Neurodiversity and weaving a more beautiful human tapestry at work

Highlights from a FACCNE webinar on diversity and inclusion, May 2021
Neurodiversity and weaving a more beautiful human tapestry at work
Carin-Isabel Knoop

The primary source of stress for workers is not long hours — it is tasks that are not well suited to their skills and the time and resources managers provide. Being more conscious of how individuals are present at work is essential to lowering stress and promoting inclusion. It is imperative to managing for diversity.

Our seminar was the 5th in a series on diversity and inclusion (see video below). The first few webinars focused more on dimensions of diversity that seem more visible, such as race or ethnicity. We focused on brain diversity, often more challenging for others to perceive. Neurodiversity is a social model to accept and respect neurological differences as any other human variation — and nothing to cure or mask.

The speakers come from varying industries such as tech, consulting, higher education, and non-profit, from all across the U.S. Several of us have neurodivergent kids, and at least two of us self-reported as such.

We deeply believe that learning about psychological safety, neurodiversity, and mental health builds better organizations.

Below are highlights from our conversation around a 4A framework: Awareness, Acceptance, Action, and Adherence. An audience member suggested that we use the term “appreciation” instead of “acceptance.”

Learn and question your assumptions and stereotypes.

The 2011 National Symposium on Neurodiversity defined neurodiversity as “a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation.” The neurological development and state of a neurodivergent person present as atypical.

Selectability NDIS Townsville providers says it’s important to note the neurological differences include not only Autism but also Dyspraxia (planning and processing motor skills) and its more extreme version Apraxia, Dyslexia (impairs reading), ADHD (impacts our ability to focus), Dyscalculia (impacts understanding and manipulation of numbers), and Tourette Syndrome (impacts the nervous system).

We have evolved beyond the stereotype of TV and movie characters such as Sheldon Cooper in Big Bang Theory, who exhibits some behaviors consistent with Asperger Syndrome, or savant Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man. There are more mentions of neurodivergence than before and efforts such as Stanford’s Neurodiversity at Work project provides more understanding and job boards for employers and candidates.

While there is more acceptance and discussion of adults with neurological differences, progress is still stalled on the employment front.

Organizations that support neurodivergents report high levels of talent, skill, innovation, and dedication in their neurodivergent staff — and highlight their significant contribution to building a culture of empathy. (See the case study at the end of this article of a successful CEO, Bassoul, who was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia as a graduate student, and consider Michael Bernick’s new book on The Autism Full Employment Act.)

For Jamell, this opportunity means combining neurotypical and neurodivergent mindsets coming together in teams to solve problems and think of issues differently. Part of awareness is to ensure representation and listening to neurodivergent voices, stories and backgrounds. A well-intentioned ally can do just as much damage as any other individual.

The cost to mental health of being stereotyped or “otherized” is immense.

In addition to employees (current and perhaps unidentified as neurodivergent) and job candidates, customers and users of your services may be neurodivergent: according to the CDC, 1 in 54 children are autistic; more than 1 in 20 are neurodivergent. These children grow up to enter the workforce and become consumers.

While individuals should determine how they wish to be portrayed and addressed, in the neurodivergent community, the preferred language is identity-first — this approach positions neurological differences as an identity category that the individual embraces and not something that needs to be cured or fixed. Participants also found it helpful to take the medical aspects out of the language, for example, using “success enablers” instead of “accommodations” and “high support needs” instead of “low-functioning,” “recognized” instead of “diagnosed,” and “difference” instead of “disorder.”

Thought experiment:

  1. Close your eyes and think of a bird.
  2. Have others do that with you.
  3. Think of a bird — where it lives, how it moves, how it works.
Source:​, accessed June 2021

Most individuals will think of swallows, parrots, hummingbirds, etc. Others might volunteer a penguin — it uses wings to swim, not fly. It is designed to survive a cold environment and works with others to stay warm. But in the desert, it will die.

As birds, each of us have different neurological characteristics that enable us to thrive in very different environments. This is what neurodiversity is all about. Enabling each type of brain to perform at its best according to its own specificities.

Consider managers’ “sacred duty” to increase psychological safety.

We spend more hours with colleagues than loved ones. The workplace is central to our wellbeing and can make or break a person, as Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote in this 2018 book, Dying for a Paycheck.

The task is to give people equal access and equal ability to express themselves and let different points of view flourish without having any form of a dominant view as the single accepted view. This requires signaling that we are embracing all forms of diversity.

Neurodiversity is the most fundamental dimension of diversity, and from there, we can understand all other dimensions, Ranga noted. Start with understanding yourself better.

  • Promote communication and openness: Consider the Facebook YOUser guide that employees and newcomers use to help share preferences and styles. At EY, Jamell tells his interlocutors that he does not do well with long emails — he does better with bullets and highlights. He also suggests that colleagues send slides ahead of meeting times for people who absorb information better on paper rather than audibly. Hiring managers can be more explicit at interviewing time about their style and background, and if comfortable, any neurodivergence. Then the process starts with the team leader so that candidates or team members feel comfortable. Trust needs to be earned.
  • (Re)think workplaces and “sensory diets”: Dominant designs of processes are not uniform designs — we norm to the center — and we do the same with office space. Post-Covid is the perfect time to think about the sensory diet you are giving your people and the success enablers that individuals need to be able to excel at work. A person may not be able to sit in a distracting environment and would do better not working near a pinging elevator or smelly cafeteria. This can be considered. If a person needs a lot of natural light and requests a corner office, this will not be possible in every context, but perhaps this person can spend more time working from home where they can control their own lighting, for example, and when in office provide a full spectrum light instead of overhead fluorescent lighting.

Thought experiment:

Ranga asked, “Which part of the normal distribution is abnormal? By definition, none of it is. This is true of human beings and the brain. There are many, many dimensions of behavioral and cognitive characteristics for human beings. Individuals are distributed along any one of those characteristics.

When we can bring a mindset of intentional inclusion to understand individuals — not judging, not putting in a box, not deciding what they can and cannot do — we can accept the individual for what they can bring. How can I help this individual, in a social, educational, and workplace context?” This means to live by the Kantian imperative — treat others as you wish to be treated yourself.

Collage shows a woman peeking through a wall at a face — of which we see only nose and mouth. The world “see” is on the face of the woman to the left.
Listen to see © Ellen Feldman

See self-awareness as key to self-advocacy.

Ranga suggested that neurodivergent colleagues need to take time to understand themselves — what are the dimensions of their behavioral and cognitive characteristics that could benefit from a supportive environment? What form of support would be most helpful?

  • Say “Pineapple!” Some of us need more time to process information. It can be helpful to have a code word that individuals or teams can use, such as “pineapple” or “I’m freezing,” to signal to people when you might need such time. This can help everyone be more empathetic, and can be very freeing to neurodivergent individuals.
  • Count spoons. In a 2003 essay, a person with Lupus used the analogy of having a set of spoons left in a drawer to illustrate her available energy level. Nat used this analogy in terms of budgeting our social energy or batteries — not scheduling a stressful event after a webinar, for example, to “plan and balance my spoons.”
  • Be explicit with others in social contracting to make sure that they don’t interpret our actions as signs that we’re not paying attention. Nat suggested being clear about why being on video and talking into a screen might be particularly challenging and explained that being off video could enable some of us to be more productive and less stressed. Others might ask to record a meeting in order to watch it later or say that they need to look down to take notes which helps promote retention.

Consider barriers — and ask why they exist.

Often companies or managers think that accommodations cost a lot of money, but they don’t always; perhaps it is a slightly late commute for an individual for whom commuting is particularly stressful. Jamell pointed out that there are some environments in which some accommodations cannot be made, for example, a surgeon who needs to be at her surgery at a particular, often very early time. She might need time later in the day to recharge.

At EY, Jamell noted, “…we love the process. Like at every other organization, there is a process for everything. However, we have to be nimble enough to deviate from them when we need to do so. One way we do it is to continue to challenge the process. ‘Why do we do this that way?’ If there is a compliance or legal reason, then we consider doing it this way. But if not, what would customizations look like so that everyone who is looking to contribute can do so?”

Instead, companies and managers should open their hearts and have a conversation with the individual and think about where and how they might best thrive.

One big obstacle for formal accommodations may be obtaining medical letters. Getting the “golden ticket of a diagnosis, without which there is no therapy and no accommodations, is very stressful,” Nat explained. The challenge is the enduring bias among doctors and experts against women, or people of color, or persons of a certain age, “because experts wrote these tests for eight-year-old white schoolboys.”

· Rethink interviewing: “I don’t know anyone who really believes that interviews are the best way to find the right candidates for jobs,” Ranga noted, “and yet we mindlessly do it. And that is not good for practically anybody, really. In the past, companies had a clear pipeline where an inexperienced candidate can enter through internships and then mature through the pipeline into regular jobs. The threshold to enter the pipeline was not very high. Nowadays, even getting an internship has become so competitive that most neurodivergent candidates do not succeed in getting them.” This challenge heightened with Zoom interviews.

· As a recruiter, consider how a neurodivergent person might be able to connect with your company in a different way. Maybe offer quiet hours for part of a job/internship fair or move to a Reverse Job Fair model? Or an event to specifically cater for neurodivergents? Should you choose someone based on their ability to smile at the right moment or shake hands with a perfect, just-proper grip? Universities could also play a role in helping neurodivergents acquire such social “success skills.” Some argue that this should start much earlier, in the secondary school system, so that a 16-year-old can learn to self-advocate and present themselves and think about how to ask what they need to succeed.

· Focus job descriptions on the actual competencies required. Many job descriptions require applicants to walk on air and do backflips off the diving board for simple document processing jobs. Does a job really require a four-year degree or might an internship be just as good? Nat cautioned, “Do you catch yourself making assumptions about what a neurodivergent candidate looks like? Do you see a Sheldon Cooper-type white male, really good in IT, happy to write code in a corner, while they may actually be a Black transgender accountant? Neurodivergents can be skilled in any job role. This can also help break stereotypes.”

· Ask candidates what they need to be more successful as job candidates. Not focusing on reporting a disability but asking for a success enabler, this could be a self-diagnosis. Increasing transparency to be neurodivergent-friendly will make it more human-friendly.

· Take an employment-first approach”: if the job makes it possible, give candidates a small task or short-term contract for a couple of months to see how they do. This may not be possible for many positions.

· Consider skip promotions or alternative career paths with greater customization within the requirements of the job at that level. Imagine a scenario in a consulting environment where a perfect individual contributor might not make a great engagement manager but has the business acumen and intellectual heft to engage with CEOs and sell business to grow the firm. If the engagement manager is the only path to partner, this person will probably leave or fail. Tech and pharma companies have gotten better at enabling highly successful technical talent to progress up an alternative career ladder, which does not always involve managing others. “This needs to be a conversation,” Jamell notes, “so that the decision is made jointly and the team member does not feel that it is being done to them, but with them.”

Provide the right organizational scaffolding.

We ended our session with key success factors:

Top level support

Neurodiversity is supported and funded at the executive level. This can also apply to smaller companies.

Equal influence in decision-making

Neurodivergent people have a seat at the table to ensure representation from the neurodivergent community — “Nothing about us — Without us!” — as any other diversity group. Not just a seat but also a voice and level of influence at the table. The level of influence is really going to be one of the metrics that we will be able to go back and review when we start talking about neurodiversity, Jamell noted.

IBM has created virtual safe-space communities (“Actually Autistic” and “AND — Actually Neuro-Divergent”) but they are not “just meant to be warm and fuzzy things,” Nat noted. “They operate as task forces, with agendas and objectives.” For example, “What initiatives and programs do we want?” “What do we want to do for neurodiversity acceptance events?” In addition, communications departments and other business units reach out to them to vet communications, potential partners, etc. asking questions like ‘How are they ensuring neurodivergent representation?’ ‘Do they have neurodivergent leadership on their boards or at the top level?’

Neurodiversity at IBM sits under our “New Collar jobs.” “That is such a perfect spot for it because it’s about skill,” she notes. It is not under the “Persons with disabilities department” or “people with diverse abilities department.” For more about IBM please read “Neurodiversity: The power of new perspectives” (Top 10 of 2020!) and watch “What is it like to Be Neurodivergent@IBM.”

Signalling neurodiversity

Companies that add neurodiversity to their inclusion statements signal that they want folks to apply and are committed to supporting them and help them blossom, just as displaying your pronouns can.

Culture change

Neurodivergent hiring requires culture change. Without that, it is just checking a box. Much the same as in gardening, a seed must be able to take root. Companies need to get started with changing their culture and learn, and accept that some of the learning will come from mistakes.

Do not hire people if you have not provided the environment in which they can thrive.

Finally, Ranga suggested that companies and managers make it a habit to ask employees if the organizational culture enables them to bring their authentic self to work and if not, what modifications do they feel need to be made in order for them to excel? Do they feel that the company and their colleagues really know them? What are we all masking at work?

Case study: Power of neurodiversity
The book Compassionate Management of Mental Health at Work featured an individual diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia while as a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Years later, he excelled as the head of a kitchen supply company. He credited his success to his ability to “avoid getting mired in details and instead think broadly about the issues and tasks at hand.” [iii] He struggles more with detail-oriented work, which he leaves to his team.
He channels his self-reported restlessness into in-person visits with company field operations and customers instead of meetings. He also “tend[s] to be impatient,” which has led to some departure, but the company’s turnover is a mere 2%. Finally, he favors decentralization: “I don’t manage groups in the traditional way. I focus on individual players on the team, working on individual skills, one on one. I empower them to do a lot of things, and they get it done,” he told The Wall Street Journal.[vi] “I want to give people hope that there is an alternative way of managing. That someone like me can be successful and accepted,” Bassoul reflected.[vii]
Others credit ADHD with their ability to hyper-focus. An entrepreneur believes that his “generalized anxiety disorder creates an acute awareness of business risk that helps me to accept the possibility of negative outcomes and plan accordingly. And OCD teaches me the importance of being mindful, reminding me every day that there is no limit to the imagination of the human mind. Moreover, it’s the combination of these conditions that has made me intolerant of the status quo and more willing to take risks.” [viii]


Thank you to Bahia El-Oddi and Adriana Mendes-Sheldon for their contributions.

For advice consider that you can also reach out to the team at Rangam. They focus on building global scalable programs around the neurodiversity at work program through the SourceAbled ( program, helping companies adopt best practices around autism at work program and make it a part of culture and hiring practices. They are always looking for neurodivergent talent (Create Your Job Seeker Profile | SourceAbled).

Author Bio

Carin-Isabel Knoop leads the Harvard Business School’s research and case writing group and has helped HBS faculty members write more than 200 case studies on organizations and managers worldwide. This led to personal research and publications in the area of mental health in the workplace and an interest in human sustainability. She is a pragmatic idealist and fanatic postcard writer.

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