Despite dwindling support for workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion, one word is still showing up in job descriptions, employee resource groups, and manager training around DEI: neurodiversity.
Chances are high, though, that the term is being misused. I know because as I reported this column, multiple experts gently corrected me. And so it’s perhaps helpful to begin with the basics: Before employers and workers can understand how to better support their neurodivergent employees and colleagues, we need to understand what neurodiversity really is.
Making good on that support requires nothing short of an overhaul in how we hire, retain talent, and communicate. But the payoff is well worth the investment for neurodivergent workers and everyone else: Centering this community has benefits for all personality types and working styles, and ultimately helps rid our workplaces of exclusionary jargon and imprecise practices.
What we mean by neurodiversity
We are all neurodiverse. That’s my takeaway from a conversation with Ellie Middleton, who has grown an audience of more than 200,000 followers on LinkedIn as an expert on how to better support disabled communities at work. She also runs the (un)masked community for neurodivergence, which publishes books, videos, and social media posts (more on the concept of “masking” later).
“All of us have different brains that work in different ways, and neurodiversity refers to all of the unique and differing ways in which people can exist, think, process, feel, and act,” she says. “There are neurotypical people, whose functioning falls within societal standards and norms, and neurodivergent people, whose functioning falls outside of those norms,” including those with autism, ADHD, and dyslexia.
The list grows longer depending on whom you’re talking to. Writer and advocate Susanne Paola Antonetta argues for the need to be both ever-expansive and more specific in who gets included in workplace DEI efforts. “There has become a growing awareness of the need to make neurodiversity a part of inclusivity,” she says. “But ‘neurodiversity’ is most often considered as conditions like autism spectrum, Down’s syndrome, and dyslexia. There is very little honest discussion of major disorders like schizophrenia, borderline, schizoaffective, and bipolar in the workplace. There is still a great deal of stigma in the workplace, especially for those of us who don’t fit conventional narratives.”
The terms to ban at work
The language of ableism is also being reconsidered by employers (don’t miss this column I did on the phrases to ban at work). But those advocating for the neurodivergent population ask us to go a bit further by being more mindful about phrases we might not otherwise think twice about. Middleton cites words like insane, mad, crazy, and mental as words to replace “with terms that don't have connotations that could offend or traumatize people in the workplace.” Her go-to replacement is the word “wild.”
“Words that focus on suffering, victimhood, and the need for charity or correction may be considered problematic,” notes Ricky Brooks, manager of global inclusion programs for the job site Indeed. He offers a list of common offenders and the preferred replacement terms:
Problematic: Normal/healthy person
Preferred: Person without a disability
Problematic: Mental disability
Preferred: Mental health
Problematic: Hearing impaired/suffering from hearing loss
Preferred: Person who is deaf or hard of hearing
Problematic: The disabled/handicapped
Preferred: Disabled, a person with disabilities
How to improve communications for the neurodivergent (and thus everybody)
One way we offend neurodivergent populations is the same way we offend a lot of our colleagues: by not being clear or precise in communications. A recent LinkedIn post from Middleton pleads that we stop using the following:
- Touch base
- Circle back
- Move the needle
- Let's unpack this
- Reach out
“First of all, you sound silly. But secondly, you're not being clear enough to make sense to autistic folks who need you to say what you mean and mean what you say,” she writes.
This is in line with what managers need to get right anyway: modifying communication so that all staffers understand, not just those “in the know.” Jakada Imani, CEO of The Management Center and co-author of Management In A Changing World: How to Manage for Equity, Sustainability, and Results, asks managers to “tear apart the preferences, traditions, and requirements” of traditional work.
Managers should engage “with each person about what works best for them and the work,” he says, leaning into multiple platforms and formats to get their message across: “Applying a blanket formula for communicating with neurodivergent people is no way to handle communication, and often makes things worse,” Imani says. For example, “Do updates have to be a written email? Can it be a voice memo or a video?”
Multiple experts say more video communications in particular would be useful to neurodivergent staffers—and vice versa, for them to be able to share their own updates on projects. Middleton also offers more tips:
Say what you mean: Neurodivergent people, specifically autistic people, need instructions to be very clear, concise, and specific. A quick and easy way to do this is by giving instructions that follow a three-part format: What do you need, by when, and why?
Provide information upfront: Neurodivergent people tend to get overwhelmed by not having enough information to be able to build a full picture. Make sure all information is accessible, rather than just drip-feeding information on a need-to-know basis.
Be precise: It's important to make sure that the words that you're using are representative of the actual importance or meaning behind what you want them to say—for example, not using the word “urgent” unless something really is.
What it means to “mask” being neurodivergent
Despite the increased support at work, members of the neurodivergent community say they know many organizations and managers still harbor bias against them. The process of hiding neurodivergent status is known as “masking.” Gloria Folaron, CEO of Leantime, a project-management tool that recently launched an AI-powered platform keeping the neurodivergent in mind, explains: “Masking is the exhausting process of making sure you aren't seen because it isn't safe to be—because someone will tell you, ‘If you just planned a little better,’ ‘Why can't you just leave the house on time?’ ‘Just buy a planner already.’”
For many neurodivergent workers, employee resource groups emerge as not only safe places but effective recruitment tactics; these groups are signals that they are welcome and they will be accommodated.
Indeed research shows that employee resource groups are on the rise—and a distinguishing perk for talent. More than half of full- and part-time workers surveyed say having ERGs at their companies and more than half also believe they benefit the business. “Open communication with your ERGs can build trust and create stronger relationships between leadership and employees,” Brooks notes. That trust can be especially critical for fostering greater understanding among the managers of neurodivergent workers, who may misread some features of neurodivergence as issues with tone or performance.
Key is to practice what is preached on a regular basis. Of the folks I interviewed above, many set their emails to default to a larger font, to prioritize access for those who need higher legibility—a telling detail that spoke volumes about the need to weave inclusion into everyday practices.