Wi16 Education Recap: Neurodiversity at Work

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On Saturday, February 20, Virtual Winter Institute attendees tuned in for a session called “Neurodiversity at Work.”

During this session, a panel of neurodiverse individuals and advocates provided context for individuals seeking to learn more about neurodiversity and the challenges and concerns neurodiverse employees and customers may face in the store.

The panel was moderated by Emily Autenrieth of A Seat at The Table Books in Elk Grove, California, and included speakers Ed Thompson, CEO of Uptimize; Katy Alexander, global director of marketing & communications at Digital Science; and Jory Fleming, author of How to Be Human: An Autistic Man's Guide to Life (Simon & Schuster).

Neurodiversity is a broad concept that can impact people’s lives in very different ways. Alexander shared that she has dyslexia, which means she processes information differently. Fleming likened his experience having autism to having a “different operating system.”

“If you’ve ever gone back and forth between Windows and Mac, you know many of the things you can do with the computer remain the same,” he said. “But the user interface, or the types of applications available to help you accomplish those goals can be different. And sometimes that has new ways of experiencing those goals or getting to a certain path.”

Thompson noted that it’s important to keep the difference between neurodivergence and neurodiversity in mind. Neurodiversity, he said, is nothing new — the idea that there’s one standard, “normal” brain has been debunked. But, there are less common thinking styles and traits.

“The more common ones can lead to norms that disadvantage people in multiple overlapping neuro-identity groups,” he added. “In the workplace...this would be an over-reliance on interviewing...or a noisy, open-plan office.”

Employers might think there’s one definitive way to accommodate someone with ADHD or dyslexia, for example, but the reality is that there isn’t. Alexander noted the importance of creating an environment that supports open communication.

“I’m very open with the people around me, so that they can be open back and we can actually have a dialogue,” she said, noting that her staff can come to her and express confusion with instructions, for example. “Any kind of manager or leader has to be able to show that they make mistakes...and that creates a dialogue that enables things to change, like office settings.”

Fleming added that it’s important to be inclusive, but not in a way that makes people feel othered, or different than everybody else in a negative way. He shared that his colleagues often go to a bar after work, which isn’t really his thing. “I would feel bad, though, if I wasn’t invited in the first place, because they know, oh, that’s a difficult environment for Jory,” he said. “I may not stay as long as everybody else, I may duck out early, but I would really still appreciate the invitation.”

Inclusivity also extends to language. Autenrieth noted that ableist behavior in relation to communication is when neurotypical communication styles are treated as the default, whereas neurodiverse communication styles are treated as different, more difficult, less convenient, or less normal.

Sometimes customers can perceive a neurodiverse person’s communication style incorrectly. Alexander noted that anyone can perceive intent incorrectly; managers who are responsive to diverse needs can help their employees in work situations that might not have gone as well as they could have. For example, if a customer is rude or inappropriate, it’s important to support employees after the interaction.

Everyone communicates differently, Thompson added, recommending that, when trying to plan internal communications, employers can try conducting a communication audit, which doesn’t require labeling or disclosure. It simply asks what the best form of communication for staff members is.

Alexander added that sometimes, open communication can be hard to achieve because that might not be, historically, how things have been within a certain company or business. But pushing change forward is important, she said.

And there are changes that can be made that can help make bookstores more inclusive overall. Alexander recommended finding books with dyslexic-friendly fonts, and even creating a dedicated section for readers to browse through. Booksellers can also showcase dyslexic authors, and also suggest audiobooks. Thompson recommended allowing individuals to shape their own experience or environment as much as possible — this can be done by surveying staff and customers. And Fleming noted that booksellers can think about balancing highly extroverted, conversation-focused events with something more low-key, like a board game night.

For neurodiverse people looking to handle challenges regarding executive function, Alexander said tools like Trello or Monday.com can be helpful for organization, especially when it comes to managing large teams. Fleming noted that some people may opt to travel with a carer, for example, or have a service animal.

Creating an inclusive environment is one of the best ways to foster a lifelong love of learning and reading. “I think when you go into a bookstore,” Alexander said, “99 percent of the time, the people that work there love books, too. And it’s great to see [booksellers] coming at it from all different angles to nurture the love of reading and the love of books.”