Embracing Neurodiversity in the Workplace

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By Marci Shaffer
May 04, 2021
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As a career and job search coach for the past 20 years, specialized in supporting neurodivergent college students and professionals for 12 of those years, I lean-in toward learning from neurodivergent and #actuallyautistic professionals around me. I realized early on that autistics are the best teachers about autism. The most profound learning came from conversations and dialogue with autistics, participating in trainings and panels led by autistics, and reading books and articles, authored by autistics.

Autism Acceptance Month just concluded. There was so much passion, personal stories – inspiring, heartbreaking, and everything in between – were shared, myths deconstructed, positivity and educational moments. It would be difficult to walk away without absorbing critical lessons combined with a refreshed perspective. Additionally, there was much rich discussion on how employers are creating more inclusive interviewing practices, as well as training human resources staff and managers on how to interview, hire, and include neurodivergent and autistic talent. One of the most impactful webinars was presented by Ultranauts, a New York-based software and data quality engineering services company powered by an entirely remote workforce comprised of cognitively diverse teams.

If you want to be a neurodivergent and autistic ally, learn what you can do better regarding person/environment fit, and actually create a diverse and inclusive workplace that fosters each employee to bring their best each day. Make time to watch the recorded video: Belonging in the Workplace: A Conversation With An All-Autistic Panel of Professionals. It’s about an hour and twenty minutes, and worth every minute.

We are light years beyond the first national Autism Awareness Month, which was held in 1970. Currently, April is referred to as Autism Acceptance Month. In growing segments, and with greater frequency, it is evolving into Neurodiversity Acceptance Month.

Neurodiversity is a concept where neurological differences are recognized and respected as any other human variation. Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyscalculia, Autism Spectrum, and Tourette Syndrome are part of this umbrella term. However, some go beyond this and include, anxiety, depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia. A great resource to learn more is Autism at Work.

The term neurodiversity was coined by Judy Singer, an Australian social scientist, herself autistic, and first appeared in print in the Atlantic in 1998. Only more recently has it taken hold in our social construct.

One of the hopeful and encouraging aspects of shifting towards the neurodiversity concept, is that with this broader definition, there is more inclusivity and diversity in the workplace. We go beyond building bridges to a single marginalized group (autistics) and create new pathways for so many more: people who are otherwise qualified for a job are now being considered and their neurodiversity appreciated and valued. Key to the neurodiversity paradigm is the moving away from pathologizing these differences and moving toward respecting, embracing, and valuing differences.

Diversity and Inclusion.

What does it mean to you personally and is your company taking steps and action towards moving the needle in the right direction?

Call to Action: how you can support Autistic and Neurodivergent employees and colleagues.

Help dispel autism myths including:

Autistic individuals…

  • Can outgrow autism.
  • Lack empathy and don’t have emotions.
  • Don’t (and can’t) have careers in management or leadership.
  • Are all highly skilled with an innate technical ability.
  • Can only be diagnosed as a child.
  • Don’t want social relationships or want to get to know their co-workers.

Understand it’s a continually shifting landscape:

  • Many within the neurodivergent community are moving away from the symbolism of a Puzzle Piece and embracing the Infinity Circle.
  • Descriptions have moved from a person afflicted/with autism to first person identification, “I am autistic” rather than “I have autism.”
  • The descriptors high and low need replace high/low functioning, which are considered harmful.

Know the terms. Language matters. Words matter.

  • Neurodivergent: is a person with a neurological difference, either innate or acquired.
  • Neurotypical: a term created by autistics to refer to non-autistics. It isn’t a negative term; it is used to describe one who falls within the norm of cognitive functioning.

At Keystone Partners, we work with all kinds of people with all kinds of skills, interests, values, and minds! The most powerful, yet elementary, advice I can provide for anyone working with someone who discloses that they are neurodivergent or autistic:

  • SAY Thank you for letting me know.
  • ASK How, if at all, does this impact you when you’re working?
  • ASK How, if at all, can I support you in the workplace?
  • LISTEN Most importantly, listen to what they have to say. It is not your time to talk about yourself or your own challenges!

Person/environment fit is important to support and propel career success and satisfaction; person/environment fit is imperative for neurodivergents. Most workplace hiring practices and processes, including onboarding, are not designed for all. Simply put, it’s not inclusive. Future posts on neurodiversity in the workplace will highlight ways employers and organizations are creating more inclusive environments, and outline low to no cost accommodations to incorporate into interviewing processes improve the person/environment fit for all.

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