Neurodiversity In The Workplace: Exciting Opportunities On The Horizon

By: The RethinkCare Team

Person in yellow jacket standing near a large waterfall

The question that pops into nearly all parents’ minds at some point – what will my child’s future look like – yields a wide array of aspirations… and even more questions. Some, clear as day, while others, foggy. And what if you have a child with an intellectual or developmental disability (I/DD)? What will his or her future hold? The good news is, today, it’s not just Mom and Dad who are the advocates helping to carve out meaningful employment for their children. It’s the future employers, too. But a little context first…

We’ve heard the statistics about employment among the I/DD population, and the numbers are staggering. The ARC surveyed families raising children with an I/DD for a 2010 study, and they reported only 15% of their children were employed. These data were similar to many other surveys, including the National Core Indicators (NCI) Data Brief, which highlighted the high underemployment or unemployment rates of people with an I/DD along with what type of housing they resided in (e.g., 33% of those living independently had employment vs 17% living with parents, etc.), whether they liked their jobs (92% of those working in the community said “Yes”), and the type of work they did (30% cleaning/maintenance, 18% retail, etc.). Certainly, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on disability in all areas of public life, as well as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which specifically enforces that employers not discriminate against qualified individuals with disabilities during interviewing, hiring, training, or firing. While these laws and groups are crucial for our employed population, how are we getting more people with I/DD into the work- force in the first place? And how are we supporting their work to facilitate their success?

Enter the word “Neurodiversity.” This is still a fairly new term, and while its definition will continue to evolve, most agree it refers to the concept that we are all wired differently. The tech industries have taken particular interest in this concept. Companies such as Microsoft, SAP, Willis Towers Watson, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), and Ford have all examined their human resources practices to better access and accommodate neurodiverse talent. Microsoft even has their own “Neurodiversity In The High Tech Workforce Conference.” Companies are starting to recognize and celebrate the need for a neurodiverse workforce. And this isn’t just a hunch. Real work has been done to demonstrate the strengths of a subset of this workforce: those with I/DD and learning disabilities. HPE’s program has placed over 30 individuals from within this “neurodiverse subset” in roles testing software at Australia’s Department of Human Services, and this subset was found to be 30% more productive than colleagues without a disability. Israel’s Defense Force has a “Visual Intelligence Division,” which employs many individuals with autism as image analysts and even recruits high school students for strong visual thinking and attention to detail. These are the students that would otherwise receive an exception letter from participating in the Israeli Army due to their disability.

This is encouraging news for parents to hear, so why isn’t every company doing this? And why are people with dis- abilities still so underemployed when we know they have so much to contribute? Many times, it comes down to just getting past the interview. If you aren’t making eye contact, your conversation goes off on a tangent, you focus on the interviewer’s earrings or the picture of their dog on the desk and keep circling back to those topics, for example, this can be confusing to someone who has never supported an employee with a disability before. They may even assume you’re uninterested or underprepared and, therefore, not an appropriate fit for the job. The result – another “We’re sorry” response, and it’s back to square one. Or let’s say you are hired but are having difficulty prioritizing tasks and staying focused on your work. You get distracted by people coming and going alongside your desk, the side conversations you overhear are always derailing your concentration, and those fluorescent light bulbs are almost unbearable. Never mind the fact that you can’t keep all those projects organized. You may eventually find yourself getting fired because you missed too many deadlines. Or let’s say you exceed expectations when it comes to your tasks, but when it comes to inter- acting with your colleagues, you find it agonizing. Knowing you must give that presentation in front of even three people looms over you and makes you sweat more than anything in the world. The anticipation of talking to others at that upcoming holiday party makes you nauseated for weeks. And conflict resolution? You don’t know where to begin. Even though you produce superior work, you may find yourself leaving your job because the social expectations are too much to bear.

We know people are facing challenges like these daily all over the world. Where’s the disconnect, and thus, the opportunity for the company? Awareness and training for managers and employees to better support a neurodiverse workforce.

Companies are required to provide reasonable accommodations to their employees with disabilities unless that accommodation would cause the business undue hardship. A Job Accommodation Network (JAN) study found that the majority of accommodations were completely free, or if there was a cost, it averaged only around $500. The benefit? Increased morale and productivity, better retention rates, reducing workers’ compensation and training costs, and increasing diversity throughout the company. With awareness and training, managers and “neurotypical” employees can support their col- leagues who may benefit from even the simplest of tweaks to their job duties. Let’s look at a few examples:

Challenges with Communication and Speaking •         Allow a written response instead of verbal 

•         Provide advanced notice of topics for practice purposes

•         Allow a colleague to present material on the employee’s behalf

Challenges with Organization and Prioritization •         Assist with a color coding system for files and projects 

•         Work with the employee to create daily/weekly To-Do list

•         Assign a mentor to assist the employee

•         Provide a timer to assist with time allocation

Challenges with Social Interactions with Coworkers •         Provide sensitivity training 

•         Allow telecommuting if needed

•         Assign a mentor to assist the employee

•         Provide clear expectations of appropriate behavior and examples to explain inappropriate behavior

•         Provide positive reinforcement for appropriate social behavior

Challenges with Sensory Issues •         Allow noise canceling headphones 

•         Provide sound absorption panels

•         Provide a sound machine

•         Relocate the employee’s workspace

•         Redesign the employee’s workspace to reduce distractions


At Rethink, our mission is to inspire and empower individuals with developmental disabilities and those who sup- port them. In partnering with companies, large and small, to provide training and resources to their employees raising children with an I/DD, it became clear that these companies were invested in the overall wellness of their population. Having to manage a job while simultaneously juggling therapy visits, assessments, IEP meetings, the stress, and all the extra considerations that come with having a child with a disability are not overlooked. Companies appreciate the unique needs of their employees and, more and more, are providing them in-depth support. An area of introspection among companies now is – are we, the HR managers, supervisors, mentors – equipped, right here in the office, to accommodate neurodiversity? We are providing support to the caregivers, but what about our employees who may be struggling? And what about the valuable employees we may never have the pleasure of working with because we are not providing an accessible path to employment? What about that talented employee who just couldn’t meet deadlines that we had to fire? What about the employee who left us last month because he felt uncomfortable with the amount of social interaction we have here? Where do we go from here?

Awareness and training for managers and employees is a viable option to facilitate a successful neurodiverse work- force. Rethink has incorporated the hardships shared by both people with I/DD, as well as employers, to create a meaningful solution:

  • E-Learning – modules to train managers and employees
  • Teleconsultation – calls and videoconference with master’s and doctoral-level board certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) to provide guidance

The E-learning modules focus on improving awareness and job productivity for all employees. The modules are five-to-ten minutes, focus on employee strengths, and are full of easy, practical solutions to implement on the job. Specifically, the trainings promote active participation through guided notes, short review quizzes, and discussion guides. Materials and resources are provided in the form of printables to facilitate implementation of strategies such as checklists and visual supports. There are also follow up activities, which serve as guides for self-reflection, as well as additional reading and research content.

The teleconsultation services focus on personalized supports and troubleshooting for workplace issues. For example, a manager may want to discuss how to implement newly learned ideas around using checklists and color coding to better support an employee who is struggling with task completion and organization. Or an employee has just learned that her colleague is on the autism spectrum, and she wants to talk through ways to be most helpful to him. Teleconsultations allow for a confidential dialogue about usually difficult situations and how to solve them proactively and with care.

We applaud companies for striving to create a more inclusive workplace. Not one that’s just neurodiverse, but one that ensures everyone is successful, accommodation or not. Workplaces that celebrate our differences and believe that a disability shouldn’t exempt you from meaningful employment. These truly are exciting opportunities on the horizon for our children.

By Angela Nelson, MS, BCBA
Executive Director of Family and
Clinical Services, Rethink

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