Why Workplaces Should Lean into Neurodiversity

A neurodiverse child with dyslexia arranges letters with help from a teacher

The workplace and business world were once perceived as domains of conformity and universality. From the interview process to accepted norms of office behavior once hired, what was “normal,” “accepted,” and “expected” had been finely honed and in place since corporate culture was established. Thankfully, that has evolved over the last 25-30 years and is now changing at a rapid pace—especially recently.

Over the last decade, several large companies—Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, and EY, to name a few—have realized the untapped potential of the neurodivergent population. These companies have made deliberate, strategic changes to their hiring practices and corporate structure to support neurodiversity in the workforce. And their strategy has paid off—the benefits of hiring and supporting neurodivergent employees include increased innovation, creativity, productivity, and overall employee engagement.

Full disclosure: I am dyslexic. My mother, a teacher, luckily caught it when I was young, and I was sent for remedial support immediately. At that time, I had no idea that there was a stigma attached to my learning process or my learning experiences. In fact, I adored going to meet with my tutor, Ms. Young, early in the morning, before school started. She was so pretty—wore long black eyelashes, big but thin gold hoop earrings, had long thick black hair all the way down her back, and wore the coolest colorful dresses, straight out of the ’80s. She had a soothing but enthusiastic voice. I felt so accomplished and strong coming out of these sessions and I loved wandering upstairs to my kindergarten room while it was still quiet before the rest of the students arrived. 

What is neurodiversity?
 

To understand this evolution better, we need to first understand the terminology: neurodivergent and neurodiverse refer to “having, relating to, or constituting a type of brain functioning that is not neurotypical.” Neurotypical is defined as “not displaying or characterized by autistic or other neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behavior.” Neurodiversity as a term encapsulates both neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals. It is often used as an umbrella term that encompasses neurocognitive differences such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, autism, dyspraxia, and Tourette Syndrome. 

Dyslexia is currently considered the most common form of neurodivergence, affecting approximately 20% of the population. The term was first coined in 1877, yet teaching and tutoring practices, to help make up for the challenges that dyslexics experienced in the traditional classroom, would not become commonplace for more than a century. It was 1994, when my friend Nancy Lelewer wrote her book “Something’s Not Right: One Family’s Struggle with Learning Disabilities,” out of frustration with the lack of public acknowledgement and information regarding dyslexia. She was on the cutting edge of new learning sensibilities back then. The next two decades did see further progress in educational support, but it would be 2015 before advancements were truly actualized in the workplace. 

Perhaps it was the publication of the The Dyslexic Advantage in 2012, that helped shift the perception of neurodivergence in general. In this book, dyslexia is explained, for the first time, not as a learning disability, but as a “learning or processing style.” The authors assert that it is the focus on disability that has hindered “the understanding that dyslexic processing…actually creates talents and abilities.” Neurodivergent talents and abilities include: 

  • Three-dimensional spatial reasoning and mechanical ability
  • The ability to perceive relationships like analogies, metaphors, paradoxes, similarities, differences, implications, gaps, and imbalances
  • The ability to remember important personal experiences and to understand abstract information in terms of specific examples
  • The ability to perceive and take advantage of subtle patterns in complex and constantly shifting systems or data sets

As I grew older, I tried to forget about my dyslexic challenge after someone once asked me if I was, “less-dys-xic.” During a book report, standing in front of class, I turned a few words around in a sentence structure. So ashamed, I made it my mission to convince my mother that she had been wrong, that the dyslexia diagnosis was ridiculous (parenting requires such patience!). I took every test timed (like the SATs), I became a writer, I tried out for theater whenever I could and would land parts. I refused to acknowledge those days past in Ms. Young’s office when I was learning the way I was meant to learn. I decided in college to become a professional writer and storyteller—I became a filmmaker. My professor saw through my stubbornness and required that I get tutoring (again). With renewed help and my personal commitment, I succeeded and for many years my workplace was in film studios, writers’ rooms, and open creative spaces. I had challenges but I decided I would take my dyslexic father’s advice. “Never let anyone see this weakness. It is not accepted, and people will see you as weak. You and I are not weak, kiddo.” So, for a long time, I bore through these challenges instead of asking for help. While I persevered, it was an exhausting approach.

The progress of the last decade
 

The understanding that neurodiversity should be part of corporate inclusion initiatives is only as old as the 2010s, and while still far from universal, it is advancing at an astounding rate. Microsoft was one of the first to introduce neurodiverse recruitment and employment policies in 2015. Today there is a “Neurodiversity @ Work Employer Roundtable,” a collective of leaders including SAP, Microsoft, EY, JPMorgan Chase, and Ford Motor Company, who meet to discuss and implement neurodiversity hiring programs. There is also a growing sub-sector of neurodiversity workforce intermediaries—private sector companies that support businesses that do not have neurodiversity initiatives of their own or need further assistance. 

Why are neurodiversity initiatives suddenly exploding across corporate culture? Like so much else at this moment, the pandemic served as a catalyst. Businesses are still reeling from the Great Resignation and looking to fill the void. With 30-40% of the neurodiverse population un- or underemployed, employers are finally utilizing this untapped resource. Another factor is the realization that, when implementing DEI&B initiatives, neurodiversity was left by the wayside; but that true diversity must include neurodiversity. What is ultimately driving these initiatives, however, is the growing understanding of the advantages that neurodivergent minds and skill sets can bring to a business and its bottom line. Examples of the benefits corporations have realized through the hiring of neurodivergent employees include: 

In their internal report on economic insights for 2022, Bank of America provides perhaps the best explanation of the reasons and advantages for this corporate shift toward neurodiversity and neurodivergent inclusion:With 17-33% of the population being neurodivergent, the business landscape has elevated neurodiversity, a long under-recognized component of human diversity, to a business imperative and is making intentional changes in order to attract, retain, and support a neurologically diverse demographic. The need for qualified talent, an emphasis on innovation and creativity as the basis for competitive advantage, and a growing focus on DEI is pushing companies to look at how the systems, processes, physical environments, and cultural fabric of their organizations can better help neurodivergent workers thrive.”

Overall, companies are recognizing the attributes and abilities that neurodivergent employees can bring to the table, such as accuracy, concentration, attention to detail, loyalty, timeliness and satisfaction with routine. The different “wiring” of the neurodiverse brain also contributes unexpectedly creative views that improve products, services, and operations. 

Little did I know that when I chose to become a filmmaker, I was choosing my strengths; that neurodiverse folks actually excel in this kind of spatial thinking and storytelling. I now laugh at how many of us filmmakers (...and architects and strategic visualization specialists and accountants, and computer programmers, and…) admit privately that we are neurodiverse. I love what I do today, and I’ve learned to love the way my brain functions. Like Pat Wadors, Chief People Officer at UKG, has said, “It’s my superpower.”

Challenges and solutions in the workplace
 

Until recently, workers with dyslexia have had to find innovative ways to compensate for the ways in which traditional corporate culture did not support their needs. The neurodiversity initiatives of the last several years have improved their work environments immeasurably. Technologies and services are now readily available upon request, decreasing stress and improving mental health as well as work output. UKG’s ADAPT employee resource group is an amazing example of resources for neurodiverse employees. The challenges that dyslexic individuals have in the workplace are similar to other neurodivergent workers, but there are simple solutions to remedy these:

Challenge: Reading and writing can be difficult, especially under business deadlines.
Solution: Provide access to software that offers speech-to-text and text-to-speech capabilities.   

Challenge: Neurodivergent individuals can be easily distracted. 
Solution: Offer quiet spaces and/or permission to use headphones to block out interruptions.  

Challenge: These employees often feel misunderstood.
Solution: Train managers and coworkers to lead with compassion and empathy to understand an individual’s needs, physically and emotionally.

Challenge: They have a fear of asking for help.
Solution: Employees need psychological safety. Communicate and demonstrate that they are safe to express concerns and difficulties and ask for help.

I decided this past year, actually in this article, to share my neurodiversity at a broader public level. I do this because my father and I are not the only dyslexics in the family. There are a few neurodivergent folks in the next generation as well. I refuse to leave them with the same legacy of shame I had in my youth. I want them to stand tall and proud and excel in any given profession they choose.

The bottom line
 

 The evolution of neurodiversity in the workplace is happening now. As with all inclusivity initiatives, there has been some push back regarding the fairness of accommodations made in support of neurodivergent employees. A simple explanation of why a separate space has been provided, or headphones allowed, has been sufficient in almost every case to ease any tensions. This is because, as explained at the start, neurodiversity encompasses every employee. Creating supportive work environments for neurodivergent employees requires greater understanding of the individual and their needs. This is transforming corporate cultures that are safe spaces for all employees to be able share their individuality and ask for assistance in creating their best work environment.

I am eternally grateful for those that helped me accommodate the ways in which society still asks us to think and synthesize. Now, we simply need to make people like Ms. Young available to all who are neurodiverse to support the future of better workplaces.