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4 Ways to Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Kristy Esparza

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US, a time to celebrate mental health, reduce stigmas, and focus on emotional well-being. There’s no better time than now to evaluate your company’s approach to mental health and wellness. Supporting neurodiversity is a big part of that picture.

Although the term “neurodiverse” wasn’t coined until the 1990s, neurodiversity isn’t new, and it certainly isn’t rare. In fact, about one in eight people is considered neurodiverse.

“It’s important to understand that neurodiversity is a dimension of humanity. It’s not good or bad. It just is,” said Rajesh Anandan, co-founder and CEO of Ultranauts, an engineering firm powered by cognitively diverse teams.

Last year at Relativity Fest, Rajesh joined Relativity CHRO Beth Clutterbuck, Emily Kircher-Morris, host of The Neurodiversity Podcast, and Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring at Microsoft, to talk about neurodiversity in the workplace and how to unlock and retain this vast pool of untapped talent.

The discussion yielded a lot of food for thought and tips for encouraging and supporting neurodiverse employees. Here are the four top tips that you can start thinking about today.

1. Reassess your application process.

Anyone who’s applied to a job before knows the routine: you send in your cover letter and resume and, if the HR department likes what they see, they give you an interview … often multiple interviews to size you up for the role.

Interviews are a staple of the hiring world, but it doesn’t mean they’re effective—especially if you’re looking to attract diverse candidates. In fact, a Google survey found that interview scores had no correlation with on-the-job performance of those who were hired.

Instead, consider alternative options to assess your candidates. At Ultranauts, for example, Rajesh makes sure that every job opening includes job test simulations.

“[Simulations] are much more effective at predicting on-the-job performance than looking at past years or relying on interviews,” Rajesh said.

2. Embrace multi-modal communication.

The ever-growing data landscape makes us in the e-discovery world shudder, but alternative forms of communication—chat, video, voice, and email—are key when it comes to attracting and retaining neurodiverse talent.

“Multi-modal communication allows everyone to participate,” says Rajeesh. “Instead of standups being only spoken, it’s multi-modal. Instead of the backlog only being discussed in real time, it’s available to review on your own time.”

For example, an individual on your team may struggle to understand and process verbal inputs or directions, making in-person or phone communication difficult. Multi-modal communication gives them the opportunity to communicate in a way that works best for them.

3. When in doubt, start small.

Rajeesh built his company, Ultranauts, with neurodiverse people in mind. Implementing these processes wasn’t something he had to do retroactively—it’s in the company’s DNA.

Understandably, these types of big systemic changes aren’t realistic—at least not right away—for larger, more established companies. But that doesn’t mean that you’re out of options. You might just have to start smaller and think about the things that can change.

One place to start? Think through policies and processes that exist because “it’s the way you’ve always done it.” Chances are, there’s a need for change.

“Everybody needs to take the opportunity to look at where they are and evaluate what’s working and what’s not,” Emily said.

At Microsoft, for example, Neil explained how his team tests best practices at a small scale and brings them back to the company. He used their hiring process as an example. Previously, they would have in-person interviews where the interviewee would be expected to write code on a white board.

“That’s not inclusive for anyone,” Neil said.

So, he changed it. He began asking applicants to bring their own laptops.

“What we saw was incredible. It was a better experience for the candidate. We had the hiring manager bring it back to their teams and integrate it into daily interviews for everybody,” he explained. “Taking the best practices and getting them to scale across the company is important in making [the company] more inclusive for everybody.”

4. Encourage education & curiosity across your organization.

Aside from policy changes and updates to your team’s structure, there’s one key ingredient to creating a more inclusive environment for neurodiverse individuals (or any type of diversity for that matter): education and discussion.

"The more we can educate, the more it becomes something that’s normal,” Beth said. “How you present or how you interact might be different than what is traditionally expected, but it is not bad. It’s just you.”

Many companies are starting to do a lot more education, training, and development around diversity and neurodiversity in particular, but it seems this type of advocacy is just in the natal stages. If your organization doesn’t have a program or resource, ask for one, Beth encouraged.

“If you’re trying to create an inclusive place, start early with the notion that difference is a good thing. Difference is to be celebrated. Everyone is bringing their own uniqueness to the situation,” she said. “In the age of tech, it’s fascinating to see where we can take this. I’m seeing seeds now and I’m really excited for what my grandkids are going to experience. I’m hoping it’s going to be a dramatically different experience.”

In the New Year, Give Work+Life Grace a Try

Kristy Esparza is a member of the marketing team at Relativity, specializing in content creation and copywriting.