Carnegie Mellon University

Multicolored puzzle pieces forming the shape of a brain on muted blue background

October 11, 2022

Neurodiversity in the Workplace Awareness Month

By Caedyn Busche and Cait Batchelor, Neurodiverse Employee Resource Group Co-Leads

Neurodivergence at Work

According to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, 63.7% of neurotypical, able-bodied Americans were employed. In comparison, 19.1% of Americans with a disability and/or neurodiversity were employed. That’s a 44.6% difference in employment rates.

And while we’re talking numbers, 15% of all Americans, or 1 in 7 people, are neurodiverse. Neurodivergence describes people whose brain differences affect how their brain works. Under this umbrella, you might recognize experiences like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Whether at home, hanging out with friends, or running errands around town, for many people neurodivergence is a disability that can only be managed, not cured. For many neurodivergent individuals, the space in which challenges really come to the forefront is at work.

Neurodiverse Employee Resource Group at CMU

This year, the Office of Human Resources launched a new pilot Employee Resource Group for individuals with this shared identity. The Neurodiverse Employee Resource Group’s mission is to provide intentional space for cognitively diverse employees, as well as allies, in search of resources, community and support across all Carnegie Mellon University campuses.

The group will work to improve awareness of the diverse experiences of the human mind and to promote the showcasing of different perspectives. As a kickoff to this advocacy, we asked our members what their experience as a neurodivergent individual was and what they wished their neurotypical coworkers could know.

Create Productive Assumptions

  • “My biggest piece of advice is just to assume people have good reasons for what they do or ask for, even if they have not disclosed personal health information to you. I have PTSD from surviving an assault, and people unexpectedly tapping me on the shoulder or speaking behind me when I have headphones on can send me into a spiral for the rest of the day. But I don’t want to have to explain that to a coworker! I just want to be able to say ‘Hey, I’d appreciate it if you could get my attention with a wave next time’ and have that be respected.”
  • “I would say that assumptions are the main cause of workplace strife. If you think someone is doing something disrespectful or is not listening, try asking them why they are doing that. For instance, I never ‘pay attention’ at meetings because staring straightforward while listening is guaranteed to really be me not listening to the speaker at all. But me with a pen drawing flowers or spinning a ring is me actively listening and engaging with what’s being said.”

Create Materials that are Accessible

  • “When co-workers show up to a meeting with a PowerPoint presentation that is a wall of text, it's not just boring, it's overwhelming and painful. Using the built-in PowerPoint tools, such as animation that shows a line of text at a time combined with more images and less text on the slide, makes a world of difference. People can read faster than you can talk anyway, so this helps everyone. Also, sending large documents or long-form content out in advance, preferably in a PDF so we can use text-to-speech apps to read the materials to us, is extremely helpful."

Create a Space of Open-Mindedness

  • “My advocacy [as an ally] has been shaped by helping my wife raise our son. Throughout his early years in school, we had to educate ourselves and work on his behalf to avoid his being defined ‘on the spectrum’ and to push against entrenched views on what he could become. … The experience of understanding his ideas and needs has shown me that situations, including the workplace, are poorer for excluding neurodiverse people from discourse and problem solving. What I’ve learned from ― and because of ― my son drives my actions and interests toward inclusivity and accommodation and the support of parents in my workplace who have neurodivergent children.”
  • “Being neurodivergent in my work environment can be challenging. Many of those I encounter have the idea that we can all work exactly the same way, under the same conditions. As a neurodivergent, there are various environmental factors that weigh heavily on how well I can do my job. I don't feel safe when asking those in charge if I can possibly do something a little different so that I'm less impacted and can get my work done. Many times it feels as though they see it as me not being able to do my job rather than me letting them know that I am fully capable of doing my job, just differently.”

Fostering Inclusiveness

Carnegie Mellon is committed to fostering an environment where everyone can learn, grow and thrive. This October, take a moment to reflect upon and expand your inclusiveness to those with invisible difficulties. Your coworkers, neurodivergent or not, will see the difference that accessible tweaks make to their professional experience.

Learn more about CMU’s Employee Resource Groups.