Neurodiversity: A New Level of Diversity Training

Asperger’s—also known in the medical field as High-Functioning Autism (HFA) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)—increasingly is becoming a form of diversity that HR professionals, managers, and even colleagues should be aware of, sensitive to, and trained to recognize.

The corporate world is becoming more and more diverse. Diversity, according to Merriam-Webster is “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements; Variety, especially: the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.”

When we think of diversity, we often think of cultural, religious, and racial diversity, but diversity does not end there. Asperger’s—also known in the medical field as High-Functioning Autism (HFA) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)—increasingly is becoming a form of diversity that we as HR professionals, managers, and even colleagues should be aware of, and sensitive to. In the next few years, we will see an increasing number of adults in the autistic spectrum entering the workforce in professional roles. This article addresses the need for neurodiversity training in our organizations, as well as provides awareness and insight into traits associated with neurodiverse populations.

Cognitive Differences

Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is a huge organizational challenge that is getting a lot of attention due to awareness that has been drawn to the surface by movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, etc., but we cannot neglect to consider the inclusion of neurodiverse populations. Neurodiversity is not about what is visible on the outside; rather, it is about what is going on in the inside—cognitively. Neurodiversity refers to the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits and usually is associated with the autistic spectrum, according to Oxford Dictionaries.

There is a movement to start to understand this more in children as it relates to their learning styles and their optimization of success, but the focus on adults—particularly adults in the workforce—does not yet seem to be at the forefront.  Just as teachers and administrators are starting to focus on training to alleviate biases and optimize success in students, employers are called to begin to focus in the same manner on adults.

A few years ago, a gentleman was working for me, but we just did not seem to be on the same page. We often clashed. It turned out this individual had Asperger’s, but my interpretation of his behavior and his interpretation of my direction and management led to an ineffective relationship rife with misunderstanding that could have been mitigated if I had realized his neurodiversity, been more informed on the topic, and knew strategies to better manage, based on neurodiverse needs.

Entering the Workforce

From 2015 to 2025, approximately 500,000 adults with Asperger’s will enter the workforce.  (Grossberg, 2015). As of 2015, 1 in 88 people were diagnosed with some form of ASD.  (Grossberg, 2015).  There may be a misconception that people with Asperger’s typically work in service or blue-collar industries, but they are well suited to many corporate roles, including computer programming, engineering, data analytics, technical writing, graphic designing, Web design, data entry, and more. These employees have strengths that can be beneficial to any organization, including: strong interest in their work, great ability to work with and understand patterns, mathematical and technical savvy, analytical and detail-oriented mind, and a way with words. Those strengths also may be accompanies by challenges such as being socially awkward, seemingly unempathetic, and challenges with sensory overload, multitasking, and conventional social rules.

While reasonable accommodations should be made under the American Disabilities Act, protections are sometimes still complex and ambiguous. For that reason, many people will not share that they have Asperger’s. Because employers and managers are not always told, it is important to be cognizant of Asperger’s traits so that as a manager, if you think you are noticing a staff member with these traits, you can employ neurodiverse strategies and tips to support the individual, the team, and the project. Some people may not have even received a diagnosis and do not know they have Asperger’s. Many people are diagnosed as adults.

Knowing the signs makes it easier to provide reasonable accommodations that will not only support the employee, but also protect business outcomes and support team relationships.  When managers understand the needs of a neurodiverse staff, they will:

  • Educate the organization about the strengths this population lends to the organization in order to foster a sense of inclusion and strength.
  • Create roles and responsibilities that play to their staff’s strengths and interests.
  • Focus work on tasks that are more independent and less interactive in nature.
  • Create physical workspaces that provide the level of appropriate sensory stimulation.
  • Avoid matrixed project support.
  • Institute a management framework based on the initial establishment of trust, ongoing managerial communication, clear tasks, and project checkpoints.

Understanding the diversity of this group and how to best use and include the strengths they bring to organizations is key, as:

  1. This is a growing demographic entering the workforce.
  2. This diverse nature of these groups often can go unrecognized.
  3. Missing out on the inherent strengths of this group can be a detriment to the success of the organization and the employee.

Training is essential for managers to be able to recognize the population in order to address diversity and inclusion. Training will support the creation of a welcoming environment based on understanding, the development of successful work roles and environments, and implementation of management strategies that work.

Latoya Morris, PMP, is a 20-year veteran in organizational consulting covering training, management, quality, and compliance. For the last five years, Morris has been the Chief Member at Integrity Consulting Experts, LLC, a small management consulting and instructional design firm that has developed training for various Federal government agencies and corporate entities. Morris has been published by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and has spoken to continuing education students and professionals at Georgetown University on the topic of Neurodiversity and Management for PMI’s University of Project Management. She is also a published author in the international journal, “The Upper Room” and author of “Grace in the Moment: Daily Devotions for Business Women.”  Contact her at: latoya.morris@1integrityce.com and www.Godapplied.com.

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