Incorporating Neurodivergent Individuals into Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

Andrew Komarow, CFP®, ChSNC®, AIF®, BFA™, CAP®, founder of Planning Across the Spectrum, specializes in helping individuals, families, or employers with autism and other disabilities pursue financial independence. Komarow provides a unique perspective for those with unique needs because he has walked in their shoes, having received his autism diagnosis late in life.

Becca Lory Hector, CAS, BCCS, is the director of individual empowerment and employee wellness at Planning Across the Spectrum. Her goal is to help all neurodivergent and autistic adults live their best life and accomplish their goals. In addition to being a published author and national speaker regarding diversity and inclusion, she speaks from experience as a late-diagnosed autistic adult.

In recent years, many companies have incorporated much-needed diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives into their hiring practices. However, a good number of them have left a significant group out their diversity models: the disabled.

This group of individuals represents approximately 61 million American adults in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many in this group have been struggling with sustainable employment for decades. Of this diverse and ever-growing group of humans, there is one particularly large group of disabled individuals that have been denied employment based on social difference: the neurodivergent.

Neurodiversity, like biodiversity, is the concept that variations in the human genome are a natural part of human evolution. It is the idea that people who think and learn differently are not less than others—just different. We now take a strength-based approach to neurodiversity, celebrating strengths instead of “fixing” deficits. Neurodiversity includes autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, and Tourette syndrome.

We call your attention to this group of different thinkers because they represent some of the most innovative, detail-oriented, loyal workers out there, and yet, the neurodiverse, almost ironically, have one of the highest unemployment rates—a startling 85 percent according to Autism Speaks.1 The incongruity comes from the fact that, traditionally, those who don’t conform to “societal norms” were considered poor hires, regardless of their talents and abilities.

Fortunately, we now know better. We know that a disability doesn’t make you a poor hire, and that often those who think outside of the box bring the most value to a company. We have the Americans with Disabilities Act in place, technology that has changed the workplace, and employers who are doing their best to implement D&I initiatives. It is the perfect time for companies to begin adjusting their hiring practices and workplaces to not just include the neurodiverse, but to welcome them.

The financial planning profession as a whole has significant talent gaps that can be partially filled with racial, gender, and sexual orientation diversity, but not completely. There is more to diversity than just racial and gender diversity. The majority of the D&I initiatives leave out some of the exact talent our business is searching for. We want entrepreneurs, employees, or advisers who work hard, care about others, and think outside the box; what better way to find talent and different ideas than from a population that was literally born to think differently?

At the end of the day, we are in a for-profit industry that focuses on maximizing financial wellness. We are not doing charity work as our main business. Hiring these individuals is not charity work—it is good business. There is a reason companies such as SAP and Microsoft hire six-figure consulting firms to learn how to hire individuals with autism. 

Core Strengths of the Neurodivergent

There are several strengths neurodivergent employees possess, including:

Intense passion in a niche subject. Neurodivergent people have passions that rival no other when it comes to a subject that interests them. The ability to concentrate on details and perform certain detail-oriented tasks is a common strength of different thinkers.

Diverse thinking styles. For the same reasons someone may want diverse viewpoints in a brainstorming session, neurodivergent people are yet another subset of talent that can be utilized for their unique thought processes toward effective innovation. Neurodivergent people tend to be more analytical and logical and can bring a unique perspective into the workplace.

Focus. Neurodivergent people tend to have the distinctive ability to focus and bring an unprecedented, consistent attention to detail, which is a welcome addition to any workplace. Someone who is neurodivergent may be the best employee to train at highly specialized skill, especially if it aligns with something they are interested in.

Incentivize the Talent 

Now, let’s take a look at how your practice can be more welcome to different thinkers:

Flexible hours and work options. Neurodivergent people will be your most consistent and focused employees. Offering flexible hours and work environments (like the ability to work from home) will allow them to work in their most comfortable environment on any given day, so they can put their best selves forward. Offering something as simple as a place to work close to public transportation may be the difference between someone taking or not taking the job, as driving can be a major inhibitor to someone who is neurodivergent.

Benefits that matter. Many individuals who are neurodivergent may be receiving government benefits and, therefore, the financial work benefits should be aligned. You may not be prepared to understand the complexity of their benefits but, for example, someone who is receiving Medicare or Medicaid may not have the need to participate in the company’s 401(k) or health insurance program. Instead, they may be interested in learning about an ABLE account or taking more paid sick time. 

Offer accommodations they might actually need. This will always vary person to person, as every person is different, but there are so many simple accommodations that can be made to make someone more comfortable. Noise canceling headphones to drown out noise, or dimmable lights that will help with overstimulation, may actually help to leverage their abilities by making them more comfortable.

Easy Changes to Hiring Practices

There are several steps you can take with the hiring process to attract neurodivergent talent, including:

Take the pressure off the interview. You know how nerve-wracking an interview is; now, imagine that your brain really struggles with real-time communication. Indeed, that’s where most neurodivergent people struggle the most. It’s not the resume or their abilities, but rather the social aspect of the interview process. Make sure you aren’t making snap judgements about hiring by the interview alone. Let folks show you what they are capable of.

Don’t dis disclosure. Many different thinkers are experts at “masking” their disability which means many do not disclose. If someone voluntarily discloses an invisible disability, your reaction is important. It’s better to ask which accommodations that person would need in the workplace before writing them off as a “difficult” employee. Some may need simple accommodations, and some might need none at all.

Being direct isn’t rude, it’s kind. One of the biggest challenges of communication for neurodivergent individuals is reading between the lines. Someone who has a “say-it-like-it-is” communication style struggles endlessly when you don’t just say it like it is. We have developed this idea that direct communication is somehow rude, but it is the kindest way to communicate with a different thinker.

Workplace Accommodations

When you finally hire a neurodivergent employee, there are several accommodations you can make to your workplace, including:

Sensory environment. The workplace environment is really important to neurodivergent people. If you can be flexible with lighting, seating arrangements, the use of supports like headphones or sunglasses, and fidgets on the desk, you are well on your way to creating a welcoming environment. Things like fluorescent lights, loud neighbors, open blinds, and heavy perfume can be distracting and even painful for the neurodivergent. Remembering to check in about sensory issues should be a priority.

Scheduling. Not everyone performs their best in a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday job. Many people are night owls and perform better when their hours accommodate that. Additionally, many neurodivergent people can hyper focus and produce eight hours of work in four hours. It’s important to figure out the employee’s needs around scheduling. It may mean working only the slow shifts or only six hours a day. It may also mean offering more remote options to positions that were once office based.

Put it in writing. Because the neurodivergent often struggle to remember directions or have executive functioning issues, make it a habit to put everything in writing for them. In other words, rather than picking up the phone for a quick call, send that request via email with as many detailed instructions as possible. This will act as reference for both parties.

Myths about Hiring Neurodivergent People  

There are several myths about neurodiverse employees that we can bust right now:

They can’t sell. Someone who works within their own interest can talk your ear off about any and every single part of what they are trying to sell. They will be your best expert.

They are only good with computers or other similar skills. Neurodivergent people have interests that range across an infinite number of topics, creating diverse sets of skills in a wide range of fields.

They aren’t good at talking to people. Neurodivergent people can be great conversationalists, especially when they are talking about subjects they are passionate about. Just like anyone else, as long as they are comfortable in their environment and have the right accommodations, you can expect to talk to them just like you would anyone else.

Now is the time to open up your hiring practices and workplaces to the neurodivergent. Everyone is “differently abled”—we all have our strengths and challenges. Different thinkers can be your best employees, if you are welcoming, open to learning, and willing to ask questions 

Endnote

  1. See “Autism Employment Resources,” from Autism Speaks, available at www.autismspeaks.org/autism-employment#:~:text=Global%20data%20indicates%20that%20the,to%20as%20high%20as%2085%25.