Best practices for communicating with neurodiverse employees

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Even before the global health crisis further impacted the way organizations function, companies were grappling with the need to transform their businesses and adapt to the evolving needs of their employees in order to prepare for the future.

To help drive sustainable growth and increase technological capabilities, some leading companies looking to identify new talent have found that neurodiverse individuals — those with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyspraxia — can spur innovation and contribute to the skills needed for emerging areas such as artificial intelligence, automation, blockchain, cybersecurity and data management.

But simply hiring neurodiverse individuals isn’t enough. Companies need to develop strategies to best accommodate this talent pool and create a safe and inclusive workplace in which to thrive. Part of this entails having an environment that encourages open and clear communication for all team members to connect with leaders, colleagues and each other. There are certain ways of conveying information that may well work to maximize success and career growth.

Ernst & Young established its Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence (NCoE) in 2016, and while we’ve learned a great deal about how to most effectively create a routine and structure for our neurodiverse colleagues, we’re continuing to grow and adjust our approach. We now have 80 NCoE members across our U.S. offices in Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Jose, and, most recently, Nashville, who bring diverse skill sets to the table to help us address real business needs of our clients.

Not only have their contributions had real impacts on our business and clients, which have continued amid the current crisis, but the NCoE has also helped increase overall pride for EY member firms and extended our culture of caring. It has also made us better communicators, for example, teaching us to avoid abstract language and use shorter, more precise words.

While every individual program and situation is different, below are a few insights we’ve learned on how to best communicate with our neurodiverse colleagues in the workplace.

  • Communicate clearly using straightforward language. Neurodiverse employees are more often likely to take communication at face value. Therefore, avoiding sarcasm and expressions that may be misunderstood or misinterpreted can go a long way. Neurodiverse colleagues will understand you more easily if you state your emotions and ask specific questions rather than open-ended ones.
  • Embrace the honesty. Individuals on the autism spectrum typically speak with complete honesty, and their frankness can be sometimes incorrectly mistaken for rudeness. It’s important to reflect and understand that these comments often stem from individuals coping with stress of sensory overload. Finding ways to work with and embrace different communication styles can help make certain everyone feels like they have a voice at the table.
  • Pace the flow of information. Our neurodiverse colleagues have made invaluable contributions to our organization because of their technologically inclined and detail-oriented abilities, along with their strong skills in analytics, mathematics, pattern recognition and information processes. However, when others communicate facts, data and other information, it should be done so in a logical and ordered sequence to avoid information overload. Also, remember the power of the pause — allow for rest and recovery time in between sharing information — to give your team members more time to process what has been said.
  • Be mindful of sensitivities. At times, individuals on the spectrum may be disconcerted by sounds, sights and movement. Changes in routine or personnel, such as having to abruptly work remotely, can take some time for neurodiverse individuals to adjust. When communicating about changes, be patient and allow extra time for them to adapt.

The creation of the NCoEs has not only improved our organization and business, but it has also strengthened our culture. Regardless of what’s happening in the world, clear and direct communication that avoids idioms, colloquial phrases and abbreviations that aren’t universally understood can help create inclusiveness for everyone. This is especially important in an increasingly diverse workforce where professionals are often from different countries, cultures and backgrounds and may use language in different ways. As we continue to steer through this unprecedented time, successful teaming — even if virtually — starts with being open to, and inclusive of, all backgrounds and abilities.

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