Family Wellbeing

Employees Raising Neurodiverse Children Face Unique Challenges. Here's How Companies Can Boost Workplace Support.

Working parents with neurodiverse children often feel overwhelmed, leaving little time for their own mental health. Workplace support can be a vital lifeline for these parents.

Written by
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Jess Maynard
Clinically reviewed by
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A man putting on his neurodivergent child's coat

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    Parenting is a full-time job, and for many working adults, it’s part of a double shift that includes managing the complexities of raising a neurodiverse child. For a growing number of parents, this experience is a daily, lived reality. 

    A recent UN report notes that “There are over one billion neurodiverse and developmentally challenged children, a number that continues to grow due to improved awareness and diagnosis.” 

    In tandem with this increase, a significant subset of employees also balance their work and childcare duties, which is unique to parents of neurodiverse children.

    As companies prioritize addressing employee well-being in the workplace, HR leaders and managers can benefit from being aware of the additional challenges experienced by employees raising neurodiverse children. This awareness can better equip them to provide support.

    Neurodiversity in children

    Harvard Medical School defines neurodiversity as “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.” 

    Some of the ways that neurodiverse children develop differently often include variations in how the brain is wired, including in areas such as:

    • Sensory information processing
    • Learning and intellectual development
    • Motor skill development
    • Social interactions
    • Behavioral development

    UNICEF’s global report on children with developmental differences notes that prevalence varies widely among studies, from < 3% to > 30%, with the median estimate among children at 18.3%. It says, “Differences in age groups, data collection methods, operational definition for developmental disabilities and choice of assessment tools can help explain the wide range in estimates.” 

    Although prevalence numbers vary, one thing that’s clear is that many workplaces are home to parents facing challenges as they integrate work duties with caretaking responsibilities. Let’s consider some of those challenges and how organizations might offer support.

    Challenges for working parents of neurodivergent children

    Working parents raising neurodiverse children often face significant challenges while navigating daily childcare needs, full-time jobs, and shouldering the financial burdens of specialized medical and therapeutic care—along with the toll of stress, anxiety, and burnout from balancing all of these complex dynamics. 

    Figuring out childcare is a daily burden

    With the childcare industry undergoing severe structural challenges, many working families struggle to access childcare. For working parents of neurodiverse children, it’s even more difficult to find quality child care able to accommodate the needs of their children. 

    Whether an employee works full-time from the office or home or does hybrid work, schedule flexibility is challenging regarding childcare. 

    Working parents of neurodivergent children need to be able to take their child to medical appointments and occupational therapy or may need to leave work to take care of unplanned issues that arise. Even parents able to work from home face daily challenges in finding space to work while caring for their children. 

    Work and caretaking can pose a heavy burden

    Mo Shuheb, Senior QA Engineer at Spring Health, describes the daily challenges of caring for his nonverbal, autistic son while working: “I’ve always been a remote worker, but since my son turned two, additional challenges presented themselves out of nowhere, and it’s a constant back-and-forth.

    My wife is his full-time caregiver, but she gets exhausted and needs a break, too. That’s when I need to step in to help, step back to work, and step away to help again. It can become stressful on a day-to-day basis. And it’s not like it becomes stressful after a few weeks. It can become stressful after a couple of hours.”

    Mo talks about how simple daily routines such as dressing, feeding, and getting his son into the car can take several times as long as they might with a neurotypical child and how exhausting the accumulated stress is for him and his wife. This type of daily stress can quickly turn into anxiety, and Mo has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. 

    Figuring out how to ensure their children are adequately cared for while they are working is the cause of significant stress for working parents, particularly those with neurodiverse children. This is something to keep in mind as we think about how HR leaders can support these employees.

    The mental health toll

    Parents who work full-time while raising neurodiverse children are often overwhelmed and have little time for self-care or to attend to mental health concerns. When daily life consists of working for eight hours while also spending before and after work hours caring for a child with developmental differences, burnout is almost guaranteed. 

    Mo shares the mental health challenges of working from home while caring for his autistic son: 

    “A lot of days, I am very, very overwhelmed. I’ve been diagnosed with high-level anxiety, and when something goes wrong or even close to wrong at home with my son, I have to hop away from work. This sets off a chain of events, and my mental health deteriorates really quickly. Then, I have to try to switch my focus back to work. It’s tough and a huge challenge.”

    It’s clear working parents need support from their employers to help mitigate their burdens. So, what can HR leaders do to help?

    Workplace support is a lifeline for parents

    As we consider the challenges that parents of neurodiverse children often face, there’s an upside. Organizations are in an excellent position to provide support and be a focal point for bettering these employees' well-being. 

    There are policies, benefits, and specific, concrete ways of structuring the workplace that HR leaders can advocate for and help implement to directly improve the day-to-day lives of employees raising neurodiverse children. 

    Scheduling creativity and respecting boundaries are key

    Hybrid work and more flexible working hours are now common within many companies. New technologies allow employees to stay connected with their team from any location, even with asymmetrical schedules. 

    These developments are positive for employees navigating the challenges of raising neurodiverse children, as they can better balance work responsibilities with the neverending work of childcare. 

    It’s important to allow employees to set boundaries around their time—even when flexible schedules are already agreed upon—and then create an environment where those boundaries are respected. 

    For example, if an employee has scheduling flexibility and works from home, they may start work early, finish early, and pick up their child from school or daycare. If this type of schedule has been discussed and approved, then supervisors should be aware and not schedule team meetings during the late afternoon. 

    It may take some extra work to accommodate flexible schedules, but it’s worth it to support employees' mental health, make work sustainable for them, and increase well-being, retention, and a culture of work-life integration.

    Easing the financial burden addresses a huge burde

    Specialized childcare facilities, occupational therapists, and other medical support can easily become massive expenses on top of the already huge child-raising costs. A recent survey of working parents found that 84% of parents spend more than 10% of their household income on childcare. The rate is even higher when adding in specialized care. 

    Childcare subsidies are a critical indicator of worker loyalty and better retention. Parents can’t work if they can’t afford to have their children cared for. 

    The global nonprofit organization Catalyst recently surveyed working parents and found that over half can’t afford childcare without financial assistance from their company or organization. The same percentage of working parents would consider leaving their organization for better childcare benefits.

    Raising children is one of the largest ongoing expenses for employees, and childcare subsidies provide immediate and noticeable relief for working parents—especially those shouldering the costs of specialized medical care and therapy.

    Fostering connection and support is a pillar of well-being

    It’s critical to create community and support networks for working parents of neurodiverse children. An employer might develop a dedicated Employee Resource Group (ERG) for parents raising neurodiverse children, allowing them to connect, share their challenges, and discuss resources and solutions. 

    Being heard and sharing experiences with people who understand what you are going through is one of the most powerful tools humans have for better mental health outcomes and mitigating isolation. 

    Another critical opportunity is offering comprehensive mental health support for employees and their family members. This might include therapy for the caregiver, therapy for the child, parent coaching, and digital well-being exercises.

    Healthier workplaces lead to organizational success

    HR leaders, managers, and other workplace leaders are in a great position to help better their employees' quality of life while raising neurodiverse children. 

    The day-to-day stressors and challenges of balancing work with childcare, dealing with financial burdens, and the accompanying toll on mental health can be mitigated through workplace policies that specifically address those challenges. 

    Supporting employees allows companies to attract and retain top talent, create a healthier workplace culture, and shore up the foundation of organizational success while throwing parents a lifeline.

    Read this blog next to learn how leaders can support working parents who have an autistic child to help reduce stress and promote overall well-being.

    About the Author
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    Jess Maynard

    Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.

    About the clinical reviewer
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