Technology work attracts neurodivergent people. So if you are leading a tech team, it’s likely that someone in your crew may be on the autism spectrum (ASD), be living with ADHD, or have an auditory processing disorder, learning disability, or other mental difference. Without the right accommodations, many neurodiverse professionals can struggle and, eventually, leave. These modifications are typically not equipment you can install or tasks to add to HR’s plate. They are behaviors and processes that start with you.
“This is the unique challenge of leadership,” says Brian Zielinski, vice president of technology at Circa. “Some of the most productive, talented individuals have challenges in terms of how they interact with others, or with the world. That talent is precious. If you can create an environment where they can be productive, you’ve got a leg up on the competition.”
To accomplish that, you likely need to do more than you are. A recent Wiley study found that 60% of business leaders believe they are working to foster an inclusive culture while half of Gen Z tech workers felt uncomfortable in a job because of their gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic background, or neurodevelopmental condition. This disconnect is hitting companies hard when it comes to retaining talent. The reason most young tech workers gave (20%) when asked why they left or wanted to leave a role was that they lacked a sense of belonging.
I asked experts how to fix this. And it turns out that most of the adjustments neurodiverse people need are relatively simple and inexpensive to implement.
“And most of what we think of as accommodations make the environment better for everybody,” says Cara Pelletier, M.A., senior director of DEI at holistic performance management platform 15Five. “When you’re implementing something that makes life easier for somebody with a disability, you’re making life easier for everybody.”
1. Ask people what they need
Neurodiversity includes a wide range of styles, disabilities, preferences, and needs. You can’t know what any of those are until you ask, which is the best place to start.
“In most of my internal messaging before a meeting, I ask, ‘Do you need any accommodations?’” explains Chloe Duckworth, co-founder and CEO of Valence Vibrations, which makes digital solutions for neurodiverse teams. “I make sure I’m asking the question in our very first encounter.”
If you are leading a team and have not already done this, you might hesitate to raise the subject.
“The most important thing you can do as an executive trying to support disabled or neurodivergent employees,” says Duckworth, “is to ask them what they prefer. It can be uncomfortable for people to constantly advocate for themselves without knowing if their boss or peers will be accommodating. So a lot of disabled people don’t feel comfortable disclosing their diagnosis. As executives, it’s incumbent on us to proactively ask employees what they need.”
You might feel that you don’t want to probe into things that aren’t your business, bring up something that might make your team member feel uncomfortable, be rude, or know what to say. You don’t have to ask about their disability or neuro type, though.
“People don’t need a diagnosis — and shouldn’t have to disclose one — for you to be able to accommodate the best way for them to perform in your environment,” says Duckworth. Ask instead, “What type of workplace environment helps you focus,” she says.
2. Build a safe psychological space
If you find that getting people to ask for what they need is a challenge, it may mean that your work environment does not feel safe or that people don’t trust the company.
“The more psychological safety there is in an environment, the more you’re going to find disclosure of what would help people perform best or deliver results best,” says Bettina Greene-Thompson, program manager for DEI talent acquisition at Amazon.
For Circa, this took some effort. “The biggest cultural change was building an environment where individuals felt comfortable sharing,” says Zielinski. “We were not getting that reporting early in our journey. That took bold statements by leadership. We did mental health roundtables, where we split up into groups and talked about our own experiences. I think that humanized it for everybody.”
This was true at Amazon, too. “Having environments where conversations can exist and you can feel seen and authentic, has an impact on how secure an individual feels,” says Greene-Thompson. “I know, for myself, having leadership come forth and identify and be public about it, allowed me to feel comfortable with my own disclosure.”
3. Learn to speak many emotional languages
Some people talk in meetings and chat effortlessly with you and coworkers. Others communicate as if they are being charged a fee for every word. Some gesticulate enthusiastically while others present such a flat affect, you wonder if they spoke at all. The way someone expresses themselves can be the result of ASD, their cultural background, and many other factors. It’s important to listen to the intention and meaning of what people say, not only their emotional delivery.
“About 10% of the worldwide population is estimated to have alexithymia,” explains Duckworth. “This is an emotional perception deficit that commonly coexists with autism, ADHD, and anxiety disorders.”
Emotional perception can have a huge impact on the way your team communicates, though. Duckworth offers an example: Duckworth offers an example from another company that had many brilliant, autistic engineers. All of them raised a red flag that something in the stack was broken. “But because they had a very flat affect in the way they were communicating that challenge, the people on their team didn’t address it appropriately. They didn’t realize how severe the issue was,” she says.
This emotional communication breakdown can happen between people of different genders, cultural backgrounds, and neurotypes, too. “We are trained, neurologically, to interpret emotions by comparing them to people like us,” she explains. “So, if we’re speaking to someone that doesn’t have our same vocal tone patterns to convey emotions, we often misinterpret them and may not realize it.”
4. Document expectations and action items
One simple step that helps every neuro type — and takes the onus of asking for an accommodation off neurodiverse people — is to practice good hygiene around work expectations and the action items that arise in meetings. Use daily, weekly, or monthly checklists to make your expectations clear and easy to reference. And write out action items in the meeting chat or a shared document during the meeting.
“Having clear goals and a checklist of things you’re supposed to accomplish between check-ins is important,” says Pelletier. “People with autism or ADHD also sometimes have auditory processing disorders so they miss part of the conversation, or it takes them longer to process what you’re saying.” That checklist becomes an easy source of truth, viewed by both parties, that can prevent misunderstandings and keep people on track.
“It’s another way to be sure you are on track, which is huge for someone with ADHD, anyone who struggles to prioritize their time, or who’s on the autism spectrum and who may come out of conversations without clarity,” says Pelletier.
5. Offer a written version of meetings and agendas
A simple way to address a wide range of needs is also just good meeting hygiene.
“Make meetings more friendly for neurodivergent people,” suggests Pelletier, “by putting out an agenda ahead of time. This gives people a chance to read it, think about it, process it, and prepare for the meeting.”
Also turn on captioning in meetings and make a transcription of it readily available. This helps anyone with an auditory processing disorder overcome the difficulty of following meetings that are audio only. If you make this standard operating procedure, neurodiverse people for whom auditory processing is a challenge won’t have to ask for anything. And those tools, though often intended for people who are hearing impaired “are also helpful for people in a noisy environment, on their commute, who have kids in the background, speak English as a second or third language, and for lots of other reasons,” says Pelletier. It’s even helpful for people who simply prefer to glance over meeting notes for an idea or task, rather than rewatch a video or listen to a recording.
6. Take a break from meetings
One thing 15Five does to provide a more neurodivergent-friendly workplace culture is to have a day without internal meetings, Pelletier says. Most people on your team will appreciate the uninterrupted time as well as a day where they don’t have to dress up, wear makeup, or be social. But for some neuro types, this is huge.
“For many autistic people, video conversations are mentally and emotionally taxing,” explains Pelletier. “Many autistic people have a difficult time matching their facial expression with their emotions. Behind the scenes, there is another track where I’m thinking, ‘Fix your face so you look engaged. Don’t look angry or upset. Look into the camera. Don’t spend a lot of time looking away. It’s like when you watch a duck go across the water. You see only the bird gliding on top. What you don’t see underneath is the feet paddling like hell. If I can turn the camera off, all I have to do is close my eyes, focus on what I hear you saying, and try to interpret the tone of your voice. I don’t have to worry about what is my face doing.”
Video calls can sometimes be necessary or desirable. But often they aren’t. “Provide the grace and flexibility to allow people to show up in a way that’s going to be most productive for them at that time,” says Pelletier. “Sometimes tiny adjustments like that make a huge difference for people.”
7. Get some training
“Education is the foundation,” says Amazon’s Greene-Thompson. The actions you take in your role as leader are important to the success and productivity of a wide range of neuro types. We all know only our own way of seeing and interacting with the world. But ours might not match what others experience.
To discover what you don’t already know, you have to study. Read about neurodiversity. Invite speakers to give presentations. Take a class. “The more you understand,” says Greene-Thompson, “the more you see that your lived experience is only your own perspective. But how do we understand the lived experience of another? How do we make the work environment more accommodating, equitable, and inclusive for everyone? We start with education, training, presentations, through accessing the latest research, and in seeking out subject matter experts in this field.”
This effort usually has benefits beyond your neurodiverse team. “We find that managers start to think, ‘This is going to work for everybody!’ If I, say, start asking what is your communication style or how can I support you best. For a neurodivergent individual, it might be one thing. For a working parent, it might be ‘Can I start at 10 am? Can we schedule meetings at 11?’”
Everyone is different. When you learn about these differences, you might discover people are struggling with something that’s easy to change.
“When we recognize that everybody’s showing up uniquely and support them delivering their best work,” says Greene-Thompson, “we are much more inclusive.”