How to create a workplace that supports neurodiversity?

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To create a workplace that supports neurodiversity, employers must recognize barriers to recruiting and retaining neurodivergent and autistic employees.

How to create a workplace that supports neurodiversity: six diverse happy employees pose in a group photo.

How to create a workplace that supports neurodiversity?

Unemployment is higher among neurodivergent people due to ableism, and discrimination, with companies focusing on the challenges rather than the benefits of neurodiversity at work.

Neurodiverse employees hired through programs like this are recognized for their attention to detail, pattern recognition, inferential reasoning, mathematics, and coding skills, timeliness, and for offering innovative, creative solutions, among many other capabilities.

Companies must create a culture where neurodivergent and neurotypical people can thrive. This means avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach with employees.

“It’s a real asset for an organization to have people who can help think outside the box.”


AJ, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and dyslexia a few years ago, says the unique way his brain is structured helps his work as a principal software engineer at the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.


“We’re trying to understand things and solve problems, [so] as many different opinions and different ideas and ways of thinking about things as you can bring together, the better.”

April 2 marks the United Nations’ World Autism Awareness Day, which focuses on 2022 on Inclusive Quality Education for All this year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, autistic students have been disproportionately impacted by disruption to education and support services.


Access to education, vocational training, and lifelong learning opportunities can help people on the autism spectrum “fulfill their potential and achieve sustainable success in the labor market,” says the UN.


But often, as employment statistics show, neurodiverse people – those with diverse thinking styles with conditions including autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, and ADHD – face discrimination, with companies focusing on the challenges rather than the benefits of neurodiversity at work.


“It’s not about curing it; it’s not about taking it away,” says AJ. “It is about giving people the tools they need to be the best they can.”

Why a neurodiverse workforce matters

According to consultancy and auditing firm Deloitte, between 10% and 20% of the global population is considered neurodivergent.


Around one in 100 children worldwide are autistic, the World Health Organization’s latest figures show, but for many people, including AJ, it’s only diagnosed later in life. In the US, one in 44 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as it’s also known, according to the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 


Despite its prevalence in the US, the majority of autistic people (85%) are unemployed, according to Deloitte, compared with 4.2% of the overall population.


“I think there are many stereotypes around all kinds of neurodiversity,” AJ says. “People think of dyslexic people as unable to read, or those with autism as people with no social skills and can’t cope in the real world."


“I don’t think any of those are true. There’s an adage that says, ‘If you’ve met one neurodiverse person … you’ve met one neurodiverse person.’ We are all different – in the same way as everyone is different.”


Many companies – including Deloitte, Microsoft, SAP, JPMorgan Chase, and EY – have recognized that workplaces need to embrace Neurodiversity. They recognize the skills that neurodiverse people can bring to the workforce, and this has prompted them to introduce neurodiversity hiring programs to improve how they approach disability inclusion.

These firms are also among those on the non-profit Disability:IN’s Neurodiversity @ Work Employer Roundtable, a community of employers working together to “create understanding, awareness and supportive systems that provide opportunities for neurodivergent employees to grow and achieve their full potential”.


According to the Harvard Business Review, when SAP started its Autism at Work program in 2013, the applicants included people with dual degrees and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and economic statistics. Still, many had not previously been able to work in jobs utilizing their skills.


Neurodiverse employees hired through programs like this are recognized for their attention to detail, pattern recognition, inferential reasoning, mathematics, and coding skills, timeliness, and for offering innovative, creative solutions, among many other capabilities. 

How can companies support neurodiversity at work

Leaders need to be more open about their own experiences, says Deloitte. One in four CEOs are dyslexic, according to technology firm Cisco’s former CEO John Chambers. Alongside Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, Chambers is one of the more open neurodiverse leaders.


“If leaders self-identify as neurodivergent, the rest of the workforce would feel comfortable coming forward too,” says Deloitte.


The consultancy suggests three clear areas to address in order to boost workforce diversity and “better integrate and leverage the full potential of neurodivergent professionals.”

Three key areas to support neurodivergence at work Image: Deloitte​​

It starts with looking at hiring processes, which can be rife with unconscious biases and algorithms trained on “neurotypical” candidate data. 


Interview processes can be tweaked to reduce stress on candidates. And it begins with writing inclusive job descriptions. Microsoft, for example, organizes hiring events over several days, allowing candidates to showcase their skills. 


Companies need to create a culture where both neurodivergent and neurotypical people can thrive, says Deloitte. This means avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach with employees.


Instead, managers should “find out how each professional works best, how they best understand assignments, and adapt their style accordingly.”


Minor tweaks to communication go a long way, too, according to one professor to neurodivergent students, who explained to Deloitte the need to be more specific with instructions, including adding verbs such as “read chapter 1” and “solve questions 1 to 8.”


Providing mentors and buddies and building in flexibility, particularly around hybrid working, are also key ways of creating an inclusive, supportive culture that can boost productivity and loyalty.


As Deloitte concludes: “Common considerations for neurodivergent professionals may alter traditional HR practices but can inevitably make the workplace a better, safer, and more inclusive place for everyone.”

Another approach to creating a workplace that supports neurodiversity is to find ways to celebrate the diversity of all employees buy spreading awareness and acceptance of neurodivergent employees. One way to do this is through neurodiversity merch: That means your employees can don a neurodivergent t-shirt, display autistic merchandise on their desks, or you can give your employees custom disability awareness merchandise.

"How to create a workplace that supports neurodiversity?" is republished from the World Economic Forum under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. It has been edited to match URevolution's editorial style guide.


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Article by
Kate Whiting

Senior Writer, Formative Content, World Economic Forum

Caption:

To create a workplace that supports neurodiversity, companies must create a culture where neurodivergent and neurotypical people can thrive. | ©fizkes / Adobe Stock

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