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How Can HR Support Neurodiversity at Work?

Over the last few decades, forward-thinking employers have made a conscious effort to bring neurodiversity to the forefront, encouraging organisations to be as inclusive of neurodivergent individuals as they are of those who are neurotypical.

Although historically there’s been a lack of awareness of the importance of neurodiversity in the workplace, the topic has more recently become one of increasingly high importance for HR and C-suite professionals alike, begging the question: how can HR effectively support neurodiversity at work?

Below we dive in for the all-important answers. 

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What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is a term coined by sociologist Judy Singer, used to describe the variations of the human brain related to behaviour and neurocognitive functioning. Namely, how the brain differs from person to person, including sociability, learning, attention, and mood.

Neurodiversity is also used to describe a subcategory of workplace diversity and inclusion that focuses specifically on neurodivergent people. This includes - but is not limited to - people with autism, ADHD, epilepsy, dyslexia, OCD, Tourette syndrome, or an acquired neurodivergence (i.e. through an incidence or brain trauma).

The fundamental idea behind neurodiversity is that these conditions should be seen not as disabilities or as something to be ‘fixed’, ‘managed’, or ‘treated’, but simply as normal neurological differences between people.

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Why does neurodiversity matter at work?

Between 30% and 40% of the population are thought to be neurodiverse, and according to Autism Speaks, there’s been a whopping 600% increase in autism diagnoses in the United States alone within the last two decades.

For businesses, this means that upwards of 1 in 10 job applicants, current staff, and customers are likely neurodivergent in some way.

This information paired with the growing amount of data surrounding neurodivergence has brought an increased awareness to neurodiversity in the workplace, but more specifically for two reasons:

1. The desire to be truly inclusive

For businesses to be genuinely inclusive it means making an effort to help destigmatise, celebrate and leverage neurodiversity while taking steps to accommodate the specific challenges that neurodiverse individuals may face.

By doing this, organisations create a positive working environment where employees are comfortable being themselves - which is key to enabling them to excel and thrive in their roles.

2. The fear of missing out
When organisations refuse to adapt processes with neurodivergent individuals in mind, they actually risk missing out on top talent, ultimately compromising business productivity, brand, and even consumer loyalty.

As neurodiverse people think differently to neurotypical people, they often bring fresh perspectives, experiences, and skills to the business that contribute to long-term value - and that’s something businesses can’t afford to pass up.

To this end, with inclusion and diversity being an essential focus for businesses around the globe, it’s great to see companies and HR professionals finally paying attention to this important topic that’s long been overlooked.

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How HR Can Support Neurodiversity at Work

There’s never going to be a one size fits all approach for HR in supporting neurodiversity and its many complexities. This is why HR professionals need to keep it top of mind when assisting with business decisions, making the necessary adjustments to create ‘thought diverse’ teams.

We know this is easier said than done, however, so to give you a hand and some added insight, we’ve compiled some tips on how HR can support neurodiversity at work.

Item #1. Update Recruitment and Selection Processes

For HR, successful talent management starts and ends with - you guessed it - inclusivity.

It’s not surprising to learn that the hiring and selection processes used by most businesses have been designed with neurotypicals in mind. This is an issue because these types of processes can lead to businesses inadvertently excluding neurodiverse talent. This negative side effect is a result of several factors, including:

Poor job descriptions
When a job description is too rigid, you’re likely to miss out on neurodivergent applicants who excel in particular areas but perhaps underperform in other areas mentioned in the job listing.

For example, the job description might give the impression that your company is looking for a generalist, someone who needs to tick all the boxes with outstanding communication skills, when in fact you care much more about excellent in a specific specialist skill. While this broader description may not put off neurotypical candidates, it runs the risk of driving great neurodiverse applicants away.

To avoid this, make sure the job description is clear and concise, avoiding any unnecessary jargon, and break up skills requirements into ‘essential’ and ‘desired’ categories. A note mentioning your company’s support of neurodiversity will also help encourage a more diverse group of applicants.

Unempathetic interviewers
When managers meet candidates who are neurodivergent, they often don’t realise, and might mistake a person’s lack of eye contact or fidgeting as nervous or rude behaviour rather than understanding it’s due to autism or ADHD.

Because neurodiverse conditions tend to be invisible, it’s not uncommon for uniformed interviewers to make these negative assumptions. There are, however, ways to conduct interviews with neurodiverse individuals that will help you better understand them and focus on their strengths. These strategies include:

  • Focusing on the candidate’s skills
  • Avoiding or limiting hypothetical or abstract questions (i.e. be direct)
  • Giving the candidate time to absorb and answer the question (as some people need more time for consideration than others)
  • Avoiding noisy, distracting, or unusual environments

The best thing about these tactics is that they’re entirely effective with neurotypical individuals as well, making them not only strategic but inclusive too.

Outdated filtering tools and practices
When it comes to recruitment, HR would be lost without the right filtering tools to match the right candidates to the right job descriptions. The issue with many filtering applications these days, however, is that there’s a level of unconscious bias depending on how inflexible the job criteria might be. Those with dyslexia, for instance, could be filtered out altogether based on a simple spelling mistake.

There is a high percentage of neurodiverse individuals ready and eager to work, but these outdated systems often get in their way. That’s why adopting neurodiversity-smart recruitment and retention approaches like those used at Auticon, for example, is key.

Auticon is an IT consulting firm that exclusively employs adults on the autism spectrum, and the business has worked wonders for creating and promoting an autism-friendly working environment.

By taking the time to get to know their neurodiverse employees, Auticon ensures that each IT consultant is matched to a specific client project and the subsequent support mechanisms based on their particular skillset. This creates a work environment that not only allows their employees to feel comfortable being themselves but one that empowers them to work to their full - and previously untapped - potential.

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Item #2. Reassess Training and Onboarding

Once you’ve had a chance to update your recruitment and selection process, it’s also time for your HR team to make the necessary adjustments to include neurodivergent employees.

Onboarding and training can be stressful for anyone even at the best of times, but for those who aren’t considered neurotypical, the emphasis on social interaction and ‘ice breakers’ can be overwhelming on top of all the new information they’re meant to take in.

To help support neurodivergent employees and to make their onboarding and training experience easier, HR should:

  • Ensure that the training material is comprehensive and provided in advance (as well as made available in a variety of formats)
  • Check that onboarding effectively highlights workplace diversity, inclusion, and culture
  • Create a training curriculum that includes neurodiversity awareness training
  • Make sure that employees are granted regular breaks to regroup and recharge 
  • Provide new hires with workspace preference questionnaires
  • Conduct regular employee touchpoints (via one-to-ones and surveys) to assess the level of comfort and satisfaction at work and to make any reasonable adjustments
Workers In Office

Item #3. Dedication to Smarter Management

While it’s all fine and good for HR to make changes to talent recruitment processes and training, a strategic and strengths-based approach to people management is the only way for HR to sustain these positive changes and support neurological diversity at work.

In light of this, businesses should be focusing on learning new skills, yes, but the main focus should be on the core skills and competencies currently exhibited by their neurodiverse workforce.

This approach, however, needs dedication from managers and senior leaders in careful alignment with HR, as well as a focus on:

Flexibility: having an adaptive, empathetic attitude towards the different ways in which people think and act.

Positive feedback: ensuring a regular, structured schedule of feedback that focuses on how to best manage each employee with adequate praise, positivity, and encouragement. 

Change sensitivity: being aware of upcoming workplace changes and making employees aware of them ahead of time (as many neurodiverse individuals struggle with sudden changes in environment, schedule or processes).

Employee support: constantly monitoring employee engagement and their level of comfort at work and taking the time to make reasonable adjustments for an enhanced employee experience (i.e. adjusting noise levels, lighting, or office equipment).

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It’s important to remember that neurodivergent people are no different from neurotypical people in that there is no ‘standard brain’.

Embracing the fact that we simply think differently from one another and have varying needs will help relieve the stereotypes associated with neurodiverse individuals, and help champion neurodiversity at work.

For more, take a look at CIPD’s guide to neurodiversity at work or visit the Neurodiversity Hub for additional tips and resources.

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