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Embracing Neurodiversity in the Workplace

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AccountingWEB is proud to recognize Neurodiversity Celebration Week 2022 (March 21-27) by highlighting how accounting and finance professionals can embrace neurodiversity at their firms by fine-tuning the interview process and improving workplace culture. This will allow you to attract and retain the untapped talent of neurodiverse job seekers.  

Mar 21st 2022
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While the corporate world is making strides toward inclusivity, many companies still don’t understand or value neurodiversity. While the word neurodiversity is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it also applies to other neurological or developmental conditions, including ADHD and learning disabilities. 

Australian sociologist Judy Singer, who coined the term in the late 1990s, emphasizes that neurodiversity is not a diagnosis; rather, all humans are neurodiverse, and mainstream perceptions of it need to shift. 

This includes how neurodiversity is perceived and understood in the workplace.

“Businesses can benefit in many ways, including financially, by taking a different approach to neurodiversity,” according to Rob Hahn, a small business owner in Saint Paul, Minnesota. 

In his article “The Value of Neurodiversity,” published by the Minnesota Society of Certified Public Accountants, Hahn said the corporate world has “slowly begun to recognize neurodiversity as an opportunity,” but more needs to be done. 

 

Embracing differences

“Stigma, a lack of awareness, and lack of appropriate infrastructure (such as office setup or staffing structures) can cause [the] exclusion of people with neurodevelopmental differences,” posits “What is Neurodiversity?” by Drs. Nicole Baumer and Julia Frueh in their November 2021 paper for Harvard Medical School. 

Employers can make workplaces more inclusive by offering to accommodate sensory needs, using a clear communication style, giving advance notice if plans are changing, and avoiding assumptions. 

“Inform people about workplace/social etiquette, and don’t assume someone is deliberately breaking the rules or being rude,” Drs. Baumer and Frueh said.

Many companies are beginning to develop programs and policies to attract and retain people with neurodevelopmental differences. 

According to “Neurodiversity offers huge pool of untapped finance talent,” an article by Tim Cooper published in Finance Management in March 2021, a neurodiverse workforce might be especially valuable to accounting and finance teams. These employees “must often solve complex problems to help the business understand market opportunities, competition, and risk,” Cooper said. 

Zoe Gross, director of operations for the non-profit organization Autistic Self Advocacy Network, told the magazine that programs that recruit neurodivergent employees have increased workplace inclusivity. However, employers must take care to avoid stereotyping. 

“Not all autistic people are natural accountants or mathematical geniuses… we want neurodiversity to grow beyond certain roles or departments,” Gross said. 

Companies can implement strategies to make the interview and recruiting processes more inclusive by removing structural barriers, Cooper said. 

“These could include reducing literacy-based assessments where spelling is judged despite assistive technology being available, or insisting on [in-person] interviews when jobs require no or little face-to-face interaction,” Cooper said. 

Shifting perceptions 

Danish company Specialisterne works with employers specifically to hire and train people who have autism or who are otherwise neurodivergent. Thorkil Sonne, whose son has autism, founded Specialisterne in 2004 after he saw that young autistic people had skills that were highly valuable and appropriate for success in the field of IT, where Sonne previously worked. 

These skills included “structured thinking, attention to detail, [and] persistence in repetitive tasks,” Sonne told the Toronto Star

“I could see the skills, and I could see the need in the corporate sector for these skills,” Sonne told Kate Allen of the Star in 2014.

Nevertheless, neurodivergent people faced an unemployment rate of about 85 percent in 2021.

It’s an untapped labor pool, and companies must make changes in order to hire and retain these employees. 

These changes start with the hiring process, which typically values skills that neurodiverse folks tend to lack, and they don’t stop there. Just as with many other aspects of company culture, one you begin to think critically about the ways in which you can better accommodate potential talent that also happens to be neurodiverse, you’ll likely start considering other ways in which your workplace can be more flexible.

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