

Change

In most organizations, change in team membership, leadership, and organizational structure is common. For many neurodiverse individuals, frequent change may introduce stress and anxiety. A change in leadership may also introduce challenges if new managers are not trained to effectively lead their neurodiverse teams.

When change happens:

  • Be proactive about communicating what change is taking place and how it may affect the employee.
  • Work with the employee to create a plan to manage the change.
  • Respect the preferences of the employee regarding disclosure to the new team or manager.
  • Encourage employees and managers to reach out and work with the HR team to manage the change.
  • Utilize job coaches when changes are expected to support the employee and the team.

Preparing the Workplace for Neurodiversity

  1. Create an onboarding plan. Communicate onboarding logistics to employee and manager – be explicit about the expectations (where to go, what to bring, itinerary for the week)
  2. Prepare the team. Put the onus on the organization, not the new hire, to accommodate for differences. Focus on neurodiversity awareness and promote effective communication.
  3. Engage a Job Coach. Job coaches assist the new hire in preparing for their transition to the workplace, completing their paperwork, and preparing for their first day, in collaboration with HR and the employee’s personal support circle.
  4. Train managers/coworkers. The team should be trained and encouraged to offer 1-to-1 support to their neurodiverse colleagues. Managers should also receive a separate training before they participate in the diverse hiring program interview process.
  5. Provide a mentor. Mentors, work buddies and trusted peers who make the effort to understand the individual and provide long-term commitment can help neurodivergent professionals feel more empowered
  6. Create a culture that encourages both flexibility and inflexibility. While flexible schedules may be desirable for some neurodivergent individuals, for others, a routine is what makes them thrive.
  7. Be patient. Be curious, ask how you can help, and respect differences and strengths.

How Can Gowan Consulting Help?

Gowan Consulting provides a structured approach to disability management from prevention to intervention to return to function. Our Occupational Therapists and our individualized solution-focused approach gives your organization the tools it needs to manage employees’ health needs as they arise in order to minimize the possibility or impact of work disability. We can provide the following services and training:

  • Our Occupational Therapists can provide accommodation assessments to assess employees’ function in the workplace and provide tools and strategies for the workplace. Make a referral here.
  • Contact us to learn how our team can provide accessibility support for your workplace and help implement effective and inclusive policies.
  • We offer a variety of inclusive leadership trainings. Check out our online store for our current public webinars and workshops or contact us at gowanhealth@gowanhealth.com to learn about our customized training options.

Work Cited

Waldmeir, Patti. “Overlooked workers gain appeal in challenging times.” Financial Times, March 17, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/ea9ca374-6780-11ea-800d-da70cff6e4d3

Doyle, Nancy. “Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults.” British medical bulletin vol. 135,1 (2020): 108-125. doi:10.1093/bmb/ldaa021 “A demographic, employment and income profile of Canadians with disabilities aged 15 years and over, 2017,” Stuart Morris et. al, Statistics Canada, November 28, 2018, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-654-x/89-654-x2018002-eng.htm

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