Neurodiversity in the Workplace

“I not only use all the brains that I have, but all I can borrow,” said former US president Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, who didn’t learn to read until he was ten years old, struggled with dyslexia; he also won the Nobel prize for his peace-making efforts in laying the groundwork for the League of Nations, and he pushed for an amendment that enabled women in the US to vote. Wilson’s achievements demonstrate his understanding of the significant value of multiple perspectives in decision-making.

This commitment to using “multiple brains,” as well as leveraging one’s own unique abilities, anticipates by decades one of the new terms arising in conversations around decision-making and innovation—that of neurodiversity.

As a practice, neurodiversity promotes accommodating and including people whose brains have different ways of learning and processing information.

It includes individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and other conditions.

While the benefits of workplace diversity of other kinds—race, gender, sexuality, age, physical abilities—have received extensive attention from scholars and practitioners, an understanding of the benefits of neurodiversity has only more recently begun gaining ground.

Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage

Like other forms of diversity, neurodiversity provides a crucial opportunity for an organization to hear new perspectives and locate innovative ways to solve problems. For example, many people with ADHD score higher on creativity tests than their neurotypical counterparts, and they can be very imaginative and more open to taking risks. Those with ADHD may leverage their abilities to solve problems using unusual methods and arrive at breakthrough ideas, giving their organizations a significant competitive edge.

The research is so clear on the advantages of neurodiversity at work that major corporations—including Microsoft, Ford, JP Morgan Chase, Dell, and Hewlett Packard—have started hiring for neurodiversity.

For example, Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program aims to make neurodiverse candidates who may struggle with interpersonal cues more comfortable, by placing more emphasis on technical skills and work-related tasks than on traditional formal interviews. Says Neil Barnett, Microsoft’s Director of Inclusive Hiring & Accessibility, “We have evolved our approach to reach out to this untapped pool of people on the autism spectrum.”

Similar untapped pools of talent exist in Canada. According to Western University researcher Rob Austin, there are potentially tens of thousands of neurodiverse Canadians that possess the crucial aptitudes that companies need, but these candidates are unable to get jobs because of the way their conditions may appear to hiring managers who are not educated in neurodiversity.

Using All the Brains You Can Borrow

Employers and HR teams interested in increasing and supporting neurodiversity at their organizations can learn from what other innovative teams have done. Many of the strategies that work for neurodiverse people, in fact, are also good practices for businesses generally.

Change Up Your Hiring Process

To help reduce bias in hiring practices that would unfairly put neurodiverse candidates at a disadvantage, employers can use digital assessment systems, such as Plum.io, which utilize advanced psychometrics and artificial intelligence to shortlist candidates.

Employers can also consider exchanging the conventional candidate interview with an alternative mode of assessment, where candidates work in teams to solve a problem or work independently to complete a job-related task.

Companies may want to consider engaging a consultant in neurodiversity to help them design a more effective and inclusive hiring process.

Adapt Onboarding and Work Environments

Neurodiverse people may need additional support during their onboarding period. Employers can make sure these employees have a coach or mentor who can help guide them through expectations at the new organization and serve as a point person for any adaptations they require.

Such adaptations for neurodiversity are often minor, according to researchers at Worcester Polytechnic. For example, someone on the autism spectrum may need to work with headphones to help eliminate auditory over-stimulation; an employee with working memory challenges may require a copy of meeting minutes to help with information retention; and an employee with dyslexia who uses speech-to-text software may need a room to use it in, if an office is open plan.

Train Your Brains

Educate your team about neurodiversity, using a consultant who specializes in this area and can do so accurately and sensitively. Part of this training can focus on neurodiversity as a strength that is essential for organizational growth.

Training should recognize the individuality of each employee as well. For example, many organizations have had success hiring people with autism in IT-related roles, due to these employees’ ability to stay focused for long periods of time. However, candidates with autism may also thrive in non-technical roles, including customer-facing ones. The point is to not lose sight of individuals’ other strengths and abilities in helping teams understand components of cognitive diversity.

Canadian Government Funding for Neurodiversity

The federal government in Canada has demonstrated a strong interest in neurodiversity in the workplace through its funded projects and programs.

For example, researchers at Western University were recently awarded a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to study the best practices of ahead-of-the-curve companies when it comes to neurodiversity employment.

SSHRC Insight funding will provide almost $200K in support for Western’s project, titled “Don’t Leave Talent on the Table: Discerning Best Practice in Neurodiversity Employment.”

Another project on neurodiversity received a SSHRC Insight Development grant. Researchers at the University of Waterloo have been awarded $66.6K for a study titled, “Neurodiversity Matters: An Ethnographic Investigation of Discourse, Practice, and Identity.”

In addition to these SSHRC-funded projects, federal and provincial governments provide hiring grants that help offset costs for taking on new employees, with higher funding ceilings available for organizations engaging employees from under-represented groups. Organizations undertaking educational initiatives in soft skills to support neurodiversity may also be eligible for government training grants.

If your organization is interested in offering employee training for professional development, make sure to register for one of Mentor Works’ upcoming Hiring and Training Webinars to learn which programs to take advantage of.

Canadian Government Funding Events for Small Business

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Sunnie holds a PhD in English from Dalhousie University, and has published her writing in several academic journals, as well as in magazines, newspapers, and blogs. She combines years of experience as a professor in English with practical experience in the private sector as a trainer in writing and analytical thinking.

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