We’re headed for a sea change when it comes to neurological disabilities in the workplace. Up until now, the model most often used has been deficit-oriented: people with neurological disabilities lack normal functioning; they need extra help in order to become effective employees. However, a new paradigm is emerging that turns this model on its head. Now we’re discovering that people with neurological disabilities possess important abilities that so-called normal people lack, and that we need their special talents in order to get the job done. This new paradigm is embodied in the concept of neurodiversity, a perspective that first emerged within the autism community in the 1990’s, and is now expanding to include other mental health disability categories, including dyslexia, ADHD, mood disorders, and intellectual disabilities.
The central imperative of neurodiversity in the workplace is that employers focus their attention on differences, not disabilities, and in particular, that they discover as much as they can about the assets of their employees who have ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, and other brain differences. The reasoning goes that if they can identify these assets and match them to specific roles within the workplace that make use of these assets, then employee engagement and satisfaction will improve, innovation will increase, and productivity will skyrocket.
Perhaps the best known example of this new paradigm is the Danish software company Specialisterne, where three-quarters of the workers have autistic spectrum disorder. Recent research by British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, Canadian psychiatrist Lauren Mottrent, and others have revealed that individuals on the autistic spectrum have specific abilities that are tailor-made to the requirements of, in Specialisterne’s case, testing software for “bugs”. Individuals with autism tend to be good at focusing on small details rather than the big picture (this is sometimes referred to as ”enhanced perceptual functioning”). They are also great at working with systems as opposed to interpersonal relations. At Specialisterne, individuals with autism get to do what they do best: focus on small details within systems (e.g. ”bugs” in programming code) doing work that neurotypical people would consider tedious. Another plus is that they get to work alone (and the company’s clients are told not to bother them while they work). Currently, Specialistern has expanded its operations to include locations in Austria, Switzerland, Great Britain, Iceland, and the United States (Minnesota).
The same idea can be expanded to include workers who have other neurodiversities. Employees with ADHD, for example, should generally be steered away from 9 to 5 desk jobs, and toward roles that involve movement, novelty, frequent changes in activity level, and creative problem-solving. David Neeleman, found of JetBlue Airways, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, observed: ”I knew that I had strengths that other people didn’t have. . . I can distill complicated facts and come up with simple solutions. I can look out on an industry with all kinds of problems and say, ‘How can I do this better?’ My ADD brain naturally searches for better ways of doing things.”
Similarly, people with dyslexia may do better in work roles where there isn’t a heavy writing and reading load, but where instead, there is a reliance on visualization, out-of-the-box thinking, and intuition; things that many dyslexics do very well. Billionaire businessman Richard Branson, who has dyslexia, noted: “Perhaps my early problems with dyslexia made me more intuitive: when someone sends me a written proposal, rather than dwelling on detailed facts and figures, I find that my imagination grasps and expands on what I read.”
While employers, of course, still need to be mindful of federal requirements for disabled workers and provide accommodations in the workplace based on their employees’ specific needs, there is a shift of emphasis here from what’s not working to what’s working especially well. Here are some tips for companies to keep in mind when thinking about their neurodiverse workforce:
– Find out as much as you can about your neurodiverse employees’ abilities, talents, gifts, aptitudes, capacities, and potentials. Use, for example, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, to determine which of eight intelligences a worker is strongest at: word smart, number smart, picture smart, nature smart, people smart, self smart, body smart, or music smart.
– Educate your employees with ADHD, dyslexia, Aspergers, and other disability categories about their own strengths. These include the enhanced perceptual abilities of people with autism, the strong visual-spatial skills and entrepreneurial abilities of people with dyslexia, and the penchant for novelty and creative thinking of individuals with ADHD (see my book The Power of Neurodiversity for summaries and sources for these and other gifts).
– Inspire your neurodiverse employees with stories of well-known individuals in the business and scientific world who have different neurodiversities. Feature Charles Schwab (dyslexia), Kinko’s Paul Orfalea (ADHD), animal scientist Temple Grandin (autism), CISCO’s John Chambers (dyslexia), and other neurodiverse luminaries. These examples can inspire neurodiverse employees to think to themselves: ”If they can do it, so can I!”
– Look for examples already in your company where the gifts of neurodiverse workers dovetail especially well with their job description. These success stories will provide a template, so to speak, that can be followed in creating many more such “matches made in heaven” between employees and the roles or tasks they are best equipped to handle.
– Remedy situations where the gifts of neurodiverse employees are not being utilized; where what they do worst is what is most required in their job (“matches made in hell”). By reassigning tasks and rewriting job descriptions, you can make the most of your employees gifts and make those strengths available to the organization.
We live in a throw-away culture. So many of us have out-dated computers, out-of-fashion furniture, broken clocks, and other tainted goods that we take to the dump, seeing no way to utilize them. Unfortunately, all too often we approach human resources in the same way – essentially throwing away gifts and abilities within employees by not recognizing and utilizing them; strengths that are just crying out to be used to benefit the organization. Neurodiversity provides a road-map whereby we can learn to value, celebrate, and utilize those strengths in employees with neurological disabilities, so that these individuals can find new meaning and satisfaction in their work, and so that organizations can becomes stronger, happier, and more productive as a result.