December 6, 2023

9 Tips to Create a Sense of Belonging for Neurodiverse Employees

John is passionate about social justice and contributing to a more just world. Alyssa can identify unique patterns in data. Erick is a master of lateral thinking and can offer a different perspective on a complex problem. All three work in different companies, but they all have two things in common: they are neurodiverse employees who lack a sense of belonging and struggle to fit in. Their workplaces do not give them the opportunity to apply their abilities in their work, it creates a feeling of alienation and otherness. But many people feel like Alyssa, Erick and John. They struggle to perform at their best in school, college and work because many of these environments have not been developed to recognize and utilize their skills.

You may be working with a neurodiverse employee without knowing it

Employers are often unaware that they are hiring neurodiverse people or have no initiatives and programs to build on their strengths and remove the barriers they face. Still, approximately 15-20% of the global population is neurodiverse, and the likelihood that you will work with neurodiverse employees at some point is high.

Neurodiversity is a term for differences in how the brain works and how it thinks. These differences affect how people get along with others, how they learn, and how they feel. These individuals can acquire new skills and knowledge just as well as neurotypical people, but they learn differently and face different challenges.

What barriers do Neurodiverse employees face?

Although everyone has a unique learning style and approach, workplaces and classrooms typically do not address the challenges neurodiverse individuals experience. They rarely share their struggles with bosses, managers, and co-workers for fear of being judged or misunderstood. However, these individuals often encounter barriers even before starting a job. According to a 2020 survey, 50% of respondents admitted they would not hire neurodiverse talent [1]. For example, 32% said they would be uncomfortable employing autistic people and 29% would not recruit those with dyscalculia. [1]. Yet the bias is strongest against people with ADHD/ADD and Tourette syndrome, with more than 6 in 20 managers and leaders admitting they would not hire them.

Employers often have stereotypes and prejudices about neurodiverse people that prevent them from tapping into more talent and promoting true inclusion. However, even many companies and organizations open to hiring neurodiverse employees have no mechanisms in place to facilitate and accommodate individuals with cognitive differences. It’s no wonder that 75% of neurodiverse employees hide their condition at work, and 25% of those who did disclose regretted it. They often face discrimination that forces them to remain silent and work in inappropriate environments.

Neurodiverse employees often work in one-size-fits-all workplaces and don’t feel employers understand their learning and behavior patterns. Many have to perform tasks in a format that does not match their skills and abilities, or interact with the team in a way that is uncomfortable and unnatural. A recent pilot study looked at the experiences of 60 neurodiverse social workers and found that 34 participants received no professional support in the workplace. Additionally, respondents explained that they struggle with self-imposed stigma and lingering doubts about their job performance. They said they were afraid to talk about their condition because others might think they were unable to complete their tasks.

WTW’s Global Benefits Attitude survey found that 50% of neurodiverse workers reported feeling burned out at work, compared to just 38% of neurotypical employees. Respondents also said they wish they had more personalized benefits to help them manage their emotional health, noting that increased flexibility would greatly help. Finally, the same survey also found a significant association between neurodiversity and mental health problems. Neurodiverse workers often experience a lack of empathy, understanding and support, leading to them feeling isolated and alone in their struggles. How can employers and education developers change this and help their neurodiverse employees feel comfortable learning and growing? The best way is to ensure a sense of belonging.

9 Tips to Create a Sense of Belonging for Neurodiverse Employees

1. Foster a truly diverse, inclusive and just culture

A thoroughly inclusive, fair and diverse company culture is a prerequisite for a learning and development (L&D) program that embraces and nurtures the same values. These characteristics should permeate all operations, procedures, departments and policies. It starts with a recruitment process that allows you to recruit people from a variety of sources and cast a much wider net. Thanks to this, you can reach and acquire candidates with different skills, abilities and skills.

You can actively recruit neurodiverse talent by partnering with relevant associations and organizations, expanding your recruiting efforts on campus, and serving this demographic. Assessing your selection process and purifying it of algorithmic and recruitment bias is vital. Otherwise, you risk weeding out neurodiverse job applicants because they might use atypical speech and expressions. Consider that the interview process may also require a few adjustments.

Recruiters often ask abstract questions that don’t determine whether a candidate can do the job. So not everyone, not even neurotypical individuals, connect the dots uniformly. You can encourage people to let you know what their ideal interview would look like and meet them halfway. This way you also allow everyone to be authentic and not fussy.

Company policies supporting neurodivergence and broadening diversity lenses are essential to cultivating a truly diverse culture. Codify and define unspoken rules that might otherwise escape your neurodiverse workforce. Consider setting goals for recruiting neurodiverse candidates and consult with legal counsel to create a lasting commitment with clear goals and expectations. Finally, prioritize the involvement of neurodiverse teams and staff in the creation of any program to ensure that no one is left behind.

2. Respect and acknowledge individual differences

Both neurotypical and neurodiverse employees may have different learning styles and preferences. One worker may need detailed instructions and guidance, while another may prefer to complete each task independently and with the freedom to make decisions. Discover what approach unlocks each individual’s potential and productivity, allowing you to tailor lessons and programs to their needs. Additionally, some employees may find it difficult to communicate and interact with co-workers in a hybrid environment.

3. Understand neuroconductor terminology

The words you use can make a big difference. For example, presenting a task as something an employee can complete in a few minutes can cause someone serious stress and anxiety if they realize they might need more time. Consider not being strict with timelines, especially with neurodiverse employees, and instead check in on their progress. Offer to help if they are struggling.

Avoid describing projects and tasks as easy because not everyone has the same abilities and focus. While this usually comes from good intentions (wanting to relieve pressure), it can backfire. Also, refrain from viewing neurodiversity as a spectrum (eg, one employee is very autistic while another is not so much). Approach it more like a circle, because one person can have great language skills that make them highly functional, but they can also struggle with other characteristics that make their day-to-day life difficult.

4. Offer a variety of learning methods, formats and practices

Two employees with autism may prefer different learning methods. Base this decision on your individual employees and determine what works best for each of them. Don’t put everyone in the same box and expect them to learn at the same pace and in the same environment. Prioritize diversity in every sense, including teaching content and delivery. Offer eLearning, but don’t neglect team workshops and face-to-face classes. Play around with different formats and experiment until you find what’s most useful and effective for your workforce.

5. Take advantage of coaching and mentoring

Coaching and mentoring can be a great support for all your employees and their careers, especially neurodiverse individuals. These professionals can provide helpful advice to neurodiverse workers as well as advocate for their needs and rights. It can also be friends who introduce these employees to the team and workplace. This would provide neurodiverse workers with trusted support that can help them navigate the work environment, meet others and make new connections.

6. Collaborate with neurodiversity experts and L&D developers

Working with relevant professionals can help you understand the depth and complexity of neurodiversity and provide better support. For example, Instructional Designers and L&D developers specializing in neurodivergence can help you create a more inclusive and authentic training and learning program.

7. Provide tailored career paths

Help neurodiverse employees feel a sense of belonging by helping them find answers to critical questions about their careers and professional goals. Offer relevant tools and mechanisms to help them unlock their potential and create personalized experiences that help them contribute to the team and the workplace.

8. Avoid pre-defining what growth and success look like

Not everyone has the same idea of ​​career success, development and the ideal path. While you should help anyone aspiring to become a leader reach that position, some employees are content to stay in their roles. Leadership in the sense of a traditional hierarchy is not the ultimate goal of every employee, and employers should respect that. Additionally, some workers like to work independently, while others thrive in a team. Don’t impose a specific idea of ​​success because it won’t resonate with everyone. Instead, encourage both neurodiverse and neurotypical employees to determine their own career paths (but offer them support) and let them create their unique success.

9. Cultivate a tight-knit community in your workplace

Neurodiverse employees can only feel a sense of belonging in the workplace when the team is cohesive and they can freely express themselves and talk about their condition, struggles and goals without fear of being judged. For this reason, it is vital to prioritize open but empathetic communication and mutual understanding. Focus on building a tight-knit community where everyone can be who they are and receive support and kindness instead of snide remarks and belittling. Lead by example and demonstrate the same harmony within the exec team and towards your employees.



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