Neuro-inclusion means creating an inclusive employee life cycle for neurodivergent professionals by employing technology, processes and support systems that accommodate their unique needs and enhance the experience of securing and advancing a career for these workers.

Creating a truly inclusive work culture requires collaboration at all levels of an organization. While it may seem like a complex — and costly — undertaking, there are simple steps any organization can take to create a work environment that help neurodivergent professionals thrive.

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1. Design inclusive spaces

People who think, process information or take in their sensory surroundings differently know that the world wasn’t necessarily designed with them in mind. Barriers to an accessible work environment for neurodivergent people can include wayfinding, sound, lighting and smells in the office. All of these can interfere with an employee’s ability to perform their best work.

Organizations can create a variety of seating options — including desks with adjustable height — and relaxed and collaborative spaces. Employees may also need customized workspaces at times. ‘Just in time’ rooms offer an escape hatch for people who face challenges with sensory or social overstimulation, those who prefer a smaller enclosed space to a large open space and those who need to adjust lighting or block distractions.

Communal gathering hubs can encourage easy access to refreshments and help workers avoid an overwhelmingly large or crowded cafeteria, which can lead to sensory overload that hinders an otherwise manageable workday.

Read: 45% of Canadian autistic employees feel they have to mask autistic traits at work: survey

2. Prioritize wellness and comfort

Everyone should have access to natural light. As employees who have sound hypersensitivity can attest, the persistent hum of fluorescents can be quite disruptive and some professionals experience photosensitivity to fluorescent light. For others, lighting can trigger migraines, increase depression symptoms and affect quality of life. Natural light also shifts throughout the day, creates shadows, changes in brightness and glare on screens. The use of adjustable blinds and flexible seating throughout the day can help mitigate these effects.

To accommodate individual preferences for sound control in the workplace, employers can offer noise-canceling headsets or play white noise in open spaces. It’s also helpful for employers to share approximate timing of fire alarm testing, so that employees with sound sensitivity can feel prepared.

3. Facilitate flexible working

The key to accommodating neurodivergent employees is flexibility — it’s why the transition to hybrid working arrangements was an important change for many people. In addition to offering flexible work arrangements, flexibility can inform smarter and more inclusive work expectations, including concepts like core days and core hours for meaningful office-based engagement. Organizations seeking to bring employees back to the office must be conscious not to overcorrect and risk losing the flexibility that many neurodivergent professionals require.

Read: BNP Paribas expanding talent pool by hiring, supporting neurodiverse employees

The office commute to urban centres can present accessibility barriers and have an impact on physical and mental health. Flexible working hours that allow workers to avoid traffic can significantly reduce the stress of a commute and make coming to the office more pleasant, accessible and inclusive.

4. Go beyond the built environment

Universal digital accessibility benefits everyone. Many digital accessibility tools that can help people are built into the platforms that we already use in the workplace and often require heightened awareness and training to help everyone perform their best work.

The actual number of neurodivergent professionals in the workplace outnumbers what most organizations are aware of or can account for, as neurodivergence is personal and protected health information.

By understanding that others in the workplace environment may be experiencing things differently, employers can build a truly inclusive workplace. This includes hosting accessible events and meetings, providing inclusive documents and platforms as well as listening and asking good questions.

Read: Canadian employers prioritizing DEI, but barriers remain for neurodiverse hires: survey

5. Accept ongoing feedback and solutions

An inclusive work culture must incorporate safe, open and honest discussions, with regular feedback factored into the organization’s people and operations plan.

There are cost-effective actions that any business can take. Employees with lived experience can lead and inform training and creating a culture of awareness and understanding. Indeed, embracing a mindset of constant improvement is the most important asset for an organization interested in creating an inclusive workspace.

Above all, it’s key to remember that neurodivergent people offer real expertise in the form of their talent and strengths, but also their own lived experience, making them the greatest advisors for designing a work culture that is truly neuro-inclusive.

Tammy Morris is the accessibility and neuro-inclusion leader and Janelle Walsh is director of enterprise support services at EY Canada.