7 Common Misconceptions about Neurodiversity at Work

people working in an office and a brain graphic overlaying

“What’s a question I should have asked you, but didn’t?” That’s something a mentor of mine consistently asks folks at the end of every conversation.

Here I want to talk about a question nobody typically asks us at Uptimize when it comes to neuroinclusion – but it’s one that I sense might nevertheless be on people’s minds.

That question is: what misconceptions do people make, and what mistakes can be made as a result, when it comes to neurodiversity at work (and neuroinclusion)?

We will discuss a few of these mistakes and fallacies here, below. A couple of quick notes before we do, though.

Firstly, often folks can be apprehensive about topics involving neurodiversity and/or disability topics and are nervous about getting things wrong notably in terms of language. That apprehension in itself can be a positive thing, so long as it doesn’t inhibit any action on the topics, as it can engender curiosity and sensitivity in terms of what such topics really mean to people and how they should be properly addressed in the workplace context. Often, per the below, bigger issues come from making snap judgments that are only semi-informed, judgments that often narrow the scope for value-add solutions that would really make an impact in employee well-being and neuroinclusive hiring.

Secondly, many people avoid all these misconceptions completely. Some may find themselves leaning into just one or two. They are far from universal. It may be helpful, nevertheless, to see them each called out.

Neurodiversity Misconceptions, Myths, and Fallacies

The “we don’t have neurodiversity in our company” misconception

Every team, every candidate pool, every set of investors… you name it, any group of humans consists of people with different brains. That’s the reality of neurodiversity. Perhaps as many as 1 in 5 may also be neurodivergent in some way, with particular traits (and strengths) that may not be immediately considered or accommodated for. Generally the notion that “we don’t have much neurodiversity here” comes both from ignorance of what neurodiversity truly means (and it’s universality) as well as from a culture where neurodivergent professionals do not feel safe sharing this dimension of their identity.

(It’s instructive here to consider what happened in organizations with early neurodiversity hiring programs: as more individuals were hired, neurodivergent employees across these organizations began to disclose in greater numbers, showing that the organization was already more neurodiverse than had been previously acknowledged.)

The “neurodiversity is not a priority” fallacy

This flows from misconception 1, “we don’t have many neurodivergent people here”, and also from an ignorance of the likely true proportion of neurodivergent people in societies. At Uptimize we spoke with one company, for example, that had surveyed employees (likely with heavily medicalized language) and had found that only a tiny fraction (less than .5%) had identified as neurodivergent. So, they had concluded – surely this was hardly a priority. In reality, again – every team is neurodiverse, every interaction involves people with different brains, and yet typically those interactions take place without neurodiversity and neurodivergence in mind. Changing this must be a priority when organizations are struggling to find and retain talent: re. the latter, in the age of “The Great Resignation”, note that a third of voluntary turnover is due to employees feeling like they need to move for opportunities to advance, or due to issues with their manager or work environment.

The “neutral starting point” myth

This relates to the idea that an organization’s current state around neuroinclusion is somehow neutral or passable… something fuelled again by ignorance of the topic, and the false belief – per misconception one – that the organization “does not have neurodiversity”. Let’s look at the stark picture of the neurodivergent experience in organizations. One 2021 survey found that only 1 in 10 neurodivergent people typically feel comfortable disclosing at work. Another found a whopping 96% want their organizations to do more to be neuroinclusive. Those data points speak of a crisis of marginalization and a lack of inclusivity… something that needs to be addressed swiftly in order to provide a working environment in which everybody can thrive.

The “neurodivergent people will tell us they are neurodivergent” misconception

Here’s how this plays out. Somebody – let’s call them Rob – starts, sensibly enough, by looking at their internal diversity data. They see they have some demographic data relating to ethnicity, or gender… but not much relating to neurodiversity or disability. Rob knows his organization wants to do “something” around neurodiversity, and is big on data, so he thinks “hmmm, if we could just know who everybody is to start with, then we’d know who we need to support”. That’s what leads to what I call the “show of hands” fallacy – the idea that neurodivergent people in an organization will willingly disclose (when they have chosen not to, typically for good reason, up to that point) just because they are suddenly asked to do so in a new survey. Better, instead, to show neurodivergent employees that this is a topic that matters to the organization through meaningful action to boost neuroinclusion. History shows that through this approach, per the above, some (even, many) such employees may then feel increasingly comfortable disclosing as neurodivergent over time.

The “one solution fits all” inclusion program approach fallacy

As with so many of these misconceptions, this ties together with many of the others, notably misconception 4 above. “If we can find out who’s who”, goes the logic, “we can get them all what they need”. Yet – as the saying goes – if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person, and the same could be said for neurodivergent people more generally. No two people have exactly the same traits, strengths or needs. One Uptimize customer reported originally having invited three openly dyslexic employees to a discussion session – the topic, “what do you all need to be successful?” Somewhat to the HR team in question’s surprise, they received three very different answers, suggesting a more nuanced approach is necessary here, one that combines the proactivity of Universal Design with a person-centered focus where individuals have additional preferences or needs beyond.

The “only HR needs to be trained on this” fallacy

Let’s finish here with a couple of implementation mistakes, the first being the idea that “only role x (eg, managers, or recruiters) needs to be well-informed about this”. Based on Uptimize’s substantial research through community focus groups, this is simply not the case: it only takes one colleague or interviewer to be ill-informed and prejudiced to make an employee’s experience intolerable, or to contribute to a talented candidate being overlooked. Better, in our experience, to ensure everybody can take a “moment of pause” to consider neurodiversity (and neuroinclusion) in all facets of their day to day work, than to focus exclusively on one role here.

The “one and done” employee training misconception

There’s no question, per the above, that any action around improving awareness, tactical competency, and process-sensitivity related to neuroinclusion is a lot better than nothing. But, effective change and support here cannot come from one isolated discussion of the topic. What happens next, when a colleague wants to ask HR for advice here, and HR have not themselves been trained in the topic. What happens when a job applicant discloses to a hiring manager three months later, and that hiring manager remembers how you respond to disclosure is very important, but can’t quite remember the key steps? And what is the perception of the organization from its neurodivergent employees when an isolated action is perceived to have been sufficient in transforming their experience at work – when, in reality, it was at best a conversation-starter?

The answer here, of course (and I hope, the conclusion from the rest of the article) is that meaningful action and not just lip service when it comes to neuroinclusion is urgent, and can have immediate benefits for both individual employees and for their employers.

Interested in learning more aboutneurodiversity misconceptions and solutions? Get free access to our latest webinar, “Most Common Misconceptons about Neurodiversity at Work” 

Ed Thompson Founder CEO Uptimize

Ed Thompson is the CEO and founder of Uptimize – a unique corporate training platform that helps organizations attract, hire and retain talent that thinks differently. Uptimize works globally with organizations like Salesforce, JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte and IBM, building robust and impactful neurodiversity at work programs. Ed has also become a frequent speaker on the topic of neurodiversity in the workplace. His book, A Hidden Force, is available now.

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