embrace neurodiversity with Susan Fitzell, Top Neurodiversity Speaker!

Ask any non-profit, and they will tell you — one of their biggest challenges is recruiting and retaining a dedicated team of volunteers. Between limited resources for recruitment campaigns, the time constraints of your volunteers, burnout, personality differences, and on and on… it can be hard to find the help you need.

There are simply not enough people to do all the work that requires doing. And those who are doing the work, showing up out of sheer dedication to their chosen cause, need to be supported.

So the questions arise, time and again. How do we support the volunteers we already have, so they stick around? How do we attract new volunteers? And one of the questions often thought, but rarely voiced aloud, is how do we work to mitigate personality differences and create competent teams?

I’d like to suggest a novel idea.

Embrace neurodiversity. Seek out neurodivergent volunteers.

Neurodiversity: the Rising Superpower of Business

Neurodivergence is how we describe those neurological conditions that cause people to perceive and interact with the world in a way that may seem different or “off” to a neurotypical person. A neurodivergent person has usually been diagnosed with a condition such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD, or dyspraxia. This term also covers conditions traditionally associated with mental health disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or anxiety. Neurodivergence can also result from traumatic brain injury.

Neurodivergent individuals make up a sizeable portion of the human population. As of 2017, the CDC estimates that over 2.2% of the adult population in the US falls somewhere on the autism spectrum (Dietz, Rose, McArthur, 2020). In 2016, the estimate was that 9.4% of children in the US have ADHD, over 3 million of whom were adolescents at the time and are now adults (Danielson, Bitsko, et. al, 2018).

I could go on and on with the stats for each neurodivergent condition, but I think you get the idea.

There are a LOT of neurodivergent individuals in the world. Some organizations estimate that up to 30% of the human population falls within the boundaries of a neurodivergent diagnosis.

It’s true that many neurodivergent people are seriously impaired by their conditions. It is also true, however, that many divergent thinkers are competent individuals, fully capable (and in some cases more capable than most) of solving problems, managing their lives, and being productive members of society.

A fascinating and revolutionary movement is taking place in the modern workforce. More and more businesses are recognizing the potential of these neurodivergent individuals. Hiring practices are becoming more equitable, opening the door to those who previously would have never made it past an interview. The workplace environment is becoming more inclusive as companies realize that “accommodations” should be universal, and for the benefit of their entire workforce. Slowly but surely we are seeing the tide change as businesses recognize and embrace the unique talents of the neurodivergent community. As a result, they are transforming their workplaces into neurodiverse communities of workers where all abilities have the opportunity to shine.

The results are noteworthy. Creativity and out-of-the-box thinking increase innovation and productivity. Diverse and inclusive workplaces foster employee loyalty. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

So why not embrace neurodiversity in volunteerism?

Volunteerism and Neurodiversity: Solving Problems Together

When a non-profit group embraces neurodiversity in their volunteer program, they create a lasting impact that goes above and beyond the organizational mission.

Most importantly, neurodiversity initiatives allow organizations to solve some of the most pressing challenges that impact volunteer programs.

How Neurodiversity Initiatives Benefit Volunteer Programs

There are certain problems common to volunteer programs the whole world over. Here’s how your organization will benefit by adopting a neurodiversity initiative, or simply embracing an attitude of awareness and inclusivity towards neurodivergent volunteers.

Challenge #1: Finding Volunteers.

As multitalented as neurodivergent people are, as a demographic, they are still plagued by unemployment and underemployment. What does this mean for non-profits? That there is an entire talent pool of highly motivated and creative individuals itching to find productive work or your volunteer program to tap into.

Connect with state and local neurodivergent advocacy groups to advertise available volunteer positions.

Your organization can provide invaluable opportunities for divergent thinkers to practice job skills and build their resumes through meaningful work.

Challenge #2: Retaining Volunteers.

Volunteer retention is a challenge that most organizations know all too well. Too few people doing too much work leads to burnout.

More volunteers mean less burnout. Less burnout means greater retention.

Retention can also be improved specifically by working with neurodivergent volunteers, who have a tendency to be loyal and dedicated to their jobs. This has been proven to be true in the paid workplace, where the turnover of neurodivergent workers is incredibly low.

Challenge #3: Access to Specialized Skills

Sometimes an organization does not have the money to contract highly skilled workers to help with specialized jobs such as programming, data collection, data monitoring, or systems analysis, to name a few.

Many divergent thinkers possess specialized skills such as these that they would be more than happy to put to work for a good cause.

Neurodiversity Initiatives and Volunteer Programs: Things to Keep in Mind

Now that you’re on board with neurodiversity and volunteerism, I want to take a moment to discuss some potential complications that may arise, and more importantly, how to mitigate them before they present a problem.

Real inclusivity goes beyond simply welcoming divergent thinkers to your volunteer team. Any neurodiversity initiative needs to be backed up by education and awareness within the organization.

Complication #1: Interpersonal communication and relationships.

Neurotypical people have certain expectations about how to interact with others. Direct eye contact, a firm handshake, and maybe an easy-going conversation are par for the course. These behaviors may present a challenge for neurodivergent individuals. For some, they may be downright impossible.

This can lead to misconceptions that the volunteer is “rude” or “disrespectful.” Some might judge them for being “stuck up” or complain that they are “too introverted” or “talk too much.”

Solution: Check your expectations. Be flexible. Educate yourself, the staff, and other volunteers.

Is it really necessary that the volunteer be a good communicator to fulfill the role they are there for?

Learn about the distinct ways that neurodivergence can impact the ability to communicate and form relationships. Discover the preferred communication methods of each neurodivergent volunteer. Leave personal judgments at the door.

Complication #2: Microaggressions and Bullying

It can be difficult for a neurotypical to adapt to the unique character traits of a neurodivergent volunteer. This is particularly common when people have blind spots and are unaware of the stereotypes and judgments they carry about people with divergent conditions. This could result in frustrations that lead to misunderstandings, volunteers leaving their positions, or worse; microaggressions, and bullying.

Volunteers need a confidential way to report these situations. Psychological safety for every individual needs to be a priority for your organization.

Solution: Offer neurodiversity training and awareness programs for all volunteers and staff. Create an internal system that allows volunteers to report bullying.

Creating an organizational culture that values divergent thinkers and respects their differences is fundamental for their successful assimilation into the volunteer workforce. They need to feel supported and valued.

Complication #3: Accommodations.

Much like accommodations are occasionally necessary in the paid workplace, they may also be required in a volunteer situation. Some neurodivergent workers have sensory sensitivities. Others may have distractibility or focus issues. Others still may have communication needs that fall outside the realm of “normal”. Circumstances like these may require a little rearranging of the work environment to allow the volunteer to thrive and complete the work they signed up to do.

In a non-profit or volunteer situation, this may be difficult. Resources may be scarce, and there might not be money available to adapt the work environment to the needs of individual volunteers.

Solution: Adopt the philosophy of Dynamic Workplace Design. This essentially means that “accommodations” are universal in nature and available to everyone in the organization.

When interviewing new volunteers, ask them what they need to work best. If they require noise-cancelling headphones, and they have some at home, encourage them to bring them in. If they work best from home, try to find them a role that can be performed remotely. If they don’t work well with groups, what tasks can they do on their own?

The goal is to make each volunteer feel welcome and valued for what they can bring to your organization. Take an individualized approach to discover their unique needs, and accommodate them the best you can.

Universal accommodations are good for everyone, but critical for those with neurodivergence.

Strengthen your Volunteer Program through Neurodiversity

Organizations that count on volunteers know just how valuable they are. They also know just how priceless the work they do is. Why not create an inclusive space where everyone is welcome to share their talents, whatever those may be? Embracing neurodiversity may be just what your program needs to find those volunteers it lacks.

All it takes to tap into this underutilized talent pool is a simple shift in mindset. I challenge you to set your preconceptions aside. Challenge the stereotypes you may have. Question the limits of what you thought was possible.

By welcoming neurodivergent workers onto your team of volunteers, you not only strengthen your organization—you will be proactively participating in the creation of a more inclusive world.

References and Recommended Reading

Danielson ML, Bitsko RH, Ghandour RM, Holbrook JR, Kogan MD, Blumberg SJ. Prevalence of Parent-Reported ADHD Diagnosis and Associated Treatment Among U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2016. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 2018 Mar-Apr;47(2):199-212. doi: 10.1080/15374416.2017.1417860. Epub 2018 Jan 24. PMID: 29363986; PMCID: PMC5834391.

Dietz PM, Rose CE, McArthur D, Maenner M. National and State Estimates of Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord. 2020 Dec;50(12):4258-4266. doi: 10.1007/s10803-020-04494-4. PMID: 32390121.


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