Before a manager can support neurodiversity, they must accept it. That sounds simple More people are becoming aware of neurodiversity, or conditions like autism or ADHD. But acceptance in the workplace? That takes more than just being aware.
The first step in supporting neurodivergent employees is acknowledging they exist. Many leaders I have worked with say that there is no one neurodivergent on their team. Current estimates show that between 1 in 8 adults have some form of neurodivergence – and only half know it. (There are many reasons why adults might not know their condition and why others will not disclose their conditions at work. These are big topics that I’ll address in the future.) For now, what you need to know is that even if no one around you has said anything, you know neurodivergent people.
Managers also need to accept that people are experts on their own lives. Even compared to each other, every neurodivergent person experiences their traits differently. One of my clients had a manager who wanted to be supportive, but when my client pointed out an area of difficulty, the manager said, “Well, that isn’t important.” That is NOT supportive. I promise you do not know more about what someone is experiencing than they do.
Managers also need to accept that being different is not bad. Thinking differently doesn’t mean your employee is any less competent. I don’t always share when I’m having difficulty at work. I often tell the story of the long-time colleague who found out I was neurodivergent and immediately assumed that I couldn’t do the same job I’d been doing successfully for YEARS. That bias is real.
Finally, to begin to support neurodiversity, you need to know how incredibly taxing it is for anyone to share their neurodivergence. There is a real risk for them anytime they discuss their experience. The fact that you want to support them is excellent, but you are one person in a career filled with managers. What if their next manager isn’t supportive? Sharing their perspectives and stories is also mentally and emotionally draining. It requires a large amount of executive function and tailored communication. Please listen when your employees are sharing, and know that sometimes, they might not be able to.
These rules are a start to being accepting and fully supportive. As you work towards acceptance, you will be required to change how you think about day-to-day actions and interactions. Acceptance isn’t something you do once – it’s something you work at, a bit at a time, for a long time. But trust me- it’s worth the work.