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Become a Better Leader With a Neuro-Affirming Approach

Neuro-affirming leadership is an uplifting leadership style that is inclusive of neurodivergent people.


  • Enhance team happiness and productivity with brain-based leadership
  • Uplift diverse minds at work by being inclusive of neurodivergent individuals
  • Embrace differences like ADHD and autism to celebrate neurodiversity
  • Align leadership with neurological needs through neuro-affirming strategies
  • Respect neurodivergent behaviours and strengths to avoid harmful practices

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Quick Recap: What is Neurodiversity?

The idea of neurodiversity was first used by the Australian researcher Judy Singer in the 1990s.

It recognises and celebrates neurological differences, such as differences in how people understand, process, and apply information.

It's about embracing and valuing these diverse ways of thinking, learning, and interacting, recognising the distinct strengths and contributions each person brings to the tapestry of human experience.

Types of neurodiversity include autism, ADHD, and Dyslexia.

You can learn more in our articles Dispelling Common Myths About Neurodiversity and The Benefits of Neurodiversity: How Different Minds Contribute to Innovation.

What is a "Neuro-Affirming" Approach?

Neuro-affirming is a way of working that accommodates and doesn’t quash neurodivergent people.

"Neuro-affirming" practice can be conceptualised as a leadership approach that intertwines neuroscience and affirmative leadership strategies.

At its core it:

  • Aligns leadership actions with team members' neurological and psychological needs, fostering an environment that supports mental wellbeing and boosts productivity and innovation.
  • Recognises and promotes the unique strengths, interests, and support requirements of all neurotypes, focusing on the abilities of neurodivergent adults.
  • Shifts focus from "fixing" neurodevelopmental differences to helping individuals thrive with their unique neurobiological makeup.
  • Aims to increase awareness of environmental and social challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals, equipping them with the necessary skills and tools for better participation in the workplace and society.

The Fastest Way to Destroy a Neuro-Affirming Workplace

It is critical to prevent workplace practices that shame or disadvantage people for neurodivergent behaviours that are part of a spectrum of normal behaviours.

This doesn’t mean putting up with bad behaviour - it’s about widening your lens to what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.

For example, someone with autism could:

  • Avoid eye Contact: Autistic adults may avoid making or maintaining eye contact during conversations. In many cultures, avoiding eye contact is seen as a sign of dishonesty or disinterest. However, for many autistic individuals, direct eye contact can be overwhelming or uncomfortable, and avoiding it helps them focus on the conversation.
  • Interpret Literally: Autistic individuals often interpret language very literally. If given an instruction or asked a question, they might respond in a way that seems overly precise or misses implied nuances. This isn't an attempt to be difficult; it's just a way of processing language.
  • Experience Sensitivity to Sensory Stimuli: An autistic person might be particularly sensitive to lights, sounds, or other sensory stimuli in the workplace. They might wear headphones to block out noise, wear sunglasses indoors, or avoid certain areas that are too bright or noisy. While these actions might seem odd to others, they are coping mechanisms to handle sensory overload.
  • Prefer Written Communication: Some autistic adults might prefer communicating through written means, like email or chat, rather than face-to-face or over the phone. This can help them process information at their own pace and ensure clarity in communication. While this might be seen as impersonal by some, it's a way for them to communicate most effectively.

For example someone with ADHD could:

  • Fidget: Individuals with ADHD find it beneficial to move or fidget when they are trying to concentrate. This can include tapping their feet, playing with small objects, or doodling. These actions can help them focus and process information.
  • Hyperfocus + Multitask: While multitasking is often not the most efficient way to work, many with ADHD feel more comfortable having multiple projects or tasks simultaneously. But equally, can enter a state of "hyperfocus", where they become intensely engrossed in a task to the exclusion of everything else. Autonomy over their schedule to decide how to accommodate multitasking and hyper focused time may be necessary for these individuals.
  • Prefer Hands-On Learning: Many individuals with ADHD prefer kinesthetic or hands-on learning experiences. They might find it easier to understand and retain information when they can interact with it physically or practically.
  • Experience Sensitivity to External Rewards: People with ADHD often respond well to external motivators and rewards. This is because they might struggle with internal motivation, so tangible rewards or immediate feedback can be particularly effective.

How to Create a Neuro-Affirming Workplace

8-part framework to create a neuro-affirming workplace

Let's dive into the heart of creating a 'Neuro-Affirming' workplace where everyone's unique mind is celebrated and every voice is heard. Here's an eight-part framework to build a more inclusive and understanding environment for all employees, especially those who are neurodivergent:

1. Respect Neurodivergent Communication at Work: Embrace diverse ways of communication, understanding that neurodivergent individuals may express themselves differently. Encourage open, honest, and non-judgmental dialogue.

2. Accommodate the Sensory Needs of Employees: Recognise and adapt to the sensory preferences of neurodivergent employees. This could involve creating quiet spaces, allowing for sensory breaks, or modifying the workplace lighting and noise levels.

3. Promote Neurodivergent Listening Skills: Foster an environment where active listening is practised, ensuring that all voices, especially those of neurodivergent individuals, are heard and understood.

4. Foster Self-Advocacy and Problem-Solving: Encourage employees, particularly neurodivergent ones, to advocate for their needs and participate in problem-solving. This empowerment can lead to a more inclusive and effective workplace.

5. Train Employees in Understanding Colleague Behaviours: Educate the workforce on neurodiversity and how it can manifest in behaviours and work styles. This understanding can lead to greater empathy and cooperation among colleagues.

6. Validate Feelings and Identify Triggers: Create a culture where all feelings are acknowledged and validated. Help employees, especially neurodivergent ones, to identify and communicate their triggers in a safe and supportive environment.

7. Prioritise Processing Time and Safe Spaces: Allow for processing time in conversations and decisions, recognising that neurodivergent individuals may need more time to respond. Provide safe spaces where they can retreat when overwhelmed.

8. Encourage Workplace Self-Regulation Techniques: Promote techniques and strategies for self-regulation to help all employees, including neurodivergent ones, manage stress and stay focused and productive.

Implementing these principles can help create a supportive and inclusive workplace where every employee feels valued and supported regardless of their neurological makeup.

Here’s how you can apply this eight-part framework to three distinct types of neurodivergent individuals (there are more types - this is not an exhaustive list):


  • Respect their unique communication styles, which may be direct and detail-oriented
  • Promote patience in listening and understanding their need for clarity
  • Prioritise providing them with processing time, especially after receiving new information


  • Respect their energetic and dynamic communication style
  • Accommodate their need for movement or breaks during tasks
  • Prioritise providing them with structured tasks and clear instructions


  • Respect their spoken communication strengths and written communication challenges
  • Accommodate their need for tools or software that aid in reading or writing
  • Foster their self-advocacy, especially when they need alternative communication methods

How Can Neuro-Affirming Make You a More Effective Leader?

The idea that leaders who are aware of their team members' neurological and psychological needs are better able to create an environment that encourages innovation, collaboration, and collective efficacy shows how Neuro-Affirming practices and good leadership work hand in hand.

The SCARF model, developed by David Rock in 2008, is a brain-based framework for understanding and influencing human behaviour in social contexts. It stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

These five domains are crucial in shaping our behaviour in social situations, as they trigger the same threat and reward responses in our brains that are vital for physical survival.

Here's how each element of the SCARF Model can be integrated into neuro-affirming leadership practices:

  • Status: Neuro-affirming leadership involves respecting the unique contributions and abilities of neurodivergent individuals, thereby enhancing their sense of status within the team.
  • Certainty: Providing clear expectations and consistent routines can help neurodivergent employees feel more secure and less anxious, addressing the need for certainty.
  • Autonomy: Allowing neurodivergent employees to control their work and environment and accommodating their unique ways of processing information and solving problems aligns with the autonomy aspect of the SCARF Model.
  • Relatedness: Building strong, empathetic relationships and fostering a sense of belonging can help neurodivergent individuals feel more connected and supported, addressing the relatedness domain.
  • Fairness: Ensuring that neurodivergent employees are treated equitably and their needs are met in a fair manner aligns with the fairness domain of the SCARF Model.

By applying these principles, leaders can create a workplace that not only acknowledges the neurodiversity of its employees but actively supports and leverages their unique strengths, fostering a genuinely neuro-affirming environment.

FAQ for Neuro-Affirming Leadership

  • What is Neuro-Affirming Leadership?

    Neuro-affirming leadership is a leadership approach that recognises and values the diverse neurological makeups of individuals in a team.

    It focuses on creating an inclusive environment that supports and leverages the unique strengths and needs of all employees, including neurodivergent employees.

  • Who can benefit from Neuro-Affirming Leadership?

    Everyone in the workplace can benefit from Neuro-Affirming Leadership.

    While it's particularly supportive for neurodivergent individuals, such as those with ADHD, autism, or dyslexia, it also creates a more empathetic, understanding, and flexible work environment for all employees.

  • How does Neuro-Affirming Leadership impact workplace culture?

    Neuro-affirming leadership positively impacts workplace culture by fostering a sense of belonging, respect, and value for diverse ways of thinking and working.

    This approach creates a more collaborative, innovative, and productive work environment.

  • What are some key strategies of Neuro-Affirming Leadership?

    Key strategies include providing clear communication, flexible work arrangements, encouraging self-advocacy, promoting a culture of continuous learning about neurodiversity, and implementing policies that support diverse neurological needs.

  • Can Neuro-Affirming Leadership improve team performance?

    Yes, Neuro-Affirming Leadership can significantly improve team performance.

    Valuing diverse perspectives and skills enhances creativity, problem-solving, and decision-making within teams, leading to better overall performance.

  • How can a leader start implementing Neuro-Affirming practices?

    Leaders can start by educating themselves and their teams about neurodiversity, actively listening to the needs of all team members, and adapting policies and practices to be more inclusive and supportive of neurodivergent individuals.

    Training resources are available such as:

  • Are there any challenges in implementing Neuro-Affirming Leadership?

    Challenges may include overcoming pre-existing biases and stereotypes, ongoing education and awareness, and ensuring that accommodations for neurodivergent individuals are effectively integrated into workplace practices.

  • How can Neuro-Affirming Leadership be measured for effectiveness?

    The effectiveness of Neuro-Affirming Leadership can be measured through employee satisfaction surveys, feedback from neurodivergent employees, monitoring of team performance metrics, and assessing the overall inclusivity of the workplace culture.

  • Can small businesses or startups benefit from Neuro-Affirming Leadership?

    Absolutely. Small businesses and startups can significantly benefit from Neuro-Affirming Leadership as it can lead to a more adaptable, innovative, and resilient workforce, which is crucial for companies in their growth stages.

  • Where can I find more resources on Neuro-Affirming Leadership?

    You can learn more about neurodivergence in our article Dispelling Common Myths About Neurodiversity.

    Consider MiTraining's Neurodiversity Workshops for specific training on creating a neurodiverse-friendly workplace.

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