Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace for innovation, inclusion

Brent Jespen, multimedia content creator at Rock Valley College, wears noise-canceling headphones to improve focus at work. The Illinois college is committed to supporting not only students but also neurodiverse team members. (Photo: RVC)

At the heart of community college missions and values is the desire to be inclusive and welcoming institutions where students and employees can bring their authentic selves to the campus.

However, that can be difficult to achieve in practice: For example, nearly half of leaders and managers surveyed said they would be uncomfortable supervising someone who is neurodivergent, according to The Institute of Leadership.

Neurodiversity, which refers to the wide range of variations in human brain function and behavior, affects approximately 15% to 20% of Americans. It encompasses conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and other learning disabilities. The term was coined in the 1990s and promotes the acceptance and inclusion of all people, recognizing that there is no single “right” way of thinking, learning or behaving.

Understanding and supporting this growing faction of the workforce is crucial for creating effective and inclusive work environments where everyone can thrive.

Challenges and misconceptions

The term “disability” can be difficult for neurodiverse individuals to accept, particularly when their differences are not immediately visible. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability is a mental or physical impairment substantially limiting one or more life activities. This includes challenges with focusing, organizing, prioritizing or communicating. The stigma associated with these conditions can lead to underreporting and a reluctance to seek necessary accommodations.

These individuals can face significant challenges in the workplace. These include sensory overload and difficulties with concentration and organization. Environmental factors such as office noise and temperature can exacerbate these issues, leading to overstimulation and decreased productivity.

Living with neurodiversity

Neurodiverse individuals often experience executive dysfunction, which impacts their ability to plan, prioritize and sustain efforts toward long-term goals. Symptoms can include task paralysis, impulsivity and memory issues. Despite these challenges, neurodiverse individuals often possess abilities that are particularly valuable in the workplace:

  • Hyper-focus on tasks
  • Innovative problem-solving abilities and outside-the-box thinking
  • Strong attention to detail and pattern recognition
  • High levels of creativity

Many neurodivergent individuals engage in masking, or hiding their differences to fit in with neurotypical colleagues. This can involve suppressing certain behaviors, scripting responses or forcing eye contact. While masking helps avoid judgment, it is exhausting and can lead to increased stress, depression and burnout.

Creating an inclusive environment

In today’s diverse and evolving world, inclusivity isn’t just a buzzword; it is a cornerstone of community colleges. Creating an environment where everyone can learn, work and grow is vital; and Rock Valley College (RVC) in Illinois is committed to creating such an environment. This commitment isn’t just lip service: It’s backed by tangible actions and meaningful initiatives to reshape inclusion.

For example, RVC has established an ADA Commission to advance accessibility efforts across campus. This commission is a driving force for change, identifying barriers, proposing solutions and championing the rights of individuals with different abilities. Its membership includes students, faculty and staff representing every college division.

Related article: Embracing neurodiversity on campus

“By harnessing the commission’s collective expertise and passion, RVC is breaking down barriers and creating a more inclusive environment for all,” said Keith Barnes, RVC vice president of equity and inclusion. “Admittedly, there is still much work that needs to be done, but that does not negate the excellent work we have accomplished in a short time.”

RVC has taken proactive steps to raise awareness and promote understanding through its inaugural Neurodiversity Symposium. By bringing together experts, advocates and community members, RVC initiated dialogue to drive change in how individuals with diverse neurological profiles are perceived and accommodated.

Strategies for supporting neurodiverse team members

  • Job descriptions/interviews: Ensure job descriptions are clear and concise, and consider using different formats, such as video descriptions. During interviews, focus on skills rather than hypothetical questions, which may be challenging for neurodiverse individuals.
  • Clear communication: Provide frequent feedback and clear, concise instructions. Avoid sarcasm and euphemisms, and offer advance notice of changes to plans. Providing meeting agendas in advance can help reduce impulsivity and uncertainty.
  • Flexibility: Allow employees autonomy over their schedules and work environments. Flexible hours and the option to work from home can help manage sensory sensitivities and improve focus.
  • Workspace adjustments: Accommodate sensory needs by offering quiet spaces, noise-canceling headphones and flexible seating arrangements. Consider dress code modifications for those with tactile sensitivities.
  • Task management: Encourage monotasking and time blocking to reduce distractions and improve productivity. Body doubling, where a person or pet is present while working, can also help maintain focus.

Recognizing and embracing neurodiversity in the workplace is not only the right thing to do but also creates a strategic advantage. By creating inclusive environments where everyone can bring their authentic selves to work, organizations can unlock the full potential of their teams, leading to greater creativity, innovation and overall success.

About the Author

Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Thompson is the executive director of college communications at Rock Valley College in Illinois and is a member of NCMPR’s District 3 Executive Council.
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