I am encouraged by the increasing interest in neurodiverse workplaces. On the other hand, I’m often disturbed by the growing polarization around the topic. Some of my autistic colleagues have assured me that much of the polarization I see online in the comments results from keyboard courage. And that in day-to-day interactions, that polarization does not exist. I hope that’s true. However, I feel if we wish to move toward a more inclusive workplace, we need to collaborate more and attack and argue less.
There seems to be a tremendous amount of anger and disagreement coming out of the neurodiversity initiatives. Why is this?
Most angry comments come from people who feel misunderstood, marginalized, or worse, bullied.
A significant challenge for successful inclusion and equity in the workplace is bullying and microaggression that often results from well-intentioned leadership who moved too quickly to put initiatives in place without doing the necessary groundwork.
It’s like a gardener deciding that it’s too much work to properly prepare and fertilize the flower and vegetable beds. The gardener throws seeds on the soil without tilling the soil, pulling out the weeds, and fertilizing. What do you think the chances are that the seeds will grow into productive plants? You know the chances are slim if you’ve ever grown a garden.
So why try to “prepare the flower beds” before implementing neurodiversity initiatives? Because without doing the groundwork to prepare the soil for a successful endeavor, conflict is inevitable. Conflict often leads to unhealthy work environments. Unhealthy work environments are rarely psychologically safe. Bullying and microaggressions thrive in unhealthy work environments.
Anyone can fall prey to bullying, whether neurodivergent (ND) or neurotypical (NT). According to research by the Workplace Bullying Initiative, “protected groups” are often bullied. In the United States, a protected group includes those with physical or mental disabilities, including neurodivergent individuals.
Healthline (Healthline, 2019) notes that bullying also occurs more often in environments that:
- have unclear policies about employee behavior
- have poor employee communication and relationships
Other characteristics that may invite bullying include (Gordon, 2022):
- Being highly skilled
- Well-liked employees
- Non-confrontational people
- Appearing different
These risk factors, when taken together, demonstrate that neurodivergent employees are bound to face a more challenging time in the neurodiverse workplace.
Miscommunication can fuel polarization
We know that sarcasm is a common and generally accepted form of humor. But when is sarcasm, banter, and innocent teasing a detriment? In a neurodiverse workplace, the difference between sarcasm as humor vs. meanness might not be apparent to everyone. Often, autistic people are literal and don’t understand sarcasm. This misunderstanding leads to conditions that are ripe for divisiveness and disunity. This miscommunication reminds me of a scene in the movie “Star Trek: Generations” (1994).
Data, the android, commits a horrible social faux pas when he pushes Dr. Crusher into the water after having witnessed another crew member do the same in fun to someone else at a crew party. He cannot understand why it was okay when someone else did it and wrong when he did the same thing. Thankfully for Lieutenant Commander Data, the Enterprise crew is mostly understanding of his android-ness. Except in this instance.
Put-downs, jibes, teasing, and undertones shouldn’t have a place at the office. So, is it worth the risk? I felt the same when I established the no-put-down rule in my classroom. I had witnessed best friends escalate into fist fights because the joking and put-downs went too far. We never know how someone takes our innocent jests. It’s not worth the risk.
In the office, strive for honest, frank communication styles without put-downs or teasing.
I started as a teacher early in my career. In my classroom experience, I’ve seen the value of a no-put-down rule. What that meant was that, in my classroom, put-downs were not allowed. They were not allowed even if they were in jest. They were not allowed even if the people putting each other down were best friends. I had seen all too often how teasing would escalate into hurtful sarcasm, which would escalate into fistfights among friends, all because of put-downs. So, I had a no-put-down rule for my classroom(Susan, n.d.).
While it may sound prescriptive or controlling, consider this experience from an autistic adult recalling her childhood social awkwardness.
“I was teased and taunted by the kids in the neighborhood in the years before I started school. I thought it was meant as “good fun,” and I ought to have toughened up. But this was the world of humans; this is how I had to adapt to fit in and have friends.
Later, at school, I saw people tease and poke fun at each other to show friendship and camaraderie. Unfortunately, imitating this teasing often landed me in trouble, and I came off as arrogant and blunt.
In high school, this kind of teasing and jibes could also mean flirting — adding to the confusion and setting the stage for unhealthy relationship patterns in the future. But, not knowing who or how else to be, I continued to imitate. It’s sad when I think about it now. I had no other way to relate authentically, I suppose.
My social disability and attempts to fit in achieved the reverse of what I wanted. I almost don’t know who to be anymore.”
How does the autistic child’s experience manifest in the workplace? A no-put-down culture is warranted in the modern workplace as well as in schools. We also need to understand that communication is a two-way street. Both parties must be respectful of the other.
Prepare the flower beds to promote respectful communication
What does respectful communication mean in a neurodiverse workplace?
A new way of looking at human differences in communication is the Double Empathy theory. It offers an alternative explanation for the communication difficulties that tend to exist between autistics and non-autistics.
Double Empathy “…(proponents) believe that communication breakdowns between autistic and non-autistic people are a two-way issue caused by both parties’ difficulties in understanding. This ‘double problem’ challenges long-held theories of autism that point to the social shortcomings of people with autism as the reason interactions flop. It also echoes principles of neurodiversity in its assumption that autistic people have a different way of communicating rather than a deficient one.” (Zamzow, 2021)
This more inclusive and less polarizing perspective might be vital to creating a safe workplace culture and environment.
Create a safe work environment
The workplace needs to be where we can feel free to ask “stupid” questions without fear of being vilified. Worrying about “looking dumb” has hampered many a bright student in the classroom. Similarly, so many worry about the same thing at the office. However, asking questions is how many neurodivergents work best. It’s to do with how differently-wired brains work.
Being ridiculed for asking a question inhibits learning and stunts creative thinking. In my experience, several others in the room wanted to ask the same question but were too afraid to do so.
Social conventions are a minefield
Those with difficulties understanding arbitrary social paradigms or ad hoc culture rules may need these spelled out. A request for clarification about these isn’t active social defiance or weakness deserving of ridicule. Instead, the neurodivergent individual seeks to make the best of the opportunity by attempting to understand it.
A psychologically safe workplace benefits everyone, not just neurodivergence. Here are some tips for creating this space:
- Create a team culture that supports neurodiversity. To illustrate the benefit of this, consider this situation. A neurotypical employee may experience a temporary “pseudo-neurodivergence” when they experience a tragedy, loss, or life change. This temporary emotional upset may upend their internal balance and ability to function as before. People generally “understand” and make kind accommodations without vilifying them. What if we took the same understanding approach with our differently-wired colleagues? Supporting people with an understanding outlook needs more promo! It’s Customer Service 101. Why not make it how we serve our work colleagues?
- Aim to understand without judging. In my experience, this is easier said than done. The human inclination to judge gets in the way of understanding. Understanding comes from open-hearted curiosity and setting aside the idea that you have “knowledge.” Sadly, the incentive to better understand others is hampered by a human inclination to avoid what is hard. “It’s too complicated, so I won’t bother.” This attitude has been the death knell of kindness and understanding — from families to the workplace.
- Improve education. One of the major underlying causes of abuse and bullying in the workplace is a simple lack of understanding of people who are different. Although some people are intentionally mean, ignorance is the most common cause of bullying or microaggression in the workplace. While no one wants to think of themselves as ignorant, the fact remains that many employees think of their neurodivergent coworkers as peculiar and strange. People often think these coworkers have mental health issues (GMB union, 2018). This misconception can cause conflict and lead to misguided solutions that do nothing to foster a productive working environment.
- Conduct seminars and educate employees on how neuro-cognition differs in neurodivergent people. Training supports the understanding and appreciation of divergent thinkers and their unique talents and abilities.
- Transform the workplace attitude from a deficit mindset to a gifts mindset. A company culture that values a gifts mindset understands how each individual contributes to the company’s bottom line while simultaneously protecting their workers’ psychological safety at work.
- Company culture is defined by action or inaction, not policy. Like giving advice, a policy is easy to create, but implementation is sometimes lacking. All employees need to know the company’s values and what kindness in the workplace means to the bottom line.
- Most importantly, set an example. Management needs to be aware of the price society pays when we ignore or, at worst, participate in bullying and instead revel in ignorance. Disrespect, rudeness, selfishness, bullying, and lack of regard for other human beings are rampant in our culture. Yet, we can all make a difference in society through our words and actions. In a hierarchical workplace environment, those at the top are in a great position to influence change.
In conclusion: Be a decent human
I am calling out for kindness and humanity in the workplace. Think of it — the manifestations of biological diversity make the world a fantastic place. The planet teems with differences, all based on the expression of DNA.
Understanding the importance of all diversity in the plant and animal kingdoms is critical for our survival and enjoyment in this world. Yet, we struggle with human variety. Humans are our next of kin-based on DNA research. Accommodating our unique human needs so that we can reach our potential and make a positive difference in the world benefits us all.
It’s pretty simple: Be a decent human.
- Workplace Bullying Institute https://workplacebullying.org/
- Who gets bullied, and who does the bullying? https://www.healthline.com/health/workplace-bullying#whos-affected
- Star Trek TNG Data Attempts to Be Funny Star Trek Generations https://youtu.be/d6dktRBH59.
Gordon, S. (2022). Why People Are Bullied at Work. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/reasons-why-workplace-bullies-target-people-460783
Healthline. (2019). Workplace Bullying: How to Identify and Manage Bullying. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/workplace-bullying#whos-affected
Fitzell, S. (n.d.). Best Practice: Establish a “No Putdown Rule” in Your Classroom — Susan Fitzell. Susan Fitzell’s Blog. Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://susanfitzell.com/10918-2/
Zamzow, R. (2021). Double Empathy, Explained. Spectrum News. https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/double-empathy-explained/