Did you know that more than 20% of your workforce might be neurodivergent? Estimates for how many people may be dyslexic, which is one of many neurodivergent conditions and likely the largest, range from 5% to 20%. In fact, most people are just beginning to learn about neurodiversity.
Neurodiversity is the idea that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits. The core belief behind the idea is to first value the strengths of thinking differently rather than the challenges that come with such conditions. Essentially it is an effort to destigmatize neurodivergent differences and to stop thinking of the idea that “cures” are necessary.
The term neurodiversity is often associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), likely because it was first coined by Autism activist and sociologist Judy Singer. However, the concept of neurodiversity has grown over time to include other neurodevelopmental conditions most notably attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia, but also lesser-known conditions like developmental coordination disorder (DCD or dyspraxia in the U.K.), dyscalculia, dysgraphia and Tourette Syndrome.
Dyslexia, ADHD and ASD are among the most prevalent conditions.
However, these estimates may in fact be significantly lower than actual prevalence. Prevalence of diagnosed conditions has been rising in recent years for a number of potential reasons, including increased awareness and expanded diagnostic criteria.
Nonetheless, neurocognitive conditions often go unnoticed and are under-diagnosed among female, Black and African American, and Hispanic populations. It is common for adults to only learn of the conditions when their children are diagnosed. Furthermore, the NIMH estimates for ASD and ADHD are limited to childhood diagnoses and therefore don’t capture the later in life diagnoses that are growing more common.
Most of these neurodiverse conditions are considered invisible disabilities. As a result, you may already have an untapped population of neurodivergent talent within your organization. But because of stigmas associated with these conditions, people are often afraid to disclose their diagnoses or ask for support. This leads to what is called “masking,” where a person changes behaviors to appear more socially acceptable, which takes a great deal of energy and can lead to burnout.
What neurodivergent thinking brings to the table is important: a different way to approach problems that may elude others. Many employers may be underestimating how hiring neurodivergent talent will improve sustainability and innovation. One of the greatest impetuses for innovation is thinking differently. But to tap into this resource may require new ways of working and engaging with talent.
Famous people with neurodiverse conditions have contributed immensely to society and the economy.
And that list doesn’t include Silicon Valley founders, many of whom likely are on the spectrum as Steve Silberman explains in his book NeuroTribes.
Branson has made it a priority for his companies to actively hire neurodivergent people. When asked about ADHD in the workplace, he famously quipped “We wouldn’t want everyone in the company to have ADHD, but my goodness it works well in sales teams.”
And like the old Apple advertising campaign, what they all have in common is “thinking different.” While all individuals have different abilities, research into these conditions has revealed some common traits for neurodivergent workers:
But to help your neurodivergent talent succeed, you need to help create the right type of environment for them to thrive.
Addressing the needs of neurodivergent employees Neurodivergent employees have different needs, and people with ASD and ADHD often need the most support to reach their full potential.
For example, people with ASD suffer from severe unemployment and often need support in the hiring and onboarding process. Other neurodivergent groups may already be present and unaccounted for within your organization, afraid to bring their authentic selves to work and, as a result, may not be reaching their highest potential.
At WTW, we often tell clients, “It’s about meeting employees where they are and where they want to go.” Beyond hiring diverse talent, organizations have an opportunity to focus on the overall employee experience for neurodivergent employees and the importance of programs, practices and supporting culture. And while these neurodivergent conditions may be different, some of the solutions for one group might also benefit others.
For example, individuals with ASD or ADHD may be more sensitive to noise or lighting or find either distracting. Therefore, solutions like designated quiet spaces, noise cancelling headphones or natural lighting may benefit both groups.
Likewise, flexible working arrangements are another fantastic tool in helping neurodivergent individuals. Working from home may reduce some of the distractions or sensory issues common in office environments. Additionally, some people with these conditions may be more productive at hours other than 9 to 5. A company culture that allows flexibility more than “face time” is essential in helping neurodivergent employees succeed.
Mentors can help neurodivergent. Keep in mind, though, neurodivergent individuals may require different career guidance, so the mentors themselves should be diverse in skills. For example, people with ADHD can benefit from an “accountability buddy” who offers connection, validation, inspiration and advice, while those with ADHD are even more likely to flourish when they receive positive feedback.
Unlike other neurodivergent conditions, ADHD is treatable through medications. However, not all formulations (especially time released drugs) receive preferred status in pharmaceutical plans. This may result in employees taking cheaper, but less effective medication that may wear off before the end of the workday, resulting in lower productivity. In addition, recent regulatory changes have dramatically reduced the availability of some ADHD medications.
Consider reviewing your prescription plan to extend coverage to a wider selection of ADHD treatments. Other coverage areas you can review are habilitative therapies (e.g., occupational), mental health benefits, and care navigation or advocacy tools.
A diverse workforce enriches your employee experience and encourages innovation. You have an opportunity to further diversify your workforces by hiring and supporting neurodivergent talent. In doing so, you also convey and endorse company values to your existing workforces – especially the hidden neurodiverse talent already in your midst.