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How to embrace unique minds in the workplace

Practical tips to accommodate neurodiversity and break stigma.

Published on

August 22, 2023


What do you think of when you hear the word “diversity”?  

Most likely, racial diversity springs to mind first. What about diversity of thought? How important is it to recognize, value and celebrate neurodiversity—the many ways in which we think and learn, and experience and interact with the world—in the workplace?

According to Sandra Vaughn, VP of Client Success & Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategy at Metrix, doing so is critical to create a workplace where all employees can thrive.  

In her presentation during our webinar, DEI – An Introduction: Practical steps, key takeaways and lessons learned, Sandra highlighted the many elements of neurodiversity and the many benefits of including it as a pillar in your corporate DEI strategy.

Neurodiversity: What it means and what it looks like in the workplace

Neurodiversity refers to conditions that influence how we think, learn and experience the world, including ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, OCD and autism.  

Although as many as 15-20% of the population can be considered neurodiverse, Sandra stresses that neurodiversity is often unseen at work, either because it’s hidden in the hustle and bustle of daily tasks, or because the individuals fear self-identifying or asking for extra support due to stigma.  

In fact, the Conference Board of Canada found that 50% of surveyed neurodivergent employees were concerned that disclosing their status to employers might restrict career progression or result in other negative consequences.

What can employers do to break the stigma and see the many benefits that fresh perspectives and different ways of thinking can bring to the workplace?  

The first step is to understand how neurodivergence, with its range of talents and challenges, manifests at work. Here are a few examples:

  • The meticulous analyst: Excels in analyzing data but struggles with managing multiple assignments simultaneously. They may benefit from clear directions from their manager when completing a task.
  • The tech enthusiast: Has a natural talent for coding but finds it challenging to navigate social dynamics at team events or in meetings. One-on-one meetings and smaller structured events would help them feel supported and create more opportunities to foster connections with their colleagues.
  • The creative visionary: Brings an artistic approach to their work and solves problems with creative thinking but experiences sensory sensitivities and gets overwhelmed with bright lights, loud noises and busy environments. A calm workspace with dedicated quiet zones and flexible options, like remote work, would help them thrive.

Break the stigma to boost inclusion

The same study from the Conference Board of Canada found that few organizations currently offer workplace accommodations for neurodivergent employees, despite most respondents agreeing they should be available (61% of those with neurodiverse conditions reported stigma at work).

Why does this matter?

As Canada continues to see labour shortages, particularly in certain industries like manufacturing and healthcare, it’s imperative to design a workplace that works for everyone, so you can attract as many talented candidates as possible to join your team.  

In addition to expanding your talent pool, supporting neurodiversity in the workplace unlocks diverse perspectives, enhances problem-solving capabilities, improves attention to detail, boosts productivity and efficiency and provides access to untapped skills and expertise. Organizations that do so will also reap the rewards of a more positive company culture by promoting inclusivity. It’s no wonder studies have shown that neurodiverse teams are 30% more productive and make fewer errors than neurotypical ones.

Practical tips to foster a neurodiverse-friendly workplace

  • Document and share accommodations as part of onboarding and regular employee communication. When staff are aware of available resources and how to access them, they’ll feel empowered to ask for the support they need.
    Tip: Identify and document accommodations that your organization provides (e.g., noise-cancelling headphones, screen readers or speech recognition software).
    Tip: Simple actions, like offering staff the flexibility to work from the comfort of their own home, can go a long way.
  • Provide multiple communication and training formats to support the various ways people learn and work.
    Tip: Accommodate a range of learning styles by offering training materials in accessible digital formats; provide audio recordings, transcripts and visual aids such as videos and charts.
    Tip: Consider alternate approaches for evaluations, such as verbal exams or flexible completion time for certifications or assessments.
  • Embrace minimalism and use concise language and visuals in presentations, learning modules and during meetings to reduce distractions. By prioritizing clear communication over flashy designs, your material will be accessible to a broader audience.
    Tip: Limit the amount of text on slides to prevent information overload and use simple visuals or illustrations only when it adds necessary context or helps explain concepts. 
  • Foster community and acceptance through cooperative learning, collaboration and peer support. 
    Tip: Establish peer mentoring programs to create opportunities for growth and development for neurodivergent employees.
    Tip: Pair neurodivergent individuals with colleagues on cross-functional projects or activities that enhance collaboration, social connections and overall work experience.
  • Use inclusive language and avoid stereotypes and stigmatizing terms like abnormal or deficient.
    Tip: Practise person-first language, which frames the conversation around abilities, strengths, and experiences rather than labelling differences. For example, use the phrase "individuals with autism" instead of "autistic individuals."
    Tip: Language is always changing so stay educated and informed about terms that are no longer appropriate.

Build a plan as unique as your team

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting neurodiverse talent. Diverse challenges and experiences require unique solutions and accommodations.

Since many don’t feel comfortable disclosing their status, Sandra has a tip to find out if your team members need accommodation—just ask. While they may not feel comfortable sharing in the moment, asking the question in a thoughtful, private conversation will bring you one step closer to building a culture of trust.  

Over time, as meaningful action is taken, people will gradually feel safe enough to share (for more information on creating a safe space at work, read our blog post on gender and sexual diversity).

Tip: Reflect on ways you can customize accommodations to fit the unique needs of each team member.

  • For example, while one person may prefer to work independently in a quiet environment, like a home office, another may require frequent guidance from their manager. Be open to feedback and adapt your offering based on insights from your team.
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