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Why fostering a neurodiverse workforce is the best thing to happen to your team

The benefits of fostering a neurodiverse team at your agency, plus how to support a neurodiverse staff.

Design by Jean Lorenzo

Profile picture of Emmy Cao

12.27.2023

5 min read

When I started my first job working remotely as a software engineer, I didn’t know what was wrong with me. 


I was always a “gifted kid” and landed competitive scholarships and internships while I was a student. Yet, when thrust into the workforce, the scaffoldings of my work ethic seemed to have crumbled. I could never focus and struggled intensely with procrastination. 


It turns out, my difficulty with work stemmed from my executive dysfunction. I thrived under the pressure and rigid structure of an institution like school. Each day I was regulated by a clear schedule, meticulous syllabi, and the immense pressure to succeed as a first generation immigrant.


But without these factors in place, I lost the driving force I needed to persist. 


When I was diagnosed with severe ADHD, many aspects of my life made much more sense. I learned that my nervous system was intrinsically motivated by a different set of criteria than what’s typical. My brain is most motivated to do what’s interesting, challenging, novel and urgent.


Before my diagnosis, I would read countless self-help and productivity books yet nothing seemed to work. But after I was formally diagnosed, I began tailoring my life to my needs as a neurodivergent individual and programmer. This knowledge has been the greatest asset to my career and I love sharing the impact of neurodiversity with others.


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Back up: what does “neurodiversity” mean?


Neurodiversity describes the neurological differences humans have that result in unique variations in the way we think and process information. This can include differences in cognition, sensory perception and emotions. These differences contribute to vast diversity in the innovation and creativity we see in the world. 


So why does neurodiversity need our attention?


Up to 20 percent of Americans are estimated to be “neurodivergent,” encompassing those with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, PTSD and other neurological differences that affect learning and mental health. Despite their strengths, they are severely underemployed; some experts say over 80 percent of those on the autism spectrum may be unemployed.



The benefits of fostering a neurodiverse team at your agency 


Some brains function differently, but they are not at all less capable. Neurodivergent employees have different needs to accommodate how their brains work. Forward-thinking agencies that can adequately support these needs and hire neurodiverse employees will be able to experience many benefits, including the ones here.


  • Non-linear thinking contributes to different perspectives: Research indicates that individuals with greater ADHD traits score higher in divergent thinking, which is characterized by fluency, flexibility and originality. Studies have also found that people with dyslexia tend to score higher in nonverbal creativity.

  • Many neurodivergent people are more sensitive to social justice issues and equity: Their empathy and attention to fairness can help guide your agency to be more equitable. Plus, a neurodiverse team will be more sensitive to accessibility issues; certain visual elements can be distracting for those with ADHD or autism, poor font choices can confuse those with dyslexia, and unclear checkout pages may mislead those with dyscalculia.

  • Passion can drive success: People with ADHD love challenges and novel problems and programming is the perfect incorporation of those traits. A Small Business Economics study found that those with ADHD traits are 60 to 80 percent more likely to have entrepreneurial intentions, and are “almost two times more likely to initiate entrepreneurial action.”



How to support neurodiversity at work


Educate your team on neurodiversity


Awareness is key to understanding neurodiversity. Neurodivergent traits are highly stigmatized in many cultures and are victim to widespread misinformation. 


It’s important to understand different neurodivergent conditions and how they manifest so we can gain insight into others’ experiences. This might include incorporating sensitivity training to the onboarding process, or inviting neurodivergent people to speak about their experiences in webinars.


Unfortunately, many neurodivergent people remain undiagnosed due to diagnostic bias. Because men are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with autism, many women never receive diagnosis despite meeting clinical criteria. Social stigma and misinformation in many cultures can also prevent individuals from seeking diagnosis. Proper awareness will help debunk misconceptions and stereotypes, and can also destigmatize seeking professional help.



Create a psychologically safe workplace


Due to the negative stigma surrounding neurodivergence, most people will never disclose their conditions to employers in fear of discrimination. Many neurodivergent people suffer from trauma or rejection sensitive dysphoria, which can make them less likely to share their struggles. This makes it difficult to request accommodations and be open about any problems they face at work. 


To help relieve this fear, make sure your team is aware that their workplace is psychologically safe, and that they will not be discriminated against for sharing their experiences. Create a workplace where everyone is comfortable being open about who they are.


Understand that people’s needs may also change over time, and may vary depending on conditions in one’s health or personal life. Find a regular cadence for employees to have one-on-one meetings with someone they’re comfortable being honest with. 



Be flexible with providing accommodations


When employees become comfortable with sharing their needs, it’s important to be receptive to their requests without judgment. 


Each individual has a unique set of needs when working. Some people require absolute silence, while others may be more productive working in a busy office. Workplace accommodations can help support those with physical sensitivities, such as by providing noise-canceling headphones and flexible work environments. 


Others may require additional mental health resources or career support and coaching services. Some employees may need to be given clearer actionable steps, and some employees need explicit feedback which avoids implicit messages from social cues. Offer regular evaluation and clear feedback to employees to help them reach their personal career goals.



Hiring for neurodiversity


Frequently, the unique ways in which neurodivergent candidates present themselves socially or tackle problems can be perceived negatively during the hiring process. Because of this, the recruitment process can be especially difficult for many neurodivergent candidates.


Some companies have created in-house neurodiversity hiring programs, including SAP, Microsoft, EY, JPMorgan Chase and Ford Motor Company. At Microsoft, neurodivergent candidates undergo a special skills assessment tailored to those who thrive in non-conventional interview settings. When the candidate is hired, they receive mentorship from an employee volunteer, and are also connected with a job coach who specializes in supporting workers with disabilities. 


Of course, not all companies have the resources to provide extensive neurodiversity hiring initiatives. In the United States, there are over 40 neurodiversity workforce intermediaries, such as Potentia and Autism Workforce, which aim to partner with employers to implement protocols to support a neurodiverse workforce.



Benefits for the entire team


My performance at work has drastically improved since receiving professional treatment and learning more about my brain, and it helps that my manager is understanding of my needs and works with me to ensure I can do my best. Neurodivergent workers will be able to thrive at work when equipped with the right support, which in turn benefits the entire agency.



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