If you’re interested in workplace diversity and inclusion, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about neurodiversity lately. But what exactly is neurodiversity, and how can hiring neurodiverse employees benefit your organization? Read on to find out.
Neurodiversity is defined by Dictionary.com as, “the variation and differences in neurological structure and function that exist among human beings, especially when viewed as being normal and natural rather than pathological.”
To take it a step further, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network states, “Neurodiversity refers to variation in neurocognitive functioning. It is an umbrella term that encompasses neurocognitive differences such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, intellectual disability and schizophrenia, as well as ‘normal’ neurocognitive functioning, or neurotypicality. Neurodivergent individuals are those whose brain functions differ from those who are neurologically typical, or neurotypical.”
Benefits of Neurodiversity in the Workplace
Neurodiversity is an aspect of diversity that enhances the workplace in numerous ways. People with neurocognitive disabilities have talents, perspectives and skills that can be distinctly beneficial in many work environments. More and more employers are beginning to understand these benefits and develop hiring initiatives that focus on recruiting neurodiverse workers. While these efforts are more common in larger corporations, they have proven beneficial for businesses of all sizes in a variety of industries. Hiring neurodiverse employees can provide companies with a competitive edge that brings measurable benefits, both financially and in terms of workplace culture.
Employers who hire neurodiverse employees note their aptitude for specific roles within their organization.
Quite often, people with neurocognitive disabilities experience barriers to employment before they can even begin a job. The various aspects of the recruitment process, from job descriptions to interviewing, can pose concerns along the way that can deter neurodiverse candidates from pursuing a position.
Conventional interviewing methods are often not the most effective recruitment method for neurodiverse hiring. This generally has to do with candidates’ varying communication styles. At a minimum, interviewers should be trained on what to expect and how to conduct interviews with neurodiverse candidates, including what to ask and how verbal and non-verbal responses should be interpreted. Vague or open-ended questions such as, “What can you bring to the table?” can sometimes be more confusing than asking something in a more direct manner, such as, “Describe a time when you added value to a project you worked on.”
Interviewers should also consider the environments in which the selection process occurs. Noisy, distracting environments can be uncomfortable for neurodiverse candidates with sensory needs. In fact, some companies invite candidates to visit their offices prior to beginning interviews or selection processes to help candidates familiarize themselves with the office setting.
Even still, some companies, like Microsoft, are foregoing the typical interview process and may choose not to ask for resumes. Instead, they take a skills-focused approach to recruitment. Some employers have candidates complete cognitive skills assessments or participate in work trials to determine their qualifications. Other companies host larger-scale screening events for potential employees, which allow employers to gain a sense of candidates’ strengths, interests and fit for open positions. Some companies also offer specialized training to prepare neurodiverse employees for the work environment, such as “soft skills” training in things like social skills, teamwork and acceptable office behavior.
When considering interviewing procedures, it is important to note that it is generally not permissible to ask an applicant if he or she has a disability, including a neurocognitive disability. Rather, it is up to the person to decide whether to disclose, for instance, in order to request a reasonable accommodation. Even then, the individual does not need to specify a diagnosis or disability. It is permissible to invite applicants to self-identify as individuals with disabilities when the question is being asked for affirmative action purposes such as those prescribed for federal contractors under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act or a voluntarily adopted program, but there are restrictions on who has access to that information.
Neurodiverse employees, just like all employees, desire to build skills and advance in their careers. As such, performance measures should be thoughtfully planned out to foster their growth. Most supervisors will have a general idea of their employees’ strengths and limitations and should consider these when formulating an evaluation plan. Goals should be formulated collaboratively with employees, not only to determine their work-based performance goals, but also to consider any soft-skills focuses or other non-duty focused goals.
Many neurodiverse hiring programs have employees undergo the same performance evaluations as neurotypical employees, but also ensure that managers work within parameters that meet or address their neurodiverse employees’ additional needs. Ultimately, neurodiverse employees should still be evaluated on performance success; however, the manner in which this is done can vary. For some, it may mean implementing more frequent one-on-one meetings with an employee to review performance and provide feedback or suggestions. These brief, frequent meetings can sometimes serve as a helpful accommodation for neurodiverse employees. For others, it may mean allowing for feedback to come verbally, written or in another manner with which the employee feels most comfortable. This can be done within an agreed upon timeframe, such as no more than two hours after an in-person meeting, so the employee has the information they need to process the feedback they received.
In addition to considering the intervals and overall structure of performance evaluations, it is also helpful to consider inclusive feedback processes for conducting evaluations. For many neurodiverse employees, this means providing very clear, constructive feedback. Managers should generally refrain from alluding to or implying concerns. Instead, they should tactfully, yet directly, indicate areas for improvement, ask questions to ensure understanding and provide clear next steps. They should use these same approaches when providing positive feedback as well.
Providing appropriate workplace accommodations generally makes a significant difference in ensuring positive, productive experiences for neurodiverse employees. The most important aspect of making any accommodation is conferring with individual employees about their specific needs. By the time many neurodiverse employees reach working age, they often have ideas of what would help them be most productive in a work environment. Even if they do not, it’s best to work collaboratively to develop solutions for potential issues. Aim to provide clear job expectations, then work together to determine what accommodations should be implemented to help the employee meet these expectations.
While there is no “one-size-fits-all” model for accommodating employees with disabilities, including neurodiverse employees, there are some common needs to consider and varying solutions for addressing them. For example, open office spaces can sometimes pose challenges for employees with processing needs. As such, employers may choose to have a designated quiet area of the office to work, a single office with a door or may give the employee noise cancelling headphones to eliminate distractions.
In addition to attending to workspace, employers can also consider work schedules. Clarifying priorities and developing routines is often helpful for employees with neurocognitive disabilities. Well-structured work environments can include assisting with organizing priorities into daily, weekly and monthly tasks; breaking tasks into smaller steps; and giving clear guidelines and times regarding breaks and lunches.
Other examples of common workplace accommodations for neurodiverse employees include:
- Written/email or recorded instructions to ensure they can be referenced later;
- Fragrance-free environments for sensory sensitivity;
- Flexible work days/hours to maximize “peak performance;”
- Image-based task lists to provide examples of work at various stages, or image-based calendars to mark projected milestones;
- Backup plans to help eliminate the stress of unscheduled needs/changes;
- Preparing employees in advance for drastic schedule changes, such as office retreats or training days; and
- Practicing and providing reminders of primary social principles, such as reminders to say, “Good morning,” or “Good afternoon,” or to take turns to use items in common areas, such as in the kitchen.
As with any reasonable accommodation made for an employee with a disability, accommodations do not require lowering performance standards or eliminating essential job functions. Instead, it means modifying the work environment, or the way in which tasks are completed, to help employees successfully perform their job duties. For more information about workplace accommodations for workers with autism and other neurodiverse conditions, visit the Job Accommodation Network.