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Embracing neurodiversity: How different brains can thrive at work

Neurodiversity is not merely a buzzword; it is a paradigm shift that holds the potential to reshape the modern workplace for the better. As part of our series on Lifelong Learning, contributor Louise Lilja reflects on the occupational challenges posed by her own ADHD-like symptoms, and shares how individuals and employers can educate themselves to better understand and accommodate neurodivergence at work.


Please note that the information provided in this post is for educational purposes only, and does not substitute for professional medical advice.


A wooden tray in the shape of a human brain with colorful blocks inside.

A few years back, a friend hit me with a surprising question: "Have you ever considered getting checked for ADHD?" I was taken aback. ADHD? Me? I'm not hyperactive, I'm pretty organized, and I like to think I'm a productive member of society! I have to admit, at that point, I had a limited understanding of what ADHD truly entailed and the various ways it could manifest in individuals.


But my friend had a reason for asking. She herself had been diagnosed with ADHD a few years earlier and she shared how frequently this condition goes undiagnosed, particularly among women. What she saw in me wasn't entirely new; I had just become adept at concealing it. When I worked in a conventional office setting, there were clear rules to follow. Even though I wasn't fond of conforming daily to societal norms, I now realize that those rules created a kind of safety net and structure that I benefited from. There was a fixed start time, designated lunch breaks, perhaps an afternoon breather, and a set quitting time. It all came with clear expectations and accountability.


Fast forward a year, and I found myself in a new job, entirely remote due to the pandemic. It was then that I began noticing things I hadn't paid much attention to before. The lack of defined boundaries made me uneasy, my daily routine slipped, my tendency to procrastinate took over everything and I begun leaving meetings without any idea what had been discussed. I thought to myself, "Isn't this just the new normal? Why am I struggling so much?"


Blonde woman at a desk with her head resting in an open book; she looks tired.

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a neurodevelopmental disorder whose main symptoms are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, according to the American Psychiatric Association. In the end, I decided to invest in a thorough evaluation. The results were somewhat surprising. While I exhibited several signs of ADHD, I couldn't be formally diagnosed with the condition. Why? Because I had started showing these symptoms too late in life and I was told ADHD symptoms typically need to manifest before the age of 12 to meet diagnostic criteria.


The experience made me look at ADHD, and neurodiversity in general, in a whole new way. I began reading up on how different people experience these conditions, how they’re met in society and how they’re dealing with daily tasks that sometimes seem so overwhelming. Reading about how other people are doing it, I felt less alone and started standing up taller, saying, "This is who I am and there is nothing wrong with it!"


Having had this experience made me want to share with others what I've learned. Knowledge is power, and I hope this post can provide some insights and perhaps help you on your own journey.


Close up of a messy desk with laptop, notebook, headphones, coffee mug, and crumpled sticky notes.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is a term that challenges the traditional notion of neurological conditions as disorders that need to be corrected or "normalized." It describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one "right" way of thinking, learning, and behaving. The term was originally used to describe people with autism. However, today it’s more of an umbrella term which includes dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, and dyspraxia (DCD). Some researchers also include learning disabilities, Tourette’s, and mental health issues.


It’s thought that between 15-20% of the population is neurodiverse.


Neurodiversity and work

Despite the growing awareness of neurodiversity in our society, many neurodivergent individuals still face societal stigma and misconceptions about their abilities. Neurodiversity is often overlooked in the diversity conversation and hiring efforts. As a result, these individuals often experience higher rates of unemployment and underemployment compared to the general population. In the United States, Deloitte estimates that 85% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed, compared to 4.2% of the overall population.


Organizations seldom fully understand how to accommodate unique needs and strengths. An example of this can be the traditional interview process which is daunting for anyone but even more so for neurodivergent candidates. Challenges may arise in social interactions and individuals may underperform in high-pressure situations. To combat this, companies will need to adapt their recruitment methods to better assess the potential of neurodivergent talent, including casting a wider net and evaluating their own biased judgments of what a perfect candidate really looks like.


Young Black man sits at a computer with his face in his palms, looking overwhelmed.

The truth is, some organizations today lack awareness of the benefits of neurodiversity and may not have policies in place to support neurodivergent employees effectively. There is a pressing need for education, and awareness campaigns have arisen to address this. So what could these new policies look like? They could include establishing mentors; someone who can advocate for the colleague if needed, offering advice and empowerment and support when needed. It could be fostering a culture of flexibility, for example having the colleague choose themselves how and when to work (if possible and something the individual benefits from). It could also be simply accepting that one way of being, working, and existing doesn’t fit all.


More and more people are starting to contemplate the concept of neurodiversity and the potential difficulties it can present in the workplace. However, it's equally, if not more crucial, to explore what a neurodivergent colleague brings to the table and uncover their unique strengths: their "superpowers."


For example, JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work program found that autistic employees are “48% faster and up to 92% more productive than their non-autistic counterparts” – with common factors including strong visual acuity and attention to detail.


Research from the creative tech world shows that neurodivergent talent brings huge benefits to the business as their power is rooted in how their brains process and respond to stimulus – in ways that can intersect and diverge from what some people would describe as "neuro-typical."


A young woman's hand and silhouette as she organizes colorful sticky notes on a wall.

Research from the Harvard Business Review suggests that teams with neurodivergent professionals in some roles can be 30% more productive than those without them. In a time when the ability to compete on the basis of innovation has become more crucial for many companies, more and more are realizing that looking for a different type of talent to join their teams can give them that extra edge.


It’s also worth knowing that by developing a neurodiverse workforce, a company can enhance how it is viewed from the outside. When a brand has a strong purpose, consumers are four times more likely to trust the company, and six times more likely to defend the company from criticism, according to Forbes. However, a company's reputation can quickly plummet if it's simply "diversity washing," rather than truly making inclusive decisions.


In the words of Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, “The world needs a neurodiverse workforce to help try and solve some of the big problems of our time."


Group of employees collaborate together in a boardroom.

The future of neurodiversity in the workplace

Neurodiversity is not merely a buzzword; it is a paradigm shift that holds the potential to reshape the modern workplace for the better. By recognizing and embracing the unique talents and perspectives of neurodivergent individuals, we can create work environments that truly celebrate diversity and foster inclusion.


As I have found myself, the challenges remain. Some days I feel on top of the world. Armed with a toolbox of useful exercises, I celebrate the small wins. Other days can feel completely overwhelming. But seeing how the world is slowly becoming more tolerant in this field, the future is undeniably promising. Organizations are increasingly recognizing the definite benefits of neurodiversity. And as we continue to learn, adapt, and advocate for change, we unlock the full potential of neurodivergent individuals, including myself, and pave the way for workplaces that thrive on the fact that our strength lies in our differences. Embracing neurodiversity is not just a matter of corporate responsibility and doing what is right; it is a strategic advantage that benefits both individuals and organizations alike. Let’s keep at it!


Resources for further research

 

Louise Lilja is a community builder at MeaningSphere and a regular contributor to the MeaningSphere blog.


Photo credit: Shutterstock, Pexels, and Unsplash

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