Debunking Myths About Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Stephanie Barnes
5 min readAug 5, 2020
Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

Many companies are finally realizing the benefits of diversity on their teams. They are beginning to see why having fair representations of people with differing belief systems, races, ages, ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, physical and mental abilities, genders, sexual orientations, and other ideologies are extremely important to the success of their organizations.

The fight for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace encompasses more than just sexual orientation, gender, race and ethnicity. Organizations have claimed that they appreciate and enjoy differing thought processes and ideas yet many still seem to discriminate against those whose thought processes are too different from their own, or from what they believe is “normal.” As more efforts are made for diverse, inclusive cultures, we shouldn’t forget to include neurodiversity efforts.

The term neurodiversity originated in 1998 by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist who popularized it with the help of Harvey Blume, an American journalist. It refers to the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits and is especially used in reference to people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The Autistic Self Advocacy Network states, “Neurodiversity refers to variation in neurocognitive functioning. It is an umbrella term that encompasses neurocognitive differences such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, intellectual disability and schizophrenia, as well as ‘normal’ neurocognitive functioning, or neurotypicality. Neurodivergent individuals are those whose brain functions differ from those who are neurologically typical, or neurotypical.”

There are many negative stereotypes about neurodivergent (ND) individuals. But just because their brain works differently than those of neurotypical (NT) brains does not mean that they are bad or that they can’t or shouldn’t be valued, appreciated and included. Below are some of the most common myths about neurodiversity and how they affect the workplace.

Myth #1: Neurodivergent individuals are all alike.

There is a common saying that goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Just as neurotypical people are different, so are neurodivergent individuals. Autism in particular isn’t a single disorder but a spectrum of related disorders that share many core symptoms. Each person is unique in regards to their level of disability and their combination of symptoms. Just because a label or diagnosis may be similar when it comes to ND individuals, it cannot tell you exactly what challenges each individual faces.

Myth #2: They are best suited for jobs with repetitive tasks.

Just like NTs, there is no specific job that is appropriate for all neurodivergent individuals. While several NDs may enjoy repetitive tasks, that is not true for all of them. It is not correct to assume that a job is good for all of them based on a disability label. Some NDs are more creative and innovative while others like to stick to a routine with more repetitive tasks. Regardless of which setting they prefer, NDs have many strengths, skills and talents that would benefit organizations.

Myth #3: They cannot or do not want to form relationships.

Neurodivergent individuals can and do have fulfilling relationships with family and friends. A lot of the time their social interactions may be impaired as people with ASD typically have problems with social interactions and people with depression and anxiety tend to withdraw themselves. This tends to make things worse for them as most of them really do want to form relationships with others but end up feeling depressed or isolated when they are unable to connect with others. People with ASD typically have a hard time navigating social relationships, understanding social cues and even being too blunt at times. Genuine, long-lasting relationships are possible between NDs and NTs especially if they are both accepting and aware of their differences.

Myth #4: Neurodivergent people have intellectual disabilities.

Just like some neurotypical individuals, some NDs also have an intellectual disability but that is not the case with all of them. In fact, many neurodivergent individuals have an intelligence quotient (IQ) within the typical range or higher. Autism often coincides with exceptional abilities in some areas such as math, music, writing or art. The main problems they face are typically in the way they perceive things, the way their thoughts processes work, and social interaction impairments which are not related to intellectual disabilities.

Myth #5: They have little chance of being successful.

ND individuals can achieve great things. They may see the world, typically set up for NTs, from a different perspective but that does not mean that they can’t be successful. Many NDs are more creative, observant, detail-oriented, and focused. A lot of them can absorb and retain facts better as their long-term memory can be excellent. Some ND individuals may need more support than others. When their views are respected they are capable of doing many great things and of being extremely successful.

Myth #6: They lack communication skills.

Many ND individuals often lack the necessary social skills to be successful during job interviews and in the workplace. They also often may have a preferred way of communicating. Some individuals with autism spectrum disorder may be nonverbal or have trouble with verbal communication which can be due to anxiety or just needing more time to process the information that they receive verbally. However, they may be able to communicate well in other ways such as by writing. It is important to take the needs, preferences and interests of the person seeking employment into account and to remember that they can be taught social skills. They have amazing skills and talents that can greatly benefit their employer as long as minor accommodations are made.

Myth #7: The goal should be to encourage neurodivergent people to be like their neurotypical peers.

Expecting NDs to think and behave as NTs is highly damaging. Their brains are wired and work differently than those of NTs. There is no “cure” for neurodivergent people, especially with those who have disabilities such as autism. This affects nearly all aspects of their lives. Making accommodations for them in a neurotypical world should be the norm. While NDs can and should be taught additional skills that may not come naturally to them, it is incorrect to try and make them become someone they are incapable of being. Their differences should be welcomed and accepted. The faster society accepts them and their differences, sees the benefits and supports them, the faster they will love and accept themselves which will allow them to become their best selves and become an asset to the workplace.

When creating your diversity, equity and inclusion strategies it is important to include initiatives for neurodivergent individuals as their strengths, talents and skills can be very beneficial to a workplace. Because there has been such a taboo on people with neurological disabilities, many try to hide who they really are by wearing a mask and trying to be someone they aren’t which just makes life much more difficult for them. Once they are confident that they will be accepted, appreciated and valued they will be more open to showing the world who they really are, including their talents, strengths, and quirks.

What are some other myths or stereotypes that you’ve experienced in the workplace?

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Stephanie Barnes

Mom & Wife | Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Strategy Consultant | HR, Recruiting & People Ops Consultant | COO/Co-founder/Head of Diversity of VSourced.com