Before a manager can support neurodiversity), they must accept neurodivergence. That sounds simple – but I promise you it isn’t. More people are becoming aware of neurodiversity, which is the idea that we all have brains that work differently. Within the neurodiverse population are those that are “neurotypical.” That means that though everyone is different the operating system that runs their brain is similar. This is about 70% of the population. There is increased awareness of conditions like ADHD, Autism, and Dyslexia, which are three of the major conditions that would make someone “neurodivergent,” meaning they are in the group of people whose neural operating system is different than the norm. But acceptance in the workplace? That’s another story.
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. I once had an executive confidently say that no one “like that” could work for his company – not knowing that around that same conference table, at least four other people including myself were, in fact, neurodivergent. 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. Thinking you don’t have to deal with neurodiversity because no one has asked is mistaken and ableist.
Managers also need to accept that people are experts on their own lives. Though many of the characteristics neurodivergent people have can be similar to things you might encounter, you cannot assume that what you think is correct and what your employee is telling you about their own life is wrong. 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, though in many instances neurodivergent people are perceived as being unintelligent or incompetent. 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, colleagues, and employees. What if their next manager isn’t supportive? When layoffs happen, neurodivergent employees are often first up for dismissal, regardless of prior performance. Sharing their own perspectives and stories is also mentally and emotionally draining. It requires a large amount of executive function and tailored communication. Anyone willing to do the emotional work of helping you by sharing is sacrificing their resources with no guarantee the risk they are taking will ever be rewarded.
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.
So, if you are a manager who wants to support neurodiversity, remember – we live in a neurodiverse world with different neurotypes. People are experts in their own lives. Different isn’t good or bad. It doesn’t mean people are less competent than others. Finally, understand how taxing it can be for any neurodivergent person to share their experiences. It is challenging and emotional work that also puts them at risk.
It feels funny to talk about the work and risk of sharing – I can almost forget that I’m also talking about myself. My professional success certainly could be affected by what I disclose. I am very fortunate to work at a company that values diversity and for managers that genuinely want to help me succeed. My colleagues are some of the best people I’ve ever known. Still, no one ever knows what tomorrow holds, and absolutely I am opening myself up to ridicule, negative assumptions, and disbelief – and it could cost my family and me dearly. But as hard as it is, I do believe that everyone who wants to deserves to go to work and be themselves without being penalized for it. I also know that the steps needed to gain neurodiversity acceptance are also things that make the workplace and the WORLD better for everyone. So, knowing that, let’s change the world.