Being neurodivergent can mean many different things.
For me, it means struggling with anxiety and social interactions. For others, it could mean processing information differently than someone who is “neurotypical.”
In any case, being neurodivergent can influence our choices, decisions, and lifestyles.
This is especially true when it comes to career options.
For example, I chose to be a writer for a reason. And it’s not only because I love to write! Pursuing this career allows me to express myself in a way I otherwise couldn’t.
Unfortunately, not everyone gets the opportunity to do what they love, especially those in the neurodivergent community.
As it turns out, 79% of companies in the US believe that the need to train and support neurodivergent employees is much greater than their neurotypical counterparts. But around 80% of people with mental health problems and disabilities remain unemployed.
So if companies believe the support is needed, what are they doing about it?
In this article, I’m going to tackle the subject of how to effectively onboard and support neurodiverse individuals.
I’m also sharing some expert advice from Dr. Clare Mulligan-Foster, a chartered occupational psychologist with over 10 years of experience in the field.
So keep on reading!
- Challenges neurodivergent individuals face in the workplace (+ solutions)
- How to build a company culture that supports neurodiversity
- Tools to help neurodivergent employees
- Benefits of having a neurodivergent team
- What do neurodivergent people think?
Challenges neurodivergent employees face in the workplace (+ solutions)
Neurodivergent employees face a number of challenges in the workplace – and not all of them are things you might expect or notice.
These challenges can include various things, such as compulsive behaviors, physical or verbal tics, and sensory sensitivities.
In the following sections, I’ll cover some of the most common workplace challenges and potential solutions from neurodivergent employees based on first-hand experience.
Challenge 1: Communication
Whether it be verbal or written, communication can be problematic. Yet, communication is the number one skill employers are looking for in potential candidates.
But memorizing information and communicating effectively are often the two main challenges neurodivergent people face.
“Someone who is autistic may find social interaction elements difficult, therefore, may not be as able to show their strengths in an interview.”Dr. Mulligan-Foster
Luckily, the solutions to these problems can be pretty straightforward.
The best way to minimize confusion when first interacting with neurodivergent people is through, wait for it, communication!
Yes, you read that right.
If you want to avoid miscommunication, you need to change the way you communicate.
And believe me, it sounds more complicated than it is!
All you have to do is follow these 5 steps:
- Keep your conversations simple
- Skip sarcasm and euphemisms (unless you notice the person you’re talking to uses them)
- Give clear directions
- Repeat yourself if necessary (and don’t get irked by having to do that)
- Pause on occasion to give the other person a chance to process what you’ve said to them
Dr. Mulligan-Foster believes that effective communication starts long before the interview process takes place, so during the job posting stage.
“Be clear about what skills you are looking for and then find ways of evidencing these skills.”
She also suggests that some people
“My find an onboarding session with lots of group activities or role-plays overwhelming, so offer an alternative such as online or one-to-one sessions.”
Ultimately, it’s up to you to make your employees feel welcome in your company, regardless of their mental health status.
Encourage and support open communication and transparency in your workplace culture.
But adjusting how you communicate with people will help you in the long run.
Challenge 2: Lack of support
When onboarding neurodivergent employees, providing adequate support is crucial.
But more often than not, new hires won’t even speak up about their issues.
This is likely because of the stigma around mental health.
And understandably, many people aren’t comfortable disclosing their disabilities to their new manager.
Moreover, many employers believe in a “one size fits all” approach to onboarding. This prevents them from really getting to know their new employees and listening to their needs.
“Ask for preferences and allow flexibility in how you manage your recruitment or onboarding processes.”Dr. Mulligan-Foster
Another great way to make onboarding more inclusive is through listening to feedback.
So, make sure to provide your new hires with the opportunity to tell you what they need or find useful.
You can also:
- Supply them with online help and resources
- Offer access to mental health services
- Schedule weekly 1:1 to find out how they’re getting on in their new role
After all, keeping your employees happy will increase their productivity and willingness to work. (read our guide to employee motivation and our 5 HR tips for management to find out more).
It’s also worth knowing what portion of your workforce may be neurodivergent.
A quick, anonymous survey is a great way to find this out. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to adjust the working environment of your organization. In turn, helping people to feel safe and comfortable at work.
Challenge 3: Sensory sensitivities
Sensory sensitivities are extremely common in people with ADHD, epilepsy, and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
“A person with ADHD may find it more challenging to screen out sensory input and become more distracted.”Dr. Mulligan-Foster
This means they are more likely to respond negatively to:
- Loud and/or unexpected noises
- Being touched (even casually)
- Strong smells
- Bright lighting
Some individuals are more sensitive than others, but it’s useful to be aware of this when onboarding neurodivergent employees.
According to Dr. Mulligan-Foster, it’s all about modifying the working environment and making it more inclusive:
“Workplace design should be considered to think about the impact of open spaces, bright lights, etc. Allowing different areas for quieter working time or tools such as dictation software can help optimize a person’s performance.”
When asked about whether employers should make these adjustments to everyone, she responds:
“The key is to ask people what adjustments or access is required. Make a list of all resources you have available and share that to allow people to choose and add more [to the list]. So much of what an organization can offer may not be known to all staff. Make it clear from the start if you offer flexible/hybrid working, employee support, occupational health, or IT options.”
Keep reading, as I’ll soon suggest some amazing tools you can utilize when onboarding neurodivergent employees!
How to build a company culture that supports neurodiversity
Creating a supportive, comfortable, and fun working environment is as challenging as it is essential.
But who wants to work in a place where they’re being misunderstood and micromanaged?
I know I don’t!
I could go on and on about how you could make your company an amazing workplace.
But it really comes down to three main things: hiring, onboarding, and continuous support.
Get them right, and your company will flourish. Get them wrong, and you risk building a culture from hell (and no one wants that).
So listen up, as I’m about to share some practical tips to help you build an inclusive company culture.
First of all, let’s build a foundation (you wouldn’t build a house without one, would you?).
Because it all starts with the hiring process, you’ll want to ensure it goes smoothly and effectively.
Let me share an example of a fantastic hiring process:
Make it clear what and who you’re looking for. Keep to short paragraphs and avoid unnecessary jargon. Give as much information as you can without overwhelming the reader.
Remember that behind every application you receive is a person full of hopes and dreams. Shortlist those you think fit best with your company, but don’t forget to inform those who are unsuccessful.
Don’t make it a one-way street. Yes, you want to find out how much potential they have, but they also want to know about you.
Try to engage in a conversation with the candidates instead of firing questions at them.
Keep in mind that some people may need a little more time to answer your questions, and that’s okay!
Again, make sure to send a quick message to all those who didn’t make it further.
When selecting the right person, it’s easy to make a decision based on bias.
Perhaps this lady reminds you too much of your ex-wife? Or maybe that guy seemed overly confident?
Whatever it is, try to be as unbiased as possible.
Sometimes, those who take their time when answering a question turn out to be full of ideas. Sometimes that super-quiet girl just needs to come out of her shelf.
And sometimes, those can be the best and hardest working employees!
Now that we’ve built the foundations, let’s start building walls.
Onboarding neurodivergent employees can be tricky because you may not even know they are neurodivergent! The reason for that is masking, a term to describe people who camouflage their disability in social situations. In fact, over 70% of individuals mask!
So how do you create an inclusive onboarding program suitable for all your employees?
Here are the 3 steps to success:
- Welcome your new employees: Send them a welcome email with all they need to know before their first day. This is especially important for neurodivergent individuals, as we want to know what’s coming! And don’t forget to include the contact details of someone who could help answer any questions.
- Offer resources and training: Both online and in-person training can be useful. Some people learn better at their own pace, some are visual learners, and others like face-to-face interactions. In any case, try to offer comprehensive yet fun learning opportunities for all new employees. You could invest in a learning platform or design your own program.
- Provide a buddy: I know from personal experience how amazing it feels to be able to talk to someone who is not in management. When I was offered a buddy at Process Street, I felt relieved. We talked about a lot of things besides work, too! She was my first point of contact during those crucial first 3 months at the company.
“Mentors or buddy schemes can help create psychologically safe places for questions and worries. Mentors with experience in the workplace may be able to offer guidance on how work can be done or access to knowledge about the support available.”Dr. Mulligan-Foster
And if you’re ready to take your onboarding to the next level, why not check out our free employee onboarding podcast? Our very own HR queens, Ashley and Erin, take you through all the steps to design a magical employee onboarding experience.
We’ve got the foundations. We’ve got the walls. Now it’s time for the roof.
Giving ongoing support is something that’s often overlooked.
Because let’s face it. You’ve done all the work to find and onboard an employee. You’ve even delivered an outstanding training program. Surely, that’s enough, right?
Remember that 20% of new hires leave within the first 3 months. And I bet that many of those are neurodivergent.
Why? Because of the lack of support.
But how do you give continuous support?
- Through informal 1:1s (not interrogative meetings)
- Online resources, such as mental health advice
- Active listening and making reasonable workplace adjustments
- Being understanding and flexible with working hours and/or days
By doing those things, you’ll not only reduce new hire churn but also increase employee engagement and satisfaction.
“It is crucial that leaders understand the needs and support initiatives, so they are role modeling the culture that they want to develop.”Dr. Mulligan-Foster
“There should be an awareness development initiative to understand neurodiversity and reduce any bias or stigma. Create a trusted/safe space to discuss what people need and what can be done to help them.”Dr. Mulligan-Foster
Tools to help neurodivergent employees
“I feel like in all areas of diversity, there is not going to be a one size fits all solution.”Dr. Mulligan-Foster
“The best advice is for employers to educate themselves on what neurodiversity means and raise their confidence and awareness of possible needs.”Dr. Mulligan-Foster
When asked about what she means by “confidence,” she replies:
“Confidence can help in being able to ask questions concerning the accessibility needs and the help a person needs to be able to do their work.”
I asked Dr. Mulligan-Foster about the tools that she personally would recommend for employers to utilize.
“Checklists are useful for recruitment to remind the employers of the skills they are assessing, rather than relying on gut instinct.”
“Ask direct questions and allow time for answers. You could allow a person to bring a supporter to the interview to help with communication and provide comfort.”
And what about providing support during team workshops?
“If you have a workshop, allow time for breaks and ensure you clearly communicate key information that employees need. Certain colors and font sizes on slides can be easier to read, and written notes to support slides are good practice.”
So in line with Dr. Mulligan-Foster’s recommendations, I’ve created a list of the top 3 tools to help you onboard neurodivergent employees.
Here they are!
Tool 1: Onboarding software
Because onboarding can make or break a relationship with your new hire, it’s wise to shop around and choose the right kind.
There are many options out there, but I highly recommend Process Street.
Because it’s a tool that will allow you to completely personalize your onboarding experience. And this is something that many other products simply don’t offer (I’ve checked!).
I used Process Street during my onboarding, and it was a real game-changer.
You know how stressful it is when starting a new job. So much to learn and so many things to check out. Well, thanks to Process Street, my onboarding was a breeze. I was able to tick things off from a pre-made list, and it made the whole process a lot easier and less stressful.
Each week was clearly defined, and I felt on track with all tasks right from the get-go. And whenever I felt a little lost, I was able to go back to that checklist and go through my tasks for the day. Believe me when I say never before was I this thankful for a tick-off list!
So what is Process Street?
Well, it’s a platform that allows you to collaborate with an entire department. It contains embedded content for new hires and provides a structure from the get-go.
But when onboarding new hires, a written list of things to complete can be too much. That’s why workflows and checklists are super-useful.
Check out this employee onboarding template to see how easy and smooth onboarding can become!
Tool 2: Instant messaging services
Most remote workers are already familiar with Slack and Teams.
But such communication tools can also benefit those working in an office, especially your neurodivergent employees.
So, instead of talking to someone if they don’t feel comfortable, they can simply message them. This may diminish the levels of anxiety that comes from social interactions.
And instant messaging services can be handy tools for onboarding new hires.
For example, you can add the new colleague to relevant Slack channels before their first day.
This can let them get to know some of their workmates and learn more about your company. It can also allow them to say “hi” when they feel ready.
Tool 3: Assistive technology
This refers to any software and devices that assist people with disabilities.
This can range from noise-canceling headphones to text-to-speech apps (TTS).
There is also a range of assistive features in popular software, such as a spell-checker in MS Word and optical character recognition in OneNote.
An added bonus is that most people will benefit from those tools, regardless of their mental health status.
Benefits of having a neurodivergent team
Onboarding neurodivergent employees will most likely bring amazing talent into your company.
In fact, many argue that being neurodivergent is a perk!
So how can having a neurodivergent team benefit your business?
“The key benefit of a neurodiverse workforce is having different ways of looking at work, projects, and problems. New ways of looking at the way we work and what we produce are going to be an advantage for every organization!”
And if you’re still not convinced, here are some other benefits of having a neurodiverse team.
Advantage 1: Increased productivity
According to a 2021 report, neurodivergent employees in the tech sector can be up to 140% more productive than their neurotypical colleagues.
This could be due to neurodivergent people being highly focused on their own interests and hobbies. So industries such as tech, robotics, architecture, and design are the go-to places for many individuals.
And did you know that Elon Musk is on the ASD spectrum? Say what you want about him, but this guy’s brain is massive!
Advantage 2: Enhance creativity
A neurodiverse workforce can be extremely creative.
Their ability to think differently or “outside the box” can be very useful when solving a problem.
The neurotypical brain doesn’t always see things that could be improved or a way out of a situation. Because a neurodivergent brain is more likely to question everything, they are also more likely to come up with new and innovative solutions.
Advantage 3: Loyalty
Neurodiverse employees are also more loyal.
Those who are on the autistic spectrum tend to stay with the same company longer than those who are not on the spectrum.
And those on the spectrum are often unafraid to comment on how things are run. This can help your business to grow and improve over time.
What do neurodivergent people think?
I’ve asked some fellow Process Streeters to share with me their thought on being neurodivergent. Here is what they had to say.
“Going through a traditional onboarding as someone with ADD, it is nearly impossible to remember all of the details that are presented to me. The fear of messing something up or simply forgetting something important caused me great anxiety. When I was onboarded at Process Street, the checklist format allowed me to visually engage with the information at my own pace and know that I could always return to the information at any time.”
“I think the best [onboarding experience] was at Process Street because of the combination of people plus automated tools. Automated tools help to lower the anxiety of ‘what should I do’.”
“I depend heavily on tools to ensure that I don’t forget things. I like to make sure that information is readily passed where it needs to go, and I am able to do things efficiently. As a neurodivergent person, having to bounce between tools can be a huge issue as it opens the door for distraction.”
Since we’ve come to the end of this article, let’s recap what we’ve learned about onboarding neurodivergent employees:
- As many as 80% of neurodivergent people are unemployed
- Some of the biggest challenges neurodivergent employees face in the workplace are communication issues, lack of support, and sensory sensitivities.
- All of those challenges can be easily overcome by clear communication, careful planning, and utilizing relevant technology.
- If you want to build an inclusive company culture, you should ensure your hiring processes and onboarding are well thought out. And don’t forget about providing continuous support.
- There are several tools that you can use to help your neurodivergent workforce. But make sure they provide as much structure as possible.
- Neurodivergent employees are more productive, more creative, and more loyal. So give them a chance!
Let me know in the comments what other tools you’re currently using that would benefit neurodivergent individuals in the workplace.
Anna is a coffee-obsessed content writer with a master's degree in psychology. Her areas of interest are employee psychology and mental health disorders. When she's not writing, she's either reading or lifting weights at the gym.