If you travelled back in time to a 1960s office or worksite, you’d probably notice a distinct lack of employee diversity. Most workplaces now work to enrich their organizations and set them up for success by employing people from a variety of distinct ethnic backgrounds, cultures, genders, etc. But a bit of a closer look highlights a glaring exception to this rule—the absence of employees identifying as neurodivergent.

When someone’s brain develops or functions outside of what most people view as “normal”, they are considered neurodivergent. They have unique challenges compared to those with more typical brain development or functioning—but they have unique strengths too.

Neurodivergent individuals could help employers combat the labour shortage and give their organizations a competitive advantage with different perspectives and problem-solving for innovative solutions.

What it is

EY Canada’s Neurodiversity Centres of Excellence describe neurodiversity as embracing the endless variations in how our brains work and how we behave, celebrating our diverse cognitive abilities and perspectives. This natural diversity not only includes neurodivergent individuals—those with unique thinking patterns, but also neurotypical individuals—those with typical thinking patterns.

Neurodiversity includes individuals with conditions like autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, ADHD, and many others.

Neurodiversity in the workplace

Neurodiverse people face different challenges in the workplace that impact their professional development and career growth including:

  • Misunderstandings and miscommunications: Implicit communication or sarcasm can fall flat and result in misunderstandings with colleagues or leaders.
  • Issues with executive functioning: It can be difficult for them to plan, prioritize, and organize work, leading to difficulty meeting deadlines, completing tasks, and managing workloads.
  • Sensory overload: Sensitivity to things like bright lights, loud noises, or strong smells can be overwhelming, cause anxiety or stress, and prevent them from concentrating or performing tasks.
  • Social isolation: Difficulty connecting with colleagues or being included in workplace social activities can create feelings of isolation and affect their motivation and job satisfaction.
  • Difficulty with change: Changes in tasks, schedules, or work environments can disrupt their routines and trigger intense anxiety.
  • Narrow focus or hyperfocus: They may struggle with shifting their attention away from specific tasks and adapting to new tasks or multitasking.

Meanwhile, workplaces that fail to adapt to neurodivergent employees create other issues including:

  • Lack of understanding and accommodations: Failing to understand neurodiversity and the necessary supporting accommodations can leave them struggling to manage their workload and meet their job’s demands.
  • Stigma and discrimination: Stigmas can lead to discrimination and negative attitudes can damage their self-esteem and affect their ability to thrive in their careers.
  • Bias and prejudice: Bias and prejudice can lead to discrimination and unfair treatment—being overlooked for promotions, receiving negative feedback, etc.

Did you know?

Roughly 15% of the world’s population—1 in every 7 people—identify as neurodivergent.

Why it’s important

Many of these individuals have advanced skills in pattern recognition, problem-solving, and keen attention to detail. They can be highly innovative, creative, curious, and engaged in their work. In fact, studies show that these individuals’ performance in certain functions can exceed that of other employees.

These attributes translate into key strengths that add value to organizations, identify unaddressed needs and opportunities for improvement, and set the organizations up for success.

EY concluded that the work quality, efficiency, and productivity of neurodiverse employees were comparable to that of neurotypical staff, with a bonus—“neurodiverse employees excelled at innovation”.

What you can do

Organizations need to rethink their workplace processes and cultures to attract and retain a more neurodiverse workforce.

Companies can make the workplace more inclusive by:

  • Revisiting the hiring process and casting a wider net: Connect with organizations and post-secondaries with programs for neurodivergent people and evaluate what biases exist in the recruiting and hiring processes. Reinvent the job interview to focus on specific skills rather than discussing abstract concepts or asking the candidate for input. Expand the roles available to neurodivergent employees and avoid categorizing them into skill sets based on a diagnosis.
  • Creating a supportive work environment: Respect individual differences, find out how each person works best, and adapt to their style accordingly. Provide support groups, mentors, and work buddies as valuable support for neurodivergent employees. Create a culture encouraging and accepting of flexibility.
  • Providing tailored career journeys for all: Frame organizational policies to support neurodiversity and ensure everyone understands them. Don’t predefine what success or growth should look like; tailor career paths that recognize employee goals, abilities, and strengths. Afford mentoring or coaching opportunities for experienced neurodivergent professionals.

“Patience and kindness can go a long way. Many neurodivergent employees simply want the opportunity to show they are capable of the work and are excellent employees. It would behoove employers to look past how well a candidate can shake a hand and how well they make eye contact to how well they could perform the tasks for the position.”

Amy Edwards, Director of the Autism Support Program, Drexel University

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