Hiring Neurodiverse People to Enhance Planning Teams

Increasingly, Planners are becoming more aware of neurodiversity in community engagement and plan-making. Unfortunately, that's not necessarily the case in the workplace. But it is important. Gala Korniyenko, a Ph.D. candidate in the planning program at the Ohio State University has long focused her work on fostering community engagement with autistic adults. Now she is setting sights on advocating for the inclusion of neurodiverse people in planning offices and workplaces in general.

Neurodiversity refers to the idea that certain neurological differences, such as those that occur in autism, are variations in the brain. The focus is on difference, not disability, and the concept offers a much wider view of what is typically considered "normal" in humans. Understanding neurodiversity can also help in planning, particularly in the way that people relate to the built environment.

That was the idea behind a 2018 PAS Memo, coauthored by Korniyenko, and fellow OSU colleague, Kyle Ezell, FAICP, and OSU alum, Rick Stein, AICP. In "Autism Planning and Design Guidelines 1.0," they introduce a framework for planners to design the public realm in a way that improves the quality of life for people with autism.

Korniyenko says that the framework applies not only to the built environment but also to physical and social spaces. She and her coauthors point out that it is important to understand the positive attributes that neurodiversity can bring to the workplace.

Recognizing Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Awareness of neurodivergence, including conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia, and dyspraxia, is on the rise. Studies find prevalence was similar across racial and ethnic groups, while black, Hispanic, and women are likely to be underdiagnosed. All considered the needs of neurodiverse people in the workplace are still widely misinterpreted.

Korniyenko's research reveals that there is a general misunderstanding of autism and other neurological variations, which creates barriers to full participation in working or learning environments for neurodiverse people and can lead to discrimination.

However, neurodivergent people can bring a variety of skills and abilities, such as creativity, logical thinking, precision and attention to detail, pattern recognition, and many more valuable attributes in the workplace, notes Korniyenko. Still, many struggle in the workplace as their cognitive differences are not well understood and perceived as an obstacle to employment.

According to the National Autism Indicators Report, produced by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University, low rates of employment may be explained by the lack of awareness by many employers who have certain expectations for communication or behavior based on a majority of the neurotypical population, which might be different for autistic individuals.

People with autism are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA focuses on legal definitions of disability to prevent discrimination based on a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities. Federal law can only address one component: discrimination. This includes discrimination at work, government, and business facilities, telecommunications (including websites), and public transportation.

Cognitive disabilities can be far less visible, or even invisible, in comparison to certain other ADA-covered disabilities. Cognitive and behavioral conditions can affect a person's ability to control attention or concentration. Some individuals may have different social and communication styles than the majority of the population, or they may experience sensory sensitivities. For example, you might not know if a person has autism when you first meet her, and you might interpret certain behaviors as rude or impolite.

Promoting Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Employers need to be proactive in the accommodation and inclusion of neurodivergent employees — without putting the burden on employees to disclose their disabilities. The very nature of the stigma surrounding neurodivergence inhibits disclosure, and employees shouldn't need to provide a diagnosis to get an accommodation. The good news is that, with awareness and empathy, the hiring process can become more inclusive to neurodiverse people.

Korniyenko believes that when differences are recognized and understood, it allows us to expand upon how we embrace diversity. She likens it to the curb-cut effect, the idea that accommodation for one group can benefit and enrich the lives of everyone. An example in a workplace might be providing a quiet space for individuals with noise and light sensitivity. That space can be a welcome benefit for all employees in that it promotes calmness and can help people manage workplace stress.

Working virtually can be an accommodation. Korniyenko discovered that many autistic adults have enjoyed the social distancing in the workplace that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual work allows people to control their environment, feel safe, and even feel a greater quality of connection to their colleagues, she says.

An environment where people feel safe and acknowledged for different types of communication needs also is inclusive. Think about the accommodations planners make for public meetings: Explicitly written instructions and clear language are inclusionary tactics that apply to the planners' workplaces as well.

To better understand neurodivergent planners and to encourage neurodiversity in planning, members of the Royal Town Planning Institute (UK) have created a LinkedIn group Neurodiversity in Planning to raise awareness of planning and designing inclusive places and to ensure that planners engage and communicate effectively with people with diverse minds.

How to Make Workspaces Inclusive for the Neurodiverse

  • Offer remote working options
  • Provide different methods and opportunities for collaboration and teamwork
  • Consider that there are different cognitive processing speeds in grasping information
  • Provide task and timeline accommodation
  • Use screen-reading technology during virtual meetings
  • Normalize the different needs people have for socializing
  • Offer a quiet space or a "do not disturb" sign that individuals can use when they need

As planning continually adapts to create safe spaces for all and form more just and equitable communities, the needs of the neurodivergent cannot be overlooked — neither as a population to be served nor as colleagues in the workplace.

Resources used in this blog post:

Read more in the series on EDI in the planning office; Getting Started With EDI In Your Office, Three Ways to Attract Diverse Talent, and 7 Tips for Starting Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committees.

Top image: VectorMine/iStock/gettyimages.com

About the author
Bobbie Albrecht is the American Planning Association's Career Services Manager. 

January 25, 2022

By Bobbie Albrecht