Is your Diversity & Inclusion program missing something? Diversity & Inclusion programs that don’t include neurodiversity are already obsolete. Neurodivergent employees are eagerly entering the workplace, bringing along fresh perspectives and valuable skills. Jumpstart your organization’s neurodiversity initiative with these five tips, directly from an autistic HR Professional’s mouth.
In nature, there is diversity – diversity in genetics, diversity in wildlife, diverse food sources, and these are good things. Business owners are starting to realize that companies with diverse teams are more successful because more ideas come to the table that are different and unique. Inclusive companies are 1.7 times more likely to be leaders of innovation in their market.
Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences (Autism, Tourette Syndrome, ADHD, Dyscalculia, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, and others) are natural variations of human brain types. Therefore, we should treat people who have different brains with respect and work to equip and empower them to be the very best versions of themselves. Because neurodivergent employees experience their world from a different perspective than neurotypicals, they can bring fresh ideas and solutions to the workplace.
Many employers are unfamiliar with the unique ways in which neurodivergent people process the world around them and interact with others. We are dedicated employees, who crave stability, and will give everything we have to an employer we trust. Many autistic people, for example, will be forthright and honest by nature.
Although I’ve personally learned to soften my words over the years, I tend to be a realist. My mind hones in on problems, they glare me in the face, and I’ll speak out when I see them. Only in my late twenties and early thirties did I finally learn when it’s better to hold my tongue.
When I was younger and just entering the workforce, I did not have this skill. I was the most dedicated and hard-working person on any team I joined. However, at that age, I could not yet soften my words or adapt my communication styles to different situations. I had the type of honesty that could cut a person in half.
Thank goodness the people around me were understanding of my blunt and sometimes harsh ways of speaking. I’ve only really perfected “putting on my business hat” in the last five to seven years, but now that I know I’m autistic, I try to wear this hat with more flexibility.
I started working for the family business in my pre-teens. My mother made a point to instill a strong work ethic in me. I can still hear her voice “If you are on the clock, you are getting paid, so if you don’t find something to do, you are stealing. So get busy, and if you are not busy, you better find something to do.”
My next job would be fast food. I wasn’t required to interview because my high school boyfriend and his brother were already on the staff and vouched for me to management. This was a good thing, because at this point in my career, I still didn’t know what to say and do in a job interview.
Starting with the hiring process, many organizations are ill-informed, and may even be unintentionally discriminating against neurodivergent applicants. If a neurodivergent employee does manage to make their way onto your team, your systems and rules likely weren’t designed to accommodate people who think and experience the world differently.
Here are five things you should do when starting a neurodiversity initiative:
- Don’t Wait
If you think you have time to get your organization in order, because you don’t have autistic people in your workforce yet, you’re probably wrong. The National Autism Society says that one in fifty-nine people are born autistic. I suspect that number may be higher due to the frequent misdiagnosis and late diagnosis of autistic women. I was almost thirty when I found out I was autistic. Autistic adults are here now, waiting to be employed. You may even have autistic people on your staff and not know it.
Are your leaders ready to provide reasonable accommodations for your neurodivergent employees? Or, are they leaving you open to liability, denying requests protected by law? Sarah Selvaggi-Hernandez, the first openly autistic person ever to run for and be elected to public office in Enfield, CT, is suing the Enfield Board of Education. in what could be a landmark case.
In addition to being autistic, Sarah is hard of hearing and has auditory processing disabilities. In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Hartford, CT, Sarah states the board did not make reasonable accommodations that would have allowed her to serve – for board members to communicate with Sarah between meetings in writing, and to allow Sarah to utilize an erasable white board for note-taking.
These accommodations would have cost the Enfield Board of Education little to nothing. As an autistic person, I do believe her rights have been violated. Time will tell what the courts have to say, as this case unravels.
Don’t let your organization be next.
- Bust Stigma
Treat your neurodivergent employees with respect. Remember, neurodivergent is different, not broken. Your neurodivergent employee may or may not feel as if their neurodivergence is a disorder. While many neurodivergent people do not think they are disordered, feelings around neurodivergent identity are often very personal.
Don’t shame people for acting neurodivergent. Your neurodivergent employees may have different work habits. Some may have lower social quotas and spend every lunch alone recharging.
- Fix Culture Problems
Employees don’t leave jobs. They leave harmful work environments and toxic office cultures. You may find that your neurodivergent employees have less tolerance for “office politics” than your neurotypical employees.
Nobody wants to feel like a charity case. Another big problem with many disability hiring initiatives is that they can be very bothersome for the person you hire. Failing to help neurodivergent employees feel a true sense of acceptance and belonging can completely derail your initiative efforts. There cannot be an “us and them” mentality. It can’t be “those neurodivergent people” and us “normal people.” Autistic people need to feel accepted; the culture needs to be genuinely inclusive.
- Don’t get stuck in a rut with your outdated policies & procedures
“But everyone wants what so and so is asking for” – yes, that’s the point. What’s good for your neurodivergent employees is often beneficial for everyone. I’m actively encouraging businesses to make the changes and accommodations that many autistic and neurodivergent people require, available to all employees who request them. Treating all employee needs with decency and respect, whether or not they have a diagnosis, is a kinder way to manage your employees.
I challenge you to look at the way you hire, onboard, train, communicate and even schedule all of your employees, not just the neurodivergent ones. Remember, every person has a unique work and communication style. Let’s honor that and meet people where they are, so everyone can show up feeling supported and do their best work.
- Train your leaders
Employee retention is a pain point for many business owners. The cost of a bad hire can be astronomical, costing up to thirty percent (or more) of the failed hire’s annual salary, depending on the organization and role. To retain your staff, you must understand their motivators, needs, and goals. Managers who are poorly educated may unintentionally be chasing away freshly hired neurodivergent talent or may fail to support employees during the onboarding process properly.
The custodians of people within your organization must be neurodiversity informed. Organizational culture is funneled down from the top. Your neurodiversity initiative will fail if your leaders are not on board, campaigning for change. I strongly recommend you find a neurodivergent team member or facilitator to lead the education.
Finding the best way to launch a neurodiversity initiative can be tricky. The ideas discussed above are a road map designed to help move your organization in a more positive direction.
If you have a staff of sixty or more people, there are undiagnosed and/or closeted neurodivergent employees on your team. If you create an environment where being openly neurodivergent becomes the new normal, your employees will start to open up. Listen to the neurodivergent employees in your workforce; let them guide and show the way.