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Inclusivity and Working with Neurodivergent Employees

By: Laurie Dever

Companies both large and small are facing a new challenge in workplace demographics. Not just race, age, and gender, but the growing neurodivergent population in the workforce has created a need to be more aware of differently abled individuals. The increase in number of individuals with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, and other learning and mental health issues has prompted a need for companies to recognize and learn how to work with individuals in a way that is beneficial to both employer and employee.

In particular, there has been a huge increase in diagnoses of autism in children. In an article written by Harvard Business Review, it was reported in 2005 the CDC projected autism diagnoses of 1 in 166 children. By 2021 that number increased to 1 in 44 children. This represents nearly four times the initial projection within 16 years, showing the ever-increasing need for services and understanding of this disorder. With the number of children turning 18 and entering the workforce each year, there will be a growing population of employees with different needs. 

Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that individuals may experience varying levels of symptoms. Some may experience or demonstrate a mild degree of characteristics, thereby being considered higher functioning. Others may have much more defined or acute behaviors and traits, thereby being considered lower functioning. Those considered higher functioning may have less difficulty managing symptoms or interacting with others, while those considered lower functioning may have much more difficulty. 

What are some of the signs of autism? Behaviors and characteristics such as difficulty with social interaction or communication, repetitive behaviors such as rocking, pacing, or arm movement, and sensory challenges such as sensitivity to sound, light, touch, or smell are common symptoms. In many cases, exposure to elements such as noise, over-stimulation, or smells may trigger a reaction. 

ADHD is often recognized by inattention or difficulty in focusing or concentrating, and impulsivity such as blurting out remarks or taking inappropriate actions without thinking about them. Many times the two disorders overlap or share similar traits. In many cases individuals are dual-diagnosed, meaning they experience both disorders.      

Although the disorder can be managed medically and psychologically, there may be specific events that trigger reactions. For instance, if an employee has great difficulty in communicating with others or establishing eye contact, it may be assumed that they are poor at delegating tasks or establishing strong team relationships.  If an employer is unaware a colleague has been diagnosed with the disorder, they may assume the employee is underperforming or displaying odd or inappropriate behavior while at work. It can be difficult to differentiate some differences, and not all employees want to disclose their diagnosis. Understandably, individuals may choose not to disclose such issues as they may have been discriminated against in the past.  

So what’s an employer to do? While it would be inappropriate to flat-out ask a team member if they have any specific disorders you should be aware of, by demonstrating support and compassion in the workplace and creating a positive relationship with employees, employers can build an environment where open discussions are encouraged. As you build relationships with team members and allow for diversity and inclusion, you demonstrate caring. If you notice an employee struggling with a particular area, such as timekeeping or often being distracted, you may want to gently ask if anything is bothering them, or what specific issues are keeping them from conducting their work as expected. Perhaps some difficulty at home or in other relationships keeps them from performing their best. Opening the door to a conversation may be what is needed. Employees may not open up at first (or possibly even at all), but at least you have left an opening for discussion, while at the same time demonstrating concern. 

Here are a few tips for working with a neurodivergent individual or population:

  • Be curious – learn about differences in others! 
  • Recognize and become aware of different needs and ways of processing information.
  • Allow for and embrace their creativity and different ways of looking at projects, outcomes, and problem-solving.
  • If an individual does confide in you, offer to help by providing a specific accommodation that may be useful. Ask them what they need.
  • Indicate that you notice things such as not interacting with others or lack of communication. Ask if anything is getting in the way of being able to do so. It’s OK to ask if they are having any problems or health issues that might be getting in the way, and then ask how you can help and be supportive.
  • Respect their need for privacy. Not all people will want to disclose personal information. Some have dealt with shame or stigma associated with such diagnoses for years, and are not comfortable sharing information.
  •  Don’t expect to be “invited into their inner sanctum” immediately, or in some cases ever. 
  • Do what you can to develop trust and relationships. Relationship building takes time and patience with ALL team members – not just those who are struggling! By constantly demonstrating support you show concern for individuals.
  • Don’t let bad behaviors go unchecked. While there may be some issue that contributes to negative behavior, it is never acceptable to let bad behavior go. Even employees who struggle with mental health or medical issues must be held accountable. Holding all team members accountable is important to establishing your culture and reputation. Don’t let favoritism get in the way. 
  • If team members complain or ask questions about an employee don’t disclose confidential information. Let them know you appreciate their concern, and that you will address issues appropriately, but you are not at liberty to discuss such actions. Remind them that if the tables were turned, they would want the same consideration.
  • If you have concerns about any employee, regardless of the issue, seek out consult from HR, an EAP, or any other resources you may have available. Ask for help!
  • Recognize and embrace differences – we all shine in different lights!

By Laurie Dever

Laurie Dever is an HR Pro and Consultant at be the change HR. She is semi-retired, having worked for 25 years as an executive in the HR field. Prior to retiring, she worked with a non-profit organization that specialized in working with young adults with a wide range of mental health issues and diagnoses. Neurodivergence in this population prompted this article! Currently, she works part-time as an HR consultant, as well as a certified pickleball coach. Laurie loves sharing her passion for sports, dogs, coaching clients, and playing the bagpipes with others!

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