Neurodiversity in the Workplace
Discussions about Mental Health in the workplace have come a long way in recent years, with important topics like anxiety, burnout, and depression receiving the attention and engagement they deserve. However, one aspect that is often overlooked is the effects of neurodiversity on the workplace experience and mental health of employees.
Neurodiversity refers to the natural range of differences in human brain function. Each of us thinks and behaves differently, and some of these differences can be more or less common than others. People whose brains function differently to most of their peers (such as those with autism, dyslexia, ADHD, etc.) are neurodiverse, while those with neurological functions similar to most of their peers are neurotypical.
While some may see neurodiversity as a challenge, it can also bring unique perspectives and skills to the workplace. Understanding and accommodating the needs of neurodiverse employees in an inclusive work environment can lead to a more diverse and effective workforce, while also supporting the mental health and wellbeing of neurodiverse employees.
In this article, we will explore the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace and provide some tips for supporting and accommodating neurodiverse employees.
What about autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (also known as autism) is one type of neurodiversity which is often misunderstood. ASD is a developmental disability that often affects social communication and can cause repetitive behaviours and interests. Individuals with ASD generally learn, communicate, and process information differently to most of their peers, and their communication can sometimes be judged by neurotypicals as blunt, rude, or seemingly unrelated to the topic at hand. Their unique sensory sensitivities can also be often misunderstood as unreasonable or irrational, for example extreme sensitivity to certain sounds, textures, or other environmental factors which do not affect most neurotypicals in the same way.
One method which people with autism often use to self-regulate their brain functions is called ‘stimming’, which refers to self-stimulation. Stimming a means of controlling or reframing sensory input which causes pain or discomfort in ways that “regulate” the input so that it may become pleasurable, or at least tolerable. These behaviours can be extremely diverse depending on the individual. Some common examples:
To a neurotypical person, these behaviours can often seem distracting, or even inappropriate for a workplace context, sometimes causing discomfort and unease. However, stimming is actually a very effective way for autistic individuals to self-regulate their nervous system and brain functions, helping them to focus better on the task they are engaged in, for example writing a report or giving a presentation.
Celebrating the diversity of brain types and experiences, and raising awareness and acceptance of these neurological differences, can help overcome misunderstandings and improve communication between neurodiverse individuals and those who are neurotypical.
How can neurodiverse employees contribute value to your business?
Unique perspectives are brought to the table
One of the main benefits of having neurodiverse employees is the unique perspectives and problem-solving abilities they bring to the team. Neurodiverse individuals may think differently and bring a fresh perspective to traditional ways of thinking. They might have exceptional attention to detail, an ability to hyperfocus, or a unique way of processing information. These traits can be extremely valuable in certain fields, such as software engineering, where a fresh perspective and attention to detail can lead to better products and more efficient processes.
Inclusive work environment
Moreover, having neurodiverse employees can create a more inclusive work environment where individuals with different abilities are valued and supported. When companies actively seek out and support neurodiverse employees, they send a message that diversity of thought and ability is valued in that workplace. This can lead to a more accepting and supportive work culture where individuals feel comfortable being themselves and contributing their unique skills and perspectives.
Tapping into the talents of neurodiverse individuals
Lastly, tapping into the talent pool of neurodiverse individuals can help companies find top-notch employees that may have been overlooked in the past. Too often, neurodiverse individuals are not given the same opportunities as their neurotypical counterparts due to stigma or a lack of understanding of their abilities. However, by actively seeking out and supporting neurodiverse employees, companies can create a more diverse and effective workforce.
Ways to support your autistic colleagues
Treat them as individuals first
Remember that just as not all brains work in the same way, the same applies to autistic and neurodiverse individuals! There are huge differences among autistic individuals in the ways they behave, communicate, and react to situations & stimuli. If you already have experience with autistic individuals, you will likely be familiar with their specific set of behaviours or their ways of communicating. However, it’s important to remember that autistic individuals are widely diverse, and that each person will have their own behaviours and communication styles, so it’s a good idea to withhold your learned assumptions or expectations until you get to know them first.
Stereotypes about autistic and neurodiverse people have often been based on observations of a narrow minority of autistic individuals, usually young boys, and that can be especially harmful to autistic adults and women. These stereotypes assume that all autistic people are non-verbal, socially inept, or only interested in certain topics. These assumptions can lead to people treating autistic adults like children, damaging their self-esteem and discouraging them from interacting with others.
For years, it was believed that autistic boys and men were much more common than autistic girls, women, and non-binary individuals, mostly because the latter’s symptoms & experiences did not match the limited diagnostic tooling which was founded on observations of mostly young autistic boys. This is no longer widely believed to be true, however many women, girls, and non-binary people still often go undiagnosed for years due to gendered societal pressure to hide or ‘mask’ their autistic traits.
- Passing (or masking) refers to behaviours which autistic people have learned to perform in order to hide their autism and appear neurotypical to avoid discrimination and exclusion.
Small adjustments can be made in the work environment to accommodate autistic and neurodiverse individuals. Given their increased sensitivity to certain physical stimuli such as noises, lighting, crowded rooms, etc. there are many simple accommodations employers can make to create a more inclusive environment for employees, allowing them to engage and work more efficiently.
- Hyper fixation refers to an intense state of concentration or focus, involving prolonged interest in a specific topic which often results in the diminished awareness of unrelated external stimuli.
These accommodations are comparable to those made for individuals with visible disabilities, for example, step-free access for wheelchair users, or closed captioning for deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals, and they can make a significant impact on autistic individuals functioning and succeeding in the workplace.
Your best approach is always to ask autistic and neurodiverse colleagues what accommodations would be most helpful for them, as every individual is different and has unique needs.
Tips for interviewing autistic or neurodivergent candidates
Our Inclusive Hiring team at Acelr8 has shared some practical tips for interviewers to be more inclusive of autistic or neurodiverse candidates. We’ve used some common interview scenarios to illustrate how to challenge assumptions and support your candidates' best performance during interviews.
Video blogger Amythest Schaber is a notable grassroots advocate in this area. They're the author of the blog neurowonderful and the creator of the YouTube series “Ask an Autistic.” Their YouTube channel contains short videos focused on various topics relevant to the lives of autistic people and anybody else who may be interested: for example, ‘What is stimming?’, ‘How to be a good ally to autistic people?’, and more. If you’re interested in learning more about the experience of neurodiversity directly from an autistic person, their channel is highly recommended as a resource to further your understanding and empathy.
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