Supporting Neurodiverse Employees
If you didn’t read Part 1 of this article – Catch up quick.
When we look at supports for any employee, we look at what it would take to make that person successful in the job. For IT, we give them tools like a laptop with software on it, an actual tool kit, a cell phone, some company swag, etc. Your company will also have tools to support neurodiverse employees and help all employees be successful.
Your company has policies and SOP’s to keep everyone on the same page. Having the right types of support in place is imperative for both an employer and an employee be they neurotypical or diverse.
Specific Supports for the Neurodiverse Employee
With a neurodiverse employee there are some specific supports you may need to think about and they fall into 3 distinct categories:
- Interpersonal Communication
- Planning and Organization
- Sensory and Motor Processing.
Many of these will also help your typical employees, so it isn’t extra work. It’s a way to make your company better for everyone.
Interpersonal Communication is a big one, so we will start there. 93% of how we as humans communicate come from facial expression and the intonation and inflection of the words spoken, only 7% from the words themselves.
We have all written an email, deleted it and picked up the phone and made a call because what we needed to say could not be adequately reflected in some text. We know when to make that call, a neurodiverse person may not. Their world can be like communicating only through email with no emojis. They don’t always understand body language or can misinterpret it. Everything is literal.
Common Challenges they face are:
- Literal interpretation of language, they may miss implied meanings and sarcasm, or sarcasm is completely lost on them.
- Too honest and direct – offending others unintentionally. For example, they may tell a co-worker you’re too loud and I don’t like it. What they mean is I’m having trouble concentrating could you speak more softly or remind me to wear my headphones.
- Neglecting to make eye contact or smile when engaging or speaking with others.
- Not knowing how to make small talk or engage with co-workers
- Only talks about their areas of interest, far too long – they need to be reminded what’s appropriate or not for work.
- Interrupts others. Can’t tell when you’re finished speaking
- Speak too loud, soft, fast or slow. Supporting Neurodiverse Employees
Keep in mind neurodiverse people want to interact, but don’t know that they are offensive or confusing to others
Supports you can put into effect that have an impact for everyone
Using clear and direct language is best. Subtle hints, sarcasm and idioms will leave many confused. You need to be specific with directives. For example, you would need to say: follow the SOP for deployment for all the equipment in the lab marked smith. It needs to be finished by this Thursday at 3.
If you say: I need you to “own the Smith project for Thursday”. Chances are you’re going to walk back to the lab Thursday to check the status and find your neurodiverse employee’s name on the boxes, nothing ready to go and very confused as to why you’re mad. Their name is on the box – they own it now.
Much of the English language is based on idioms – it’s a hard habit to break. Be as literal as you can and when you’re not learn to find some humor in the situation. You will find yourself in a few situations like this.
Make expectations specific so there is no misinterpretation.
End of Day to them means the last minute at the end of the day. Not 3, or 4. Just be specific.
Work buddies are a great idea for any company. It’s someone who has been there for a while that can guide any new employee through the first month or so. With any employee they would be there to show them the ropes, answer questions and show how you do things as a company. The only difference they might see as a buddy to someone who is neurodiverse is to explain when behavior is inappropriate or unacceptable. The work buddy would need to Understand that most people on the spectrum won’t ask questions. Some will ask a lot of elementary type questions and they fear being thought stupid because of it. So if they can anticipate the questions they would have as a new employee, and start a conversation with them, it works best.
Organizational skills or executive functioning is impacted significantly in neurodiverse individuals. Most of us can multitask all day long shifting our priorities as the need arises. We can see how the work we are doing is a cog in the larger wheel of the company. They may not be able to without it being explicitly explained that Bob can’t onboard the Smith Company because the SOP for deployment wasn’t completed.
Again, I have no doubt you’ve run into this type of situation before. Tasks not getting accomplished because one team didn’t know they were supposed to start after another was finished, or didn’t know where team 1 was with the project. It happens.
SOP’s will help with that, as well as a way to track it.
- Not knowing how to start an assigned task – without an SOP, most people may not know what step 1 is, let alone step 7. If you haven’t started writing SOP’s for everything you do in your business start now. Doesn’t matter which one you start with, just start writing them.
- Difficulty estimating time needed – Again, an SOP will help with this. When you write it, go through the steps and see how long it takes, tat give you an approximate time for the task.
- Too much focus on details – as long as they can stick to an SOP, they should stay on track
- Unsure of what finished is – The SOP will have the finished state
- Short term memory is bad, verbal instructions are quickly lost
- Task priority is confusing – many people, neurotypical or diverse have trouble with prioritization
- Multitasking is difficult
- Doesn’t take initiative on their own
- Acts impulsively or panics
What are the supports?
When possible – let them focus on one task or project at a time. SOPs are a big part of that. Break projects down by SOPs, so it is in smaller chunks to handle.
Standard Operating Procedures are great. It gives everyone a set of rules to follow which are big in the neurodiverse word. Rules take the guessing out and reduce anxiety. Having SOP’s can help with everything on this list.
Having a system will help with everything else that revolves around organization. Visual systems from schedules of daily tasks to post it notes of to do lists, thy all help with remembering what needs done each day. We use Outlook task lists, ConnectWise for tasks in projects and Trello boards for everything else.
Having them summarize a task will gauge their understanding of it.
Sensory and Motor Processing
We all have things that make us a little crazy. For me it’s repetitive noises. Makes me angry and destroys my concentration. Many Neurodiverse persons experience hypo or hyper sensitivity to various stimuli, which can interfere with their job, much like my aversion to repetitive noise. Fluorescent lights are a big one, the incessant hum to the constant flicker, it can be maddening. The sound of someone on a mechanical keyboard can be completely distracting for some. Sometimes it’s smells from perfumes and colognes to tobacco smoke. It can make people physically ill from the sensitivity.
- Auditory processing issues are common. Taking part in group conversations or hearing one person when there is distracting background noise can be difficult.
- Motor skills can also suffer. Handwriting is the most prevalent, so the person may not be able to write notes during meetings or their handwriting may be childlike or not legible. However, with penmanship not being taught anymore, you may not notice a difference.
- Those are the most common challenges you’re going to encounter.
- The supports again benefit everyone and can benefit your clients as well.
- Everyone has things that make them crazy. Nothing will ever suit everyone, but some simple things like allowing for task lighting, or allowing headphones to cut down noise are simple supports.
- Being sure you have someone’s full attention when needed to impart a task or request
- Allowing for short breaks which may be as simple as a quick walk around the block or office.
- Typed materials instead of written
- Different spot in the office to sit.
Accommodations for Neurodiverse Employees
The employment aspects of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, Title I) state that employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for an employee with a disability, if the accommodation does not pose an “undue hardship” to the employer.
As an employer, undue hardship considerations would be things like:
- The requested accommodation and the cost involved
- What size your company is and the resources you have available to you
- The type of business you have and the job types you have
- What impact the accommodation would have on your building and business as a whole.
What it doesn’t require is changing the job function or lowering the standards you require
We have accommodations for every employee in some shape or form. We put a few into place to support our neurodiverse employee specifically.
- When we bought our building, we opted to use recessed LED lighting, and a lot of natural light.
- Employees can wear headphones while working, or have music playing.
- Different work hours. Instead of 8:30 – 5, he works 7 – 3:30. It gives him some extra quiet time in the morning, and he always has coffee ready for the rest of us.
- He has a different chair – he’s shorter, and likes blue, so his chair reflects that.
- His spot is in a quieter corner of the office that doesn’t have as much foot traffic or ambient noise.
- Financial Planner – knowing how to handle money, budget or plan for the future can be daunting for anyone, let alone someone who is neurodiverse, so we offer that to everyone.
- Job Coaches
- The ability to work from home
- Visual Cues for tasks, or for timed events
- A reminder app that sends them reminders
- An air purifier for the office. We have one. It’s actually great for allergens as well.
- White noise machines, fans or noise cancelling headphones.
- Support Animals. Some people have anxiety or complex PTSD that really helps with. We have a dog at the office. He spends time with all the employees through the day. Either way, it can be a great way for them to take a break and relax for a few minutes.
We hope this article gives you a better understanding of how to onboard and support neurodiverse employees so you can expand your company culture. Even if you aren’t onboarding the neurodiverse, all your employees will benefit from a structured onboarding program. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what industry you are in. It isn’t just the technology industries. You will run across neurodiverse candidates. Why not create a more inclusive culture now? If you’d like more information, please contact us, and we would be happy to share.