Neurodiversity in the workplace

There’s a high probability that you know some neurodiverse people.

You may not know who; they may not have told you about their conditions, and it is also likely that they may not have been diagnosed.

The term ‘neurodiversity’ was coined by Judy Singer in 1998.

Neurodiversity is the provocative notion that neurological variations (autism and ADHD, for example) are the result of normal, natural variations in the human genome; that people with such differences are part of the normal spectrum of human consciousness. These neurological conditions are not abnormal at all. Neurodivergent people make up approximately 15% of the population in some places. It’s highly prevalent in society.

At the time, Judy was a sociology student and diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Her thesis was considered ‘pioneering sociological work’ about a new concept in neurology, which previously had no name.

Neurodiversity. Normal. Natural. These feels like very different labels and thereby outcomes that we can give these people when we think about how we usually label them: Disorder. Disability. Special Needs. Special Education.

We neurotypical humans love to categorize, rank and separate each other in society, and we have regularly made choices to isolate neurological differences through special education classrooms, workforces and social circles in general.

We standardize and ‘normalize’ everything from school tests to performance reviews, despite our nature being inherently diverse.

Source: Unknown

Diversity and inclusion is in our biological nature and both will prevail to weed out weaker, homogeneous concepts that do not innovate and evolve to greatness over time.

What superpowers can we unlock if we altered our neurotypical frameworks so that ‘neurodivergent’ people are accepted, accommodated and full-included?

So what’s holding us back?

Are we holding ourselves back?

The concept of neurodiversity also raises awareness about the ‘social model of disability’, in which societal barriers are the main factor that disables people.

We have long-focussed on negative sentiments, exclusionary behaviors and cure-treatments. Neurodiverse people are pitied, stigmatized and isolated. These responses have manifested in barriers rather than positive outcomes.

Okay, I just covered a lot of ground and offered a lot of word soup to set the stage.

In the next few sections, I’ll offer some information about how our society addresses neurodiversity across phases of life —

What happens when you give birth to a neurodiverse child?

America has a national law that supports neurodiversity by granting all children with disabilities (neurological variations included here), free and appropriate education from birth through the age of 21.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was signed into federal law by George W Bush 30 years ago and continues to be a powerful bipartisan American statement about equal opportunity for children. The law is explicit about full-inclusion as the starting point, whereby children with disabilities have a right to appropriate education in a ‘least restrictive environment’.

I regularly reflect on the the spirit and intent of this law — inclusive equality.

As a federal law also it’s unifying and impactful at scale.

Canada by contrast, has no such federal law. Education is governed by provincial and territorial jurisdiction. Every province and territory has some form of policy on accommodating education and they vary widely from one another in how they define it, practice it, and how they fund it. Private insurance companies are not required to cover therapies for neurodiverse children. When it’s not a law, it tends to have less teeth.

The goal of America’s IDEA law is to provide children with disabilities, both neurological and otherwise, with equal and highly-inclusive education.

While it’s certainly not without flaws (read more here and review this table for demographic and intersectionality issues), the American IDEA law supports the notion that all children eventually become adult members of society, if the entire system follows the spirit of this law, the country can gain economic benefits from equal opportunity.

The law empowers all children going through the public school system and then passes the baton onto colleges and the working world.

It’s worth mentioning:

  • Public schools are governed by this law.
  • Private schools are not — they often build homogeneous, exclusive societies.

When bright and aspiring neurodivergent children consider the nation’s top universities and colleges (mostly private institutions) — they are not set up for success.

Neurodivergent students have three broad challenges in college:

  1. The curriculum at colleges often does not account for neurodiversity in both their unstructured and structured teachings, and this is compounded by larger class sizes. Neurodivergent students can feel lost and completely misunderstood by the professors who are untrained to teach them.
  2. Colleges applaud developing ‘normalized’ social skills for the working world across all disciplines — presentations; group negotiations and debates. Most do so without acknowledging that some students need more assistance or accommodation to thrive with these situations.
  3. Making a new set of neurotypical friends (and sometimes moving across the country to attend a university) can be a significant stressor to overcome without a college toolkit handy to help with this transition.

There’s a terrifying gap of 18% that we need to close:

The college graduation rate of U.S. students with autism or another disability is only 41 percent, compared with 59 percent in the general population.

Keep in mind that these bright children were able to study, pass standardize tests and gain admittance into these colleges as a starting point. So it appears that there is something amiss in the college system itself that requires further scrutiny.

Some universities have made the direct connection between the neurodiversity curriculum they teach in their Psychology classrooms and how they actually support their neurodivergent students to succeed in the classroom, and later in the workforce. Stanford, a world-class leader on the topic of neurosciences and neurodiversity offers neurodiverse students a way to successfully navigate and thrive in post-secondary education through their Neurodiversity Program. They practice what they teach and nurture high-quality connections to the workforce:

What was your college experience like? Did you experience neurodiversity and inclusionary practices? Did the practices truly integrate students into the society at school and prepare them for working world? What did your schools teach you about working with neurodiverse individuals, if anything at all?

Most private universities tend to offer special education as a ‘side-plate’ on their menu, often underfunded and outdated, with little inclusion for neurodivergent students.

Many, many neurodivergent students have above-average cognitive abilities per our standardized tests. I wonder what their outcomes would be with non-standardized tests.

Colleges and universities must make real connections between the neurodiversity curriculum of their Psychology departments and the way they support student success.

Generally speaking, we have a longstanding representation problem when it comes to diversity in the workplace, and neurodiversity is no exception.

Differently-abled people are rarely discussed in the workforce in an inclusive way that allows these individuals to bring their whole selves to work. They are broadly labeled as ‘disabled ’. These disabilities are often only acknowledged upfront as part of the hiring checkbox exercise — we ask on the hiring application form and thereafter, there really isn’t a deeper conversation. ADD, Autism, ADHD are rarely normalized and discussed in the daily work environment.

Gender, sex and race are hotly debated in terms of diversity and equality. Neurodiversity is further behind in awareness and equality opportunity.

Most companies are also still just learning about intersectionality — in which people who are not of the majority, can also be differently-abled and looking to thrive in the workforce despite multiple opportunities to be discriminated against. Here is Dr. Nancy Doyle presenting fascinating and deeply important insights into neurodiversity and intersectionality.

How do our standardized performance measurement tools consider the strengths and needs of neurodivergent people?

Are we missing the opportunity to be great leaders?

Here is some eye-opening statistics —

15% of autistic people are employed and are often under-employed

28% of people who are long-term unemployed, are actually dyslexic

50% of American prison population has ADHD but only 3% have been formally diagnosed and treated

The situation we find ourselves in is complicated, but business leaders can make real economic gains with simple steps.

First — let’s broaden our view of diversity and really commit to it. Doubling down on the majority holds everyone back (yes, everyone) from progress.

If we as hiring business leaders are not vocal about neurodiversity, then we are a significant contributor to the problem — we are builders of the ‘social model of disability that Judy Singer noted.

Industry leaders like Hewlett-Packard, SAP, Salesforce and Ernst & Young (thank you EY friends!) are starting to pave the way to learn more about human neurology and its potential to unlock the massive potential of a neurodiverse workplace.

There are many benefits of neurodiversity for today’s leading companies. They are all rooted in the power of diversity as a universal strength —

Diversity enables innovation, progress and better outcomes.

Here are three simple things you can do as a leader to unlock neurodiversity:

  1. Revisit your diversity program and audit it for neurodiversity. There are experts eagerly willing to help you if needed.
  2. Eliminate the stigma of neurodiversity simply by talking about it and normalizing it: ask employees to talk about their challenges and their successes; crowdsource ideas that align with your company’s mission, goals and culture; nurture the creation of employee support groups. The simple implementation of employee support groups have proven tremendously successful in allowing employees to bring their whole selves to work.
  3. Offer inclusive training programs for both neurodivergent employees and their leaders. It can be a value-added way to learn and grow together, while up-skilling your leadership team to be excellent on the topic.

Through her work, Judy Singer encouraged acceptance, appreciation, inclusion and positivity, as part of normalizing the full spectrum of human consciousness.

As a business leader, what will you do to champion neurodiversity?

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My name is Jedannah Vieira. I’m a builder of high-performance and highly diverse teams. My darling son is a bright star and on the autism spectrum.

Finance/Retail/Sustainability