Neurodiversity in the Workplace: A Strengths-Based Approach

Neurodiversity in the workplacePromoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace is a priority for ethical employers who want to optimize productivity and leverage the full potential of their workforce.

Fairness and inclusion in the workplace also provide a sense of psychological safety for all employees, which helps them thrive at work.

With that in mind, how should we embrace neurodiversity in the workplace?

How can the workforce in general be more accepting and understanding, and how can management promote a neuroinclusive workplace?

To help employers, managers, and HR professionals out, we’ve created this special article on neurodiversity in the workplace. It explains the neurodiversity paradigm and different neurotypes.

We share how small adjustments to communication practices and the environment will enhance a sense of psychological safety and inclusion for all workers. Finally, we review books on neurodiversity in the workplace that will help you further design a neuroinclusive work environment.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Work & Career Coaching Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients identify opportunities for professional growth and create a more meaningful career.

What Are Neurodiversity and Neurodivergence?

We are all familiar with the term biodiversity, which refers to the range of species and life forms present in a given ecosystem. Sociologist Judy Singer (2017) coined the term neurodiversity to refer to the range of differently “wired” nervous systems (neurotypes) in human beings in any social setting.

The neurodiversity paradigm challenges the deficit-based medical model of neurodevelopmental differences by applying a strengths-based approach (Aherne, 2023). The majority of human beings are what is termed neurotypical, while research indicates that between 15 and 20% are neurodivergent (Doyle, 2020).

This means a sizable portion of every workforce will be neurodiverse. However, many neurodivergent adults have become adept at “masking” to try to fit into a neurotypical society (Nerenberg, 2020).

Masking behavior has a huge cost for neurodiverse adults. Neuroinclusive workplaces minimize or eliminate the need for masking, thus supporting neurodivergent workers and protecting their mental health (Doyle, 2020).

Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace by becoming neuroinclusive also helps to build creative collaborations that draw on a diverse range of human strengths (Aherne, 2023). Neuroinclusion also helps prevent absenteeism, workplace bullying, discrimination, lost human potential, and lost productivity (Doyle, 2020).

4 Common Neurotypes and Their Strengths

NeurotypesThis section describes the most common types of neurodivergence and their respective strengths and challenges.

1. Dyslexia

The most common form of neurodivergence is dyslexia, which most people understand as problems learning reading and writing skills. However, dyslexia also includes a different way of processing information (Aherne, 2023).

While literacy may be affected, intelligence is not. People with dyslexia often excel in visual, emotional, and spatial intelligence and related skills. If you would like to know more, watch the short video below by the British Dyslexic Association.

See dyslexia differently - British Dyslexia Association

Strengths associated with dyslexia include creativity, problem-solving, and communication skills (Armstrong, 2010). With the range of assistive technologies available for dyslexia today (such as speech-to-text and grammar and spelling tools), most people with dyslexia can excel in any role that plays to their unique strengths.

There are even plenty of famous dyslexic writers, including Agatha Christie, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gustave Flaubert, and W.B. Yeats (Davis Dyslexia Association International, 2024).

2. Autism

Autism exists on a spectrum from what is often termed high-functioning autism (previously termed Asperger’s syndrome) to more marked differences in communication, sensory processing, and attention and learning skills (Aherne, 2023).

People with autism have differences in the way they communicate, understand, and use language, as well as sensory processing differences, which include high or low sensitivity to sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, interoception, balance, and proprioception (Armstrong, 2010).

People with autism may also have differences in attention, interests, and how they learn. This can include being very focused on what are often called “special interests” (Aherne, 2023).

People with autism feel safer and more comfortable with routines and structure, as this lessens uncertainty. Sudden changes to plans and routines can be very challenging (Armstrong, 2010).

Strengths associated with autism include attention to detail, being highly organized and punctual, memorizing and learning information quickly, learning to read very early on (hyperlexia), visual thinking and logical thinking ability, exceptional honesty and integrity, dependability, and reliability (Altogether Autism, 2022).

Many adults with autism have exceptional abilities in the visual arts, math, natural sciences, engineering, and computer science or technology disciplines (Armstrong, 2010).

Psychologists have recently recognized that autism has been severely underdiagnosed in girls and women, who may instead be diagnosed with anxiety and depression. As awareness grows of the different ways autism presents in girls and women and assessment instruments become more nuanced, many women have started seeking diagnoses (Nerenberg, 2020).

The video below by autistic artist and vlogger Courtney Mermaid describes her lived experience of self-diagnosis prior to seeking a formal assessment. It’s worth watching to bust myths about autism.

What made me think I was autistic - Autism symptoms in girls


ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. However, this diagnostic label is a poor description of the neurotype and is currently regarded as a placeholder label by many in the neurodiversity movement (Carr-Fanning, 2020).

According to the existing diagnostic label based on a medical model, ADHD presents differently according to age and gender and includes three specific types:

  • Predominantly hyperactive/impulsive type (mostly men and children)
  • Predominantly inattentive type (mostly women)
  • Combined type

However, a neuroinclusive description of the ADHD neurotype refers to differences in executive functioning, including working memory, cognitive processing, self-regulation, sensory processing, attention, and inhibitory control (Aherne, 2023).

One evolutionary theory is that the genetic makeup of the ADHD neurotype is a hangover from our hunter–gatherer days, when we needed more energy, hypersensitivity to stimuli, quick impulses to respond to and avoid danger, and wakefulness at night to protect our tribe (Hartmann, 2019).

However, since the agricultural revolution, the strengths of the ADHD genotype have become less useful and increasingly atypical, and it is now regarded as a disorder (Hartmann, 2019).

Strengths associated with ADHD include creativity and innovation, an ability to hyperfocus on topics of interest, high energy and enthusiasm, fearlessness and courage that make them shine in a crisis, and a love of adventure and novelty. ADHD types also prize integrity and honesty, are empathic, and often possess a high degree of emotional intelligence (Armstrong, 2010).

An adult with ADHD has the potential to excel in any role that keeps them sufficiently challenged and stimulated, including the arts, design, entertainment, journalism, first responder roles (paramedics, police, firefighters), teaching, childcare, nursing, catering, and especially as entrepreneurs (Additude, 2024).

In the TEDx talk below, former teacher turned ADHD coach and entrepreneur Katie Friedman describes how a strengths-based approach to her own ADHD helped her identify creative solutions to her challenges.

ADHD: Finding my gold - Katie Friedman

4. Dyspraxia

Dyspraxia, also known as developmental coordination disorder, primarily affects motor skills and coordination but also other aspects of executive functioning (Aherne, 2023).

Like dyslexia, it involves differences in processing information primarily in terms of spatial awareness but can also include sensory processing, organizational, and attentional differences (Aherne, 2023).

Individuals with dyspraxia may face challenges planning and organizing movement, including participating in sports, running, and driving; be prone to accidents and injuries; and have a poor sense of direction (Aherne, 2023). This can affect various aspects of daily life.

Dyspraxic strengths include creativity, empathy, attention to detail, persistence, and determination (Dyspraxia Foundation, n.d.). Adults with dyspraxia can excel in roles that require highly developed interpersonal skills, such as childcare, counseling, teaching, and customer service.

Also, creative and problem-solving roles in art, product design, or technical fields play to their strengths. A great eye for detail also makes adults with dyspraxia highly competent researchers, proofreaders, or data analysts (Enna, 2023).

For a quick summary of how dyspraxia presents in daily life, watch this short video by workplace coach Guy Brewer.

Dyspraxia? What is it? - Guy Brewer

These are the most common neurotypes. However, they overlap and can coexist in one individual. For example, AuDHD is the term used for autistic people with ADHD (Hours et al., 2022; Rong et al., 2021). Many characteristics of divergent neurotypes overlap (Nerenberg, 2020) and are summarized in the section below.

10 Characteristics of Neurodiversity

The following list is not exhaustive and is drawn from a range of sources (Aherne, 2023; Armstrong, 2010; Nerenberg, 2020; Singer, 2017).

  1. Sensory processing differences can include high or low sensitivity to light, sound, smell, taste, and texture. This can lead to overstimulation due to sensory excitation and flooding or understimulation, leading to boredom, apathy, and poor motivation.
  2. Emotional regulation differences
  3. Planning and organizational differences
  4. Information-processing differences
  5. Working memory differences
  6. Hyperfixations and/or special interests
  7. Rejection sensitivity dysphoria is sensitivity to potentially negative interpersonal cues such as sudden changes in arrangements or plans, delayed replies to messages, and constructive criticism.
  8. Social anxiety is often due to differences in communication styles.
  9. Masking involves imitating neurotypical behavior patterns to be socially acceptable and included.
  10. Overwhelm can be a consequence of struggling to cope with all the above.

To support neurodiversity in the workplace, small accommodations that mitigate the challenges facing neurodiverse people will enhance a sense of comfort and psychological safety for all employees (Doyle, 2020). The next section explores this in more detail.

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Neurodiversity in the Workplace – A Strengths-Based Approach

The first step toward building a neuroinclusive workplace is raising employees’ awareness of neurodiversity as part of employee DEI training (Doyle, 2020).

Understanding trauma-informed perspectives on neurodiversity

Despite the well-meaning intentions often stated in an organization’s HR policies, neurodivergent people still face ignorance and stigma in their workplaces (Mellifont, 2020).

Many neurodiverse employees will have been misunderstood, bullied, excluded, and discriminated against at school, in their family, by their peers, at college, and at work.

This means almost all neurodiverse workers will have to manage trauma responses at work as well as their differences from the neurotypical majority (Lively, 2023). In addition, many will be very hard on themselves after internalizing the idea that something is wrong with them (Aherne, 2023).

Being constantly misunderstood leads to feeling unsafe and having a dysregulated nervous system. This has somatic as well as psychological consequences. Neurodiverse people are more likely to experience migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, anxiety, and depression (Nerenberg, 2020).

The higher incidence of coexisting conditions is not due to deficits of the neurotype, but struggles with trauma responses triggered by an ableist, unsafe, and dysregulated environment (Mellifont, 2020).

Neurodistinct people may be treated unfairly if they do disclose their neurotype, due to unconscious bias based on unspoken but powerfully operational stereotypes (Lively, 2023). For example, the idea that people with autism are nonverbal and antisocial, or that ADHDers are chaotic fidgets that can’t stop talking. These are stereotypes based on deficit-based thinking about neurodiversity that are not trauma informed (Nerenberg, 2020).

Recent lived experience-led research has proposed that many of the stereotyped “symptoms” associated with certain neurotypes are in fact trauma responses (Strang et al., 2019).

For example, autistic withdrawal, meltdowns, and ADHD over-explaining and oversharing may be self-regulation strategies that aim to make an unsafe environment safer. In other words, they are trauma responses. However, they are often deemed “symptoms” of autism or ADHD (Aherne, 2023). These behaviors are likely to lessen or disappear in neuroinclusive environments.

Social inclusion in the neurodiverse workplace

When offering neurodiversity awareness training at work, it is best to approach the topic as analogous to biodiversity in nature. The wider our variety of human neurotypes in the workplace, the better off the organization (Aherne, 2023; Armstrong, 2010; Doyle, 2020; Silberman, 2013).

Neurodiversity awareness training is crucial for promoting social inclusion at work and necessitates a strengths-based approach to neurodiversity in the workplace (Lively, 2023).

Strengths of a neuroinclusive workforce

A neuroinclusive workforce includes a wider range of strengths, talents, and abilities than a less varied employee profile (Doyle, 2020). Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace enhances an organization’s creativity, innovation, productivity, and resilience (Cognassist, 2024).

For example, consider this quote from James Mahoney, executive director and head of Autism at Work at JPMorgan Chase (Eng, 2018, para. 12).

“Our autistic employees achieve, on average, 48% to 140% more work than their typical colleagues, depending on the roles. They are highly focused and less distracted by social interactions. There’s talent here that nobody’s going after.”

You can find out more about how to recruit and maintain a neuroinclusive workforce by taking the Neurodiversity Certified Training course offered by neuroinclusion specialists Cognassist. You can also download a free PDF of workplace adjustments to support neurodiversity.

Finally, it’s always inspiring to hear a real-life success story to illustrate a point. I urge you to take a look at this brilliant TEDx talk, “Rebranding The Brain: Neurodiversity at Work,” by Dave Thompson. Thompson is neurodistinct himself and supports companies in becoming more neuroinclusive.

Rebranding the brain: neurodiversity at work - Dave Thompson

3 Best Books on Neurodiversity

These three books have been selected because they are highly accessible introductions to neurodiversity as an idea and lived experience. There are many other great books out there!

1. Neurodiversity: The Birth of an Idea – Judy Singer

Neurodiversity: The birth of an idea

Judy Singer is a sociologist who coined the term “neurodiversity” in her thesis that was published as a book chapter in 1998. Singer based her sociological idea of neurodiversity on the analogous concept of biodiversity as indicative of a thriving, rich ecosystem.

She describes how the term neurodiversity became “the rallying cry of the first new civil rights movement to take off in the 21st century” (Silberman, 2013, para. 6).

The book is part social history, part memoir, and part autism advocacy and is a great read if you’re interested in the roots of Singer’s groundbreaking idea.

Singer realized she and her mother were both “Aspies” after her daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age nine. Asperger’s syndrome is now referred to as high-functioning autism. Singer’s lived experience led her to explain her “disability” as a social consequence of living in an ableist society. This was championed by the autism self-advocacy movement, and a new civil rights struggle was born.

This is essential reading if you want to understand the sociological and historical origins of the neurodiversity movement.

Find the book on Amazon.

2. The Pocket Guide to Neurodiversity – Daniel Aherne

The Pocket Guide to Neurodiversity

In this book, expert speaker and trainer Daniel Aherne provides a concise and clear introduction to the neurodiversity paradigm and the executive functioning differences of divergent neurotypes: processing, working memory, communication, unwritten rules, emotions, and problem-solving.

The author focuses on the four most common neurodivergent identities that I’ve also covered above. Ahern has ADHD himself and is clearly passionate about neurodiversity issues.

He advocates creating the right environment for neurodivergent people to thrive by making small but significant adjustments, rather than expecting adaptation to the neurotypical world.

This should be available in every HR department as a staff learning and development resource.

Find the book on Amazon.

3. Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed for You – Jenara Nerenberg

Divergent Mind

This book is aimed at neurodivergent women who struggle with sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). SPS is common in women who are autistic, have ADHD, have sensory processing disorder, or are highly sensitive.

When SPS is poorly understood, it can interfere with relationships of all kinds and the capacity to learn and work. This book is packed with insights, tips, real-life stories, and references to research that speak to the specific experiences of neurodivergent and highly sensitive women.

The author describes her own struggles and joys as she gradually clarifies what it is that makes her different and the blessing of her SPS as she learns to play to its strengths. One of those is a heightened sensitivity to positive stimuli from the environment, which enhances gratitude, appreciation, joy, and wellbeing.

I recommend this book to anybody seeking to understand the experience of sensory processing sensitivity and how small accommodations can make a huge difference.

Find the book on Amazon.

17 Science-Based Productivity & Efficiency Exercises

Arm yourself with these 17 Productivity & Work Efficiency Exercises [PDF] and use positive psychology to increase flow, engagement, and goal achievement in the workplace.

Created by Experts. 100% Science-based.

Resources From has many additional articles with linked free resources that will enhance your practice of neuroinclusion in the workplace. These include:

Supporting neurodivergent staff with some of the challenges they may have faced so far, inside or outside the workplace, this I Will Survive worksheet helps them appraise their coping skills and personal strengths with which to face tough situations.

Strengths in Challenging Times is another worksheet encouraging reflection on personal strengths.

Although the I Love My Classmate worksheet was designed for pupils, it can be a useful group exercise for integrating compassion and understanding in the workplace.

This useful set of Workplace Strength Cards can be an easy-to-use mechanism to encourage staff to focus on their strengths, rather than their shortcomings.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others increase flow, engagement, and goal achievement in the workplace, check out this collection of 17 validated productivity and work efficiency exercises. Use them to help others excel at work.

A Take-Home Message

The neurodiversity movement has been deemed a new civil rights movement for the 21st century. Ethical employers who are serious about promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace would be advised to take note and adjust their communication practices and work environment accordingly.

Small adjustments to lighting, permission to use noise-canceling headphones, the provision of quiet areas, flexible/hybrid/remote working options, and clear, unambiguous communication are some of the accommodations that promote neuroinclusion and enhance the wellbeing of the entire workforce. These are relatively cheap or free, so budgets should be no barrier to neuroinclusion for truly ethical employers.

Please let us know if you have any other ideas for promoting neuroinclusive work practices in the comments. Further book recommendations would also be very welcome.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Work & Career Coaching Exercises for free.

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