Neurodiversity, Technology and the Workplace

Neurodiversity is a term used to describe conditions like autism, dyslexia and ADHD.

The growing focus on diversity and inclusion in many workplaces can increase awareness of the variety of communication and work styles. With this increasing dialogue comes a shift in the focus of atypical ways of thinking or learning, away from the deficits, disorders and impairments.

The brains of people with autism are wired differently, resulting in sensory sensitivity, repetitive routines, intense focus on narrow areas of interest, and challenges reading social cues the way the rest of the world does. ADHD and dyslexia can be equally as complex however not a deep area of expertise given I don’t live directly with those challenges.

There can be benefits of having neurodiverse people in your business and some organisations have become aware of the strengths and how neurodiversity can drive competitive advantage with specific hiring programs to attract unique individuals.

Considering the rate of conditions such as autism and ADHD in the general population, chances are you are already working with someone hiding challenges (or someone even unaware and undiagnosed). The workplace is becoming increasingly neurodiverse, so what I wanted to discuss in this blog is some detail around the strengths and challenges in the workplace and how technology can play a role to support or enable neurodiverse people to be not only in the workforce, but have a more positive and successful experience.

We are not talking about a disability, but a different way of thinking, learning, and processing. Just because someone is classified as neurodiverse doesn’t mean they are suddenly in a specific box; everyone ‘on the spectrum’ is unique. Neurodiversity comes with some great abilities such as;

  • Ability to focus deeply for long periods (known as ‘hyperfocus’)
  • Identify rules and patterns in data
  • Rapidly process visual information
  • Remember vast amount of detail
  • Excellent problem solving
  • Specific cognitive strengths that enable ‘out of the box’ thinking and ideas

Neurodiversity also comes with some challenges that vary in severity for the individual:

  • Difficulty planning out work or setting priorities
  • Interpreting things very literally
  • Being direct or honest and at times appearing stubborn
  • Difficulty reading non-verbal cues
  • Sensory issues
  • Social challenges

The workplace is filled with sensory stimuli that can be difficult particularly for an autistic person. Some challenges can be with:

  • Sounds — colleagues chatting, background music, technical equipment like a printer or phones
  • Lighting — Office lighting and computer screens
  • Smells — strong perfume or food smells, or even subtle things like carpet

For a neurotypical (normal, even though I hate using that word!) person most of these are just part of the environment and not paid attention to. If you are atypical, it can be difficult to filter out certain elements and some can become very distracting. A strong smell like a colleague’s perfume can produce a migraine. A colleague fidgeting can be like a wrecking ball in your brain.

One thing I find particularly interesting about this is that 2 people can be in a meeting and receive the same information, but how they process can be different depending on the way the information is presented or presence of challenging sensory stimuli for the neurodiverse person. This also varies in severity across each individual. This can be why, for example, an autistic person struggles with eye contact, or does it to a point then stops. They may be trying to restrict one channel to try and focus deeper on other detail of the situation or meeting.

The challenges of the workplace can simply make it difficult for a neurodiverse person to do their job.

Technology however gives us the power to try and reduce some issues and channel our strengths to perform better in the workplace and produce high quality work. Technology is my area of expertise and as an autistic individual I use it in very specific ways to help counter my sensory or other challenges when the opportunity arises to drive greater success at work.

Reducing distraction and having better focus

One of the bigger impacts on my day, and for many other people neurotypical or neurodiverse, is interruptions and notifications. Autistic people in particular have problems with working memory, with it being hard to hold on to detail in their mind to continue on a task during or after an interruption. Poor working memory can really impact the ability to be interrupted by a beep or Chat message and just progress back to your current work. So these notifications can gradually build up and cause stress and confusion. Not always, but particularly on a day when you are struggling or in an environment with already a number of sensory stressors. My biggest win here firstly is on a tough day working from home and also using Do Not Disturb mode to block out the world, find your hyper focus and drive your work through to completion.

If you cannot work from home, finding any way to reduce the distractions like your Skype for Business or Teams status can attempt to push the world back. Any App you use, go into the notification setup to reduce the alerts. Across Outlook, Teams or even WhatsApp, Facebook and LinkedIn you can have many alerts per day alone. Ensure they are working for you not against. And don’t forget you can ignore your phone or email for an hour most days — depending on your job obviously! Be smart about it. Choose to close of the world how you can to make space for focus.

Improve time management and multitask with less stress and chaos

Neurodiverse people are typically much better at focusing on one thing deeply and with high quality rather than juggling. It takes a great deal of energy at times to transition between tasks or environments. They key is to reduce transition and structure your day to have clear priority items and minimal changes. For this I am a big believer in relying on Apps to track tasks and reminders to ensure I spend my time on what is most important, rather than spending hours in hyper focus on something not urgent. Apps like Trello, Planner, To-Do, Wunderlist, OneNote have all been favourites of mine. Also, SharePoint sites and features like Lists, shared group OneNote and even managing work through my Outlook calendar. In the task management tools I love the added benefit of not only entering tasks but having a visual board really helps absorption of the information. They visual features like coloured flags, clear ‘buckets’ of items and all the fields you can use to push reminders to yourself or drag things into your calendar are priceless.

Handling sensory challenges it the workplace

This can be so tough. You can be having a good day then something triggers gradual nagging of a sound you cannot block out that grows into a jack-hammer in your brain, or a smell makes you feel ill. Noise can be a big pain however the increasing appropriateness of noise cancelling headphones in open plan work areas is a godsend. Blocking out that interference to drive focus helps so many people, even neurotypicals.

Working from home for me is the best solution for sensory challenges. I can control so many factors here, yet remain connected to my colleagues through Teams calls, messaging and also accessing everything I need through Office 365 (what a plug!) to continue my work without any hinderance.

Learning and processing differently

As I mentioned earlier, you can have people in a meeting who all see, hear and receive the same information however it can be processed differently. Couple that with sensory distraction or stress and there can be gaps or confusion.

I personally find technology vital here. My worst meetings can be those round table discussions with a group talking. Sounds easy, but listening to IT issues or project detail verbally, I am holding it in my working memory to absorb context and detail to understand and problem solve. Hand me a white board and marker and it’s a different story. And these days technology is amazing here. The day I discovered OneNote was ground breaking and for years its my go-to. I can mind map and take notes with tags and formatting to make it visual and meaningful. In a group conversation I find digital whiteboards fantastic — that ability to capture visual detail and then send and share is fantastic. Then Surface Hub takes all this to the next level being able to deeply collaborate with a group while on a call lead to powerful work. For me, the Surface Hub is like a translator of work style, mental state, communication mode and across location. I find it brings people together and allows a level of visual data capture or communication during a session, then the added end value of having everything on hand when you are back at your desk or just immediately on your device. All this technology helps information be visual, more easily absorbed and faster progress or problem solving.

Those social challenges

Fitting in at your place of work can be hard. The communication with colleagues can produce varying challenges, with some neurodiverse people being much better at ‘social masking’ or fitting in than others. The literal, honest, direct personality stereotype of a person on the spectrum can be harsh to some colleagues. I personally am a ‘get in there and get sh&t done’ type of person and forget to take time to have warm social conversation with colleagues. That probably is a bit also because I am a busy working mum. I do find that technology can help with social challenges. Being able to send a Chat message in Teams or Slack rather than approaching a person and juggling non-verbal cues in my head is a relief. I can send a direct message and no chit-chat required. That’s not so say I don’t like the chatter, but at times I just want the answer to continue working. What is also great is dialling in for meetings. Again, working at home reduces a lot of challenges but being able to join a meeting and not be in the room with the smells, sounds or other challenges helps people stay connected while looking out for their own work health. It’s the joining calls by Teams, Chat messages with colleagues to check detail, and Conversation threads that enable me to appear connected and communicating without some of the in person complexity.

Those are the key areas where technology can drive less issues and greater success in the workplace for a neurodiverse individual. Many of this detail aids any person, it ‘s just that us neurodiverse folks have particular trouble at times in reducing sensory challenges and managing our work. The big issue for us is we have no control over the scale at which something impacts us and the level of processes or effort required to push through at times can leave us exhausted. 
The rate at which technology advances only makes things increasingly easier and I continue to find great features in the Apps for work, along with the plethora of Apps in my personal life to help me unwind, heal and relax to fuel up for the next day in the office.

And remember, just because we have all these challenges doesn’t mean we don’t add value. Neurodiverse people may have different needs but make sure you cut them some slack — they add tremendous value in their workplace. If an opportunity arises, help them harness their power rather than just tolerate their quirks.

2 thoughts on “Neurodiversity, Technology and the Workplace

  1. As a recently retired technology person currently being evaluated for a neurodivergent condition (suspected Aspergers Syndrome), I have a question: On my last few years of work, my department adopted Slack as (yet another) communication channel (pun intended). And I alone found I just could not make my brain work with Slack. I was fine with email, chat, helpdesk, webinars, project management, and every other communication tool we were using. But Slack left me completely lost and overwhelmed. If I looked away for a short while, when I came back, the screens (I had to scroll back) were so full of thoughts I couldn’t follow, that I wanted to scream. I literally could not wrap my mind around it, could not find the content in the spaghetti. I felt like such a loser, and my colleagues resented that they couldn’t reach me on Slack. So my question is: Have any other neurodivergent people reported this problem with Slack, specifically?

    1. I know exactly what you mean. Like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and other chat tools, can really overwhelm people. I know a couple of autistic people who struggled. And those who are neurotypical also. And it doesn’t help that users get threads messy or don’t have a solid understanding of the features. This makes it more complex and disjointed.

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