Small changes can make a big difference in becoming a team that supports neurodivergent talent.
The case for neurodiversity support
I believe that encouraging diversity of all types is a moral and business imperative. Homogeneous teams have blind spots while diverse teams are less vulnerable to groupthink.
Neurodiverse teams are made up of people who have different ways of understanding the world, brains that process information differently, and ultimately, have different strengths. In an information-based industry, this is an essential advantage. A team with multiple neurotypes has a broader pool of potential ideas from which to choose the million (or billion) dollar winner. As a programmer, as a team leader, and now as a coach, I have seen firsthand what can be achieved by teams with different talents when they each use their different strengths to accomplish a shared goal.
We all know how fierce the competition for talent is. Unicorns are expensive. Better to hire diverse thinkers who each have their areas of strength and then set up a team where each member can play to their strengths and be supported (or delegate) in areas they find hard.
It is estimated that at least 10% of the population have some kind of neurodivergence. The true figure could be twice that. There are almost certainly neurodivergent people at your organization, although they may not be open about it, or even aware of it themselves. This means that they are expanding energy each day to fit in with neurotypical expectations and seem ‘normal’. This is called masking and takes a toll on mental and physical health, which is one reason why neurodiverse people are more prone to burnout and have very high rates of un-or-underemployment.
That may sound daunting, but, as a leader, you can make a big difference. The good news is that with very simple changes you can harness differences within your team so that everyone can do their best work. When neurodivergent people are in a supportive environment they are less stressed, do better work, have less illness, and turnover is lower.
Supporting someone with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
ADHDers are big picture thinkers and can use that strength best when they understand why decisions are made. Tell them what your team/department priorities are and, in my experience, you will increase their motivation and effectiveness. ADHDers often excel at speaking to people at all levels, from C-suite to junior developer. Could you ask them if they’d like to sit in on customer meetings, mentor interns, or present their ideas to management? Be aware that they are unlikely to sit quietly, and they will have ideas that they want to share, so use your judgment about when that will be a benefit.
ADHD brains love variety and learning new skills. Once your ADHD teammates have learned something valuable, make sure that they sit down and teach it to someone else, before they go and get excited about the next new challenge. When you have a cross-team project, an ADHDer could be a great choice as they can be good communicators, understand the other team’s work at a high level, and enjoy the change.
Time management is often a challenge for ADHDers, both on the daily scale and the project scale. It is helpful to break up work up into small chunks (Agile practices are great for this) and practice estimating how long each chunk should take. Regular deadlines/check-ins are often helpful to keep accountable and on task. Like everyone else, ADHDers get better at estimating by practicing and keeping track of how high/low previous estimates were. Agile velocity tools are good for this.
On a daily scale, encourage your colleagues to take plenty of movement breaks and to think about when in their day they are best able to do focused work, when they are best able to take meetings, and when they are able to plow through routine tasks. Techniques like Pomodoro, changing physical location, and keeping to a strict work-in-progress limit can all help ADHDers focus.
The ADHDers I coach often struggle with attention to detail and accuracy. Where possible, they perform better at developing new ideas rather than maintaining and supporting established products. When working on new ideas they use their strong creative and problem-solving skills, and small mistakes can be quickly fixed before they have much impact. When this is not possible, encourage them to make and use checklists of common errors to check over their work as this will reduce frustration for all parties. Think about who reviews the work: having an ADHDer review another ADHDer’s work may not be a good idea as they will both miss the same kinds of errors.
Do you notice that your ADHD colleague is staring out of the window, or doodling during meetings? It may look like they are not paying attention, but in fact, these things can help an ADHDer pay attention. Please don’t judge them by neurotypical standards of what attention should look like, but rather, by how much they contribute to the meeting.
Supporting someone with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder)
Autistic strengths include attention to detail, honesty, kindness, and a strong work ethic. Show that you trust your ASD colleagues by giving them flexible hours, part-time hours, or remote working – and let them decide when and how they do their best work.
Sensory issues can have a huge impact on someone with ASD or other neurotypes, and, although they vary from person to person, a few small changes can have a big impact. Often, noise-canceling headphones are hugely helpful (some companies offer them as standard). You should also identify, and get rid of, other potential sensory issues in the office including:
- Harsh fluorescent lighting
- Food preparation areas next to work areas
- Very hot or cold areas
- Noisy or light-up seasonal decorations
- Loud air conditioning
- Fire alarm tests during work hours
- Bright lights, including direct sunlight (make sure the blinds work)
- Ringing phones
Make your team a safer place for autistic colleagues by making communication explicit and avoiding hidden/ambiguous meanings. For example, use sarcasm markers in the team chat and save jokes for a jokes thread; clearly define emoji meanings so that no-one is left guessing or feeling like an outsider.
Your team should have zero tolerance for bullying. This will support autistic people, who can be vulnerable to being the target of jokes they don’t understand. Equally, your autistic colleagues are powerful allies for building your team culture, as they are passionate about justice and will not knowingly tolerate others being mistreated.
Supporting someone with dyslexia
When you hear dyslexia, most people think of reading difficulties. In fact, this is rarely an issue at work. With appropriate teaching, most dyslexic people learn to read fine. Any difficulties with writing can be overcome with appropriate technology, such as speech-to-text software and spell checkers.
Dyslexic strengths include telling stories, understanding people’s unspoken motivations, spoken communication, and visualizing 3D spaces. Dyslexics often excel in jobs like sales and marketing where strong relationships are crucial. Your dyslexic colleague might be great at running demos or managing relationships with other teams.
Dyslexia makes it hard to remember names. As a dyslexic, I appreciate it when people help me out by repeating their names for me. I also value a company directory with up-to-date photos. Technical vocabulary is another challenge – creating a list of special words and product names will make onboarding easier for everyone.
Finally, be aware that dyslexics are trying their best to write and spell accurately, and growing up they will have received lots of criticism. If you notice errors in internal emails, think about how much it really matters. If errors need to be brought to their attention, do it kindly and remind them why you value their work in other areas.
Small changes can make a big difference in becoming a team that supports neurodivergent talent. Neurodivergent people are already making great contributions in tech; when well supported, we spend less time and energy navigating our environment, and more on doing our best work. This leads to more successful projects and lower turnover/health issues.
We are all different, and ultimately, your neurodivergent team members are the experts on their needs. Help them feel safe, then get curious about how they see the world differently to you. Work with them to figure out what their biggest needs are, adjust the work environment to meet those needs, and then go back to see what they need next. Best of luck on your journey!