How to Understand and Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Adrienne Holtzlander


How to Understand and Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace

There are four words I will never forget hearing: “Your son is Autistic.” After that, I didn’t hear anything the child psychologist said because I was fighting back the tears and thinking about how this was going to affect his future in this world. My son was neurodivergent, and it’s a diagnosis that doesn’t come with a manual because no two autism diagnoses are the same. It also means that one day, he may have to struggle to find support for neurodiversity in the workplace.

It has taken me years to help him with speech and occupational therapy. Reading books on sensory processing and the autism spectrum has helped us understand how his beautiful mind works. It’s allowed us better navigate in a world that doesn’t understand what it means to be a neurodivergent. 

One day, with any luck, my son will be a thriving employee somewhere. When that happens, I hope everyone in his company has created a neuroinclusive approach by educating themselves on what neurodiversity is, how it presents itself in the workplace, and how to manage neurodiverse workers effectively.

Choose Your Own Adventure!

What Is Neurodivergent or Neurodiversity?

Neurodivergent is a term used to describe individuals whose neurological development and processing differ from what is considered typical or “NeuroTypical.” This includes individuals with conditions such as:

  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Dyslexia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Down Syndrome
  • And other neurological variations

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to understanding neurodiversity. In reality, neurodiversity comes with both unique strengths and unique challenges. For workplaces looking to foster supportive diversity, equity, and inclusion for those with neurodiverse conditions, there is a range of strategies to consider.

An organized desk with books, pencils, and a computer to display how neurodiveristy in the workplace can require help with organization

These may include:

  • Creating a safe environment for self-advocacy
  • Providing access to specialized resources and accommodations,
  • Developing a clear plan for addressing any extra support needs of employees. 

By understanding and embracing neurodiversity, employers can create a more inclusive and supportive workplace for everyone, encouraging productivity and collaboration. When properly deployed, strategies for understanding neurodiversity can help employers create a thriving workplace for employees of all abilities.

That brings us to the most important point of this guide: understanding and creating a neuroinclusive workplace. 

What Is NeuroInclusion? 

The word neuroinclusion refers to the design and implementation of practices, environments, and policies that take into account the neurodiversity of individuals. It recognizes that all brains work differently and that there is no one “normal” or “standard” way of thinking or processing information.

Think of neuroinclusion in these terms: I knew early on that there was something different about my son. He had major developmental delays and didn’t start talking until after he was four years old, when we started taking him to a speech therapist.  I didn’t hear “I love you, Mommy” until he was six years old.

I had to find a way to be inclusive in my home environment.

That meant providing my son with noise-canceling headphones when he was feeling overstimulated or when we were in situations where the noise was overwhelming for him. Having weighted blankets, lap pads, or a sensory compression vest to help keep him focused and calm both at home and school. 

Let’s push that forward to the workplace.

Neuroinclusive practices aim to create an environment that is accessible and inclusive for everyone, regardless of their neurological differences. This means designing spaces and activities that are comfortable for people with different sensory processing needs, such as providing quiet spaces for people who are sensitive to noise or allowing flexible seating or work options. 

Understanding the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace

As the world of work evolves, businesses are increasingly recognizing the importance of fostering a supportive culture for neurodiversity in the workplace.

  1. Increased creativity and innovation: Alternative perspectives and looking outside the box. They see and experience the world differently.
  2. Improved problem-solving: Greater attention to detail, ability to process a large amount of information, ability to look for and find patterns in data and recognize irregularities which means fewer mistakes.  
  3. Increased productivity: JPMorgan Chase found that after running its Autism at Work program, its neurodiverse employees were 48% more productive than its neurotypical employees.
  4. Loyalty: Neurodivergent employees are more loyal to an organization that provides an inclusive and accommodating environment. Training Industry reported that organizations that have a neurodiverse workforce have found that autistic employees have a retention rate upward of 90%.

4 Ways Companies Can Support Neurodiverse Workers

Creating an inclusive environment is key to understanding neurodiversity in the workplace. It’s important to foster a sense of acceptance, understanding, and respect for employees of all abilities through policies, practices, and culture. A number of practical changes and practices can make a world of difference for neurodiverse workers.

Provide a safe space in the onboarding program

Two women at a table discussing neurodiversity in the workplace.

Your onboarding program will pair new hires with experienced colleagues to help them form better relationships and provide tools and resources to gain greater insight and comfort around expectations for their job. 

A common struggle for a neurodiverse employee is whether to disclose their neurodiversity.

As a mentor or HR professional, ensure you provide a safe environment during the onboarding process. Doing so will allow your employee to inform you of their needs and accommodations to make sure they provide the best work for your organization. 

Creating a safe environment for self-advocacy, providing access to specialized resources and accommodations, and developing a clear plan for addressing any extra support needs of employees. 

Select neurodivergent workers to serve as mentors in a reverse mentoring program

Reverse mentoring is a mentoring format where more junior-level employees serve as mentors for more senior-level team members. The best way to learn more about neurodiversity is by directly communicating with your neurodiverse employees. 

Consider how they experience the workplace and the type of accommodations or support that would be helpful for them to perform at their best. Most executive leaders may not recognize those needs. By creating a reverse mentoring program and inviting a neurodiverse team member to serve as a mentor, you can gain valuable insight into best practices and workable strategies.

Listen closely as they share their perspectives and insights. By engaging in open and respectful communication, employers can gain a deeper understanding of neurodiversity and develop strategies to foster an inclusive workplace culture that benefits all employees.

Be the DEI change agent you’ve always dreamed of by launching a Reverse Mentoring program! Learn more in our Mentoring Soundbites video on Reverse Mentoring. Be sure to like and subscribe to get updated when new content goes live every Wednesday at 8 AM EST.

Offer skill development that takes into account learning styles of neurodivergent workers

Keep in mind that neurodiverse workers often learn differently. That means your approach to skill development should take into account different learning styles, especially the learning styles that are more common among neurodivergent workers.

Businesses don’t often dive into pedagogical theories, but doing so may be necessary to get the best results.

Here are some considerations for learning styles and applications for skill development in

  • Auditory learning: This involves using sound and listening to help with understanding and retention of information. It may include things like conference calls, podcasts, or group discussions.
  • Visual learning: This involves using visual aids such as presentations, infographics, and diagrams to help understand and retain information.
  • Experiential learning: This involves learning by doing, often through hands-on activities or simulations. It may involve things like on-the-job training, role-playing exercises, or team-building activities.
  • Collaborative learning: This involves working in groups or pairs to learn from and support one another. It may involve things like group projects, peer coaching, or mentorship programs.
  • Adaptive learning: This involves using technology and data to personalize learning experiences for each individual. It may involve things like online assessments, personalized learning plans, or adaptive learning software.
  • Blended learning: Offering strategies for personalized skill development is crucial. Tools that explore template options for designing presentations or visual aids can also enhance learning and creativity, accommodating diverse neurological needs.

With the right training and education, employers can create an atmosphere in which neurodiverse individuals feel accepted, supported, and empowered to contribute in meaningful ways to the organization. By investing in neurodiversity workplace education, organizations can create a better understanding of neurodiversity while also promoting a healthier, more inclusive, and more productive workplace.

Provide mentoring programs that give visibility and safe social learning environments

A way to learn more about what a neurodiverse employee needs in the workplace to be successful is to listen. I have learned so much from my son about what he needs to be seen, heard, and understood just by listening. I will ask how his body is feeling after a long day at school. If he is feeling distressed, find out where his level is so we avoid a potentially violent meltdown. I use the Pot of water method with him.  

Two workers in an office sitting at a table discussion neurodivergent workplace policies.

Pretend you are a pot of water on a stove, and life/sensory input is the temperature gauge/heating element.  When you put a pot of water on the stove and turn the heat on too high, eventually, it will start boiling. For my son, boiling is a violent meltdown. So I have him visualize his pot, and he lets me know how hot his water is and what he needs at that moment to turn the heat down.

Just the simple way of finding a different way of explaining how to communicate what he needs helps him and me. By listening to the needs of a neurodiverse employee, a mentor or admin can find a way to help that employee to succeed and help that employee feel seen, heard, and understood.

Mentoring in the workplace can be a critical tool for supporting neurodivergent workers, providing them with the guidance, support, and opportunities they need to succeed. Here are a few reasons why mentoring can be especially important for neurodivergent workers:

  1. Access to expertise: A mentor can provide neurodivergent workers with access to the experience, knowledge, and expertise they need to navigate workplace challenges and succeed in their roles.
  2. Professional development: A mentor can help neurodivergent workers identify their strengths and areas for growth and can provide guidance and support to help them develop professionally and achieve their career goals.
  3. Social support: Mentoring can provide neurodivergent workers with a supportive and inclusive community within the workplace, helping to reduce feelings of isolation and increasing engagement and retention.

To implement mentoring for neurodivergent workers in the workplace, here are three strategies a company can use:

  1. Create a formal mentoring program: Establish a structured mentoring program that matches neurodivergent workers with experienced mentors who can provide guidance, support, and career advice.
  2. Offer training for mentors: Provide training and resources for mentors to help them understand the unique strengths and challenges of neurodivergent workers and to equip them with the tools and strategies they need to support their mentees effectively.
  3. Promote inclusion: Foster an inclusive workplace culture that values and celebrates neurodiversity and actively works to create a supportive and inclusive environment for all employees. This can include initiatives like employee resource groups, diversity and inclusion training, and inclusive hiring practices.

By implementing these strategies, companies can create a more inclusive and supportive work environment that helps neurodivergent workers thrive and succeed.

Finding Hope for Neurodivergent Workers

Since my son’s diagnosis, he has been defying all of the odds that were put against him that day. There have been a lot of good days and very difficult days to get where we are today. I am so grateful for being able to help him find his voice and understand how he sees the world. 

I hope that when he is ready to enter the workforce in a few years, he will be welcomed into an organization that embraces, champions, and celebrates neurodiverse talent. Neurodivergent employees bring innovative thinking and unique perspectives to their workplace.

Designing a neuroinclusive culture is much easier than you think and so rewarding for your employees and your organization.   

Adrienne Holtzlander

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