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19.07.2021 By Ali Phillips, (she/her), Associate

Supporting Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Image of a laptop with the words 'Be Kind' written on

“I’m surprised you’ve made it this far successfully,” was the first sentence a new doctor said to me after disclosing that I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time I’ve been told that because my brain works differently my success was merely luck.

I, like many others, identify as neurodivergent (an “invisible” disability). Neurodivergent individuals think, behave and learn differently to what is considered “typical” in society. Individuals may identify as having ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, OCD, Asperger’s, Sensory Processing Disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, and so on. It’s important to note that many of us do not identify as being disabled, but this does vary depending on the person.

The biggest challenge I faced growing up and continue to face is trying to force myself to fit into neurotypical environments or perform like I have a neurotypical brain—and unfortunately, I am not alone. Whether in school or at work, many of us have been trained to change ourselves to fit the environment, instead of adjusting the environment to fit us.

This week, I had the opportunity to virtually attend the Disability:IN Annual Conference and after joining multiple sessions, it became abundantly clear we need to actively recognize cognitive differences as part of our diversity and inclusion efforts. Supporting neurodiversity means accepting that brain “differences” are normal, rather than deficits; and supporting neurodiversity in the workplace should be seen as a DE&I opportunity.

 A few key takeaways I learned from the conference:

  • Have open conversations: Having an invisible disability makes it more difficult for an individual to come forward and communicate how they feel or what they might need. Having open conversations helps generate awareness, education and reduce the stigma around cognitive differences.
  • Train management, teams and individuals: Creating company-wide neurodiversity training programs can help foster an inclusive and supportive workplace environment by providing colleagues a better understanding of the barriers or challenges those might face in the workplace. Education and self-awareness trainings shouldn’t just be a checked box for employees. Disabilities vary and the science continues to change, so consider establishing a long-term program by holding workshops, story-telling panels, lunch-n-learns on relevant topics so we can continue to grow and learn together.
  • Create opportunities by examining your hiring and promotion process: Neurodivergent individuals are an untapped pool of talent and often are underemployed. They can be easily screened out during the hiring process due to social connection skills, timed tests or group interviews. Additionally, most promotion processes are based on “standard” skills that often favor neurotypical individuals (e.g. communication skills, emotional intelligences, etc.). Consider working with neurodivergent hiring specialists that can help you eliminate and address possible limitations or barriers.
  • Establish a support system: Cognitive differences aren’t all the same and they shouldn’t be treated as such, so it’s important to understand what each employee may need when it comes to addressing neurodiversity-related issues. Consider establishing a small support group for new hires as they get acclimated to their job or for current employees to help them elevate their skills to move up through the ranks. This could include a team manager, a work mentor, a co-worker, or a job skills or technical coach.

Leaders and companies that have turned their attention to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts have made huge progress toward equality across race, gender and sexual orientation, but now it’s time to include disabilities as part of those initiatives. To truly achieve equality and foster an inclusive environment, it is essential to include and support those who have disabilities, whether visible or invisible.

Just as we all come in different shapes, sizes and skin color, our neurological differences are a part of us and humanity.

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