4 Ways to Support Neuro-Diversity in the Workplace

Supporting Neuro-diversity in the Workplace

Two thought leaders discuss how businesses can better support neuro-diversity in the workplace

An inclusive workplace is not only a commitment to a diverse workforce, but to a culture in which differences are respected and everyone, regardless of their differences or disabilities, can thrive.

To create a truly inclusive workplace, companies must not only put resources into recruiting a diverse workforce, but into things like providing company-wide training on inclusive practices, advocacy programs, and accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

In efforts to create more inclusive workplaces and acquire top talent, companies of all sizes and industries are embracing neuro-diversity. They are looking to adopt programming and best-practice approaches to support employees with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Rethink recently hosted a webinar with two thought leaders who have made important strides for individuals with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Jim Hogan is a successful entrepreneur and consultant with autism working in the tech industry. Barry Janzen, a software engineer for the past 25 yeas, has fostered diversity in the workplace with great success through recruitment, advocacy and training of individuals with autism.

These are some of the important lessons we learned from them about supporting neuro-diversity in the workplace:

Ways to Support Neuro-diversity in the Workplace

  1. Create unique work environments to provide value to a neuro-diverse community.
  2. In order to attract diverse talent, creating unique programming that will engage a neuro-diverse community in the work your company is doing can go a long way.

    Barry Janzen’s company, Trimble, for instance, collaborates with the University of Utah to provide courses on various topics that students with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders might find interesting.  For one of these courses, the man who designed the 3d world of the Harry Potter was invited to teach the students to use SketchUp, the 3d design software he used for Harry Potter.  By providing a course on an interesting topic taught by an interesting person in the industry, Trimble is able to engage a community of neurodiverse learners in a way that helps them hone their skills for future employment.

    The same students that attend these courses are sometimes invited to return and teach courses. ”One of the greatest ways to learn a subject is to teach a subject,” said Janzen. By attending and then teaching these courses, many of these students have the technical skills necessary to then go on and acquire jobs.  Trimble is now developing an internship program to create a clear path for these students into the workplace.

    Inviting interesting speakers and organizing events at your company is another way of providing programming to engage a neuro-diverse community. Janzen’s company, Trimble, recently had Temple Grandin, a renowned author and speaker with autism, to give a talk.  Not only did this event engage a neuro-diverse community in the work Trimble is doing, but also provided awareness to other Trimble employees about autism.

  3. Expand your idea of normal
  4. Normal is in the eye of the beholder. While creating programming for individuals with autism or other nuerodevelopmental disorders can help your company recruit a diverse workforce, attitudes in the workplace need to adjust to support these individuals so they can thrive.

    Thinking of everyone as a unique individual with unique behaviors and needs rather than as “normal” or “not normal” can help your company retain diverse talent.

    Jim Hogan, who has autism and has worked at such companies as Accenture, Verizon, and now Kaiser Permanente, described how because of his autism, he sometimes has trouble with navigation and can get lost in his own office.  He was once asked by a colleague if he could take a pill that would make him normal. Hogan says that it is important for companies to think of everybody as an individual, and that using the word normal is always dangerous, whether describing a person or a behavior.

    It is especially important to remember that neurodiversity manifests itself in unique ways.  It is not always as obvious as it may be for someone with a physical disability. You never know what is going on in the brain of someone who is neuro-diverse. “Asking someone not to fidget in a meeting may be like asking someone to leave their wheelchair outside the door,” he said.

  5. Create systems of support
  6. Because employees who with neurodevelopment disorders may behave in ways that are outside their colleagues’ definitions of normal, it is important to be proactive in building in systems of advocacy and support to prevent and deescalate potential conflicts or misunderstandings.

    One of the first things Hogan will do at a job is identify people on his team (typically younger less advanced employees)  who can support him in his unique needs, like helping him navigate the office and find his ways to meetings. He calls these people his “cognitive seeing eye dogs.”

    When at Google, Barry Janzen attempted to create a program for what he calls “Autism Ombudsman,” employees who know the unique needs of the individuals with autism and can support them as they navigate difficult social or professional situations.

  7. Communicate clearly and encourage self-advocacy
  8. In a corporate environment where email is often the primary mode of communication, misunderstandings can abound. It is difficult for anyone to pick up on sarcasm and emotion when communicating by email, but can be particularly challenging for individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders. The same problems can arise in in-person interactions, where reading facial expressions or tones of voice can be challenging. One way to support employees with neuro-diversity and avoid unnecessary conflict is to communicate clearly and non-ambiguosly.

    Janzen describes an instance where in a conversation, a woman with ASD raised her hand, and asked the speaker to explain what had just been said in a “non-ambiguous manner.”  For Janzen, it was a great reminder that, “different people can take what I just said in seven different ways.”  He explained that, “it’s not a bad habit for any of us as professionals to speak clearly and exactly to the points we are hoping to get across.”

    This was also a reminder to Janzen of the importance of self-advocacy. Letting employees know that it’s ok to speak up and communicate what they are feeling or what they need can go along way in preventing conflict and misunderstandings.

As the 1 and 68 children now being diagnosed with autism grow up and join the workforce, developing systematic and creative ways to support them and their success at work will undoubtedly become a priority of all HR departments.

For businesses looking to create a more diverse workplace now, there are companies out there already doing excellent work and it is crucial that we learn from their success and set a precedence for future employers.

Watch the full recording or check out the webinar slides below:

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