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Looking to champion diversity, some hiring managers wonder if their workplace is equipped to support neurodivergent employees—those with conditions such as autism, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and Tourette’s syndrome. (Neurodiversity is the variation in how our brains process and receive information.)
Sure, reaching out can promote feelings of good will and good karma (and may simply be the right thing to do). From a dollars-and-cents standpoint, though, recruiting neurodivergent employees can actually help turbocharge business: Return on investment may include increased productivity and lower turnover rate along with the addition of staffers with special abilities (more on this later).
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Still, an employer may wonder: Is my company set up to meet the needs of a neurodiverse workforce?
In fact, adapting an office can be surprisingly easy. Many organizations, in fact, have already designed workspaces and modified practices to accommodate neurodiversity. Here’s how your organization can follow suit.
The labor pool
Before getting into office-retrofits, let’s look at who you have the opportunity to welcome. Looking at autism alone, in the U.S., one of every 42 boys, and one of every 189 girls is born with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And these numbers have been steadily increasing. Until age 25, many neurodivergent children can get government support; after that, they can age out of the system (that’s roughly 50,000 people a year). That means, more than ever, this group will need employment. Hiring them can bring your organization a number of benefits.
Some neurodivergent workers can have higher-than-average abilities in certain areas. Research has shown that conditions such as autism and dyslexia can also bestow innate strengths, such as pattern recognition, above-average memory, and a propensity for mathematics. For workers gifted with such abilities, solving complex problems can come more easily. Tech, for instance, is just one industry that can benefit from such skilled workers.
It’s also been noted that some neurodivergent workers can hyper-focus and pay great attention to detail. For companies, that can mean catching mistakes sooner and lowering defect rates. One study, done in part by Australia’s Department of Human Services, found that their neurodiverse software-testing teams are 30 percent more productive than the others.
A welcoming environment
“Building neurodiverse teams doesn’t necessarily require a big investment or a whole office revamp,” says Scott Gibson, senior vice president for People and Programs at the D.C. area nonprofit Melwood (sponsor of this article). “Smaller retrofits—with costs ranging from zero to just $500—can actually do the job. And really, the kind of changes that suit neurodivergent employees may very well benefit the whole workforce.” (Melwood employs nearly 1,000 neurodiverse staffers and provides, among other services, jobs and training opportunities for thousands of people of differing abilities in the Washington, D.C. area.)
“Employers really need to make sure they're providing employees with different options so workers can choose the space, setting, and conditions that work best for them,” says Jessica Bonness, assistant professor at Marymount University’s Interior Design department. (Marymount recently partnered with Melwood to host a Design-a-thon challenge with a team of Marymount design students.)
To make a workplace more neurodiverse-friendly, Bonness recommends the following:
- People-friendly lighting: When possible, offer workers natural-lit spaces instead of fluorescent lighting, which can create a distracting, strobing effect perceivable to sensitive people. Beyond natural lighting, LED lighting offers the best option: It lasts long, is energy-efficient, and has become cheaper and more versatile.
- Quiet spaces: Noisy areas can be particularly distracting for some neurodivergent employees, making concentrating difficult. The solution: designating quiet workspaces and private areas so employees can better focus. Of course, Bonness notes, some workers of differing abilities better respond to more active environments, meaning employers need to access each worker individually.
- Scents/smells/odors/aromas: Neurodivergent employees, like many workers, can be particularly sensitive to smells wafting through an open office, says Bonness. Limiting olfactory intrusions in the office easily solves this problem. Plus, this solution costs employers nothing.
A benefit for all workers
Keep in mind: “What works for some neurodivergent workers on a Monday might not work for them on a Friday,” Bonness says. “So if we're rethinking office environments, being adaptable and customizable is a great thing for people and for productivity.” The bottom line: Embracing neurodiversity requires outreach and the support of people who are neurodivergent.
In the end, making these relatively small but significant changes can benefit all workers. “Rethinking office environments in ways that are adaptable and customizable—that's great for people and for productivity,” Bonness says.
And employers need to remember one more thing: As neurodivergent employees are especially appreciative of getting a chance, they’re more likely to stay at a company: They can be keen on establishing routines and sticking to them. So once they find a good fit, odds are better that they’ll stay for the long run.
Looking to bring neurodiverse workers to your company? From preparing your office space to recruiting the right candidates, Melwood can help guide you. And of special note: Melwood’s newest program, abilIT, is designed to help people of differing abilities enter the field of cybersecurity. Visit the Melwood site to learn more.