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Accommodating Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Posted on August 5, 2022

A recent settlement reached with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) highlights the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to accommodate applicants and employees who are neurodivergent, in this case a sandwich shop employee with ADHD and autism.

Neurodiversity describes individual differences in brain functioning regarded as normal variations within the human population.  It includes ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and other conditions that can cause an individual to think, learn and process information differently than others, often in a way that is outside the range of “typical” functioning.

Employees with neurodivergent conditions can bring strengths to their work. Creativity, consistency, exceptional listening skills, and other abilities associated with neurodiversity are assets in the workplace.

In a recent federal case in Arizona, an individual with autism and ADHD applied to be a “sandwich artist” with a franchise.  Before he began work, his mother met with his manager and explained that he would need the following accommodations to succeed in the job:

  • Receive specific instructions to complete tasks;
  • Have the directions repeated and receive redirection; and
  • Receive follow-up guidance to ensure he understood the steps.

Despite these clear guidelines and the employer’s implicit agreement to provide accommodations, the employee was given no formal training and ultimately was fired after four shifts.  He filed a claim with the EEOC for failure to accommodate under the ADA.

The EEOC’s investigation found reasonable cause to believe that the employer had violated the ADA and the agency engaged in a conciliation process to try to resolve the claim.  When that failed, the EEOC filed suit against the employer.  The litigation was ultimately settled with a $30,000 award and certain requirements for the employer to revise its EEO policy, conduct training, and submit to continued monitoring by the EEOC.

This case was straightforward – the employer was made aware of the employee’s disability and specific and reasonable accommodations were requested at the time of hire.  More often employers become aware of an employee’s disability later in the course of employment and will have to engage in an interactive dialogue with the employee to determine reasonable and effective accommodations.  The importance of this process cannot be overstated, particularly in the area of neurodiversity where the accommodations can vary widely.

AIM members with questions about this or other human resource issues may contact the AIM Employer Hotline at 800-470-6277.