Let's Talk about DEI and Neurodiversity
Let’s talk about DEI, specifically, those who are neurodiverse. We’ve all heard this term more frequently over the years from our peers. We’ve heard of the efforts to ensure that through DEI processes and policies we are considering this new cohort of individuals in the workplace. In today’s blog post I’m going to talk about the importance of inclusion for those that are Neurodiverse in your organization as well as my own journey to learning about my Neurodiversity.
“Neurodiversity” is a word or term that is used to explain the unique ways people’s brains work. It rejects the notion that cognitive variation should be cured. So, what do Steve Jobs, Jerry Seinfeld and Tim Burton have in common? They are all neurodiverse. Based on different studies, between 15-20% of the population is neurodiverse – including up to 10% of people who are diagnosed with dyslexia, 5% diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and 1-2% with autism. Let’s explore what it means for your organization to have employees or customers who are Neurodiverse. You can expect that Neurodiverse individuals are likely to be honest, creative, resilient, and innovative.
As an example, Neurodivergent employees have a long history of driving innovation with “out of the box” ideas, and creative problem-solving. Take Steve Jobs for example, he made Apple one of the world leaders in the tech industry, he changed life as we know it, with the invention of the iPhone. Or we could consider Elon Musk, who has Asperger’s syndrome; Tesla has developed one of the world’s best-selling electric cars. Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is a professor, best-selling author, animal behaviorist, and autism self-advocate.
My Personal Journey
Given my role at AIQUEOUS as our Director of Operations and interim HR Manager, it made sense for me to have a better understanding of this group. My goal is to ensure they have proper support, tools, and guidance for their professional growth and goals. I also had suspicions about myself and thought this could be helpful for my own personal growth and understanding. I began reviewing articles, Facebook posts, blogs, anything that came across my screen that could help me better understand what this meant to individuals. The more I learned, the more I realized, I am Neurodivergent. Not, “I might be” or “I have some signs,” no I am in fact Neurodivergent.
As I continued to hyperfocus on knowing more about neurodivergence, pieces of my own puzzle fell into place. Was I ready to accept that I was “different?” For me, being labelled as different didn’t feel good, it was scary and unknown. What would this mean for my career growth and ability to provide value in the workforce? During a particularly rough time this year, I reached out to Jonathan Kleinman, our CEO, for guidance. He had always been supportive and provided a safe space for honest communication, and I honestly didn’t know who else to ask. He approached my concerns with empathy and compassion and provided resources I had not expected. This led me to learn more about the breadth and reach of my Neurodivergence.
I gained an understanding of how to at least articulate what others around me might see or experience interacting with me. There was a realization, that when I seemed “normal” it’s because I’d learned how to mask or camouflage who I was to make others more comfortable.
My experience with AIQUEOUS has been one of support, empathy, and open communication. It has personally been eye opening and validating and has provided a sense of relief. I have taken time to reflect on my past work experiences, I recall previous peers and leaders who supported me and acknowledged my strengths and provided support. Then there were those who just didn’t understand and became frustrated because I didn’t fit the normal, they expected. Coaching was presented from the perspective of “although you’re a high performer, you’re too aggressive or blunt, you need to be like your peers”. Many times, this was addressed so far after the issue that I didn’t even know when or how it had occurred. I felt like a failure, yet I didn’t understand how I was doing anything wrong. In truth, it wasn’t that I was doing anything wrong.
For years, I thought I was just, for lack of a better word, crazy. What a difference empathy, compassion, and a simple willingness to communicate can make for someone struggling to understand how to function or fit into their work environment, let alone day-to-day life. With the support of AIQUEOUS leadership and co-workers, I’ve learned that my brain just functions and processes things differently than others and that my past experiences came from a lack of knowledge and understanding. This is important to remember, as your peers, co-workers and family only know that you behave differently than they would expect if their expectations were not set appropriately.
Approaching Neurodiversity within DEI
Armed with this new perspective, I can understand how diversity, equity, and inclusion have an impact not only in the workplace but as an organization serving customers. It occurs to me given our organizations focus how critical DEI is to the utility space. As utilities are a public-facing service, they have an important role in the communities they serve. Utility customers may not always have a visible way to identify their diverse needs, but it is up to us to find ways to make them visible and continue to include them all equally. As we are communicating with customers over the phone or through chat, we should work to find ways to determine their diverse needs and provide the stellar support they expect.
Here are a few things you can consider when planning how to communicate with customers who may be Neurodiverse:
Communication Options are great but keep them clear. Communication methods should be easily identifiable on your website. As a note, it’s common for Neurodiverse individuals to experience high stress levels when talking on the phone. Offering chat or email capabilities for service changes, program applications, and other services is a great way to ensure they can be an engaged customer.
Take it slow, practice active listening, and provide space. You’ll find that some customers who are Neurodiverse speak rapidly or have a varied cadence in verbal communication. Practice active listening -- it might be important to keep pace or slow the conversation down. Give them space when they are ready to communicate, pause when providing information, and focus on using closed rather than open questions when possible. Expect direct and likely blunt responses.
Concise Written Communication is integral to reaching your neurodiverse customers. We’ve all seen the “TL;DR” slang, and we’ve all skipped reading emails or documents because it is “just too much.” As someone who is neurodiverse it can be overwhelming to absorb a lot of information at once, I call it “Information Overload” also known as “Information Anxiety”. Information overload is easily avoided by providing a concise overview of the information at the top of your communication. Consider including visuals instead of written communication or instructions, this will ensure that all of your customers are able to understand the important information you are trying to provide.
In summary, there are ways for all of us to interact more effectively with our neurodiverse cohorts. AIQUEOUS has provided a safe space for me to openly communicate my needs, and consistently grow in their understanding, support, and patience. It has helped me grow in ways that I wasn’t aware were possible and see the value a neurodiverse person brings to an organization. We all know that the goal of DEI framework is important to company culture because they can foster creativity, fresh perspectives, and understanding. AIQUEOUS hopes to encourage all of you to take time to focus on your DEI framework, as there are so many individuals that can add to your organization and your customer base.