Embedding Neurodiversity Into Your DE&I Strategy

We talk a lot about the various dimensions of diversity in the workplace and society at large. From gender to race to orientation—there’s been a great deal of dialogue and even notable progress. However, another type of diversity is quickly gaining awareness and becoming a hot topic in terms of inclusion; and that centers on neurodiversity. 

“Neurodiversity “describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits,” according to Harvard Health Publishing

While that definition accurately describes the concept of neurodiversity it might sound a bit more complicated than it is. Put more simply, our brains and nervous systems aren’t all the same and that impacts how we process information, communicate and perceive and react to the world and our environments. This blog will help you better understand neurodiversity and its strong relationship to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. 

A Brief History

The concept of neurodiversity arose in the 1990s, largely as part of discussions around the autism spectrum and other cognitive disorders that created almost insurmountable barriers to full participation in society—whether in school, work, or social situations. The actual terminology is attributable to Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, who first used the term for her Honors thesis before presenting a formal paper in 1998 with a primary focus on autism. This led to global recognition subsequently leading to a relationship with Harvey Blume, a U.S.-based writer for The Atlantic, whose 1998 article Neurodiversity: On the neurological underpinnings of geekdom” further stoked international interest and dialogue. 

Since then, a neurodiversity movement has emerged driven largely by Autism activists who stressed the development of assistive technologies that allowed those on the spectrum to better demonstrate their abilities rather than their disabilities. As the movement grew on a global scale, more neurological and cognitive differences were included to allow for interpretations encompassing a broader array of neurological variations ranging from Asperger’s to ADHD to Dyslexia—and in some instances even social anxiety disorders, although there’s still a great deal of debate over that since for many of us work is an anxiety-inducing environment anyway. 

People with common learning disabilities referred to in the social science literature as “neurodivergent,” or “neurodiverse” may not always “fit” into traditional work norms and require accommodation, but can be as productive and talented as others representing the neurological “norm,”—which implies that they fall into standard cognitive performance ranges. 

A study conducted at Drexel University on National Autism Indicators found: 

  • Only one in six adults on the spectrum is employed full-time, with only a third (32%) in paid positions, although 77 percent of those who are unemployed want to work.
  • More than half (51%) of autistic adults reported having skill sets above those required in their jobs.

Furthermore, neurodiverse people have talents many others don’t. For example, studies suggest that they have remarkable abilities to retain learning related to specific tasks, are highly reliable and focused, and many have strong technical skills. They may not fit into what we consider a “neurotypical” team or societal dynamic; however, they’re more capable than we often think in areas related to STEM subject matter and other technologically driven disciplines. 

Implications for DE&I

Given the ubiquity of DE&I as part of the 21st-century business paradigm, more people within the industry have been recognizing the importance of neurodiversity as a critical element in their strategies and programs. Leaders, HR, and Operational teams have an opportunity to expand their workforces with capable talent that they may not have previously considered. However, given the dearth of specialized talent in STEM-related fields, they would be well advised to be more inclusive in considering the talent that doesn’t fit into pre-conceived notions of viability. 

While there are regulatory and legislative compliance issues in countries globally to accommodate people with various disabilities—like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), those rely on self-reporting by the candidate at the time of hire—or disclosure post-onboarding. Stigma is still extremely pronounced when it comes to neurological and mental disorders, so few people want to disclose such personal information for fear of discrimination, ostracization—and even termination, despite performance. That won’t change until we “flip the script” by recognizing untapped talent and skills that go unacknowledged from these capable and resilient individuals. 

Embedding Neurodiversity into DE&I Strategy

As we learn more about autism and other neurological disorders we have to build on our DE&I strategies to include a more intentional focus on the neurodivergent. The question is how? If we’re better aware of the ways that people outside of the neurological norm react to stimuli, process information, and their aspirations we can easily find ways to attract and accommodate this under-represented and misunderstood talent pool. Here’s how:

  1. Educate Leaders about the science related to neurodiversity and use it to make a strong business case. For example, people on the autism spectrum tend to display greater degrees of punctuality, reliability, and loyalty—staying in their positions longer (and more contently) than their normative peers. 
  2. Consider ways to diversify organizational communications and team interactions. Many people on the spectrum prefer more visual learning modalities. That means including different ways of designing your learning and training programs—not only the employee handbook during onboarding, but also throughout the employees’ career arc. 
  3. Create “safe spaces” with employee resource groups specifically designed for team members with “hidden disabilities” and similar challenges. It’s also important to maintain the confidentiality of those who want to join and participate but do so anonymously. Also, encourage neuro-normative people to ally with these empowering groups since most of us know or have close relationships with neurodivergent types in our personal lives.  
  4. Actively recruit people living with neurological disorders. Since we know that nearly three-quarters of people with these disabilities are not only willing to work but eager to work, why not launch a recruitment campaign designed to attract and support them? This is even more important as we move closer to a remote and hybrid work norm rather than an exception. For someone on the spectrum, something as simple as noise-canceling headphones in a phone-intensive customer service role can make a big difference. 
  5. Build learning and training programs that take neurodivergent team members into account. You don’t have to design the programs specifically for them, however, you’ll want to consider various learning delivery methods (self-paced, classroom, video, and small group settings for instance). 

The bottom line? There’s a wealth of untapped and skillful talent out there. We have to find creative ways to tap into those populations and extend opportunities while also diversifying the talent pool for greater degrees of inclusion and more fully realized dimensions of diversity and equity.