The workplace can sometimes be challenging for employees with neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, and dyslexia. They often struggle with social interaction, attention, learning, and other skills traditionally viewed as prerequisites for success at work.
But employers are increasingly recognizing that neurodiverse individuals are great at thinking differently and offer unique advantages in the workplace, despite struggling with common skills that may come naturally to their neurotypical peers.
So, how can businesses better support neurodiverse staff? We spoke to several HR professionals to find out.
Why neurodiversity at work is important
While neurodiverse people may struggle with certain skills, they often exhibit significant strengths in other areas that can be leveraged by employers. These include pattern recognition, logical thinking, and accuracy, according to Auticon CEO Andrea Girlanda.
His view is that these unique skills make neurodiverse candidates “strong contenders for many roles”. He points out that there’s a massive opportunity for neurodiverse talent in STEM sectors, especially, because they have been affected by skills shortages over the past few years.
But despite this, many neurodiverse individuals still struggle to find work. Girlanda warns: “Yet, recent studies have shown that autistic people are woefully under-represented in the workplace, with only one in five autistic people in employment.
“The D&I agenda has evolved considerably, but neurodiversity is often overlooked in the conversation. This must change. Having varied perspectives and skills makes for more agile, creative, and successful teams,” Girlanda adds.
Mandy Ching, senior talent acquisition manager in the diversity, equity, and inclusion team at VMware, argues it’s good business sense to foster neurodiversity in the workplace.
She says neurodiverse employees bring not only new ideas, but also a diverse perspective that can increase innovation and problem-solving in a company.
Ching tells UNLEASH: “We have seen that, compared to neurotypical employees, neurodiverse employees are not only just as capable, but often are more productive and engaged. Neurodiverse employees, if provided a positive experience with their employer, are more likely to be loyal and remain in the company for longer periods of time.”
Organizations should remember that diversity makes workplace communities stronger, brings different perspectives to the table, and ensures they serve the needs of every employee, says Nazir Ul-Ghani, head of EMEA at Workplace from Facebook.
He adds: “That includes neurodiversity and the onus is on companies to create workplaces that work for neurodiverse employees.”
Supporting neurodiverse employees
HR departments must formulate inclusive working practices and adopt tools that support a range of work styles in a bid to cater to the needs of neurodiverse employees, argues Ul-Ghani.
He says: “For example, ditching lengthy, hard-to-read emails in favor of more accessible formats like on-demand video and visual posts, and ensuring staff aren’t subject to back-to-back calls that create distraction, fatigue, or even social anxiety.”
Kerry Alderdice, head of HR at Texthelp, believes that simply hiring neurodiverse employees isn’t enough and that organizations should take concrete steps to support them. “In the age of the digital workplace, we’re jumping between many platforms, browsers, and devices. We’re accessing everything from emails to web pages and PDFs,” she explains.
“Most of the information we’re consuming is in the written format, and we’re responding in kind. This approach doesn’t suit everybody. Providing specialist support tools to staff will help them understand and process information while empowering them to communicate with confidence.”
Alderdice says companies also need to consider how remote or blended working affects their employees as the pandemic subsides, explaining that neurodiverse staff often find it overwhelming to work remotely and may not ask for help when they’re struggling. She adds: “Making sure all employees have the right support will build inclusivity and nurture neurodiverse talent.”
Girlanda warns that the traditional recruitment process currently puts neurodiverse candidates at an unfair disadvantage due to factors such as ambiguous language in job adverts and interviews that are an implicit test of social skills.
He advises: “To maximize access to the neurodivergent talent pool, HR leaders need to trust that it is possible to find quality talent by thinking creatively about role-relevant suitability assessments or by sending candidates interview questions in advance to reduce anxiety.”
Employers should also provide reasonable adjustments in order to ensure neurodiverse candidates perform to the best of their ability and ultimately create a business built on equal access, according to Girlanda.
He says: “This can be as simple as a dedicated workspace or normalizing sunglasses or noise-canceling headphones in an office. Other examples include flexible working hours to avoid rush hour or the option to work from home. These small adjustments go a long way.”
This view is backed by Ching, who says HR teams must work with each candidate to determine their needs and accommodations during the application, interview, and onboarding stages. She continues: “Additionally, HR must provide an interview structure designed to remove unconscious bias and allow candidates to best display their skill sets.”
What’s more, Ching says HR professionals should stay in touch with recently hired neurodiverse employees to build trust within the workplace. “At VMware, we offer mentorship and professional coaching to ensure their success and satisfaction in their new role. Throughout the process, it is important to proactively inform the candidate, or employee, services available to them,” she explains.
Neurodiversity: How HR tech can help
When it comes to supporting both current and prospective neurodiverse employees, HR departments can utilize many different technologies. Chris Quickfall, CEO and founder of Cognassist, explains that brain mapping tools are one of them.
He says: “Being able to identify how people’s brains work could not only assist in improving diversity at hiring and lead to a more open and inclusive workplace culture overall, but would also ensure employers and employees are better armed with the tools they need to work effectively, improve support structures and reach their full potential together.”
Alderdice says technical tools for supporting neurodiverse employees cover a broad range of areas, such as content review and editing apps. She tells UNLEASH: “Employees with dyslexia benefit from this kind of software as it allows them to spend more time on writing content, removing the worry about getting the spelling right.”
Employers can also use technology to support employees who struggle with comprehension, adds Alderdice. She explains that text-to-speech software allows organizations to provide daily information via audio and that other tools let them convert large documents into MP3 files, further increasing accessibility for neurodiverse employees.
She continues: “This can work both ways. Managers and colleagues can use the same software to make their own voice notes. These notes are often a better way for neurodivergent employees to keep track of their activity and provide feedback.”
Software applications can even help neurodiverse staff who become overwhelmed by on-screen distractions such as pop-ups, adverts, and notifications. “Screen masking software can support those with conditions such as ADHD, allowing them to minimize on-screen distractions,” adds Alderdice.
“By tinting the screen and providing a reading light that is controlled with the user’s mouse, the software reduces the impact that on-screen distractions have. This tool also benefits employees with sensitivities to color or light, reducing the on-screen glare. This tool also benefits employees with sensitivities to color or light, reducing the on-screen glare.”
Andrew Mawson, founder and CEO of Advanced Workplace Associates, explains how employers can use technologies like connected sensors and mobile booking applications to make sure working environments suit the needs of neurodiverse workers.
“For instance, if an employee regularly likes to sit next to a window, or perhaps must, the technology can retain this information and ensure there’s a seat available for them next to a window. This eliminates any concern or stress they may have as to whether a seat is available when they visit the office,” he says.
Traditionally, the workplace has been geared towards neurotypical employees. And, as a result, those with neurodevelopmental disorders were often ignored and left unsupported by employers.
But with the advancement of workplace diversity over the last few years, it’s become clear that neurodiverse employees have an essential part to play in businesses across all industries. As such, HR leaders must do everything in their power to make the workplace more inclusive for neurodiverse employees.