BY LUDMILA N. PRASLOVA, AVIVA LEGATT, AND CAROLINE STOKES
6 MINUTE READ (LINK TO THE FULL ARTICLE)
Neurodivergent people, including those who are autistic, dyslexic, or have ADHD, have much to contribute to the workplace, including innovative thinking and valuable perspectives on work organization and well-being. Unfortunately, many organizational systems, such as hiring and professional development, have not been designed with neurodivergence in mind and require displaying a narrowly defined persona, often extroverted and small-talk happy.
Many organizations lack emotional inclusion and flexibility. Systemic limitations, along with hiring managers’ blatant biases, create barriers to obtaining and keeping jobs. As a result, many neurodivergent people are unemployed, with the most optimistic estimates of a 30 to 40% unemployment rate. Those who are employed may face a “neurodivergent leadership ceiling,” a hidden barrier to accessing professional opportunities and achieving success in the working world.
However, there are ways for young neurodivergent professionals to beat these odds. Here are tips from a neurodivergent organizational psychologist, a neurodivergent executive coach, and a neurodivergent educator on how to stay employed and reach your potential at work.
FIND ORGANIZATIONS THAT CARE ABOUT NEURODIVERSITY
Look for a commitment to neurodiversity in the company’s DEI mission, but don’t stop there. Some companies like Microsoft and Chevron have their own neurodiversity hiring programs. It’s also critical that you contact individuals who work at any organization you are considering for an insider view. Anonymous review sites such as Glassdoor may provide further insight into the organizational culture and employee experience.
Seek out employment pipelines for neurodivergent individuals that are specific to your networks and talents. For example, Auticon hires autistic tech professionals and matches them with client projects and Specialisterne matches neurodivergent applicants with a range of jobs. Students at the University of Connecticut can benefit from its nationwide employment pipeline that includes neurodiversity employment opportunities with such organizations as KPMG, Travelers, and Wells Fargo. If no formal pipeline programs suit you, remember that you can create your own pathway by networking with other neurodivergent individuals that share your interests. LinkedIn is a great place to start with groups for autistic professionals, neurodivergent creatives, and neurodivergent (non)networking.
Interview the interviewers. When interviewing at organizations that do not have neurodiversity programs, ask hiring managers outright how their management team has adapted collaboration styles and performance management to include neurodivergent thought and productivity needs. If you get a blank stare from human resources, the interviewer, and other stakeholders, this means that they don’t yet have a vocabulary for this. Yet, you should ask this follow-up question: How does your organization collaborate to innovate or perform for optimal results? Listen to the details on communication methods and work style expectations to see if there is flexibility in the organization to enable your productivity and support your mental health.
CONSIDER ALTERNATE WAYS TO BUILD YOUR CAREER
Do not limit your search. Many neurodivergent professionals thrive in the “mainstream” workplace, and if your interests lie outside of neurodiversity hiring programs, don’t let anyone discourage you from pursuing your passion. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding a great match within a particular department and team. Workplace experience in the same organization can vary dramatically between units and teams.
Job-craft. Sometimes you can develop your position at work. You can build on a match between your key strengths and the organization’s areas of growth to craft a position that greatly benefits your employer and is uniquely fulfilling to you. Of course, not every organization is strategically ready for this creative approach. Don’t feel discouraged; keep searching for your ideal work environment that welcomes what you can bring.
Think about self-employment and entrepreneurship. While approximately 6% of all workers are self-employed around 70% say that they would like to be self-employed. Self-employment and entrepreneurship are professional vehicles for designing your own work environment and building your network. However, self-employment can have challenges, including income instability and the lack of organization-supported benefits.
DON’T GO IT ALONE
Seek out neurodivergent role models and mentors. Finding people who understand some of your unique challenges and strengths can go a long way toward figuring out the best path forward for the pursuit of your professional interests. If you don’t know any neurodivergent people, you can find them through organizations such as ADDA for ADHD individuals, ASAN, or AANE for autistic individuals, or by searching LinkedIn for keywords such as “neurodivergent.”
Access and exhaust your resources. Many countries have specific national resources. In the United States, people who received a neurodivergent diagnosis before the age of 26 have access to local and federal resources that support the employment and life skill-building process after high school and/or college. However, local and private resources might be available to those who did not have the privilege of a childhood diagnosis, and organizations like AWN and university resources are often more inclusive.
Seek out neurodivergent coaches and therapists in your support systems. Because neurodivergence is a unique experience, it is important to select your support system wisely. Neurodivergent people often leave therapy and coaching because they feel that their lived experience is gaslit, denied, or otherwise misunderstood. Having a coach with lived neurodivergent experience is helpful for processing challenging circumstances and for navigating change. A coach can partner with you in finding new methods and approaches that work for your specific situation as you navigate personal and relational concerns we discuss in the next section.
MIND YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
Channel thoughts and behaviors. Unwritten rules for workplace interactions can be challenging to decode. Not only might neurodivergent people have difficulty interpreting neurotypical behavior, but neurotypical people may lack empathy toward neurodivergent people (a dual empathy problem) and show a significant automatic bias leading to an unwillingness to interact with those deemed “different.” This can be particularly stressful for neurodivergent people who already tend to worry about being accepted.
You can’t control the thoughts and behaviors of others, but you can learn to better channel your own thoughts and behavior. To reduce anxiety about conditional acceptance from others, focus on unconditional self-acceptance. Every human has equal inherent dignity; we don’t need to be perfect to be valuable because we are already valuable—regardless of age, gender, race, abilities, and other characteristics.
Take baby steps in building relationships. We are responsible for respecting the dignity of others and communicating this respect the best we can. It’s hard to gauge the right speed of relationship-building, but you are less likely to be misjudged if you take baby steps. You could start by sharing relatively neutral work-relevant facts about yourself, asking questions about others, and watching how they respond. For example, if people are discussing the best way to share project updates, briefly share whether in-person updates or online task boards work better for you, ask how others prefer to communicate, and try to brainstorm an option that works for everyone.
If the discussion is productive, with others sharing their preferences and collectively finding an option that works, the same approach could work for other topics, like planning a social event. It takes time and effort to find a balance between advocating for yourself and respecting the needs and boundaries of others—give yourself grace as you are working on it.
Have outlets outside of work. While ideally, we would want our work group to be our trusted community, it does not always happen—at least, not right away. Finding like-minded people and developing trust takes time. Having an in-person or online group where you can safely vent is helpful for preventing pent-up frustration from straining workplace relationships. It is also crucial to make time for something that helps you decompress and take your focus away from work completely. Choose your own form of physical or spiritual activity, for example, journaling, meditating, running, dancing, or engaging in any interest that gives you joy, and make sure to keep your “fun dates with who you are.”
The most important thing to remember as a neurodivergent young professional is that you are not alone. Embrace your identity and your purpose, and find the network that will propel your professional life forward in ways that align with your strengths and values.
Ludmila N. Praslova is a professor of graduate programs in organizational psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California; she uses her extensive experience with global, cultural, and neurodiversity to create inclusive and talent-rich workplaces.