Working With Neurodivergent Employees: A ND’s Take

I have thought long and hard about this one.

What can employers do to facilitate the work and sense of belonging of their neurodivergent (ND) employees?

How can we as ND people first, and employees second, look at our individual experiences to help others help us?

The fact is that each ND’s needs, tendencies, sensitivities, and style of getting about in the world (and this includes working) are so individualized and specific to that person, that I thought I’d spare you a list of 5 ways you can provide extra organizational post-it notes to the ADHD employees, a set of ear defenders to the autistic ones, and a yearly end-of-summer wellness retreat for everyone.

Not that these ideas can’t be helpful, but having spent almost my entire life examining daily why I work the way I do, why I interact with others the way I do, and how I can get on with others and the important tasks in my life in a meaningful, positive, and productive way, I thought I’d let you in on a couple of this autistic anthropologist’s insights…

…. This brings me to my first point: We just want to make others happy and do a good job. I think this pretty much sums it up and also explains why ND employees can feel misunderstood in some situations where they feel their work and intentions are good but somehow they aren’t getting the reception they thought they would or might be driving others away. It’s true: we tend to come across differently than the way neurotypicals (NTs) do, we can be blunt, and we can seem like we process information in an often puzzling and sometimes frustrating way to others.

I, for example, have always needed to know the bigger picture of my work or a specific task and how they fit into the grand schematic of the company’s direction. The why behind it is just so important to my brain’s processing. This is not because I am questioning authority or superciliously think there’s always a better way. It’s processing differences like this one that is (at least in my case) never out of malice, arrogance, or a lack of respect for authority. I want people to internalize this all the way, please. It’s quite the opposite; when I can process my work in this way, I can do a great job—an amazing job! As I said above, NDs want to do a good job, hands down.

Of course, this example is specific to me, and although other NDs may share this processing difference, there are infinite differences that other NDs across the workforce have. Whether you are ND or NT, I call on you to look inward and observe your thinking and processing styles, as well as your needs when it comes to these two. Then, communicate this with your manager and colleagues.

My second point is:

Surprise, more work for you NDs!

Get an ND employee group together if you can, and get the support of your supervisors first, because this can be an amazing asset to ND and NT colleagues alike. Here at MOVIA, I’ve worked with our ND employees to spearhead this group, The Loop @ MOVIA. We provide and foster a space for ND employees to meet each other, talk about all the fun and juicy ND topics where we can relate to each other in so many ways, and create media and informational materials as part of company-wide communications so that everyone at MOVIA can learn more about the ND side of things. What starts as a fun and easygoing endeavor can make a big difference for us in morale as well as feeling accepted and better understood. I think that’s a win-win, right?

Let me say this again: I am asking NDs to do the work first and foremost to start the conversation. I feel that a lot of what I’ve read so far about how we can support NDs in the workplace starts with others guessing or implementing a series of strategies from the top-down, which can work – but I feel that it’s more effective to start with the individuals themselves, given the extremely individualized and person-specific nature of neurodivergence. The saying is true after all: when you’ve met one ND person, you’ve met one ND person.

Main takeaways:

  1. NDs: the work starts with you. Figure out what you need, how you think, how you work best, and communicate graciously. You only want to do your best and do a great job, and I know it, we know it – don’t be shy!
  2. Encourage the creation of an ND employee group at your workplace if there isn’t one already.
  3. Be creative. In this day and age, there are so many workarounds that when implemented correctly for the right person can tremendously boost productivity, morale, and overall team comradery when everyone can advocate for their own (reasonable) accommodations.
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