How to Be a Neurodiversity Ally

If we behave inclusively to everyone, everyone is included. Here are ten ideas to consider as you go about your day as a neurodiversity ally.

Automattic is a fully distributed company, which means that we all work from home all the time, and we only occasionally meet each other in person. That can be a good thing or a challenging thing for our colleagues who are neurodivergent—and there are lots of us!

Recently, the members of our Neurodiverse Employee Resource Group, which we call Neurodiverseomattic, brainstormed ten things that everyone can do to help their neurodivergent colleagues feel comfortable and happy in the workplace—be it a physical or virtual one. Here, then, are ten ideas to consider as you go about your day as a neurodiversity ally.

If we behave inclusively to everyone, everyone is included.

Remember, not everyone who is neurodivergent will talk about it openly. Also, some may not be aware they’re neurodivergent. So, this is a good list to keep in mind for all your interactions with your colleagues.

  1. Never stop learning. There are lots of resources to learn about neurodivergence as well as the other forms of diversity you’ll encounter amongst your peers. Don’t put the onus on your team members/peers to teach you about themselves directly, as that can feel like a heavy burden. (But if your team member feels safe to share, that’s great! In a team that’s a psychologically safe space, they can bring their authentic self to the table.) Instead, actively go and search for understanding. Your company’s diversity and inclusion groups or resources may be a great place to start.
  2. Don’t make assumptions about behavior. Is your colleague asking a lot of questions? They may not intend to be combative or challenge authority. It may simply be that person’s communication style. Assuming we think, feel, or will behave the same way as others is a real source of sadness and pain, and can lead to unproductive and negative work relationships—or worse. Assume positive intent, and check in if you get a negative feeling.
  3. Communicate clearly. Some neurodivergent people have trouble “reading between the lines” or picking up on cultural references. When you say something, are you assuming an unspoken understanding? Try to use clear language, or check in to make sure you are understood. (And, as with the previous point, welcome other people to do the same with you.)
  4. Use inclusive language. The language used in a space can shape the culture, so try to use inclusive language. This page on ableist language explains some terms to avoid and why. Lists like these are nuanced; your teammates might have different experiences with language.
  5. Open communication without pressure. It may be hard for someone neurodivergent to open up a conversation. It is so nice when someone helps get a conversation going. Don’t assume that, if we’re quiet, it’s because we don’t want to connect. Or, it may be that we’re not up for talking now, or not now in this way. Don’t be discouraged if we don’t/can’t respond right now, but don’t pressure us, either. Maybe try later or use a different format or approach.
  6. Don’t make social things mandatory. Our social energy may manifest itself in different ways at different times. Don’t make group socializing a team expectation, and don’t take it personally (or worse, consider it a performance issue) if we opt out. Treat our social participation choices with nuance and patience.
  7. Make sure the team’s spaces are inclusive. Do you hold meetings? Make sure there are multiple ways to contribute (verbal + non-verbal, sync + async). Are you hosting a meeting or in-person event? Make sure there’s no discrimination based on socializing preferences or energy levels. Ask for feedback from your team on planned activities—and yes, this is true for remote meetups too. 
  8. Acknowledge different ways of being. There are many forms of neurodivergence. You don’t have to understand them all fully, but keeping an open mind is wonderful. Acknowledge that people have different working styles and communication styles; different styles of learning and receiving direction; different styles of checking understanding; different strengths and weaknesses. And please don’t jump to conclusions. We already judge ourselves too harshly.
  9. Hear us. Give us time, opportunity, and space to be heard, whether in a meeting, in writing, or async. Listen to the actual words that are being said (rather than jumping to an interpretation of tone). Allow silent moments in conversations for those who have trouble knowing when it’s their turn to speak. Also, give us space, so we have time to organize our thoughts and put them into words. Sometimes it’s difficult to actually say something.
  10. Give a misunderstanding time to work itself out. Often, a communication problem can be clarified and worked through by both parties by discussing and reframing. This can be draining and may take some time. Don’t allow negative assumptions to creep in during this process, which can take days, weeks, or longer.

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Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash.

By Victoria Jones

Happiness Engineer at Automattic, specialising in WooCommerce and
Based in the UK, and loving helping people all over the world make their own space online. EMEA/APAC team lead now working in leadership development.