There’s no such thing as a “normal” brain. Or a one-size-fits-all workplace.
“We're all unique... kind of like a fingerprint,” says neuroscientist Catherine Harmer. And when it comes to the way we process information, as many as one in five people are considered neurodivergent.
But despite the prevalence of neurodiversity, the spaces where we work tend to cater to the neurotypical brain. So how can we shift the culture to create a workplace that nurtures all learning styles?
In this article, we’ll explore practical ways to create a neuroinclusive workplace where everyone can thrive. We’ll also share some key tips for communicating with neurodiverse employees.
Neurodiversity vs. neuroinclusion: What's the difference?
Neurodiversity refers to the full spectrum of natural neurological differences, recognizing that everyone learns and processes information differently.
Neuroinclusion is about creating a space that actively supports all types of cognition. This makes the workplace more welcoming and productive for all types of people and thinkers. By accommodating diverse ways of thinking, neuroinclusive companies can create spaces where innovation and creativity can thrive.
Take it from the team at JPMorgan Chase. After creating their Autism at Work initiative, they found that neurodiverse hires were 90 to 140% more productive than employees who had worked at the company for 5 to 10 years.
But it’s not just about productivity. Neurodiverse hires also tend to be loyal to a company that treats them well, resulting in higher retention rates.
Whether neurodivergent candidates are diagnosed with autism, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or any number of other conditions, accommodating these differences can empower and strengthen your workforce.
5 ways to build a neuroinclusive workplace
In recent years, advocates of neurodiversity have made waves in professional spaces.
But while the activists may have started the conversation, it’s up to employers to make workplace neuroinclusion a reality.
Here are some tips to help you create an inclusive environment for neurodivergent employees.
1. Provide clear instructions
Everyone processes information differently according to their unique brain function. Some people are visual learners, some are audio learners, and others work best with written instructions.
When you present information in a way that isn’t compatible with a person’s processing style, they may struggle to complete the task. This is especially true for neurodivergent employees who may also grapple with feelings of cognitive overwhelm.
Help neurodivergent team members see the complete picture by providing clear, concise, and specific instructions ahead of time.
- Explain the what, when, and why. Neurodivergent people may have a harder time reading between the lines. When assigning tasks, spell out exactly what you need, when you need it, and why the task is necessary.
- Give advance notice. If you need a spur-of-the-moment meeting with a neurodivergent employee, shoot them a quick “Are you free?” message first. If you already have a meeting scheduled, send an agenda so they know what to expect.
- Send a follow-up email. People who have different ways of auditory processing, for example, might need instructions in writing. After a meeting, send a follow-up email that outlines the action items so your employee knows what to do.
- Clearly outline your processes. Processing a huge chunk of information on the fly is challenging for anyone, but especially for neurodiverse individuals. Document all key policies and processes in an accessible location so employees can digest the information in their own time.
“Being given an instruction instantly doubles my anxiety level,” says Emily Katy, an autistic person with ADHD. “A lot of the time this is because the person giving the instruction is neurotypical and just assumes I know what to do with a very vague, very brief instruction…PLEASE be explicit and straight to the point in your instruction. I don’t want to stand there staring at you blankly as I try to process what you have just said.”
2. Say what you mean to neurodivergent employees
Neurodivergent people, especially autistic people, tend to be literal thinkers who sometimes struggle to infer information. Vague corporate lingo is only going to create confusion.
This is especially true when it comes to corporate jargon like “touch base” or “check-in.” The ambiguity in these phrases can create anxiety for neurodivergent employees because they don’t know what to expect. Instead, try scheduling a call to talk through a specific task.
Here are some best practices for communicating with neurodivergent employees:
- Be cautious with charged language. Neurodivergent employees will take words at face value. Unless you need someone to drop what they’re doing and pivot to something else, steer clear of words like “urgent” that could potentially lead to panic.
- Offer a clear timeline. Similarly, asking an employee to “get the ball rolling” can be cause for anxiety in neurodivergent individuals. Encourage leaders and line managers to get specific with their timelines. For example, “Please share your report by the end of the day”, or “I need you to start the task this week and have it ready by next Wednesday.”
- Make specific requests. Instead of asking an employee to “touch base” on a project, schedule a meeting, call, or email ahead of time. Where possible, include an agenda so they know what to expect during the check-in.
“When I am presented with new information, my mind creates a visual image to help me process and understand it. I match that image to other things I know, which helps me understand the information in more depth,” says Emma, an autistic employee. “I need clear information up front – and enough of it to enable me to move forwards in the conversation, or the piece of reading.”
3. Avoid ableist language
From phrases like “turning a blind eye” to “that’s crazy,” ableist language can be found in many modern workplaces. But just because these words are normalized, doesn’t mean it’s okay to use them.
Ableist language can create intense discomfort and shame for a neurodivergent person or people struggling with their mental health, and employers need to recognize the weight of these words.
Here are some ways to start fighting ableism by supporting neurodiversity in the workplace:
- Monitor your language. While some words are clearly offensive, there are also more subtle offenders to watch out for. Instead of using words like “insane” or “crazy,” think critically about the connotations and replace them with words like “wild” or “exciting” in workplace conversations.
- Don’t infantilize neurodivergent or disabled people. Too often, people associate neurodivergence or disability with stunted development or a childlike mentality. Check your biases and speak to all adults like adults. Don’t talk down to a neurodivergent or disabled person, and never use baby talk or reduce your vocabulary.
- Create a safe space for neurodivergent employees. Create a space where neurodivergent employees can talk about their goals and challenges. Whether they need help navigating a microaggression or understanding an assignment, support neurodivergent employees by letting them know it’s always okay to ask for help.
“Establishing employee resource groups focused on neurodiversity can be an effective way to gather feedback and insights from employees with diverse neurological conditions,” suggests the research team at Deloitte. “These groups can provide a platform for individuals to share their experiences, discuss challenges, and propose initiatives to improve neuroinclusion within the organization.”
4. Create a sensory-friendly workspace
For neurodivergent people, the office can be overstimulating.
Autistic and neurodivergent people often have sharper, more extreme sensory experiences. The sounds, smells, and bright overhead lights can quickly lead to sensory overload.
The good news is, there are many ways to create a more calming and neuroinclusive work environment:
- Ask employees to take calls in a designated area. When everyone is taking calls at their desk, the office can quickly become noisy. Help neurodivergent employees concentrate by designating a space for calls so that the ambiance in the main office remains focused.
- Encourage employees to eat in the kitchen or lunchroom. While eating at your desk is convenient, it can also bring distracting food smells into the office. By encouraging employees to eat their lunch in the kitchen or lunchroom, you can keep strong scents out of the work area.
- Embrace a casual dress code. If possible, permit employees to wear clothes they feel comfortable in so they’re not distracted by itchy wool sweaters or tight neckties. The key is to provide enough flexibility so that everyone can find attire that is both comfortable and professional.
- Offer remote work. Anyone who's ever been through a thermostat war can tell you: it’s difficult to find harmony in a shared workspace. Making your workplace more neuro inclusive might mean expanding your idea of workplace. By allowing employees to work from home, they can exercise control over their own environment. This also gives employees the freedom to take breaks when they get overwhelmed, rather than performing 24/7 busy-ness in the office.
“Remote work gives workers space to produce at the level of their peers...They don’t have to navigate in a world that wasn’t meant for them,” explains Joy Johnson.
As an autistic adjunct professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and founder of advocacy group Spectrum Support, she knows firsthand just how much remote work options can benefit neurodivergents. “Most of the time, I just want to be on the computer and have my weighted blanket around me, so I can focus on my work...I can’t do that in an office.”
5. Update and elevate your hiring practices
Though conversations around neuroinclusion are gaining traction, it’s still an area that has been largely overlooked.
Remember, no one becomes an expert in anything overnight. To start taking steps toward a neuro inclusive workplace, commit to opening and maintaining the conversation. And the best place to start is at the very beginning of the employee experience, with your recruitment process.
Here are some tips to help you make your recruitment strategy more neuroinclusive:
- Use inclusive language in your job descriptions. Make your job descriptions accessible to neurodivergent applicants by using straightforward, jargon-free language. Focus on the specific skills an applicant needs to succeed, and clearly state how they can request special accommodations during the application and interview process.
- Spotlight neurodiverse employees. If they’re happy to share their stories, spotlight your neurodiverse team members on your social media, career page, and other recruitment channels to inspire others to consider joining your team.
- Focus on retention. Hiring neurodiverse people is one thing – retaining them is another. Boost retention by creating neurodiverse employee resource groups where team members can share their experiences and suggest future initiatives to boost neuroinclusion.
You can also consider connecting your existing neurodiverse employees with new hires to create opportunities for meaningful mentorship.
According to Deloitte’s neuroinclusivity study, neurodiverse mentorship programs can offer a unique blend of support and guidance, especially when both the mentor and mentee are neurodiverse. As a bonus, this can also help employees learn more about how other teams and departments operate.
Don’t stop at neurodiversity
As we learn more and more about different ways of thinking, it’s time to broaden our definition of what “good work” looks like.
From reevaluating our conceptions of professionalism to moving away from a culture of competition, building a neuroinclusive workforce can help you make space for different perspectives. And sure, it takes time to unlearn bad habits and usher in new ones – but the payoff is worth it.
A neuroinclusive workplace leads to belonging, innovation and increased productivity for everyone, not just neurodivergent employees.