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What’s next for neurodiversity in the workplace?

Neurodivergent employees can add value when given opportunities that leverage the unique characteristics of their capabilities


The month of April is recognized as Autism Acceptance Month. (freshidea/Adobe Stock)

Many Canadians spend years of their lives — sometimes their whole lives — without being formally recognized as neurodivergent.

Whether it’s autism, dyslexia, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), these differences have a way of going unnoticed for years.

For me, it wasn’t until later in life that I began to identify as autistic, which explains many of the behaviours I expressed as a child and currently face on a daily basis.

As more companies embrace diversity and inclusion within their workforce, hiring neurodivergent talent and leveraging it as a strength has become commonplace.

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Employing neurodivergent Canadians

Yet according to a recent Canadian survey on disability, only 33 per cent of neurodivergent Canadians are employed. Clearly there is still a lot more work that needs to be done to integrate neurodivergent Canadians into the workplace and fully incorporate their wide-ranging skills.

I suffer from skin hypersensitivity. Tags on clothing — including shirts, undergarments and sweaters — are downright painful. When I was younger, I assumed everyone felt the same thing. It wasn’t until I joined an autism support group about five years ago and heard another person speaking about the same thing that I realized it’s an autistic trait.

I also have difficulty with constraining and tight clothing. It’s not obvious to most people that no matter how well fitted, I’m in considerable discomfort at all times while wearing a suit. That discomfort is carefully masked, and I expend extensive energy in order not to fidget with my buttons, necktie, socks and pants at all times. This often reveals itself as a struggle with concentration and hyperactivity.

It’s comforting to know I’m not alone. Over the years, I’ve come to know of many neurodivergent friends who have also grappled with these issues and have faced detrimental effects to their careers. After decades of practice, therapy, and medical assistance, I’m finally at a stable place where I can weather these challenges on a daily basis without too much impairment. But I am one of the few — many neurodivergent folks are not so lucky.

Normalizing the conversation

I want to speak openly about the challenges of neurodivergent people in the workplace.  I want to help normalize the conversation for those in the community who may not have as much privilege as I have to do so safely. My hope is for organizations to take a closer look at their hiring practices and develop job descriptions that hire people for their potential.

Neurodivergent individuals have a demonstrated ability to contribute dynamically and constantly learn.

We live in a world of constant change; thus, the people we hire should exhibit the skills needed to evolve in a fluctuating environment. I believe these folks are like me. They’re neurodivergent.

Businesses in Canada can seize a new opportunity that incorporates neurodiversity vertically throughout an organization, into management and executive roles.

It’s a misunderstanding that the strengths of neurodivergent employees are technical in nature only. In fact, neurodiversity can enable creative, lateral thinking in all areas of professional practice and across business functions.

Celebrating unique employees

There are many preferred modes of communication within the neurodivergent community. Some are uncomfortable with voice; some are uncomfortable with video or text; some have sensory issues, and some have concentration issues.

Each neurodivergent person is unique. By incorporating a variety of collaborative tools within the workplace such as video web conferencing, Slack, and email, businesses can build a more productive and enriched workforce as a result.

I believe neurodiversity is best reflected in the second part of the term: diversity. It’s about difference, not a single mode of thinking.

Some neurodivergent people thrive on structure while others, like me, don’t. What’s key for businesses is to understand that each person is different and then align their specific needs to appropriate internal tools and processes.

Neurodivergent employees can add value when given opportunities that leverage the unique characteristics of their capabilities.

Once we achieve this milestone, our next challenge lays ahead: getting neurodivergent folks into executive positions and providing them with a path to get there.

A neurodiverse view on executive strategic management is exactly what organizations in fast-changing industries need to stay relevant and maintain a competitive edge.

Mekki MacAulay, PEng, PhD, is a senior open source strategy advisor at IBM Canada in Toronto.

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