Neurodiversity in the workplace: how to build a more inclusive environment?

My name is Andrei de Oliveira Mosman, I live in Brazil, and I work at intive as a Software Engineer. However, this time I am not going to talk about my experience in the software development field. Instead, I want to share a more personal part of my life. When I was 10 years old, I was diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), what is currently known as Attention Deficit & Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Although this aspect of my life is not widely known, I am convinced that talking about it can help many people expand their sensitivity and enrich their relationships at work.

In this article, we will address general concepts about the main types of neurodivergence, explain the most common challenges they present in the workplace, and discuss what actions can be taken -individually or collectively- to help people with a neurodevelopmental disorder feel more comfortable in their day-to-day lives. But first, let's start by understanding the difference between the term "neurotypical" and "neurodivergent."

Understanding differences: neurotypical vs. neurodivergent

The term neurodivergent is used today to refer to those of us who experience differences in cognitive, behavioral, neurological, and neuroanatomical functioning. The concept of neurodivergence encompasses a variety of disorders, such as Attention Deficit & Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Specific Learning Disorder (including Dyslexia), Intellectual Development Disorders, Communication Disorders, and Motor Disorders.

On the other hand, the term neurotypical describes individuals whose neurological development and functioning follow regular patterns.

The challenges of being neurodivergent in the workplace

When working in a company, neurodivergent individuals experience several challenges. Based on the three most common disorders, we will explore the main difficulties we often face in this scenario.

- ASD is characterized by atypical development, behavioral manifestations, communication and social interaction deficits, and repetitive and stereotyped behavior patterns. The major challenges related to ASD are social interaction, communication, and sensory sensitivity. Sounds at a very high volume can be as annoying as physical pain, which makes written communication channels, such as a ticket, e-mail, or instant message, much more effective

- ADHD includes difficulty in paying attention, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior. In the workplace, the most significant challenges are linked to context changes, time management, poorly structured or imprecisely formulated requests, and constant distractions or interruptions.

- Dyslexia is characterized by difficulties in accurate and/or fluent word recognition, decoding, and spelling. In the work environment, difficulties may arise in the interpretation of written language, mathematical skills, and the identification of symbols. In some cases, short-term memory, verbal communication, and spatial perception may be affected.

Mistakes around neurodiversity: invisibility and romanticization

Our biases and stereotypes generate two major pitfalls when interacting with neurodivergent individuals: invisibility and romanticization.

When someone shares their diagnosis of a neurodevelopmental disorder, it is common for us to instinctively respond with comments such as "I'm a bit ADHD too" or "I also find it hard to concentrate in noisy environments" with the aim of not making that person feel "different" or excluded. Far from generating integration, these actions produce an invisibility of their reality, blocking the development of mechanisms, and even laws, that help a neurodivergent person to obtain the same quality of life as others.

On the other hand, romanticization creates a narrative that attempts to glorify neurodivergence as a positive attribute. By stating phrases such as "Hyperconcentration is a superpower" or "Autistic people are geniuses", we are completely ignoring the suffering that can exist behind these characteristics.

Keys to integrating neurodivergence in the workspace

Building an inclusive organizational culture that celebrates diversity with an open and empathetic approach is paramount. To achieve this, companies can implement different actions, starting by:

- Establishing inclusive policies and practices, with goals and objectives that can be tracked over time.

- Consulting with professionals and establishing partnerships with specialized organizations can be of great help when implementing support strategies and workplace adaptations.

- Creating awareness-raising opportunities for all team members, such as informative talks, are the basis for promoting dialogue and providing tools to create an inclusive workplace.

It is very important that neurodivergent people can work in a safe and respectful environment, where they can count on flexibility and emotional support, without being afraid to speak out.

In this regard, it is essential that team leaders are provided with the necessary resources to ensure that all team members feel comfortable with the work methodologies and communication channels chosen. For example, although it is common practice to invite all participants to present in public, in many cases this can be a very stressful situation and perceived as a violent experience.

Setting up my own framework

Over the years, I have built my own working framework, to perform at the same level as a neurotypical person and feel comfortable when working. From technological apps to a post-it board, several tools adapted to my needs became essential in the performance of my daily tasks.

- Setting alarms: every time I have a commitment, I set different reminders that allow me to keep it in mind and stay ahead of it.

- Using apps: the main applications that help me daily are BeFocused (to organize my time with the Pomodoro method), Grammarly (to correct my written communications), and MindNode (to create mental maps).

- Not listening to music: in general, I prefer to work in a silent environment, as listening to music is a big barrier to my concentration. When I am in a noisy room, I try to listen to instrumental music, preferably unfamiliar to me, to focus on my work.

- Organizing myself with a post-its system: I have an outline of colored post-its and I make a board with them. When something is very important and I need to remember it, I stick that post-it at the bottom of the screen to make sure it is my priority.

- Keeping my desk tidy: I generally avoid having too many objects on my desk.

- Practicing activities that stimulate dopamine: having ADHD, I need to stimulate dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in brain functions related to learning, memory, and emotional state. Therefore, during my breaks, I practice activities that stimulate it, such as climbing, painting, writing, or guitar playing.

- Fostering effective communications: I always demand and make detailed requests, maintaining clear processes. I also try to be very open with my difficulties and needs to help others understand me and improve my communication with them.

Disclaimer: please bear in mind that this is my framework, and what works for me does not necessarily work for everyone. These ideas can surely help and inspire many people to build their own space, with the tools that work best for them.

Embracing differences to make inclusion happen

By observing my framework, you have probably noticed that adapting to the ways of the "neurotypical" world involves a significant effort for neurodivergent individuals. All of us are likely to work at some point with someone who suffers from one type of neurodevelopmental disorder, and by having a greater awareness of this reality, we will be able to implement small changes that will facilitate their daily tasks and improve their well-being.

Expanding our awareness and implementing concrete actions are the first steps to generate a more inclusive and friendly work environment, in which all people can focus their energy on their tasks and professional growth.

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