illustration of six people, back to back, with brightly lit, and differently coloured brains

Broader Thinking Needed to Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace

  • March 14, 2024
  • Emily Sinkins

Given research indicating that between 15 and 20 per cent of the population is neurodivergent – coupled with persistent underdiagnosis – chances are good that you’re already collaborating with a neurodivergent colleague whether you know it, or whether they know it. What does this mean in practical terms for the legal workplace, and why should you care? Wanda Deschamps, founder and principal of Liberty Co – a consultancy focused on increasing the participation level of the Neurodiverse population – who was diagnosed with autism at midlife, brought answers to these questions, alongside a compelling call to action, in an enlightening keynote address on “Working Toward Neurodiversity Inclusion” at the OBA’s Ontario Legal Conference in February.

Neurodiversity refers to naturally occurring differences across human brain makeups. While there is vast diversity across the neurodiversity spectrum, forms of neurodivergence include dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder and autism. What’s important from Deschamps’ perspective is the “naturally occurring” element – the fact that, as she says, “there is nothing to be removed, nothing to be erased.” On the contrary, says Deschamps, “the neurodivergent brain produces unique strengths” – not in spite of, but because of its makeup. Because neurodivergent people process information differently, they produce innovative ideas. This makes them an asset in any field or workplace, from the cubicle to C-suite, because, as Deschamps puts it, “We can’t look to the same brains to provide the same solutions to problems we have always had.”

Despite the talent and unique perspectives they can contribute, neurodiverse people are disproportionately under- or unemployed – in large part due to workplace systems, practices, communications and environments that weren’t designed with them in mind. Those failures in inclusion also mean that neurodiverse people in the workplace are often forced to “mask” – hide natural traits or modify behaviour to fit in – which contributes to burnout and higher rates of anxiety and depression experienced by neurodivergent people.

As leaders in advancing inclusive, innovative and thriving firms and organizations, what can lawyers do to combat stigma, bias and ableism, and build workplaces that work for all brains?

Updated and enhanced recruitment processes

Outdated recruitment and retention processes are part of the reason neurodiverse people are disproportionately unemployed, according to Deschamps. Committing to principles of inclusive employment – “not just saying, but practicing” – is the first step toward remedying this. Job postings and other communications around hiring should feature inclusive language, with specific mention of neurodiversity. The traditional interview format can pose undue challenges for neurodiverse candidates. In order to level the playing field and give all candidates the best shot at demonstrating the value they can bring, employers might consider sharing interview questions in advance; accepting video applications; asking questions that draw out answers, with prompts like “Tell me more about…” or “I noticed that…”; and assigning candidates work tasks as part of the interview process to allow them to demonstrate their ability to do the job.

Clear, direct, consistent communication

As with all EDI measures, the onus should not fall on a single group to create an inclusive culture, says Deschamps: “Approach it as a shared responsibility.” In the workplace, this might require a move toward clearer communication all around: avoiding idioms; offering team members direct feedback and instructions and asking them to repeat them back; and consistently preparing and sharing agendas before meetings. Given that some neurodivergent employees will not have disclosed or even been diagnosed, these practices should be universally applied – the same principle behind inclusive design.

More focus on shared goals, less judgement

Deschamps is quick to underscore that, “I’m never suggesting you don’t hold people with neurodivergence to account.” But she encourages reframing our thinking and taking new approaches to inspire the best performance from every employee, with an overall focus on shared interests, goals and benefits, and less judgement. By way of examples for would-be allies, she suggests that rather than dismissing a colleague’s contributions because of their communication style, offering multiple choice questions to help them clarify their reasoning and then focussing on their strongest ideas. Rather than seeing someone who points out errors or challenges as a problem, ask someone on the team to offer to connect that person’s points to the team’s goals and objectives. Rather than simply criticizing someone for losing focus or not managing their time well, suggest dedicated time to work on their most important projects with a specific amount of time to complete the task. Offering flex work time and locations, access to quiet spaces and/or headphones, and different types of workplace communication and socialization, will be appreciated by, and beneficial to, all team members.

Normalizing conversations and creating action plans around neurodiversity

As inclusive leaders, lawyers can normalize conversations about neurodiversity and create action plans for the workplace based on neurodiverse-aware approaches.

As Deschamps says, “It’s about getting to know the person while acknowledging all the various aspects of personal identity … humility, curiosity, appreciation of thinking differently and clear two-way communication.”

Deschamps recalls her struggle to fit in the workplace – she liked discussion on strategy, but disliked gossip. “Deep down,” she says, “I thought I was stupid.” Already in therapy for her anxiety, she ended up having a breakdown at work. Things turned around after her son received a diagnosis that she recognized herself in … leading to her own autism diagnosis just a month before her 47th birthday. Now, as what she calls “the real Wanda,” she is a powerful champion of inclusion and a leader in the Inclusion Revolution, a worldwide movement spearheading broader thinking about disability, especially disability employment.

While advocacy plays a significant role in her life, Deschamps’ greatest feat is leading by example. “The most important thing I do,” she says, “is model for my two neurodiverse sons how to live life unashamed, unafraid and undeterred as a neurodiverse person.”

About the Author

Emily Sinkins is editor of JUST. Magazine.