Including Neurodiversity in Workplace Diversity Conversations

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How does your organization define diversity?  

While many organizations are beginning to expand their definition of diversity in the workplace to additional underrepresented groups (e.g., veterans, LGBTQ+ and persons with disabilities), there hasn’t been a lot of talk about neurodiversity in the workplace.  

Currently, most workplace diversity conversations are still dominated by race and gender. This is not to say that these topics are not important areas of focus, but when a company seeks to improve its overall diversity, it means considering all forms of what makes people different and asking where those differences are represented in your business. 

Neurodiverse individuals are sometimes included in the category of persons with disabilities, but self-identification and self-disclosure are challenging in this community. So, as a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practitioner, I believe one of the first stages of any journey to a more inclusive workplace is to begin talking about it.  

What is Neurodiversity?  

Verywell Mind defines neurodiversity as, “the idea that it's normal and acceptable for people to have brains that function differently from one another. Rather than thinking there is something wrong or problematic when some people don't operate similarly to others, neurodiversity embraces all differences. The concept of neurodiversity recognizes that both brain function and behavioral traits are simply indicators of how diverse the human population is.”  

Types of neurodiversity 

Neurodiversity is often used as an umbrella term for a range of neurodivergent conditions, including: 

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) 
  • Autism 
  • Dyscalculia 
  • Dyslexia  
  • Dyspraxia 

Disclosure of Neurodiversity in the Workplace 

One of the biggest challenges to neurodiversity in the workplace is that oftentimes people don’t identify cognitive difference as diversity, which makes advocacy for change difficult. According to Deloitte, roughly 10-20% of the global population is considered neurodivergent, and in the United States, it is estimated that 85% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed, compared to 4.2% of the overall population.  

People with neurocognitive (i.e., denoting or relating to the neural processes and structures involved in cognition) disabilities have many talents, perspectives and abilities that are beneficial in work environments. For example, neurodivergent adults have strengths in having a high attention to detail, seeing patterns and being logical, which can help organizations in areas of problem-solving and creativity. 

Xander further states that, “Neurodivergent people tend to find some things very easy and other things incredibly hard.” In the workplace, this can show up as inconsistent performance.   

So when it comes to self-disclosure, there may be little motivation for individuals to identify their neurodivergent condition to their employer. They may ask themselves: Do I feel comfortable identifying my condition? Does my employer really care about me? Will self-disclosure disqualify me from a role or future promotions?  

If there’s no benefit to the worker identifying their condition – or worse, they fear an adverse reaction from their employer – companies are at a loss to maximize the potential of these employees or provide accommodations workers may need to excel.  

How to Attract Neurodiverse Job Candidates 

In order to build a truly inclusive workplace, your first step is to make sure neurodiverse candidates are positioned to succeed in your hiring process. Unconscious bias training for hiring managers is crucial. Here are a few key things to look out for: 

  • Value competency over interview performance. Society has assigned certain values to behaviors. For example, in Western cultures, eye contact during a job interview represents confidence and attentiveness. However, for a person with autism, eye contact can be extremely difficult, if not impossible. But that doesn’t necessarily make them less qualified for the role being discussed. To proactively counter this bias, lean into competency-based interview questions instead. 
  • Write concise job descriptions. It may be time to break out the red pen. While overly long and detailed job descriptions are a turnoff for most job seekers, they can be overwhelming and difficult to comprehend for neurodivergent candidates. Working with a recruitment partner and leveraging available technologies can help you consolidate the key responsibilities and skills needed for the role. 

Positioning Neurodiverse Workers for Success in the Workplace 

Once you have hired neurodiverse employees, you want to position them for success, and that begins with looking for ways to make your work environment more inclusive. Here are some strategies to consider:  

  • Mentorship programs and employee resource groups (ERGs): Offer mentors for neurodiverse workers. If social mistakes are made, they can be discussed in private. Similarly, ERGs can be incredibly powerful to provide a support system and build an ally network around neurodiversity within your company.  

  • Preparation: Start by looking at your meeting structures. Creating agendas, communicating clear expectations and directions, and cutting down on last-minute meetings can be beneficial as these steps allow ample time for a person to prepare. Also, create checklists for tasks with many steps. (Note: These best practices can benefit pretty much anyone on your team, not just someone who is neurodivergent.) 

  • Training: Provide training for your leaders and encourage 1:1 support of team members’ potential needs. These can be simple things like using bigger text sizes in presentations and different color schemes that allow for easier visual understanding (e.g., dark mode versus light mode, creating more contrast, etc.). Having education and resources available, whether through job aids or via a digital learning platform, will help increase peoples’ level of awareness.  

Start the Neurodiversity Conversation in Your Workplace 

In your next workforce diversity conversation, define what diversity means for your organization. If you’re only tracking race or gender, this serves as an opportunity to open up the conversations to other facets of diversity, including neurodiversity. Start by looking at your hiring process to ensure you are casting the widest net possible and screening and interviewing based on competencies and as free from biases as possible. It is important to evaluate what your company has established as the “normal” way of acknowledging productivity and the ideal candidate who is successful. Having a natural cadence of evaluation of your processes and policies is key to making sure you are creating spaces for all the differences that make up diversity.