Everyone has the right to work. And while we love to see more and more businesses embracing neurodiversity in the workplace, it’s important that employers have the right resources to help neurodiverse employees reach their full potential.
What is neurodiversity?
Coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the nineties, the term ‘neurodiversity’ promotes similar sentiments to ‘biodiversity’. Biodiversity advocates that the conservation of all species is essential to a thriving ecosystem. Similarly, neurodiversity champions the idea that society thrives when we bolster and celebrate different ways of thinking. It accepts the neurological differences between brains as a natural occurrence.
Neurodiversity includes (but is not limited to):
- attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- developmental coordination disorder (DCD, formally known as dyspraxia)
- Tourette syndrome
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
It’s important to remember that diversity continues within these individual subsets. For example, one person’s experience of ADHD or autism may differ vastly from another’s.
You may have also heard of the term ‘neurotypical’. This is what we call people who are not neurodiverse. Using neurotypical sidelines a social tendency to reach for words like ‘normal’. After all, there’s no such thing.
Dominant discourse used to pathologise neurodiverse disorders, positioning their ‘deficiencies’ as something to cure. But thanks to the neurodiversity movement Singer ignited, those conversations have since changed their tune. Now we focus on the unique strengths, differences and perspectives of neurodiverse people.
This tectonic shift in perspective has been an essential step towards inclusion.
From bright lights and beeping machines to chatty coworkers and unfamiliar surroundings, the traditional workplace can present many barriers to the neurodiverse that the neurotypical wouldn’t think twice about. And that’s not to mention the processes behind securing a job in the first place – processes that are historically geared toward neurotypical workers. For example, whilst an autistic interviewee may be more equipped than a neurotypical competitor, they may struggle to meet social expectations during the interview process.
The barriers to championing neurodiverse talent cut both ways. Whilst neurodiverse employees stand to reap rewards like social inclusion and economic independence, employers stand to gain a wealth of benefits.
Think of all the neurodiverse brains that have altered the course of history by thinking different: Bill Gates (autistic and dyslexic), Elon Musk (autistic), Maya Angelou (selective mutism), Paris Hilton (ADHD), Richard Branson (dyslexic). As Branson once said, ‘wouldn’t the world be rather boring if we were all the same’.
Along with out-of-the-box thinking, recent studies show that neurodiverse employees also:
- boost workplace morale
- boost team productivity by 30 per cent
- have high job retention rates
- have better-than-average skills in mathematics, memory and pattern recognition.
A rising tide lifts all boats
In Australia, 1 in 8 people are neurodiverse, yet they make up an underwhelming percentage of our workforce.
Though data on neurodiversity as a whole in the workforce is limited, in 2018 the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) revealed the unemployment rate for people with autism was at 31.4 per cent. That’s 3 times more than people with disability and around 8 more than people without disability.
With the overall unemployment rate of Australians is expected to continue rising as 2023 wanes, businesses are finally looking beyond the neurotypical to reinvigorate the workforce.
In their 2022 study, A rising tide lifts all boats, Deloitte suggested that companies feeling the pressure of the labour shortage should reconsider their recruitment strategies and internal structures to accommodate a neurodiverse workforce.
In 2021, Telstra started offering ‘suitable adjustments’ to applicants who identify as neurodiverse. These adjustments allow neurodiverse applicants to display their strengths and get to know employers on their own terms.
Telstra’s adjustments include:
- performance-based assessments
- one-on-one information sessions
- access to questions prior to interview
- interview coaching.
EY, IBM, JPMorgan Chase and Microsoft are also taking measures to make their companies more accessible. Each company has reported significant improvements to productivity since taking on neurodiverse talent.
How to accommodate for neurodiversity in the workplace
Awareness is always the first step towards inclusivity. Read up on neurodiversity and successful models for supporting neurodiversity in the workplace. Provide education and training to coworkers and managers. Mark awareness days on your work calendar.
Make recruitment accessible
When it comes to recruitment, neurodiverse people tend to display their strengths more effectively in aptitude, psychometric and work-based assessments than formal interviews. Allow for alternate recruitment processes and be explicit about encouraging neurodiverse people to apply in job advertisements.
Start a conversation
Never make assumptions about neurodiverse employees. Initiate an open conversation about the employee’s needs and capabilities as well as the company’s expectations. Ask them how they work best and how you can support them to excel.
Modify the workplace
Workplace modifications can be as small as providing noise-cancelling headphones or offering a work from home option where neurodiverse employees can excel in a familiar environment.
When giving instructions, when giving feedback and when engaging in general conversation. Avoid jargon-heavy language, metaphors, sarcasm and anything else that could cloud the message you want to get across.
Many companies pair some neurodiverse employees with a team buddy, mentor or a small support circle. These buddies are usually in the same team and can provide assistance and insight on tasks, time and project management and day-to-day social interactions.