Neurodiversity at Work

Many of the rules of behavior, nuances, and verbal and non-verbal cues are hidden from the neurodiverse individual, so it is incumbent on organizations to learn about those with neurodiverse conditions in order to learn how to attract, retain, and develop these employees who have much to offer.

What would happen if the person you were interviewing for a new position did not make eye contact, seemed unfocused, and had a twitch in their neck?

Would this person be hired at your company? If not, would you be losing a valuable contributor? Could it be considered discriminating not to hire them?

This leads to another question: What is neurodiversity (ND)? And what should organizations know about it?

There is so much unknown about ND that most organizations are not sure where to begin the discussion.

Many organizations are designing and implementing plans to improve Diversity and Inclusion at work. One diversity dimension that frequently is neglected, however, is neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity is one of the newest focuses and possibly the most challenging areas of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) because it is so amorphous and applies to many dissimilar behaviors and traits. Who is neurodiverse? What is it? How do you know it when you see it? What can we do to promote inclusivity of those who are neurodiverse?

In Search of a Definition

The most common definition is that neurodiverse individuals are those with developmental disabilities such as autism, Asperger’s, ADHD (attention deficit disorder), and various forms of anxiety disorders. They bring a dimension of diversity to a group that otherwise comprises neurotypical people. Many DE&I specialists argue that the word, “disability,” is a misnomer and that it is more accurate to think in terms of differently abled.

According to Michael John Carley, Global Dynamics’ neurodiversity expert, part of the problem is that neurodiversity is a moving target. Carley has delivered hundreds of programs on neurodiversity and finds that of all topics in DE&I, “organizations do not know how to approach those who are neurodiverse because it covers such a broad spectrum of identities and behaviors.” In his workshops, he challenges the audience to define neurodiversity. Many people think it is “brilliant people with Asperger’s.” While some on the autism spectrum have above-average abilities, many do not.

Carley has written three books, including, “Asperger’s From the Inside Out: A Supportive and Practical Guide for Anyone with Asperger’s Syndrome” and “Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum,” has had scores of appearances in the media, and is on the autism spectrum. He asks audiences to identify various Diversity groups and then asks how neurodiversity is different. He discusses how neurodiversity can be considered a protected form of disability.

Workshops on neurodiversity can be virtual or in-person and last from 90 minutes to a full-day, but Carley reveals, “I would take 10 minutes if I could get it.” His story, commitment, and experiences create an indelible learning experience that is transformative.

Neurodiversity Training

All workshops are customized to the client’s needs and tailored to the audience: leaders and managers, sole contributors, Diversity Councils, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), HR and Talent professionals, recruiters, and for only employees with various disabilities. Programs are also delivered to corporations, nonprofits, boards, community organizations, and universities (Carley leads a ND global disability initiative at one of the leading U.S./global universities).

In small and large groups, there are discussions and action planning on the broader issues of:

  • The seven reason businesses avoid hiring neurodiverse employees.
  • The six reasons organizations are not retaining neurodiverse employees.
  • How do we define “disability”?
  • How do visible disabilities, those that are physical (i.e., mobility and access) and sensory (i.e., vision, hearing) differ at work in comparison to non-apparent disabilities such as:
  1. Mental health (i.e., depression, anxiety)
  2. Physical heath (i.e., diabetes, epilepsy),
  3. Learning disabilities (i.e., dyslexia, dysgraphia…) and
  4. Developmental disabilities (i.e., autism spectrum disorders, ADHD)

Red Flags

Carley warns that that due to the increased interest in neurodiversity, they are many “pretend” trainers offering programs. “Organizations looking for trainers in this area must carefully examine resumes to see if the facilitator has a significant level of experience and expertise and are neurodiverse themselves. Someone who has not lived and worked with a neurological impairment should not train those who are neurotypical. This is not a training for ‘optics.’ Do not do this because it is the ‘right thing to do.’ We need to be upfront on why companies are afraid to hire those who are neurologically different.”

His presentations usually leave audiences wanting to take action, so leadership should be ready. He adds: “Very real and sometimes difficult discussions may be needed. As all those in change management know, change is based on resistance. This training is for organizations that have the courage to lead, not wait until others try it out first. You cannot talk around the truth. The training must be hard-wired into a story based on real lived experiences. It must focus on ‘the situation on the ground.’”

Action Plans and Strategies

Workshops include a process for creating specific individual and organizational action plans that can realistically be implemented, such as:

  • Workshops for those in HR/training and development, and separately for those in recruitment/hiring and onboarding, including lessons learned from other organizations.
  • Creating an accommodation plan for those on the autism spectrum.
  • Tip sheets for all employees on neurodiversity.
  • Town hall meetings for all employees.
  • Follow-up workshops on: What neurodiverse individuals can do to be “seen” at work? What can be done to promote disclosure and avoid stigmatization?
  • Management training on what managers can do to support their employees.
  • Inclusion plans for the Diversity Council.
  • Mentoring programs for individuals who are on the spectrum.
  • Workshops for those on the spectrum focusing on executive functioning such as: mental processes that allow ND employees to plan, organize, strategize, and pay attention to and remember details.

Many of the rules of behavior, nuances, and verbal and non-verbal cues are hidden from the neurodiverse individual, so it is incumbent on organizations to learn about those with neurodiverse conditions in order to learn how to attract, retain, and develop these employees who have much to offer.

Please send your experiences with neurodiversity at work, including any business cases, applications, best practices, and any questions for Michael John Carley to me at: ngoodman@global-dynamics.com

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at ngoodman@global-dynamics.com. For more information, visit: http://www.global-dynamics.com.