Think different

How companies can better understand neurodivergent employees

A talent strategy that omits neurodiversity misses the mark
How companies can better understand neurodivergent employees
Photo: CyntiaArt (Shutterstock)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

One area leaders are shifting their collective attention to in 2023 is neurodiversity. Approximately two-in-ten people worldwide are neurodivergent versus neurotypical—a term for people with variations in mental functions like dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. Unfortunately, a lot of neurodiversity gets missed because it is not always obvious, creating more hidden workers that companies already struggle to nurture.

With neurodivergence being so prevalent in society, failing to accommodate people with this status is a missed opportunity on the journey toward creating more equitable, inclusive, and diverse workplaces. As we look to the future of work, leaders must prioritize engaging with neurodivergent people. Leaders can follow five fundamental principles to embrace neurodiversity inclusion well.

Think difference, not deficit

Neurodiversity is not always visible. Consider the coworker who prefaces quiet, independent work free of distractions versus one who thrives in chaos, noisy environments, and ambiguity. In a world that rewards extraversion and hustle culture, the first coworker may be seen as different—the source may be their work preferences, signs of neurodivergence, or even a diagnosed disability.

As is common with a physical disability, there is a distinction in the medical and social conversations around neurodivergence. The medical model emphasizes the individual and their challenges, which can often be stigmatizing. However, the social discussion puts the onus for change back onto the systems in society, workplaces, and, ultimately, leaders. The neurodiversity movement acknowledges that there is no ‘normal’ and that we are all different. Leaders must think differently about their perceptions of success and how they can best harness the strengths of their workforce. Everyone’s mental capability is unique, and the current defaults in systems and processes can and must be improved to enhance accessibility for all.

Adjust the system—not to the system

Creating practices and workplaces inclusive of neurodiversity is about more than just expecting neurodivergent individuals to fit into traditional cultures and ways of working that have typically been designed by people of neurotypical backgrounds. Instead, leaders must emphasize systemic change.

Adjusting the system requires a few key elements, chief among them a willingness to take a critical look at social norms and how they disadvantage people who think or process differently than neurotypical persons. For example, if a neurodivergent person needs a quieter space to work in and is less present in an office-type setting, does this impact their ability to be ‘seen’ and get ahead? Change can’t be accomplished without collaborating with those who are neurodivergent, and any organizational change will be more sustainable and effective if it’s informed by neurodivergent viewpoints from the outset. Inclusion is about designing for difference, not forcing assimilation.

Go beyond the business case

If you use closed captioning, text messaging, or noise-canceling headphones, or have pushed a stroller or ridden a bike over the ramps at the end of sidewalks/curbs (see the curb cut effect), you’ve benefited from design that prioritized users who had these needs but are not the convenient ‘majority’ for whom many products are designed. Designing for difference enables innovation and productivity while setting up an enterprise to be future-fit and successful. While these are crucial benefits, organizations that purely focus on business outcomes of neurodiversity inclusion to drive action limit themselves, as these changes shouldn’t just be in place to improve the bottom line. Creating equitable and inclusive workplaces should be a part of an organization’s responsibility to its people and society.

To go beyond the business case, organizational leaders need to truly understand the needs of their people. Moving from the business case to the people case for neurodiversity means building personal connections with team members so that they can best enable them for success. This may also unlock opportunities for leaders who are neurodivergent to share their personal experiences of neurodiversity, allowing leaders to unlock more meaningful, deeply-rooted, and beneficial relationships.

Ask, don’t assume

Neurodivergence manifests itself differently for everyone affected, both inside and outside of work. Because of this, leaders must take a human-centric approach, underscoring the need to be sensitive and curious about what helps people thrive while maintaining awareness of the obstacles that may stand in their way. Simply and clearly describing the hiring process for job candidates, for instance, and asking them what the organization can do to ensure they show up at their best can demonstrate this human-centric approach. In one case, a candidate asked if she could sit facing the wall during the interview because that helps her focus and lowers stress—by doing this, the organization provided her a way to put her best self forward. However, while building this human-centric approach, leaders must consider the risk that well-intentioned programs to welcome neurodivergent people can create stereotypes and pigeonhole people into limiting experiences and roles. Therefore, leaders must question actions that rely on such generalizations or stereotypes and factor in flexibility by asking, not just assuming, what neurodivergent people genuinely need.

Unlock individual experience through intersectionality

Every person has several components of their identity, and that is why we must look at the intersection between neurodiversity and demographics like race, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Contemporary research suggests that previous stereotypes about some types of neurodivergence—like ADHD and autism being more prevalent in men—are not always accurate, as these conditions may be underdiagnosed in groups, like women, with whom they are not commonly associated. This research highlights the importance of not assuming how neurodivergence manifests itself. It also reinforces the need to focus on how different structural barriers intersect to enable or disable a specific individual’s development.

Redesign and connect

While neurodiversity may be invisible, it is undoubtedly present throughout all organizations. When it comes to a leader’s role, there is a delicate balance between being human-centric and avoiding stereotypes while recognizing the real systemic barriers that neurodivergent people face. For leaders, this presents an opportunity to redesign work processes to be accessible and create psychologically safe spaces where everyone can thrive. Doing so benefits those who identify as neurodivergent but also makes room in organizations for different ways of thinking and interacting, which is vital for innovation and change.

Imagine what would be different if you could ask, not assume, and find ways to unlock the strengths of neurodiversity, seek out and proactively include hidden workers, taking an intersectional and inclusive lens that can cause systemic and sustained change.

Melanie (Mel) Green is a leadership analytics consultant at YSC Consulting, an Accenture-owned leadership consulting firm. Before joining YSC this past year, Mel worked in people operations and research roles for consultancies, tech start ups, and professional membership bodies. She has recently published research on neurodiversity and embedding DEI initiatives within organizations.

Aarti Shyamsunder is the global head of DEI) at YSC Consulting, an Accenture-owned leadership consulting firm, and is responsible for creating distinctive, research-based and impactful client solutions and thought leadership in the DEI space. Prior to YSC, Aarti ran her own research and consulting practice, where her work focused on applying evidence-based solutions to organizational talent management issues such as leadership assessment and development and DEI.