10 things we do to support our neurodiverse workplace

A rainbow rises out of a lake with trees and houses in the foreground
Rain brings challenges, too, but also so much that is important and beautiful
January 23, 2023
Robin Eastman

It’s such a joy to work at a place where neurodiversity is celebrated. We can talk openly about our needs. We don’t have to waste time and energy pretending we are all “normal” (aka masking). We get to decide what works for us, rather than assuming the same thing will work for everyone. We can give and receive help without worrying if that will be taken as a weakness to be “performance managed” away. There are so many benefits. I can’t recommend it enough.

It does, of course, have challenges. The most evident is that sometimes our needs conflict. For example, Julian uses a lot of alarms as reminders. I find alarms going off during meetings frustrating and distracting. We haven’t figured out a perfect solution here. The best we have is that Julian tries to turn off unnecessary alarms before meetings and is ready to stop alarms quickly and I understand they are doing their best and focus on my appreciation for that when they do go off. 

A more subtle challenge is how we gauge respect. Societally, we aren’t able to gauge the respect we are receiving directly, so we use stand ins. Polite language, terms of address, and being on time are frequent examples of this. 

But being on time isn’t the same for everyone. For some people, being on time is a constant struggle. For me, it depends a lot on how much prep work is needed and how much inertia I have to overcome. When I’m not already in motion, getting started is really hard for me. I often struggle to get going until the stress of being late kicks me into gear. While this pattern is often frustrating for me and anyone trying to leave with me, it has nothing to do with the respect I hold for people I’m planning on meeting with. Another factor is that once I am engaged, it is often hard for me to stop what I’m doing, especially if it’s with another person. Far from being about lacking respect for the next meeting, when this causes me to be late, it’s about my respect for the person I’m currently with. It’s not a Person A vs. Person B comparison for me, it’s that I want to be fully engaged with the person in front of me, no matter who that is.

These days, I’m often meeting people online, which has a very low activation cost for me, so I’m usually on time for those. That’s not true for everyone on our team, because we don’t all have the same strengths and challenges. 

Here are things that help us function as a team: 

  1. We all put more effort into the timing of meetings with more people. Those are harder to organize and less flexible, so that’s where our energy goes. 

  1. When timing is flexible, we ping each other when we are ready to start, instead of sticking to a preset time. This means that we have fewer situations where one person is waiting on the other.

  1. Sometimes, I do wait in a video chat because that can be a really useful productive time for me. As I mentioned before, activation is hard for me. If I’m already activated for a meeting, I can often knock out a few small tasks while I wait. 

  1. Trusting each other that it’s really not about respect. If someone is late to a meeting, we seek to solve the immediate problem by pinging them to see if they are coming, moving forward with items they aren’t essential for, and extending them grace. We don’t make it an issue of respect.

  1. We understand that we aren’t all using language the same way, even when we are using the same words. We try to ask for clarification when something doesn’t seem to align with our understanding. We can’t always solve for this problem, but it does help to be conscious of it.

  1. Setting boundaries and checking in. One of the things I find exhausting out in the world is having things explained at me when I haven’t invited the explanation. One of the ways Julian has learned to navigate the world, is to not assume that other people understand where Julian is coming from and to offer an explanation when they find they aren’t on the same page with someone. 

  1. Tweaking how we work and being flexible. We look for patterns in scheduling and meeting prep that make meetings go better or worse and then adjust to those. Some kinds of meetings go better in the mornings or on a different day of the week. Some meetings are fine when we wing them, some we really need an agenda for. When Julian and I were having a particularly difficult period, we made a pre-meeting checklist that helped us work together better. (I’ll include that below.)

  1. Repeatedly rewarding people for sharing what works best for them. Lots of orgs say they want people to share their needs, and then punish people when they actually do. Everyone on our team has experienced this at other jobs. So we make sure that we are proactive and positive, not just neutral, about people’s needs and preferences. 

  1. Being conscious of the ways we make decisions that may favor one person or neurotype over another. Ideally, we do things that work for everyone. But sometimes that isn’t possible. So, how do we choose? When we identify a conflict between the needs of someone who has been marginalized and someone who has been centered by society, we actively choose to prioritize marginalized people. We do this for multiple reasons. One is that it is overall more just. If someone is used to having the current going with them, and someone else is used to fighting the current, it is more just to flip that when possible, if we can’t make it ideal for everyone. Another reason is that it forces more intentionality. It means making active decisions, instead of defaulting to a “normal” that is demonstrably something that doesn’t work for all. It helps us be creative. It also sets our team up to be a place that operates differently. If we wanted to be at a company that works well for centered people, that exists already! We wouldn’t have to build that from scratch.

  1. Being honest about our hierarchy. I don’t love hierarchy. I wish there was less in the world. But I hate even more trying to navigate an unspoken hierarchy. I don’t like pretending everything is equal and knowing that some people are more equal than others. At least for now, Versatackle is owned by me and Julian. That means it has to work for us and we are going to make the final decisions. We hardly ever actually make decisions where we override anyone on the team. Neither of us like doing that and we don’t think we know better than other team members. We simply want to be clear about what is part of the hierarchy and what isn’t so no one has to guess. Terms of address, who can show up late to a meeting, who’s ideas we listen to, who gets to work on what: these are all as non-hierarchical as possible. We also try to flip the hierarchy when possible, so that Julian and I take our turns with note-taking at meetings, invite others to share first, and try to take responsibility for intra-team conflicts.

We will keep adding to this list as we go. We certainly don’t have it all figured out. We know we’ve let people down before, and we know we will do it again. We believe in learning as an ongoing process. There’s so much we don’t understand about neurodiversity, but we are excited to learn and we are grateful to our team for going on this journey with us.

Pre-meeting checklist:

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