In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we interviewed two leaders from WilsonHCG's Neurodivergent employee belonging group (EBG), Wendy Daniels (chair) and Alyssa Salcedo-Salas (co-chair). Throughout our conversation, we discussed why this group was started, what it means to be neurodivergent, mental health struggles neurodivergent people face, and how employers can better support neurodiversity in the workplace.
Read more below:
Q: What does it mean to be neurodivergent?
Wendy and Alyssa: Neurodivergent refers to individuals who have a neurological difference that diverges from the typical or expected pattern of neurocognitive functioning. Examples of neurodivergent conditions include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette's syndrome, and others. It’s estimated that around 15-20% of the general population is neurodiverse according to a study by the National Library of Medicine. Being neurodivergent can affect an individual's perception, processing and communication style, among other things, and may require unique approaches to learning, working and socializing.
Q: What is the Neurodivergent EBG?
Wendy and Alyssa: The Neurodivergent EBG is a community of employees at WilsonHCG who identify as neurodivergent, such as individuals with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurological differences. Our group aims to provide support, advocacy and education for neurodivergent employees and allies to increase awareness and acceptance of neurodiversity in the workplace.
Q: What inspired you to start this EBG?
Wendy: Alyssa and I wanted to create a safe space for neurodivergent individuals in the workplace, advocate for their needs and foster a sense of community and understanding among all employees. I was also inspired because I am neurodivergent and so are some of my family members. I have a 2-year-old nonverbal Autistic grandson to whom I dedicate this effort.
Alyssa: I didn’t discover I was neurodivergent until I was an adult. Growing up, there were recurring things I struggled with, but I didn’t know how to label them. I just thought I was weird! After getting diagnosed with ADHD, a lot of the challenges I was facing started to make more sense. My story is what inspired me to co-lead this group alongside Wendy.
Q: What topics does the Neurodivergent EBG discuss during monthly meetings?
Wendy and Alyssa: Our topics vary, but typically focus on mental health, tips on productivity as a remote worker, workplace accommodations, communication strategies, self-advocacy, coping mechanisms when in a state of overwhelm, and in future career development. It is also a space to relax, laugh and have fun. The group plans to organize guest speakers, training sessions and virtual social events.
Q: How do you encourage group members to participate in discussions?
Wendy: We create a welcoming and inclusive environment, provide opportunities for everyone to share their experiences and opinions, use visual aids and other communication tools, and set clear expectations and guidelines for discussions. We also start each meeting with an icebreaker. Our favorite is two truths and one lie!
Alyssa: Additionally, we always remind group members that our meetings are a safe space where they can share their stories without fear of judgement. We never want our members to feel forced into disclosing information they don’t feel comfortable sharing, so speaking up is optional. We also keep all our discussions confidential and do not record any meetings out of respect for members’ privacy.
Q: What challenges do neurodivergent people face in the workplace?
Wendy: Neurodivergent individuals may face difficulty with social interactions, sensory overload, distractibility and executive functioning. These challenges can affect their productivity, well-being and career advancement opportunities. Employers may need to provide accommodations and support to help neurodivergent employees succeed and thrive in the workplace.
Alyssa: One big challenge that neurodivergent people face in the workplace is stigmas around things such as attention span and time management. Some managers dismiss neurodivergent employees as incompetent or view their behavior as a performance issue. There’s also a common misconception that neurodivergent individuals don’t know how to do their job, can’t stay on task and are incapable of leading a team. Even though this could not be further from the truth, neurodivergent employees still get passed up for promotions all the time and are rarely given the opportunity to hold positions of power or authority.
Q: How can employers better support neurodivergent employees?
Wendy: By adopting inclusive hiring practices, offering accommodations and flexible work arrangements, providing training and resources for managers and coworkers, and promoting a culture of acceptance and diversity. They can also seek input and feedback from neurodivergent employees to better understand their needs and preferences.
Alyssa: Having a neurodivergent EBG or additional resources for neurodivergent individuals shouldn’t be about checking a box or looking good in a diversity report. Instead, employers should be taking proactive steps to create a culture where neurodivergent individuals feel supported. This starts with having an open and transparent conversation and supporting their needs in the workplace.
Q: What mental health struggles do neurodivergent people struggle with?
Wendy: Neurodivergent individuals may struggle with various mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and burnout, and because of societal stigma, isolation and lack of understanding. Providing access to mental health resources and support is important to help them manage their well-being. Part of our group mission is to continuously share resources for members to view and take back to their managers for ongoing support.
Alyssa: Neurodiversity and mental health are intertwined and always seem to blend into each other. As someone who identifies as neurodivergent and simultaneously struggles with mental health, sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which since a lot of the symptoms overlap.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be an ally for neurodivergent people?
Wendy: To be an ally, it’s important to educate yourself about neurodiversity, listen to their experiences and perspectives, avoid making assumptions or stereotypes, and advocate for their rights and needs. Allies can also help create a welcoming and inclusive environment by challenging stigmas and promoting understanding and acceptance to other neurotypical people (or those who are not neurodivergent).
Alyssa: Be open, look within yourself and acknowledge your own biases and discriminations. Spend some time reflecting on whether there is something you need to work on. Be honest with yourself when thinking through this and then spend time learning about neurodiversity and how to be an ally. Here’s a couple of global resources I’d recommend:
Q: Do you have anything else you would like to add that you think is important?
Wendy: Neurodivergent individuals have unique strengths and abilities that can benefit the workplace and society. By embracing and celebrating neurodiversity, we can foster a more inclusive and innovative society that values diversity and empowers all individuals to reach their full potential.
Alyssa: If you’re neurodivergent, please know there is nothing wrong with you. Love yourself and come as you are -- everyone is on their own journey! Please know that there are people who want to support you and be there for you. If you feel like you need someone to talk to, don’t hesitate to reach out for help in your company’s HR department.