Neurodiversity: Diversity Beyond What Meets the Eye

October 19, 2022

By Lesa Blakey
When people talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, most discussions center on visible diversity such as gender, age, race, ethnicity, etc. Neurodiversity is just as important and, because it is less obvious (and in many cases completely unseen), it’s easy to overlook. 

So, what is neurodiversity, exactly? Harvard Health Publishing defines neurodiversity as "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." 

Neurodiverse thinkers can have diagnosed differences, such as attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), autism, sensory processing issues, dyslexia, other learning differences, and more—or they may be self-diagnosed or have no label at all. It’s important to understand that neurodivergence thinkers are protected by the ADA and thus have the legal right to reasonable accommodations throughout the recruiting process and continued employment. So, addressing the needs of neurodiverse candidates and employees is not optional. But, the extra effort can reap major benefits for your organization

Why Hire Neurodiverse Workers? 

There are many benefits of hiring neurodiverse workers. Experts cite hiring for neurodiversity as a business opportunity, given that these types of people typically possess many valuable skills, including detail-oriented thinking, problem-solving skills, resilience, and focus. 

At this point in history, employers can’t afford not to create proactive strategies for attracting neurodiverse candidates. World Economic Forum estimates that neurodiverse people comprise up to 20% of the world population. Employers and HR leaders have the opportunity and the responsibility to embrace and celebrate the valuable talents and skills of neurodiverse thinkers in the workplace. To put it plainly, ignoring neurodiversity limits your talent pool, a dangerous move in today’s talent market.

How to promote greater inclusivity of neurodiversity

In order to foster neurodiversity across your organization, you need practical strategies that actually work. Creating a plan, including measurable goals, can also help. Fortunately, many of the steps you can take to promote neurodiversity also support inclusivity in other ways. 

Adapt the recruiting process. Offer alternatives to an application form, such as virtual hiring events, recruiter office hours, and online chats. Additionally, offer support for applicants who may not be able to complete an application without assistance. This in turn builds a strong team culture and improves the overall employee experience. 

Use inclusive best practices. For an application or interview, ask candidates for their chosen name and their pronouns, and offer a place for applicants to record the proper pronunciation of their first and last name. This tactic does not solely relate to being neurodiverse, but it can help people feel more seen, heard, and accepted. It’s important to foster a sense of belonging from the get-go to build an inclusive culture. 

Host targeted recruiting events. Neurodiverse workers may be more likely to interact with your recruiting team if they know explicitly that their differences are recognized and valued. Host recruiting events (especially virtual events) that are specific to neurodiverse job seekers, such as “Engineers on the Spectrum” or “Careers for Neurodiverse Thinkers.”

Educate employees on neurodiversity. Teaching your current employees about neuro differences can go a long way. Include training on types of neurodiversity and how to collaborate with people who have different work styles and sensitivities. (For instance, employees might benefit from understanding that someone with photophobia might be bothered by brightly colored clothing or that many people on the autism spectrum struggle to interpret body language and facial expressions.) 

Ask neurodiverse candidates and employees what they need. While it is generally not recommended that employers ask applicants whether they will need a reasonable accommodation to perform a given job, you can ask candidates and employees what they need to accomplish specific tasks, such as an interview or a work assignment. 

Get outside support. Don’t assume you can come up with the best solutions on your own, and don’t put that pressure on your neurodiverse employees, either. Tap into your professional network to learn how other organizations are supporting neurodiversity, and consider hiring a neurodiversity expert or consultant to help you build effective policies and programs. 

Motivate with rewards and recognition. Like most other workers, neurodiverse employees appreciate receiving rewards and recognition in the workplace. Inspirus Connects helps you recognize when neurodiverse thinkers are doing a good job, and Celebrates allows you to deliver memorable experiences for service anniversaries and other career milestones. Rewards and recognition support your overall employee engagement strategies. Being intentional about recognizing neurodiverse members of your team demonstrates that you embrace and celebrate differences and can be crucial in changing corporate culture. 

Retaining neurodiverse employees

Hiring more neurodiverse candidates can help increase your organization’s neurodiversity, but you must also build a culture that encourages those folks to stick around. In addition to the tips above that foster inclusivity, there are many other steps you can take to inspire a sense of belonging among a neurodiverse workforce. 

Competitive benefits. Generally, neurodiverse employees need and want the same great benefits that boost retention in other types of employees. That means good medical, life, and disability coverage, and stipends for transportation, childcare, and home office equipment. Many neurodiverse employees may incur additional medical expenses—such as therapy and medication—so they really rely on access to comprehensive health benefits.  

Employee resource groups. Having the opportunity to connect with colleagues who have similar life experiences can help neurodiverse employees navigate day-to-day challenges. Building a team culture where employees are supported is key to employee retention.

Reasonable accommodations on the job. Providing what neurodiverse thinkers need to perform their jobs building a foundation for retention. Here are some common ADA accommodations for neurodiverse individuals:

  • Noise-canceling headphones for sensory sensitivity and focus
  • Ability to turn off camera during Zoom meetings to limit distractions (Making this acceptable and encouraged is a culture-add and can benefit all employees.)
  • Providing written instructions/information about work assignments rather than (or in addition to) verbal communication.

As with all accommodations, don’t assume what a person might need in order to be successful in their role. Ask and then check back in periodically to make sure they have what they need.

Neurodiversity is a competitive advantage

Fostering and supporting neurodiversity in the workplace should be an important part of your broader DEI plans. Learning about different types of neurodiverse thinkers, and applying those lessons to your talent acquisition strategies, can help you tap into new talent pools, expand your reach, and engage with more skilled candidates. Once on board, taking steps to support inclusion and belonging can help neurodiverse workers feel comfortable so that they are able to contribute their valuable talents and help you achieve your business goals. Ultimately, embracing neurodiversity gives you a competitive edge—in talent acquisition as well as in organizational performance.