What if we’ve been thinking about our brains in the wrong way? What if traits like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and others weren’t thought of as “disorders,” but as brain makeups that are not only natural but also contain unique gifts and contributions?
That’s the thinking behind the concept of neurodiversity, a framework that embraces the variety of brain makeups found in the human species. Neurodiversity is also a categorization of identity that is overlooked and underserved in the workplace. From the interview processes to decision making, most of our workplace environments are built around things like eye contact, noisy group work, and generally overstimulating settings–in other words, they are built for more”neurotypical” people.
How Businesses Benefit From A Neurodivergent Workforce
A few companies have embraced neurodiversity. Earlier this month, Yahoo announced its new Neurodiversity Employee Resource Group (ERG) intended to help neurodivergent individuals be open about their strengths and challenges and get their needs accommodated in the workplace. The ERG was spearheaded by Margaux Joffe, Yahoo’s head of production, global marketing department, who also has ADHD and founded The Kaleidoscope Society for women with ADHD.
“This goes way beyond the personal, and there is absolutely a business case for embracing neurodiversity at work,” Joffe tells Fast Company. She explains that what often stands in the way is a lack of knowledge at a company for how to approach subjects such as neurodivergence. “This is especially true for women and people of color who already feel like they have to work harder to overcome unconscious bias.
“It took me one year to disclose my condition, as I wanted to be able to prove myself free of any additional bias. Once I came out to my boss [about having ADHD] and told him I wanted to launch an employee resource group for neurodiversity, he supported it 100%,” says Joffe. “Many times, the only thing holding us back is thinking we need to work like others. Build on your strengths and be fearless. This goes for everyone.”
Bay Area aikido entrepreneur and writer Nick Walker agrees about the importance of embracing differences at work. As he shares in his blog about being autistic, “The greater the diversity of the pool of available minds, the greater the diversity of perspectives, talents, and ways of thinking–and thus the greater the probability of generating an original insight, solution, or creative contribution.”
Indeed, many of the world’s great scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs have dyslexia or ADHD or other traits. As Walker explains, “In any given sphere of society, we only get the benefit of the contributions of those individuals who are empowered to participate. And we only get the full benefit of a given individual’s unique potential if that individual is empowered to participate without being forced to suppress their differences.”
It’s Not About Altruism
The point is not to hire neurodivergent people as part of corporate social responsibility or to wave the diversity flag. The point is to actually value minds of all types. And indeed, Silicon Valley has benefitted enormously from the autistic mind, as Steve Silberman notes in his book, Neurotribes. One mother of an autistic son shared with Fast Company, “It’s not about giving them simple jobs because they feel sorry for them or to meet some diversity goal. It’s about hiring them because they truly meet a need in their business and possess the skills needed to excel in their job.”
How To Reframe Your Office For Neurodivergence
Practical suggestions for implementing the neurodiversity paradigm at work include:
- Introduce the term “neurodiversity” at all welcome orientations for new hires, making neurodivergent individuals comfortable to “come out” later down the road.
- Give people choices about open office spaces versus quieter, private working space.
- Carve out roles that rely less on linear thinking. These roles can produce better results for the company and the employee.
- Make mental health challenges less taboo by holding regular support circles on burnout, self-esteem, sleep, boundaries, and communication.
- Encourage nature walks at lunch time, and maybe even make the lunch hour 15 minutes longer on Fridays so that employees don’t feel rushed while strolling in the nearby park.
Supporting individuals with logistical challenges is also welcome. As Joffe points out, many of the large tech companies provide free food and transport. “My advice to neurodivergent employees is to learn as much as you can about how your mind works in order to design your daily life accordingly and be able to effectively communicate what you need at work and at home. I lived with undiagnosed ADHD for 29 years, so the diagnosis alone has helped me tremendously in my career. Simply understanding how my mind works differently, I’ve been able to let go of how I thought I should do things and accept myself for who I am.”
It’s also necessary to embrace the range of neurodivergence. While autism and ADHD are better known by the public and in popular culture, traits like bipolar disorder, severe anxiety, dyspraxia, or highly sensitive personality (HSP) are less commonly understood.
So just as companies have come around to embrace identity along a spectrum of gender, sexuality, and introversion, the neurodiversity movement says the same understanding should be extended to diversity of mind. What Yahoo and other companies are piloting seems like a useful start. What really matters in the end is that people who do identify as neurodivergent feel secure in having a workplace that accepts them and allows them to thrive.
Jenara Nerenberg is a neurodivergent writer, speaker, activist, and author of the forthcoming book, Divergent Mind. She is an alum of Harvard, UC Berkeley, CNN, and Healthline, and you can follow her on Twitter here.