Although coined in the late 1990s, the term “neurodivergent” has only recently risen to mainstream recognition, with some studies now claiming that up to one in five employees identify as neurodivergent. As employers begin to incorporate this into their vocabularies, many are wondering whether this also means they must adopt policies and practices to accommodate this newly recognized group of employees.

Key takeaways

  • The term “neurodivergence” is a nonmedical term used to describe individuals who learn, process and focus differently than neurotypical individuals. Employers should pay close attention to their neurodiverse workforce in considering whether neurodivergent individuals might require workplace accommodations and a full range of what those accommodations could look like.
  • Depending on their condition, neurodivergent employees may be entitled to accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state and local laws.

What does neurodivergent mean? And how do neurodivergent employees impact an employer?

Your workforce is likely composed of a neurodiverse population, which incorporates the full range of variations in brain function, cognition, learning, behavior and socialization that exists within any population. Individuals considered neurodivergent may include those with dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, social anxiety, Tourette syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder, among other diagnoses. A neurodivergent individual has a brain that functions differently than that of a neurotypical thinker.

Neurodivergent individuals may face challenges in the workplace that neurotypical individuals do not. For example, neurodiverse individuals might be hypersensitive to visual stimuli, audio stimuli or light. Your neurodivergent workforce might also be more easily distracted than your neurotypical workforce due to their hypersensitivities.

Are neurodivergent employees covered under the ADA? How can employers accommodate these employees?

Whether specific neurodivergent conditions are qualifying disabilities under the ADA will depend on whether the individual meets the definition of disability. This necessarily implicates the severity of the employee’s condition or record of their condition. It also begs the question: How do employers know whether they need to accommodate a neurodivergent employee?

No two neurodivergent individuals are alike, and not all neurodivergent individuals will need accommodations to perform their job. In assessing whether accommodations are needed, employers should consider the duties associated with the job, the employee’s underlying condition and whether the condition limits the employee’s ability to perform their job. Employers should remain informed on neurodivergence and be ready to engage in an interactive process with each employee on an individual basis.

Given that neurodivergent individuals can have hypersensitivities to light or sound, employers should consider accommodations that cut down on such distractions. Whether an accommodation is appropriate is fact-driven, but some suggestions to consider include supplying noise-canceling headphones or earplugs; relocating an employee’s office, desk or workspace to an area with less traffic; rotating an employee’s desk away from the distraction(s) at issue; alternative lighting; and scheduling changes.

This alert was first published to BakerHostetler’s website. It is republished here with permission.