Common Misconceptions about Neurodiversity at Work
The neurodistinct community is large; estimates vary anywhere from 1 in 20 people to as many as 1 in 5. With those figures in mind, you most likely already work with neurodivergent talent in your company. What we could term the neurodistinct ‘affinity group’ – family members and close friends with a strong developed empathy and understanding – is thus likely very large indeed.
However, the demographic outside of that affinity group remains larger still – and misconceptions and ignorance of neurodiversity and neurodivergence remain commonplace.
Neurodistinct people continue to face many incorrect stereotypes
At Uptimize, we often ask our focus group interviewees if they have encountered stereotypes. Here are three fairly typical responses:
“The main stereotype I’ve encountered about ADHD is that it is something you grow out of. And also that it’s mainly something that boys have.” – Abi Sylvester
“The (main) stereotype of dyslexia I think has been ‘lazy’. I think it’s a very easy one to go to. But I don’t think that’s true at all. I think actually people with dyslexia work a hell of a lot harder.” – Danny Pallett
“First and foremost, as an autistic female, the big stereotype that you encounter is that you can’t possibly be autistic because you’re female.” – Kierstin Miller
Such stereotypes have likely grown from a combination of the negative framing of neurodivergence as ‘conditions’ diagnosed only on difficulties rather than strengths or challenges faced by neurodistinct people in the schooling system, and what have often been limiting – even, warped – portrayals of neurodistinct people in popular culture.
Watch this video of our interviewees discussing stereotypes (with closed caption available):
Culture is the main concern among neurodivergent employees – not ability
It is this level of ignorance – and these misconceptions – that have led an overwhelming majority of our focus groups at Uptimize to cite Culture as the most important aspect of workplace inclusion above its bedfellows Processes, Policies, and Environments.
When we spoke with students and soon-to-be-job-seekers in the renowned Spectrum Support Program at Rochester Institute of Technology, none expressed fears around their capability to do a job to a high standard. Many, by contrast, did express concerns around what we could broadly call ‘cultural acceptance’ – worries as to whether they would be accepted (or negatively judged) by coworkers and managers.
This steer from the community is why our initial focus at Uptimize is always on essential culture change: shifting an employee base from a level of ignorance and stereotypes to a new state of awareness, empathy and enthusiasm for neurodiversity and neurodivergence.
Beyond the common prevalent misconceptions of neurodistinct people, there are other misconceptions in the world of neurodiversity at work. Positive or well-meaning misconceptions, perhaps, of people who recognize neurodiversity as important and want to do more about it. One we often come across is that neurodiversity relates only to people who are neurodistinct, therefore neurodiversity inclusion is only about supporting people who have self-disclosed. Let’s take a deeper look at this, next.
Neurodiversity inclusion is not only about finding ways to get neurodistinct individuals to ‘raise their hand’ for special supports
At Uptimize, we often hear clients in the early stages of program building express as a goal that they find out exactly who is neurodistinct and who is not – essentially, to have neurodistinct folks ‘raise their hand’ so that specific supports can be put in place for these employees. This approach stems from the common – but mistaken – belief that ‘neurodiversity’ refers only to ‘people with neurodiverse conditions’. As a result, so goes the logic, neurodistinct people likely require support that others don’t (everyone else is probably fine as they are, and if we can only find out who is neurodistinct, we can provide it to them.)
While a well-meaning approach, this is also based on a key misconception, missing as it does the true universality of neurodiversity. Recognizing this essential universality of human neurodiversity allows organizations to leverage universal design in the proactive shaping of environments or processes that can benefit everybody – including folks who are neurodistinct in some way. Examples of proactive ‘universal design’ for inclusion in action: a firm asking for employees’ input into their new office design, a manager asking all of their team how they would like to receive instructions, or a manager institutionalizing weekly wellness check-ins with their direct reports.
Only supporting neurodivergent people who have “disclosed” can cause significant practical issues
Firstly, though neurodiversity inclusion programs have typically led to a spike in employee self-disclosures, there is no reason to expect all neurodistinct employees to do so in a certain timeframe: some may remain skeptical of how colleagues or a manager might respond, and more comfortable ‘masking’ – despite what is often described as a significant daily toll of effort to do so.
Here’s Brad, another of our focus group participants:
“I made a rule to myself that I won’t disclose that I’m on the spectrum until I find someone I can trust. I’m not gonna just say right off the bat, ‘Hey, it’s nice to meet you. I’m on the autism spectrum’. That’s just out of nowhere. It’ll maybe change someone’s perception of me, which it doesn’t need to.”
Other employees, particularly in older generations, may have a combination of traits that would qualify them for a diagnosis of neurodivergence, but might be unaware of this. Such employees would, then, not respond to an organizational effort at neurodistinct ‘hand-raising’, however inclusively framed.
Thus, by focusing efforts only on employees who have disclosed – or on ways to encourage other employees to do so – organizations will still likely fail to support many employees who may not be entirely comfortable (and, consequently, fully productive) in their current roles.
The universal benefits of neuroinclusion
Many of the early corporate neurodiversity program builders – who typically launched and developed specific autism hiring programs – noticed something big related to their efforts to include and support their new hires. Across the board, new process adjustments (such as making career development options more transparent), environmental modifications to reduce sensory overload, and neurodiversity-focused education (for example, of managers) seemed to be benefitting everybody… not only staff who were neurodistinct.
Indeed, “It’s just made me a better manager” has become a common testimony of managers involved in such programs, with such managers describing a greater sensitivity to differences and preferences across the whole of their teams. This leads to greater engagement and performance. “I’ve learned to listen and observe people’s behavior more effectively”, reported one such manager at a global investment bank who has been through essential neurodiversity inclusion training.
These universal benefits speak both to the universality of neurodiversity – as mentioned above – and the power of universal design in building a more neuroinclusive organization.
Rather than limiting the focus to supporting neurodistinct employees who have raised their hands and asked for specific support, organizations should instead take active steps toward universal inclusion regardless of how many employees have disclosed. This will likely benefit all staff. Remember, everyone has their own communication preferences, for example. Such efforts at universal inclusion can also remove some of the more pressing needs for a neurodistinct employee to disclose and begin what can be a complex, overwhelming, and very medically-focused process towards seeking what could be a minor support or adjustment. The type of need and adjustment that could have been surfaced and provided by a manager in regular wellbeing check-ins with their team.
As and when employees do choose to disclose, whether to colleagues, their manager, or HR, the latter groups should respond positively and sensitively, allowing the individual to be in the driving seat, and avoiding the base misconceptions and stereotypes of particular ‘conditions’ highlighted earlier in this post. In this way, all employees can benefit from more sensitive and inclusive processes, environments, and cultures, while specific needs that remain unmet can be provided for at an individual level based on that individual’s own (superior!) understanding of themselves and their requirements.
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