Some people are audio learners, others are visual. Everyone has a different approach to learning and relies on techniques and methods that fit them best. Why is it surprising that different people experience the world differently, and their thinking, learning processes, and characteristics don't fall into the standardized category? One formula won't fit everyone, and it's essential to understand and embrace that education facilities and companies must offer variety and understand their learners' unique needs. That includes accepting and learning about neurodiversity, and why it's vital to acknowledge it in the workplace. Otherwise, you risk excluding an invaluable group, hindering equity, and not leveraging your whole workforce's talent potential.
But what exactly does it mean to be neurodiverse? According to the National Cancer Institute, neurodivergence represents the variation in the human experience of the world, at work, in school, and through social relationships (1). Even though many business leaders assume that the amount of neurodiverse people in the workplace is insignificant, up to 20% of the world's population exhibits some form of neurodiversity (1). However, that conviction shouldn't be surprising because this term is still relatively new in the world of work.
According to the 2022 Texthelp survey, 91% of respondents don't know how common neurodivergence is. Moreover, 61% have experienced stigma or felt misunderstood during their career. The same survey found that its respondents struggled with communication barriers at work, but most would work longer with a company if it invested in neurodiversity. Unfortunately, 64% said that their organization isn't doing enough, despite having inclusion initiatives in place. Hence, most people have neurodiverse co-workers and employees, but don't even realize it. As a result, they see no reason to make their language, actions, and interactions more inclusive.
But since the concept of neurodivergence still hasn't penetrated well-known workplace terms, it's impossible to expect the majority of employees to be aware of its existence. Unfortunately, the popularization of this definition is slow, as it dates from the 1990s, and Learning and Development (L&D) developers and HR leaders have mainly focused on the more visible issues and difficulties the workforce encounters. Even though neurodivergence is not a disability and stands for variations in brain activities, it's an invisible challenge for those with neurodiverse characteristics.
Neurodiverse employees and learners typically stay silent about the struggles they face every day, not wanting to bother their managers and colleagues, and fearing that bringing it up could make it look like they abuse Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) policies. Because of this, they continue to experience difficulties at work and in interactions with others. For example, some neurodiverse employees might struggle with the fast pace of a learning program or workshops requiring increased interaction with people. These workers' performance and productivity may be lower than others because the L&D offer doesn't align with their strengths and weaknesses. However, L&D developers often don't know why, and fail to adjust the training. In a nutshell, a lack of awareness about neurodivergence in the workplace happens primarily due to the following:
Many people believe in neurodivergence myths, slowing down progress and inclusion expansion in the neurodiversity direction. These inaccurate beliefs must be debunked for lasting positive change to happen. Here are the most common myths many employers and training developers believe in.
Even though neurodiversity is an umbrella term referring to differences in the functioning of human brains, many people believe that this concept is the same as autism. Indeed, the creator of this concept is Australian sociologist Judy Singer, who has autism, which is why the autistic community was the first to embrace it and identify with it. However, people with other neurological conditions also fall into this category, making it foolish only to label autism as neurodivergence. This term also includes:
Sadly, people often simplify conditions they don't know much about, making it easier for them to understand or not tackle the subject further. However, this oversimplification is dangerous and offensive, as it could lead to ignoring the condition or approaching all neurodiverse individuals the same. After all, one in seven people is neurodiverse, and none are the same.
Moreover, even neurotypical individuals may lie at different ends of the cognitive spectrum, as everyone learns and experiences the world in their unique way. How we behave, think, act, and interact with others depends on the person, and it would be wrong to say there are no differences between two individuals. Yet, thought processes in neurodiverse people are typically rarer compared to others. For instance, two individuals with autism can be completely different, and require contrasting approaches and L&D support and methods.
Therefore, every neurodiverse employee will encounter specific challenges and barriers in the work environment. They also have unique talents, strengths, weaknesses, and potential. You must consider these things when developing your L&D program, or you risk a one-size-fits-all formula approach.
Although neurodiverse workers may encounter challenges at work, these difficulties often come from inadequate training programs, methods, and opportunities. For example, they might struggle with adapting to drastic changes and transitions, but excel at thinking out of the box.
Even if an employee adapts to transformations more slowly than their co-workers, employers can adjust the pace and ensure everyone feels comfortable and can thrive in a new environment or situation. These individuals can be just as productive and efficient as everyone else, meaning that neurodiversity has no direct impact on success.
However, not providing equitable opportunities and tools for neurodiverse workers and ensuring they can reach their potential can hinder their growth. Because of this, employers must know their employees' abilities and struggles well, and create an environment where they can learn and develop.
Despite what many people think, ADHD, dyslexia, autism, and OCD are unique neurological differences in how people process information, think, and interact with others. These are not mental health conditions or disabilities. Nevertheless, these individuals are at risk of struggling with mental health problems like everyone else, primarily due to bullying, workplace stress, and a sense of isolation. Employers should provide the necessary support and safety, preventing neurodiverse employees from facing challenges and barriers that impact their well-being.
Those with limited knowledge and insights into neurodiversity may think that neurodiverse workers struggle with communication and might not be able to interact normally with their teammates and co-workers. But although some neurodiverse individuals might have a hard time with typical social abilities, this struggle isn't limited to them. Neurotypical employees can also find teamwork exhausting and prefer to learn and work individually.
Neurodiverse workers might have a unique or different communication style that others aren't used to. For instance, they might find identifying some social cues challenging, or have a blunt and overly sincere approach. According to research by the California State University San Bernardino, students with autism typically prefer non-verbal communication, because they have an easier time first processing information instead of replying right at the spot.
Companies and L&D developers should keep this in mind when creating training, as they should accommodate different communication preferences and needs. Thanks to these accommodations, they can help neurodiverse employees feel safe in the workplace and enhance their social skills.
This is among the most harmful and inaccurate of neurodiversity myths. However, those who don't know much about neurodiversity, or have difficulty understanding it, might perceive it as a "way of thinking" or a preference of people with neurological conditions to voice their viewpoints. Others believe it's a euphemism for disabilities, created to make others feel better. But neurodiversity is neither. Instead, it's about the human mind's diversity and standing up for the rights, values, and needs of neurodiverse individuals. Some scholars even mention it as a biodiversity subset, explaining it as part of the variability and diversity of life on Earth.
Moreover, neurodivergence represents an effort and a way to advocate for the strengths and potential of neurodiverse individuals, as well as a mitigation of the issues they encounter, so that they can be active and equal members of society. Businesses and training developers must acknowledge the need to create safe and inclusive environments to ensure neurodiverse employees can thrive in the workplace, instead of continuously overcoming barriers.
Neurodiversity myths and fallacies hurt neurodiverse employees and students and their career progress, learning, and development. L&D developers and business and HR leaders are responsible for raising awareness about neurodivergence, and ensuring safe and productive work environments for all their employees, without exception.
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Originally published at www.linkedin.com.
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