Neurodivergent Talent and Improving the Work Experience for All

by Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D. SHRM-SCP Vol. 48 No. 7 2021
As where and how we work continue to evolve, it is important to consider all perspectives when choosing the right approach. Ludmila N. Praslova discusses different types of hybrid working models and explains how job-crafting to employee strengths can help ensure equal footing for neurodivergent talent.

Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D. SHRM-SCP,
Professor and Director of Research, Graduate Organizational Psychology,
Vanguard University of Southern California

About a year ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rita Garwood, editor in chief of Monitor, about neurodiversity. The world, businesses and the workplace have changed quite a lot since then. So, what has happened in the realm of neurodiversity and new models of working, and how can businesses better include neurominorities? And, can including neurominorities create better workplaces for all? Both recent experience and research suggest it can. Learning to include those who have been traditionally excluded will help create more welcoming organizational systems for everyone.

The Neurodiversity Perspective

First, let’s define some of the terms. The neurodiversity perspective is a reaction to the medical model that sees psychological characteristics associated with the autism spectrum, ADHD, dyslexia and other developmental differences as a pathology. In the late 1990s, Judy Singer and Harvey Blume independently coined the term “neurodiversity” to refer to population-wide differences in neurological functioning seen as a variation of the norm. They initially stressed the role of social and cultural factors in the experience of individuals on the autism spectrum; later, the same perspective was extended to other conditions. Individuals who identify as “differently wired” typically refer to themselves as “neurodivergent” but may also identify more specifically as autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic, etc. Those who fall within the average range of functioning are referred to as “neurotypical.”

In 2012, Nick Walker used the term “neurominority” to describe the experience of autistic and other neurodivergent individuals from the perspective of unequal social power. This perspective is aligned with the social model of disability, in which disablement results from the mismatch between individuals’ needs and their environments.

For example, having an acute perception of sound or smell, which is characteristic of many on the autism spectrum, is not in itself a disability. In fact, the autistic characteristic of perceiving the world more intensely may result in unique and exceptional talents, such as superior memory and attention. Research demonstrates that, indeed, autistic people, on average, outperform non-autistic individuals on visual processing, search and integration tasks even if the information is presented very rapidly. This perceptual and integration ability is the reason autistic people are recruited for a special unit of Israel’s army. Neurodivergent analysts are particularly effective at examining complex images delivered in real-time from military satellites to detect potential threats.

At the same time, the “disabling” associated with autism and sensory sensitivity often results from living in a world designed for the less sensitive majority, with the constant “sensory assault” of overpoweringly strong sounds, smells and other stimuli. Imagine if every conversation occurring within earshot — piped music, the sound of colleagues chewing gum, the sound of the office copier — had the intensity of a leaf blower. Anyone would become overwhelmed.

Dealing with an environment designed to fit the majority impacts both the overall life experience of neurominorities and their workplace experience, including access to employment. For example, small talk as a part of a job interview is required to enter nearly all jobs, including positions for which such small talk is not essential. This barrier prevents autistic job-seekers from entering jobs for which they are fully qualified. Similarly, in traditional workplaces, managerial preferences for in-person work and refusal to allow work-from-home setups often result in burnout and, likely, a job loss for neurodivergent employees.

To include and support neurominority talent, organizations need to expand the range of options for time, place and methods in which work can be done. As demonstrated by the lessons from the unfortunate and forced experiment of the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting flexibility is likely to help all employees. However, we are only beginning to learn from these lessons.

Hybrid Work 

In many ways, work-from-home and hybrid work models have been a welcomed change. For a long time, work-from-home was an accommodation that neurominority employees and people with a range of disabilities have asked for but were denied. During 2020 and 2021, working away from overstimulating crowds, uncomfortable offices and workplace bullies has been a major improvement for many neurodivergent professionals. Whether new forms of hybrid work will allow this temporary improvement to become a long-term solution may largely depend on the will of leaders in organizations to find the best way forward.

Implemented well, hybrid work carries a promise to provide opportunities for many different types of individuals, both those who can’t wait to get back to social gatherings and those who are most fulfilled and productive working from home. It also promises expanded access and support for neurominority individuals. At the same time, there are many models of hybrid work, and selecting the win-win approach for organizational needs as well as various employee needs is a tremendous leadership challenge.

Which Hybrid?

  • There are a few ways to classify different hybrid work models, including:
  • People-split. Some individuals work on-site, while others work remotely.
  • Time-split. All individuals work some days on-site and other days remotely.
  • Remote-first. Remote work is a default, with face-to-face work as needed.
  • Office-first. In-person work is a default, with remote work as needed/allowed.

There are further intermediate types that make selecting the “best” model complicated. However, asking just a couple of questions can help with decision-making.

The first question leaders should ask is whether the nature of work will dictate the specific approach. However, most office operations can be successfully conducted under any of these approaches — and all have pluses and minuses. What should be the tie-breaker question when selecting the best approach? I suggest choosing the model or models that will help get the work done with minimal stress.

The “Great Resignation” is largely explained by burnout. Most employees feel the impact of heavy workloads and uncertainty. This is even more pronounced for neurodivergent employees. Making work sustainable for all requires minimizing the level of stress. This does not mean, however, that work does not need to be done.

Working with Our Strengths

One of the best ways to get work done with a minimal level of stress is by supporting employees in working with their strengths. That could mean selecting the place that maximizes productivity (work, home, a third place, or a specific mix), choosing times that work best with one’s natural rhythm and focusing on tasks that are best aligned with employee abilities. Again, this is not just true for neurominority employees, but because of “spiky” ability profiles, working with strengths and with who we are via job-crafting is particularly important for neurodivergent employees with areas of particularly strong and/or below-average abilities.

Unfortunately, job crafting is often seen as an individual pursuit that may benefit some employees at the expense of others and result in essential tasks not getting done. This, however, is incorrect. Job crafting should always be aligned with both individual and organizational goals. Moreover, employees can job-craft not only as individuals but as teams, and in well-selected teams, individuals are likely to have complementary rather than competing strengths. When teams and leaders craft work to advance organizational purposes and inspire individuals, undesirable tasks get done, according to Ron Carucci and Jarrod Shappell.

Concerns may still remain that different workstyles will clash and workdays will be extended when employees chose when and where to work. But, this concern does not need to limit flexibility. However, we may need to work on changing some bad work habits. Unfortunately, we often use technology meant for asynchronous communication, such as e-mail or project management software, as if these were synchronous tools, resulting in interruption to our thinking time, which is likely to be particularly stressful for autistic employees. These maladaptive work habits can be unlearned, however, and reasonable expectations for asynchronous versus synchronous work will likely reduce stress for everyone.

Additional hybrid work practices that can support neurodivergent talent, as well as the majority of employees, involve:

  • No-meeting days or half-days for deep work
  • Limiting “on” or collaboration hours to about three hours in the middle of the day, with the rest left for flexible use
  • Ensuring there are multiple methods and channels of communication, such as Zoom with video, no video, chat, e-mail and in-person meetings, all moderated in ways that allow individuals with different communication styles to be heard equally

In the next few years, humanity will design the future of work. We have an opportunity to ensure this future is both productive and inclusive by creating systems that are flexible and work with a wide range of individual talents and strengths instead of against them.

Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP uses her extensive experience with global, cultural, demographic and ability diversity to help create inclusive and equitable workplaces. She is a professor and director of Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California, and a contributor to Fast Company, SHRM blog, and ERE.

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