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As more people are diagnosed as neurodivergent, leaders need to adapt their style to accommodate this increasingly common cohort.

In 1980, the autism spectrum disorder diagnosis was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, ushering in a significant change in how we recognize the idea of ‘being’.

With many still basing their understanding of autism on stereotypes such as those represented in films like Rain Man, the acknowledgement of the disability as a glorious, technicolor spectrum with an increasingly large array of traits and behaviors was, and still is, welcome.

Fast forward 40-plus years and neurodivergency, the umbrella term that includes conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyspraxia and dyslexia, is on the rise.

Current estimates suggest that 15–20 percent of the population is neurodivergent, with an increase partly fueled by parents taking their children for a formal diagnosis only to realize that they, too, are neurodivergent.

If you don’t have neurodivergent staff among your ranks now, you will soon when these young people enter the workforce.

Adapting Requires Curiosity

Accommodating neurodivergency in the workplace is currently at the discretion of the organization. A recent survey of neurodivergent workers found that, unfortunately, only 30 percent of respondents had any formal adjustments in place to support their neurodivergency.

While accommodating neurodivergency may mean adapting leadership styles and organizational processes, it’s really a short-term commitment for long-term gain.

You’ll need a genuinely curious mindset and the ability to ask smarter questions that lay the groundwork for a truly inclusive workplace.

While it will require you to ask more questions of yourself and your team, and perhaps even interrogate your existing modus operandi, organizational biases or workplace culture, this is the first step to creating a workspace where everyone can thrive.

Practically speaking, it starts with a radical rethink of everything you ever thought you knew about the hiring process. Instead of continuing with a traditional method, consider adopting one that prioritizes the psychological safety of the candidates over tossing out curveballs, and honors their nervous system rather than disrupting and destroying it.

Providing questions prior to the interview lets candidates demonstrate depth of thought, not speed of thought.

A good way to put this into practice is to ask those with lived experience to review job ads to ensure inclusive language is used. Neurodivergent people can be extremely literal and if they don’t tick every box listed on a job ad they won’t bother applying, meaning you’ve missed out on an incredible pool of talent before you’ve even invited anyone for an interview.

Providing questions prior to the interview lets candidates demonstrate depth of thought, not speed of thought. You might also ask candidates if they’d like to redo any answers at the end of the interview.

The quality of creativity of answers will skyrocket when candidates aren’t spitting out the first answer that comes to mind.

Recently, we hired a neurodivergent candidate for a role using these techniques. They had unsuccessfully applied for a role four years earlier, prior to the implementation of our radically inclusive hiring policy.

The difference between the interviews was mind blowing. While they also had four years of additional experience, their creative and considered answers were only possible because they had the time to properly think about them. It also reinforced the importance of asking the right questions.

Safe and Inclusive

Too often, interview questions focus on hard skills and technical abilities with a singular question about conflict resolution thrown in for good measure.

By using the interview and subsequent induction processes to really deep dive into a candidate’s workplace style, you’ll be able to create a psychologically safe and inclusive workplace and dramatically reduce workplace miscommunications and unhealthy conflict.

Gather this information and use it to create employee profiles that can be circulated to the wider team every time someone new starts.

This doesn’t need to be a labor-intensive process, but it does require a genuine interest in the person sitting across the table (or screen) from you.

Neurodivergent folks will leave an organization if they don’t feel challenged, heard or valued.

Rather than expecting the candidate to slot neatly into your organizational culture, ask questions such as: How do you prefer to give and receive feedback? What’s your communication style? What do you value? When is their brain firing at its best throughout the day?

And most importantly, what accommodations will need to be made to our workplace to help you work to the best of your ability?

Whether it’s a flexible start time to accommodate someone’s circadian rhythms or noise-canceling headphones and quiet workspaces to aid deep concentration, when you start asking ‘Why can’t we?’ instead of ‘Why can’t they?’ you’ll realize that expanding the status quo to accommodate neurodivergent individuals isn’t as hard as you might have thought.

Adding these into your induction processes will also positively affect your retention rates. It will minimize misunderstandings, help your team feel heard and respected and provide a road map that outlines how to keep them engaged in their role.

This is especially important when considering neurodivergent staff are often hyper-passionate and multi-passionate. Put simply, neurodivergent folks are more likely to leave an organization if they don’t feel challenged, heard or valued.

Normalizing Accommodations

When encouraging leaders and institutions to consider the accommodations necessary to promote an inclusive workplace, there’s a natural skepticism. After all, how can a business be profitable, productive and equitable while making allowances for each individual and their unique set of working preferences.

As a leader you can manage this by balancing the unavoidable tension between running your organization and normalizing the accommodations of each staff member.

This means getting clear on your non-negotiables and having the backbone to enforce them. Most misunderstandings are a direct result of not communicating these non-negotiables in the interview process.

If a role requires a certain amount of client-facing time, communicate that. If it involves travel to quarterly company catch-ups, be specific. Most likely it will be the questions you didn’t ask regarding the non-negotiables, and that you didn’t clarify, that will trip you up.

If you can get it right, your investment in your neurodivergent team will pay dividends.

Much like how installing ramps may assist people such as wheelchair users, the elderly and parents with prams, implementing radically inclusive workplace policies will benefit your neurotypical staff as much as your neurodivergent staff.

While there is no setting that doesn’t benefit neurotypicals if you accommodate for neurodivergent folks, the reverse isn’t true.

If you can get it right, your investment in your neurodivergent team will pay dividends. Neurodivergent strengths such as visual thinking, an often described ‘photographic memory’ and a laser-sharp eye for detail will pay dividends in increased productivity, creative problem solving and absolute depth of thought.

In this climate, it’s not only non-inclusive to be homogeneous, it’s dangerous. Your strategic and competitive advantage just might lie in your neurodivergent team if you can harness their abilities and accommodate their unique style.

Cherie Clonan

Contributor Collective Member

Cherie Clonan is an award-winning marketer and the CEO of The Digital Picnic, a digital marketing agency that specializes in paid advertising and employs a largely neurodivergent workforce that is leading the way in terms of neuroinclusion within the workplace. For more information visit https://www.thedigitalpicnic.com.au/team-member/cherie-clonan/

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