April is Autism Awareness/Acceptance/Celebration month, making now a good time to talk about neurodiversity in the workplace, as an opportunity for organisations and their people to thrive. Neurodiversity refers to the idea that some brains work quite differently to others and encompasses a range of diagnoses (sometimes referred to as labels), including autism, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, Tourette’s syndrome and others. A key concept to emphasise is that neurodiversities are differences, not disabilities or deficits.

Neurodiversity is not always obvious and, as awareness and scientific understanding increases, more people are getting diagnosed as adults (where before some diagnoses used to be seen as primarily related to childhood). A diagnosis can help people to find an answer to “why I am the way I am”, but it often bears no relationship to their experience at work—that is, whether they struggle or thrive in their chosen fields. Sometimes the path to and beyond diagnosis is peppered with distress, discrimination, anxiety, and burnout at work. Other times, organisations intentionally seek out and support individuals with diverse brains, recognising that these differences are a source of competitive advantage to their business. Whether diagnosed or not, the estimated prevalence of all neurodiversities is 15-20%, so chances are you know and work with someone who is neurodiverse (perhaps without even realising it).

Strengths-based management for innovation

Traditional approaches to “managing people” have often been based on scientific management, which sees the organisation as a machine and people as parts of the machine. Whilst this approach may offer some benefits in terms of scalability and control, it can be at the cost of getting the best out of people and thus producing the best business outcomes. This scientific approach has us writing job descriptions and looking for people to fill particular boxes. And it sometimes has us putting square pegs into round holes, or finding ourselves at a loss when faced with people who are neither square nor circular in their nature.

A contrast to scientific management is an organisation and leadership who take a strengths-based approach (see Umbrella CEO’s latest article on strengths-based management here). This approach enables us not only to recognise and accommodate differences, but to take it further and leverage those differences to the benefit of the organisation and its people. Research and experience tell us that leaders who learn how to manage diverse people bring those skills and abilities to all their interpersonal relationships and become better managers for it.  And this approach does not only apply to neurodiverse employees. As one manager in a recent study put it: we all have special needs.

Collectively, we are faced with unprecedented challenges that require out-of-the-box thinking and innovation. Organisations such as SAP, IBM, Microsoft, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Australian Tax Office, and the Australian Federal Government recognise the “next big thing” will come from people who don’t tick the boxes. In other industries, such as security, actuarial, engineering and scientific fields, differently wired brains are tremendously well-suited to the work that a neurotypical brain is less suited for.

How do we build workplaces that are not only inclusive of neurodiversity but celebrate it as a strength?

Neurodiverse people can be “hidden in plain sight”. The individual may have mastered camouflaging and masking strategies, but these are costly in terms of energy and anxiety levels.  

  • Masking strategies can be confusing for anyone observing, and it is important to acknowledge that when someone seems to be coping or performing well, we are not privy to the energy-cost of that to the individual.
  • They may not fit your preconception of what a person with that difference could look and behave like. Many neurodiversities are on a “spectrum”, with a wide range of differences between individuals. And there are personality and style differences that apply to everyone, diverse or not. So, if you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, remember that you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum.
  • A person with a neurodifference may want to help “educate” you about their difference, but it is not their job to do so. You can find excellent resources listed at the end of this article and they may choose to suggest others.
  • Diverse people are often conditioned to work very hard to try to be like everyone else, or “make everyone else comfortable”. This can be exhausting and stressful for the individual and may also mean the organisation will miss out on engaging their full range of strengths and abilities.

Psychological safety is key

It is possible that the person has experienced a lifetime of bullying, burnout, criticism, social exclusion, misunderstandings and feeling deficient. They may not feel safe to disclose their difference.  Labels are less important than feeling safe to express your needs.

  • The onus is on the organisation to create safety and flexibility so that individuals can communicate what they need to do their best work and have those needs reasonably accommodated. 
  • By creating and maintaining psychological safety and demonstrating that they genuinely value diversity, organisations can fully leverage their people’s “whole” strength, with benefits to innovation, retention and productivity.

Reasonable accommodations can be a competitive advantage 

Employers have obligations to provide reasonable accommodations. These will vary greatly according to individual needs. However, they often focus on working conditions, communication norms and flexibility. Improving options and individualising working conditions and norms in the workplace can benefit everyone and provide a competitive advantage in hiring and retaining talented people.

  • To find out more about reasonable accommodations, talk to your people and check out the resources at the end of this article.

Tips for employees 

It can be hard for a neurodiverse person to know whether to disclose their difference at work or not.  This can be especially true if you were diagnosed in adulthood. It is a very personal decision and one to think carefully about, seeking trusted advice from people, books and websites.  

  • Common advice is that rather than focus on disclosing your “label”, you focus on your needs and communicate what you need to be successful and happy at work. This sentence starter can help: ”I am the kind of person who….”, e.g. “I’m the kind of person who finds task-switching exhausting, I need time and space to focus on one thing at a time”.  Or, “I’m the kind of person who needs quiet to do my best work, and I’d really like to work from home or in a conference room by myself some of the time.”
  • Sometimes the path to realising a neurodifference comes with having children diagnosed with a difference. The parents may recognise aspects of their child in themselves and wonder whether to pursue diagnosis. Other times, an employer may be the one looking for answers.  Seeking diagnosis is a purely personal choice. It can offer answers, validation, and occasionally open up pathways to extra supports.
  • Regardless of a diagnosis or not, there is huge value in seeking to understand more, talking to others, and thinking of what needs and strengths you have. Your wellbeing will be enhanced by this understanding and the actions you take to have your needs met, practise excellent self-care, and find ways to shine with your strengths.
  • How to get help: The Mental Health Foundation is a good place to start, alongside talking to your GP and the other resources below.

Resources/Further reading