- Cynthia Coupe
I was recently hired to moderate a panel this July on the topic "Diversity You Can't See" with the Open Mainframe Project. It was an exciting opportunity, to work in the field of Diversity and Inclusion and bring Neurodiversity into that conversation.
As part of this experience, I was invited to answer some questions for a blog about neurodiversity and the needs of the neurodivergent population in the work world.
A link to the blog post can be found here:
The answers to these questions were highlighted in the above post, but since I am asked these specific questions so often, I wanted to share them as well.
What is the importance of including neurodiversity in diversity and inclusion policies, procedures, and programs?
Neurodiversity describes the natural variation between each of our brains. It is estimated that 30-40% of the population is neurodivergent, meaning brains with autism, ADHD, anxiety, and/or dyslexia. This brain patterning is no longer a minority, but the way a major sector of our population thinks. As a result, we need to include these different thinking brains, or we risk minimizing, marginalizing or missing people who can help us move forward in all areas of learning and exploration. When a company has positive inclusion policies, procedures, and programs in place for neurodivergent minds, there is a higher probability of retaining and recruiting this important (and often sought-after) demographic. When we don't pay attention to these kinds of minds, we risk losing a competitive advantage, as well as having higher rates of employee turnover and dissatisfaction.
What are some of the challenges neurologically diverse people face in their careers?
To varying degrees, all people who are neurodivergent have difficulty with communication and social norms. While this can vary from subtle to obvious, it's one of the qualifiers of a neurodivergent diagnosis (e.g. autism, ADHD). This means that it may be difficult to express oneself under pressure, in a group setting, or during other daily interactions. It also means that social "rules" may not be followed, such as talking out of turn, knowing when to stop talking, being able to ask questions, organizing thoughts, or following through on given tasks. Also, many people who are neurodivergent have "split skills" meaning they are very intelligent in one area (say, math) but struggle significantly in another area (say, spelling). Split skills can have many different presentations and cause confusion for people who aren't familiar with neurodiversity. In the career setting, this may mean that individuals miss promotions, are isolated during social events or feel they have to hide their true selves for fear of rejection or being misunderstood.
How have neurologically diverse people navigated challenges in the workplace? Are there some specific strategies they can use?
Historically, neurodivergent people have navigated these challenges by "masking" or hiding their true selves. While this has had success, it has also caused worse problems in the long run. For people who are neurodivergent, masking can cause great anxiety, depression, and breakdowns due to the pressure of having to hide. Fortunately, the social changes we are now experiencing have allowed many neurodivergent individuals to speak more openly about their differences and their needs in the workplace. Many people who are neurodivergent have navigated these challenges by being open and honest with a trusted coworker, mentor, or supervisor. It can feel very isolating to feel like you are "the only one" or that "nobody will understand" and being able to share with others that your brain behaves differently can be very empowering. Also, being able to know and understand ourselves is very empowering, whether or not we have a diagnosis or identify as neurodivergent. If we know the way our own brain thinks, we can advocate for ourselves with ease. For example, if you know you cannot concentrate with background noise, you can make sure your team knows that if you're headed into a meeting (I'd love to concentrate on what you're saying if we can turn off that noise I'd have a much easier time paying attention!). Much of what needs to be done is having the opportunity for open and honest dialogue and being open to different ways of learning and sharing information. It's a two-way street...we each get to learn the other side. Being able to have an open and honest dialog about our differences is vital for true understanding.
What are some strategies employers can use to build safe spaces for their neurologically diverse workforces?
First...know it is possible, but it's not just a quick and easy fix. Most important, know is that it is crucial to have people who are actually neurodivergent helping along the way. No decisions about us, without us is a good thing to remember...make sure people who are neurodivergent are helping with decisions that are being made as new policies or procedures may be forming. Employers should begin with neurodiversity training, so all employees can understand what it is, and what it can look like. Initial communication and transparency are crucial for long-term success. In general, strategies should be used to shift the culture and norms of a workplace; everything from hiring practices to unsaid expectations need to be looked at. Depending on the needs of the organization, it may be important to partner with companies who help with neurodiversity employment objectives, or help recruit and retain neurodivergent employees. However, no matter what the larger needs are, beginning with a conversation is the most important. It really all comes down to education.
How important is it to a team’s overall wellness to ensure diversity and inclusion, and in particular for the neurologically diverse?
Neurodivergent minds are universally present in all races, classes, and genders. There is really no other diversity sector that falls under all areas of human diversity, so it's important to know that when we are able to be sensitive to neurodivergent minds, we're also including overall diversity. People who are neurodivergent have significantly higher rates of unemployment, depression, and suicide than any other demographic. Why is this? Well...much of it is a direct result of not being included, not being understood, and having to mask in order to fit in. When a team is able to understand, be curious, and accept neurodivergent minds the health of the entire group is improved. Additionally, there are so many undiagnosed neurodivergent people who may not even realize they are neurodivergent. When we create a culture that is universally designed for any kind of mind, we reduce exclusion and increase the ability for everyone to work to their best abilities and focus on their strengths. Universal design in the workplace increases productivity and retention as well as acceptance and inclusion. Happy minds = happy teams.
Anything else you have to add?
Remember that neurodiversity is a DIFFERENCE, not a DISABILITY. We are not disabled because we are neurodivergent, our brains just look at the world in a different way. This can be extremely helpful in the workforce in terms of problem-solving, creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and hyper-focus. This can be challenging when being placed in a traditional neurotypical environment...where there are confusing unsaid rules, expectations we miss, and communication that we don't understand. Over and over again I hear us saying the same thing...we need open, honest communication and curiosity instead of judgment. We do things differently, which is often a huge asset.
If you missed the panel discussion, "Diversity you can't see" please find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVUzK2VCEXg&ab_channel=OpenMainframeProject