March 14, 2023

The key to innovation in the workplace? Embracing neurodiversity

UCalgary alum TC Waisman says neurodiversity in the workplace signals that you’re 'open to innovative ways of thinking and problem solving'
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Conversations around ADHD and autism have trended online in recent years, but it can be easy to overlook the specific strengths neurodivergent people bring to a team and the challenges anyone who thinks differently may face in the workplace.

With generous funding from The Sinneave Family Foundation, the Office of Experiential Learning at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning is spearheading an initiative that, in part, aims to give employers the tools to support neurodiverse students in work-integrated learning (i.e., internships, field placements and practica) as part of their education journey.

I spoke with Werklund UCalgary alum Dr. TC Waisman, EdD, co-founder of the Autistic Researchers Committee at the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR), about the importance of neurodiversity in workplaces to support innovation and creativity and what employers can do to support their neurodivergent workers. She starts by saying:

Neurodiversity is all of us, all our brains and minds, in our spectacular differences but neurodivergence is something that society imposes on us.

Neurodivergence is an umbrella term that can include Autistic, ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurological differences. Waisman says she “wears the neurodivergent title proudly as an advocate for affirmation and celebration of differences.”  

For someone who is neurodivergent, challenges in the workplace start before they even get in the door. Hiring is often based on an interview which can be fraught with personal biases and presents specific challenges to those neurodivergent individuals who may not be as charismatic or good with eye contact.  

“Many neurodivergent folks who would be extremely well suited for the actual role are not getting past the door because of these unnecessary barriers,” Waisman says.

Once someone is hired, onboarding and day-to-day interactions are often geared toward neurotypical workers unless human resources, managers and co-workers understand neurodivergence. From performance reviews to termination, the entire process needs to be looked at from a lens of supporting neurodiversity. And it starts with employers and leaders educating themselves on what true neurodiverse inclusivity looks like. 

Supporting neurodiversity in the workplace 

As a leader in autism and neurodivergence training, Waisman offers some ways employers can support neurodiversity in their workplaces. 

“It’s not only a human rights and inclusivity issue, it’s good common sense to ensure that your work teams are created with diverse minds, ways of being, world views, and cultures," Waisman says. "It also shows that you’re open to innovative ways of problem-solving and are committed to representing the diversity we see in the larger community.” 

Once an employer understands the strong case for hiring neurodiverse thinkers, ensuring that policies align with both human and disability rights legislation as well as current best practices is crucial. Then, it comes down to leadership.

“Leaders need to understand the value of differences and they need to hold the culture of diversity in every word that they say and in every action that they take,” she explains.

Waisman also stresses the importance of bringing together human resources, legal, and leadership teams to ensure that justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) policies also include neurodivergence so that education around neurodiversity is included in workplace training programs.  

Waisman recommends that employers work on building partnerships with neurodiverse and Autistic communities. “Bring in experts with lived experiences, they can assess recruitment and retention processes and the physical space.” 

'Learn and keep iterating'

She says employers can look to other workplaces already creating neuroinclusive spaces. “Learn from best practices, gather feedback from within the workplace from your neurodivergent employees, and target areas of potential growth and areas that are already showing success.” 

How can you support your neurodiverse colleagues? She says: “Getting educated really helps us to see our own biases, helps us to remove barriers, and helps us to learn about other communities that may not reflect who we are in the world.”

Waisman suggests letting neurodivergent individuals lead the conversation: “The kind of changes that neurodivergent people suggest within the workplace is often really sensible and pragmatic” and as simple as turning off every other light in a room, for example. 

'A diverse team is a successful team'

To Waisman, embracing neurodiversity at your workplace brings innovation, heightened employee morale, more safety, and a stronger return on your investment. 

“So why would you not want this diversity of thinking on your team? It’s a gold mine.” 

In partnership with the Sinneave Family Foundation, the Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) Initiative for Neurodiverse Students takes a systems-level approach to enhancing inclusion and accessibility in WIL programs, positioning neurodivergent students to thrive in WIL and beyond. The initiative will support co-op, internship, practicum and field placement programs for students, in partnership with students with lived experience with neurodiversity, teams supporting WIL across campus, and community and industry partners who mentor and host UCalgary students.

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