Why Neurodiversity Matters At Work

If T.S. Eliot was right, and the world will end not with a bang but a whimper, at least we can safely say that the end of 2016 is not, fortunately, the end of the world — for not many would suggest that the transition from 2016 to 2017 will be anything like a whimper. Those of us for whom diversity and inclusion are important might be feeling a bit grim about the change in political climate as we enter the new year. But that’s giving up too easily. Instead, now is the time to work even harder toward our goals. One of my goals is to increase awareness of neurodiversity in the workplace. Let’s start simply: with a bit of clarification.

You may already be familiar with what neurodiversity means. If so, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. If, on the other hand, you are relatively new to the concept of neurodiversity, here are a few useful definitions. First, neurodiversity itself. Neurodiversity is simply the biological fact that human brains are not all wired the same. Neurodiversity represents “the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species”, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, etc. Someone whose brain functions in what society would consider a “normal” manner is called neurotypical, and someone whose brain diverges significantly from this “norm” is called neurodivergent. Okay, school’s out, back to why neurodiversity matters at your place of work.

Fortunately, much has been written about neurodiversity recently. Some critical of the neurodiversity movement, some defending against those criticisms, others giving a detailed overview of neurodiversity. But dealing with neurodiversity on the workplace is still relatively new.

Hands up if you think it’s a waste of money to ensure that your workplace is wheelchair accessible. [ pause ] No one? Good. (If, on the other hand, you did raise your hand, read this.) Yes, of course a workplace without wheelchair accessibility would be fined, but that’s not the reason they’re accessible, surely. Our workplaces are accessible because otherwise we would be excluding an entire class of people who deserve the same rights as everyone else. Well, not surprisingly, the same applies to neurodiversity: unless our workplaces are accessible to the varieties of human cognitive functioning, we are excluding an entire class of people who deserve the same rights as everyone else; who deserve to be treated with the same respect as everyone else.

Neurodiversity is, first and foremost, about people. And potential. To get the best from your employees, you have to recognize their potential and know how to provide them with an environment that will best allow them to realize that potential. Let me run through some real-world examples, starting with my Aspie family. My wife, Ninah, is very smart and has emotional intelligence to rival that of any empath, neurotypical or neurodivergent. Can you just imagine the value that could bring to any human-centric enterprise? Our middle son is constantly creating: building armor and swords from empty Amazon boxes, constructing complex worlds with a minimum of toys. He already has the creativity of an engineer and explores all sorts of ways to engineer all sorts of things. (He’s the one, by the way, we’re counting on to keep us comfortable in our twilight years.) Our youngest son is enormously caring and would happily give you the shirt off his back (literally) if he thought you needed it more. He may grow up to be an incredibly intuitive counselor or simply the guy that raises everyone else’s morale in the office.

Then there are the neurodiverse people I’ve worked with during my twenty years as a software engineer. I can remember two guys in particular. Both I know to be fellow Aspies, but of course I couldn’t talk to them about it because of the stigma still sadly attached to autism, especially at a place of work. One of them won’t look you in the eye, but he’s the first one to respond to “Any questions?” at a meeting or presentation, always with a very insightful question or comment. He’s terribly bright and always on point. The other fellow is a classic nerd or geek (to the linguistic purists reading this: yes, yes, I know the terms have different meanings, I’m just using them in their popular sense) who was quite comfortable wearing fandom gear to work. He’s also one of the most brilliant programmers I’ve ever met. Both of these guys were laughed at behind their backs, made fun of and, I have no doubt, bullied when younger. And this simply because they’re different.

No, let me change that: they were made fun of because their differences were neither understood nor accommodated. And that’s a significant difference. It’s nothing new. Humans have shunned difference for our entire history, but a sign of true civilization is celebrating and enjoying difference. We’re doing much better these days with differences arising from race, gender, sexuality and physical disability. Yes, no doubt, we’ve still got ground to cover — and the incoming administration may make the work harder — but at least there’s momentum there. With neurodiversity, however, the work has barely begun. We haven’t yet built a wheelchair ramp for neurological difference. And this brings us back to what we agreed upon earlier: that every class of people deserves to be treated with the same respect as everyone else. Looking at the same ethical principle from a different angle, everyone deserves to reach their full potential. And this isn’t going to happen if CEOs, hiring managers and co-workers are unaware of neurodiversity or, even worse, if neurodiversity is ignored.

But wheelchair ramps cost money, affecting the bottom line. True. (For those of you who raised your hands earlier, feeling that wheelchair accessibility is a waste of money, consider for a moment the bottom line of your soul.) But think about it: if you’re going to hire somebody it’s because of the potential they will bring to your company, right? Would it be fiscally responsible to buy furniture for the boardroom but leave half the chairs in storage? Would it make sense to buy a site license for an office productivity suite yet only use the spreadsheet application? Of course not! So why take that attitude with respect to your people?

The CDC estimated, in 2012, that 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism in the United States annually, giving us some indication of the incidence of autism in adults. That’s actually a higher percentage than the number of people using wheelchairs[1]. Because of its degree of prevalence in our society and because neurodiversity is usually invisible to most people, you can bet that, if your workplace employs even a hundred people, you more than likely have neurodiverse co-workers. Are you really prepared to accommodate wheelchair accessibility but not neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity in the workplace is a fact, and one that we’re going to have to get used to. Haven’t you said or heard that “people are [your] company’s greatest asset”? If that’s not just some HR line that’s bandied about to fool people into feeling better about working at your company, if that’s something you really believe, then do what you can to accommodate neurodiverse people at your place of work, and do what is necessary to change your hiring practices so that they take the neurodivergent into consideration. Accommodation is too big a topic to deal with in this article, so I’ll make it the topic of my next. In the meantime, remember: Neurodiversity matters because people matter. And it’s people that make your company successful.


About the Author

An autistic self-advocate and Neurodiversity Ambassador, Robert Watkins is reinventing the workplace with and for autistic people. His writings on http://autistic.ly focus on increasing awareness, understanding and accommodations for people on the spectrum so that they can contribute their best and lead fulfilling working lives. Robert, on the board of the Atlanta Autism Consortium, lives in Atlanta with his Aspie wife, two Aspie and two neurotypical teenagers, and their cat.LinkedInIn Robert

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