The Importance of Including Learning Differences in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) Efforts

Jul 14, 2022

By Warner Santiago, Senior Director of DEI, MassBio

This article is based on Allaya Cooks-Campbell’s article: “Why you should not overlook neurodiversity in your DEI strategy” (2022), and Nathan Friedman’s article: “Companies are leaving neurodiversity out of their DEI conversations—and that’s a mistake” (2021)

Do you work in a diverse workplace or with a diverse group of people? Think for a moment about what makes them diverse. Often, we think of gender, race, and ethnicity first. After that, we might think about geographic and cultural diversity, different personalities or leadership styles, maybe socioeconomic diversity. We tend to overlook neurodiversity, in part because it is not visible or well-represented in most workplaces.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is the perspective that people with cognitive differences are not defective or deficient. These differences reflect natural variations in how the brain is wired.

Reframing these distinctions as neurodiversity helps broaden our understanding of diversity and how the brain works. Through the lens of neurodiversity, these differences might be used as strengths, not shunned as weaknesses. 

Understanding people as neurodiverse, or neurodivergent, means embracing and being open to other ways of learning and collaborating. Often, neurodiverse individuals are highly innovative, creative, curious, and engaged in their work. With support, they can also demonstrate exceptional resilience, collaboration, and capacity for extraordinary work.

What does it mean to be neurodivergent?

The term neurodivergent describes an individual with a cognitive variation. This might affect the way that they think, read, move, interact with others, or process information. It’s generally seen as a preferable, more inclusive term than some that have been used in the past.

Learning and thinking differences are lifelong, brain-based behaviors that can affect a person’s reading, writing, math, organization, and focus. In essence, a learning and thinking difference is a variation from what is accepted as the norm—an invisible disability, per say. These differences can be anything from ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, social anxiety, and more. They’re often cited as neurodiversities.

Neurodiversity at work

Some employers, hiring managers, and co-workers may tend to avoid neurodiverse people. They may be uncomfortable with different styles of interaction, lack an understanding of the term neurodiversity, or have their perspectives colored by stereotypes and misinformation. Still others may be unwilling to adapt workflows or workspaces to different paces or work styles.

If we recognize that many of these conditions are extremely common among our peers, it helps us understand — and destigmatize — cognitive differences and so-called learning disabilities. Because neurodevelopmental conditions are lifelong and represent the brain’s default mode of functioning, many successful professionals have learned strategies to get around them. 

At the same time, we can make it easier by becoming more aware. Providing accommodations ensures that it isn’t just the “superachievers” who can succeed in spite of their conditions, but that they have what they need to thrive with them.

Here are three ways that employers can support neurodiverse employees:

1. Provide multiple ways to meet

As a general rule, not everyone loves every type of social interaction. You might eagerly await the company’s New Year’s party, but your coworkers could find it overstimulating.

Find alternative ways to connect, socially and professionally. Offer a mix of happy hours, virtual events, offsites, and one-on-one “coffee chats.” This gives employees the opportunity to choose where and how they’ll be the most comfortable without feeling that they’re missing out.

2. Consider how you deliver information

Strong workplace inclusion policies recognize that not everyone processes information in the same way. You can respect differences in cognition, social, and learning style by providing the same content in multiple ways. 

For example, consider sending out decks and pre-reading in advance of information-heavy meetings so that people can have time to process information using whatever techniques work for them. When possible, offer a video, a self-paced online course, or even an audiobook for learning new content.

3. Get great at one-on-ones

Meeting with employees one-on-one is important for any organization, but especially for those with a hybrid culture. For neurodiverse employees, it allows them to build a trusting relationship with their manager and often frees them from the pressure of having to be “on” in front of multiple people. 

Individual meetings help managers to get to know their employees along with their unique strengths and needs. It helps them provide more personalized support and plan how the team works more effectively. Since the burden of requesting accommodations is on the individual employee, managers can better advocate for their employees when they know and understand them better.

What are neurodiversity programs?

A neurodiversity program is a recruitment initiative to help reduce barriers to employment for neurodiverse workers. While many neurodiverse candidates are well-qualified (and sometimes, overqualified) for their roles, they often have difficulty making it through a traditional interview process.

Neurodiversity programs help provide opportunities for neurodivergent people to be hired for roles that fully utilize their skill sets — which can be extraordinary. There are several benefits for companies that make it a priority to recruit and support neurodiverse people.

Benefits of hiring neurodivergent employees

  1. Creativity and innovation

People with neurological differences see the world in different ways. Critically, they see problems in different ways. Their experience in navigating the “normal” world often develops their capacity for divergent thinking, a critical aspect of innovation and problem-solving. People with ADHD, in particular, are often highly creative individuals who display strong intuition and bias toward action.

2. Challenges other employees (in a good way)

Neurodivergence might also be key to identifying new unaddressed needs and opportunities for growth within organizations. Interacting with more diversity of thought and experience creates growth in other — both neurodivergent and neurotypical — team members. It challenges their empathy and imagination, stretches and develops their ability to communicate, and reduces groupthink.

3. Essential to growth

According to some estimates, between 30% and 40% of the general population are likely neurodivergent. In times of tight workforce and war for talent (Great Resignation, anyone?) companies can’t afford to exclude 40% of potential talent. Policies and practices that support and welcome autistic people and other cognitive differences benefit every person within the organization.

Final thoughts:

Neurodivergence is just a different and often overlooked dimension of diversity. Neurodiverse people can bring benefits to their workplace, and they also bring unique challenges that might be very different from the challenges of other dimensions of diversity.

Understanding first what neurodiversity is, and then some of the ways the traditional workplace doesn’t always make space for them, is key to DEI and employee advocacy. Simple strategies, rooted in neuroscience and Industrial and Organizational Psychology, can help employers make space, utilize their strengths, and help them feel a sense of belonging.

One benefit of widespread remote work (and the likely hybrid future) is that it can make it easier for a broader range of people, work styles, and social skills to participate in the workforce.

However, just removing some of the obstacles of the physical workplace doesn’t mean neurodiverse employees will automatically feel that they belong. Managers still need to tap into all their inclusive leadership skills to include the neurodiverse. 

With neurodiversity as the largest form of diversity across the workforce, there’s no one-size-fits-all key to inclusion. After all, human variation is the rule, not the exception. In the end, it’s about seeing each employee as a unique individual and supporting their ability to contribute, be appreciated, and belong.

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