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Culture + EX

5 Ways To Create a Culture That’s Truly Inclusive of Neurodiversity

Cat DiStasio

External Contributor - HR Expert (& Huge Geek)

7 Mar 2024

Colleagues are working together on building a culture that's inclusive of neurodiversity.

In the lead-up to Neurodiversity Celebration Week, Cat DiStasio highlights how organizations can intentionally build a work environment that’s inclusive of neurodiversity – and reap the benefits in return.

Waaay back in 2017, Harvard Business Review called neurodiversity a “competitive advantage” in the workplace. I couldn’t agree more.

Broadly, a neurodiverse workforce is more efficient and more productive, compared with more neurotypical teams. You don’t have to take my word for it; multiple research studies have confirmed this somewhat unexpected reality. Hewlett Packard found that neurodiverse teams can be up to 30% more productive, while a case study on JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work program suggests neurodiverse employees can be 140% more productive than their neurotypical colleagues.

Before we share the most effective strategies for creating a culture where neurodiversity can thrive, let’s explore what it means and some of the benefits organizations can expect to see from a neurodiverse workforce.

What is neurodiversity in the workplace?

Neurodiversity is sometimes also called neurodivergence, although many people take issue with the implication that ‘divergence’ suggests something abnormal or lesser about neurodiverse individuals. In short, neurodiversity encompasses the natural ways that people learn, observe, think about, and interact with the world differently.

Neurodiverse thinkers include people with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health conditions, as well as learning differences, intellectual and developmental disabilities, and other conditions that may affect how a person thinks, learns, and perceives the world.

By contrast, individuals whose brains and nervous systems work in a ‘typical’ way are known as neurotypical.

(Again, this terminology is sometimes considered problematic as it suggests that one way of thinking is normal and others are abnormal. Allistic, a term used to describe people not on the autism spectrum, is sometimes used as an alternative to neurotypical but it does not accurately encompass the populations we’re talking about for the purposes of this article. A person with ADHD, for example, would be considered allistic but not neurotypical.)

Being a neurodiverse person doesn’t rely on a medical diagnosis, though. Neurodiversity is largely invisible and often undetected, which does make it a tricky concept to talk about and work on. According to different studies, neurodiverse individuals make up 15% to 20% of the US working population and the worldwide estimates are the same.

It’s worth noting that neurodiverse individuals are eight times more likely to experience unemployment, so employers have a responsibility to proactively engage with neurodiverse talent, especially considering the unique skills and abilities that come with neurodiversity in the workplace.

Key benefits of a neurodiverse workforce

Aside from the efficiency and productivity boosts I mentioned earlier, neurodiversity in the workplace offers a host of benefits that organizations are still learning about. The biggest benefits come in the form of the unique skills and talents that neurodiverse individuals bring to the party.

Some of the top benefits of a neurodiverse workforce include: 

  • Enhanced creativity and innovative thinking
  • Critical thinking and problem solving skills
  • High levels of concentration and commitment
  • Strong memorial recall and high accuracy of factual information
  • High degree of accuracy and ability to spot errors
  • Reliability, persistence, and dedication
  • Unique technical and design strengths

Based on the research I shared earlier comparing the performance of neurodiverse teams with less diverse counterparts, it’s clear to see that there is a strong business case for proactively working to attract and engage with neurodiverse talent. It’s also imperative to build an inclusive culture where those individuals can thrive.

5 best practices for supporting neurodiverse employees

As more organizations proactively embrace neurodiversity in the workplace, new best practices have emerged – and the list continues to grow. Here are some of the most effective strategies for cultivating and supporting neurodiversity in the workplace. 

1. Intentional recruiting and hiring practices

Companies do not tend to achieve a neurodiverse workforce by accident. Rather, this goal requires proactive and, in many cases, targeted recruiting strategies to attract and engage with neurodiverse candidates.

The rise of virtual recruiting may have made this initiative a little easier, especially as many neurodiverse folks are more comfortable talking to someone online via the comfort of their home vs attending a noisy, crowded job fair, especially when they can choose when and how they engage (e.g. text chat vs video interview, camera optional).

Hosting virtual events that are specific to neurodiverse populations (e.g. software engineers with autism) can be an effective angle too, because neurodiverse thinkers may not feel as welcome or included in general recruiting events.

Partnering with industry organizations that help neurodiverse talent connect with employers is another valuable, if often overlooked strategy to consider.


2. Building accommodations into the work environment

Many options employers are starting to offer more often for the comfort and ease of all workers are downright imperatives for neurodiverse individuals. These include location flexibility (work from home), permission/encouragement to work with noise-canceling headphones, and the ability to use a standing or treadmill desk and take regular movement breaks throughout the day.

For many neurodiverse folks, these simple, low/no-cost accommodations enable them to do their best work, stay engaged, and manage their symptoms.


3. Communicating clearly through multiple channels

People learn best through different mediums and channels, whether they are considered neurotypical or not. For best results, workplace communication experts advise clear, concise communication through multiple channels.

For instance, if you chat with a coworker about how to divide the responsibilities for a joint project, follow that up with an email that summarizes the plan you’ve just agreed on.

Communicating the same thing through verbal conversation and written communication can increase comprehension – and your written message can serve as a resource they can refer back to if they need reminders along the way.


4. Engaging employees in professional development

Harvard University research from 1918 (not a typo) found that 85% of career success stems from soft skills such as empathy, teamwork, and interpersonal communication. And new research from 2023 confirms that soft skills continue to top the list of desired qualities in prospective employees.

As with many of the pieces I’ve mentioned so far, soft skills training can benefit all employees. But many neurodiverse individuals struggle in this area, and extra support can help them grow the skills they need to succeed.

Similarly, structured mentoring programs can help neurodiverse employees gain confidence and tap into their potential. In a deep dive on the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace, Deloitte advises employers to match neurodiverse employees with an experienced mentor and prior research from various sources linked these types of relationships to increases in productivity, profitability, and even customer loyalty.


5. Creating supportive communities

In addition to supporting employees on an individual level, it’s essential to provide vehicles for community support within your organization. Group mentoring is one way to achieve this.

Employee resource groups (ERGs) are another valuable resource that can help neurodiverse employees feel welcomed and supportive, while providing a network they can tap into for advice on specific challenges.

Embracing neurodiversity: strategies for a thriving workplace

As organizations increasingly recognize the competitive edge neurodiversity brings, it's crucial to cultivate environments where diverse talents can thrive – not just survive.

Neurodiversity encompasses unique ways of thinking, learning, and interacting with the world, offering invaluable perspectives and skills. From enhanced creativity to critical thinking prowess, neurodiverse individuals bring a wealth of benefits to any business.

To harness this potential, companies must adopt intentional hiring practices, provide tailored accommodations, and foster clear communication channels. Moreover, investing in professional development and nurturing supportive communities can empower neurodiverse employees to thrive, driving innovation and success in the modern workplace.


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