Can you imagine if Albert Einstein was interrupted every 20 minutes by a meeting request? Or if Nikola Tesla got an email *ping* every 30 seconds? What if Simone Biles was told constantly to sit still and focus? Or if Hannah Gadsby and Jerry Seinfeld were told to stop cracking jokes because it’s disruptive?
Imagine the gifts that would have been lost.
Too often incredible talents are lost due to workplaces that simply aren’t accommodating or affirming for neurodivergent folk.
The spectrum of neurodivergence is wide and encompasses everything from Autism and ADHD to learning disabilities, OCD, PTSD, and traumatic brain Injury. But just because someone has a neurological difference, doesn’t mean they lack competence or skills.
Neurodivergence is considered a social disability. What that means is there is not anything inherently wrong or medically problematic about being neurodivergent, but rather that the environment they live, work, and interact in, shapes their experiences of success or distress.
Many neurodivergent people struggle in three main areas:
- Executive functioning (the ability to plan, sequence, organize, prioritize, and focus on tasks)
- Social Interactions (either due to social anxiety or difficulty processing social cues)
- Sensory Issues (such as becoming overwhelmed or actually pained, by visual, auditory, or tactile stimuli or conversely needing more sensory input to self-regulate)
Who among us has not ever struggled with any of these things? Who among us has never struggled to self-regulate? Has never become burnt out because the environment was simply too much? Has never had a mini-breakdown because the project we were working on lacked proper support and resources to complete it adequately? Or, has never needed a full-on break from people because, let’s be honest, sometimes people suck?
If you have no idea what any of those experiences are like, then…what magical universe are you living in and how do I get there?
The reason we call Neurodivergence a spectrum is that it literally is a spectrum of very basic human traits and experiences. Some people just feel particular ones more strongly or softly than others. Some people have more unique combinations of needs. But there’s nothing inherently out of the ordinary about it.
I am neurodivergent. And the hardest part about it was that I didn’t know I was neurodivergent until after I completed my PhD and was so burnout from the effort of trying to keep up and fit in with what felt like an impossible existence that I literally had to leave the workforce for a while.
Had I known and received the proper support and accommodation, things would have looked very different for me! I didn’t lack ideas, skills, insights, or gifts. I just needed different structures in place to utilize and share them.
The kicker is these supports and accommodations are easy to put in place!
The first place to start is by creating an environment where neurodivergent people feel comfortable seeking support and accommodations without fear of backlash or the stigma of being perceived as lazy or unprofessional.
Three quick tips to get the ball rolling:
- Put sensory toys around the office. And don’t even try to tell me you don’t like to fidget with a gadget or squeeze a nice squishy stress ball while on a conference call! Fidgeting and sensory toys are proven to help people self-regulate, and self-regulation is critical in reducing workplace stress and conflict!
- Create sensory-safe spaces. Where can employees go to work or decompress that is quiet, uninterrupted, has low ambient lighting, and has no strong scents? Everybody needs to be able to go somewhere, reset, or work to their max capacity. The environment we work in shouldn’t be the determining factor in our productivity, capacity, and capabilities!
- Promote self-care constantly! We have all grown up in a world where we are trained to conform to other people’s needs at the expense of our own comfort. This is literally no way to create a workforce that is engaged and takes pride in their work. Today’s employees want to have a sense of shared value but aren’t sure how to balance work and well-being. People need repeated permission to do basic things like get up and stretch during a meeting, leave and grab some air or water, eat if they are hungry, rest if they need to rest, step away from a social interaction that is taxing, or doodle and look down instead of forcing eye contact when speaking.
By doing these simple things, you will have already created a safer and more supportive environment for all your employees, but especially your neurodivergent ones. This will have a massive impact on your employees’ ability to do meaningful and quality work, and will greatly reduce conflict, stress, burnout and mental health concerns.