When it comes to neurodivergence in the workplace, stigma is everywhere. Often, neurotypical people with little outside knowledge or experience have inaccurate assumptions about those with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, down syndrome and other forms of neurodivergence. Additionally, these ways of functioning are often viewed as black and white—Either an employee has a condition, or they don’t.

This can be a useful mindset for benefit professionals navigating the legal framework of neurodiverse employment and accommodations. Neurodivergent individuals face additional challenges in the workplace due to misinformed cultures, which is an issue that also requires solutions from benefit professionals but concerns the entire workforce. Since April is Autism Awareness Month, let’s take a moment to look at neurodiversity: What can we learn about it, what can we do to be more accommodating and understanding as individuals, and how can we bring this education to our entire workforce?


Neurodivergence is more prevalent than most people might assume. To understand why it is not as visible as it may seem, we can look at the broader topic of neurodiversity. So, what is the difference between neurodiversity and neurodivergence?

The answer, according to a TIME article by S. Mitra Kalita, is simple: “We are all neurodiverse.” Neurodiversity encompasses all people and looks at the different ways our brains and bodies function, whether those functions are more neurotypical or neurodivergent—which mean to show typical or atypical neurological patterns, respectively. Neurodiversity doesn’t try to label people as one or the other. Rather, it is about acknowledging our differences in perspectives and realizing that there is no specific mold for functionality, neurotypical or neurodiverse.

Doing Away With “Normal”

We often label neurotypical people as “normal,” but doing so implies that what isn’t normal isn’t as valuable or legitimate. A better way to consider neurotypical behavior is like right hand dominance. We don’t call right-handed people “normal,” and this helps us consider left-handedness as a legitimate way of functioning. Nowadays, people who are right-handed, left-handed and ambidextrous are all considered “normal,” and judgement towards left-handed people would be seen as ridiculous.

Considering that only about 10% of the population is not right-handed, there is plenty of reason to believe that a change in our language surrounding neurodivergence can lead to more acceptance. Around 15-20% of the population is neurodivergent, which is about one in five people. What’s actually “normal” is neurodiversity, which means we should expect it to play a role in our workplace.

Autism and the Spectrum

Neurodiversity encourages us to acknowledge the differences in how we act, think, communicate and function as a whole. This can further our understanding of neurodivergence by showing the wide range of these differences—the visibility of certain aspects, how severely they affect people, and how capable or willing people are to be accommodating.

Since April is Autism Awareness Month, let’s use that as an example: Autism is often referred to as a spectrum, which means it is more visible in some people than others, but it affects how a person functions nevertheless. Sometimes, it is hard to differentiate between characteristics we associate with autism and whether someone is diagnosed with autism—but labeling someone as “autistic” shouldn’t be the impetus for coworkers to be more inclusive and understanding of how someone functions. The label itself becomes a perceived obstacle between co-workers instead of a way to better understand the people around us.

Employees can challenge themselves to try out new perspectives that make interactions with all co-workers (neurodivergent or not) more understanding and productive. This is a helpful way to view neurodivergence as a whole—accepting people for who they are instead of feeling the need to characterize how they act.

Three Action Steps to Success

In a previous blog, we’ve discussed the positive effects neurodiverse people have on the workplace as well as the benefits of having a neurodiverse workspace. But even for workplaces that aren’t actively broadening their neurodiversity, neurodivergence exists. It is vital for teams to self-evaluate and ask themselves whether their ways of functioning inadvertently creates barriers for others.

  1. Clear and Concise Language: This type of communication is always helpful for workers, but it is especially necessary for a neuroinclusive workplace. Communication is one of the most prominent barriers between differently functioning coworkers, so one of the easiest solutions to overcome this is to pay attention to what we are saying. Reflect on that email or message before you send it: Could it be confusing in any way, and are the takeaways clear? Also, try to eliminate vague phrases like “check in” or “follow up,” as the lack of a set time and method of communication can confuse and cause anxiety. It is much better to use clear sentences: “Send me an email if anything is unclear” or “I’m available at these times if you’d like to come to my office and talk about this further.”
  2. Communication Methods: Kalita’s TIME article also brings up another possible barrier for neurodivergent people, which is the methods we use to communicate. She states, “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.” This can vary greatly from person to person, but consider what methods of communication people are most comfortable with as well as what helps them communicate the best.
  3. Employee Education: Empathy, awareness and understanding are all vital when it comes to neurodivergence, so employee education should also be a top priority. Unfortunately, a lack of education has contributed to problems like stigma in the workplace.

    According to a Deloitte article, “some believe that the inherent characteristics of neurodiverse individuals makes them especially well-suited for certain types of tasks that are repetitive in nature and do not require much social interaction.” This is despite research, like one study that showed people hired “through [one company’s] neurodiversity program are ‘90% to 140% more productive than others and have consistent, error-free work.’”
    Stigma and misinformation are perhaps the greatest barriers between neurodivergent people and their workplaces. Education about and interaction with the neurodivergent community is the best way to shift a culture and allow people to be understood for who they are.

Identity and Acceptance

This post has approached neurodiversity from the perspective of people who identify as neurotypical, and it has warned against labeling coworkers who may be neurodivergent. However, part of a person’s acceptance in both a community and themself comes from their identity.

When an employee identifies a certain way, it is important to accept them and not be presumptive about them. Whether it is autism, ADHD, down syndrome, or other conditions like bipolar disorder or PTSD, these terms shouldn’t be swept under the rug. Self-identifying is a huge part of acceptance in a work culture.

Employees should be aware of these different types of neurodivergence so that they are better suited to interact with their co-workers who identify this way. Once the stigma is gone, conditions like these can be accepted, and terms that co-workers use to self-identify can be another aspect of their diversity, not a limitation of their perceived abilities.

To that same point, when employers take the time and effort to make their culture and environment more accessible for neurodiverse people, they can better accommodate employees with more specific needs. Workplaces being more accommodating of people with all different ways of functioning does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations, of course, but it allows all employees to improve their interactions within their own ecosystem and in the world. In that way, workplace-wide education can help benefits professionals to make their work environments more diverse and inclusive.

Neurodivergence is everywhere. It is complex, and it can be challenging for people from different backgrounds to interact with each other. Education, experience and acceptance don’t eliminate the problem—They show that often, there is no problem, just a difference in perspective.

Jeff Mason

Proofreader at the International Foundation. Favorite Foundation Product: The Talking Benefits podcast. Benefits-Related Topics That Interest Him Most: Retirement and evolving work cultures (four-day workweek, hybrid work, etc.). Personal Insight:  Jeff enjoys writing in a wide range of genres, from benefits blogs to memoirs and novels. He has published works in literary theory, satire, employee benefits and creative essay, and he was recently shortlisted for a novel-length work in science fiction.

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