Although divergent thinkers enter the workforce with an array of natural advantages, neurodivergence is, for many, a hidden disability, as society is built for neurotypical minds, rather than neurodivergent ones. According to the social model of disability, followed by the neurodiversity community, people are disabled when their environment neglects to accommodate their needs. Neurodivergents commonly struggle with sensory issues, body relative directions such as left and right, and the traditional, standardized, forms of communication.
Atypical sensory processing can make workplaces difficult for me as an autist. I struggle with fluorescent lights and noise pollution: the din of appliances, music, chatter, construction work. The pandemic has allowed me to work from home, but before the pandemic, I struggled with work because I couldn’t stay in my workplace for more than an hour before I felt drained, sleepy, often sweaty. Fortunately, I was teaching at the time and didn’t spend much time on campus most days anyway, but many people can’t work from home. Many don’t want to work from home. Though many of us are physically uncomfortable at work. These employees need accommodations.
Blue light filtering lenses enable a tolerance of technology screens. Sunglasses enable a tolerance of sunlight and fluorescent lights. Earplugs or earbuds keep out noise pollution. Noise-cancelling headphones are ideal not only to stay focused but to signal to serve as a do-not-disturb notice, save an emergency. Employers have a responsibility to ensure these employees are included, that they feel they belong, which means that an inclusive workplace will permit the use of these accommodative tools.
Inclusive workplaces can also dim lights or replace fluorescent lights with natural lights. Employers can also implement sensory rooms, where employees can go to regulate or self-soothe when overstimulated. Or employers can simply allow employees to go for a walk or to their cars. Ask them what they need. An employee doesn’t necessarily need to go home or even leave work after experiencing neurological dysregulation. Self-soothing is crucial for autistic employees for whom neurological dysregulation (shutdowns and meltdowns) are part of their lived experience.
You may not see the struggles of your neurodivergent employees. They may remain silent about these struggles, and as these struggles may seem unusual or uncommon, but they are a real aspect of our experiences that must be acknowledged in order to include us: to sustain our employment and overall wellbeing.