What is Neurodiversity and Why Should it Matter to Your Company?

by Rita E. Garwood Nov/Dec 2020
Taking the experiences of neurodiverse employees and customers into consideration can be vital to a company’s success. In an interview with Monitor, Dr. Ludmila Praslova explains what neurodiversity is and how to normalize it in a business setting.

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

Neurodiversity is often invisible. What, exactly, is it? And why should companies care about it?

“If you look at humanity, neurodiversity is functional and necessary,” Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D., professor and director of Research with Graduate Programs in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California, says. “A broad range of strengths enriches groups, from team to societies.”

Neurodiversity scholars theorize that some early humans were naturally brave, which enabled them to ignore danger and fight saber-toothed tigers. Others were so attuned to their environment that they could sense the tiger approaching from a mile away and help the group avoid fighting altogether.

Over time, the first group wound up in positions of power. Praslova says these members of the neuromajority have arranged working environments in a manner they preferred, which translated into disadvantages for neurominorities, who became pathologized.

Neurodiversity is typically defined as encompassing autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette’s and related conditions, which are often referred to as disabilities, but Praslova says that in many cases, ”disabling” comes from societal environments.

Neurodiversity in the Workplace

To illustrate this in the modern workplace, Praslova says the neuromajority often requires more stimulation — loud music, open office plans or lots of activity — to function at an optimal level. This often leaves neurominorities, especially those with sensory sensitivities, at a disadvantage.

“Those with less power are experiencing sensory assault,” Praslova says. “They can’t function.” Praslova, who is autistic, says sensory overload can make her sick. Introverts also can have trouble functioning in bustling open office settings.

Because many neurodiverse employees are afraid to disclose, Praslova says they cannot access basic accommodations that could be inexpensive or free for employers to implement. Eventually, they become burned out or ill.

Unfortunately, most companies are not attuned to these differences in their employees, leaders or customers. This imbalance has resulted in a startling statistic: 83.2% of autistic people with college degrees are unemployed.[1]

Praslova points out that intentionally hiring neurodiverse employees is not only good for humanity, it’s great for a company’s bottom line. JPMorgan Chase launched an Autism at Work program in July 2015 designed to hire people on the spectrum. Initial results from the program indicated that employees in the program worked 48% faster than their peers and were 92% more productive.[2]

Serving Neurodiverse Customers

Have you considered the experience of your neurodiverse customers? Praslova points out a common practice in many companies: website advertising. To enhance the experience of customers with dyslexia, it’s important to communicate visually and use fonts and backgrounds that are easier to take in. Autistic customers will be turned off by loud videos or pop ups.

“If you create different types of communication that are friendly to the specific populations, you’re likely to bring in more business, and if you don’t cater to those populations, you’re leaving money on the table,” Praslova says.

Praslova says it’s important to realize that these efforts will take time: “If you look at history of changing various stereotypes, it just doesn’t happen very fast. Change is definitely coming and small steps of educating yourself a little bit more every day can help people tremendously.” •

  1. “Facts and Statistics,” Autism Society. Aug 29, 2015.

  2. “Neurodiverse Hiring Brings Social and Business Benefits,” JPMorgan Chase.

Rita E. Garwood is editor in chief of Monitor.

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