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An estimated 1 in 7 people worldwide are on the neurodivergent continuum.
In the United States, 2.2% of adults live with Autism, 4.4% live with ADHD, and around 30% are Highly Sensitive Persons (HSP).
These numbers alone make it essential for workplaces to continue evolving and adapting—to make space for, and meet the diverse needs of this growing segment.
Harvard Medical School describes 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.”
Neurodiversity refers to the natural diversity of human brains, and that neurological differences between each should be recognized and respected.
To break this down even further:
Neurodivergent refers to a person or group of people whose brain functioning differs from what is widely considered to be “normal” (neurotypical).
Neurotypical refers to people who are not neurodivergent.
Neurodiverse refers to a mixed group of both neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals.
The link between neurodivergence and mental health
When the term “neurodivergent” is used, many people think only of Autism or ADHD. But it’s far more expansive, including:
- Dyslexia and other learning differences
- Auditory processing differences
- Tourette's Syndrome
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Bipolar Disorder
- Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
Neurodivergent people’s brains are wired differently than what is considered “typical,” and this falls along a continuum that includes different ways of thinking, moving, behaving, visualizing, communicating, and processing information.
While it’s not considered a mental health issue, there is mounting evidence that neurodivergence can increase the risk of mental health issues—often stemming from a lack of support, a lack of knowledge, and the stress of trying to appear neurotypical.
Psychology Today reports that nearly three in ten children diagnosed with ADHD also have an anxiety disorder. Autistic people have higher rates of anxiety, eating disorders, and OCD, and HSPs have a greater risk of anxiety and depression.
Understanding neurodivergent employees
It’s never easy to present as “atypical,” which is another reason for the link between neurodivergence and greater mental health issues. This can easily lead to feeling misunderstood and at a disadvantage, burying the unique strengths every person has to bring to the table.
Recognizing the individual strengths of neurodiverse team members and understanding what they need to fully utilize them can help with overcoming or reducing daily challenges. This is also essential for building a truly inclusive environment.
Here are some of the challenges that many neurodivergent employees face:
- Difficulty prioritizing and planning
- Literal interpretations
- Appearing inflexible or too direct
- Difficulty reading non-verbal cues
- Sensory challenges
- Social challenges
- Information overload
- Emotional fatigue
Neurodivergent employees have so many strengths that vary widely. Here are just a few:
- The ability to hyperfocus on tasks and remember large amounts of detailed information
- Identifying trends, rules, and patterns in data
- Rapidly processing visual information
- Remembering large amounts of detail
- Good problem solving skills
- Out of the box, big picture, and critical thinking ability
- A high level of empathy and integrity
What every employee needs is different, and it’s always best to ask, never assume. Here are a few things you could offer, to get this conversation started:
- Established routines
- Clear expectations
- Structure and consistency
- Flexible environments
- Sound and light management
- Task management tools
- Permission for remote employees to turn the camera off during a meeting
A neurodiverse-friendly workplace delivers meaningful benefits
As the number of neurodivergent individuals in the workforce continues to climb, it’s essential for every organization to ensure their environment is conducive to all employees.
And it’s not just the right thing to do. Embracing neurodiversity in your workplace provides a strong sense of inclusivity and even community for your employees. An inclusive culture and comprehensive support system encourages diversity of thought, creative approaches to work tasks, and new innovations.
Research suggests that teams with neurodivergent professionals in some roles can be 30% more productive than those without them. Inclusion and integration of neurodivergent professionals can also boost team morale.
But many organizations are hesitant or resistant to hiring neurodiverse talent. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review states that “many people with neurological conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia, have extraordinary skills, including in pattern recognition, memory, and mathematics. Yet they often struggle to fit the profiles sought by employers.
Companies that have reformed their HR processes to access neurodiverse talent are seeing productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and increased employee engagement as a result.
A neurodiverse-friendly workplace can also drive a positive corporate reputation and brand recognition.
How HR and People leaders can support neurodivergent employees
Giving your neurodivergent employees the tools to succeed requires training your leaders to recognize neurodevelopmental differences, show empathy, and normalize conversations around it—to defeat stigmas.
There are several ways to cultivate a neurodiverse-friendly workplace, including these proven approaches:
- Avoid assumptions—take the the time to solicit and discuss an employee’s individual preferences, needs, and goals
- Clearly communicate (and acknowledge) expectations of work performance and etiquette in the workplace
- Provide customized task management tools that help employees complete work and achieve performance goals
- Provide structure and consistency in daily routines, as well as advanced notice of any changes that deviate from it
- Allow flexible workspaces and environments (such as sound and light management) designed to specifically to support unique needs
- Use inclusive language
- Be kind, patient, and empathetic
Become an ally
As we’ve already discussed, it’s not easy being neurodivergent. Therapy and coaching can help neurodivergent employees better understand the way they’re wired, how to ask for what they need, and process their emotions in a healthy way.
If your organization doesn’t already offer an innovative EAP, consider implementing one to offer all your employees fast access to the mental health support they need.
Here are a few more ways you can become an ally for your neurodivergent employees:
- Understand your own bias as a neurotypical (or fellow neurodivergent) person
- Focus on the strengths, unique skill set, and possibilities of each employee
- Engage thoughtfully, acknowledging that each employee is different
- Learn more about neurodiversity on your own
Read this blog for five ways to help employees with ADHD success in the workplace