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Sasha Boersma occasionally gets a calendar booking from one of her dozen or so employees for a quick meeting. The employee has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and just wants to talk. More specifically, they’re struggling to stay awake and need someone to draw their attention for twenty minutes until their medication kicks in and they can finally focus.

“It makes me laugh because I can’t ever imagine ever saying things like this to my previous managers,” says Ms. Boersma, co-founder and producer at Sticky Brain Studios. She is autistic, has ADHD and deals with anxiety disorder, so she understands all too well. She says about half of her company are neurodivergent. “But I’m also quite touched that we’ve built a community of this transparency.”

Sticky Brain Studios is an independent game and app studio based in Toronto, but it is far from the only company trying to do right by its neurodivergent employees – or those dealing with conditions like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, traumatic brain injuries or other sensory or cognitive conditions.

Compared to their neurotypical colleagues, neurodivergent workers are far more likely to be fired, underemployed or unemployed. The employment rate for autistic adults is just 14.3 per cent, according to the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. That is compared to more than 60 per cent for Canada as a whole. Adults with ADHD are 61 per cent more likely to be fired, 53 per cent more likely to quit and 20 per cent less likely to be employed than their counterparts, according to statistics cited by the Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada. But, as Ms. Boersma says, it’s entirely possible for employers to keep neurodivergent employees happy and productive with a few changes.

Plenty of companies, from Montreal social enterprise Zera Café, a not-for-profit catering service that employs neurodivergent young adults, to professional services juggernaut Deloitte, promise to fairly hire and support neurodivergent workers. These programs can include everything from assigning mentors to speaking openly about neurodivergence.

However, Sticky Brain Studios appears to have shifted the way their company operates to suit as many of its employees as possible. The Toronto company doesn’t require a 40-hour, 9-5 workweek from any of its employees. It gives them the chance to work out what they need with their boss, rather than simply leaning on an ‘inclusive hiring’ policy or awareness training for managers.

“It requires you, as managers, to trust that you’ve hired good people who want to do their job,” Ms. Boersma says. “It does require a certain maturity to take responsibility for themselves and their actions. And as long as we have that relationship, then our system of flexibility works.”

The conditions within the big tent of neurodivergence all present in myriad ways at the office, but often go far beyond a medical diagnosis. For example, in a typical office setting, those with ADHD can find themselves unmoored from their work by the constant bustle of an open-concept floor plan, juggling multiple deadlines, and the need to stay focused for long periods of time.

Yet they also deal with plenty of other challenges beyond distractibility. As Ms. Boersma explains, those with ADHD (as well as autism and some other conditions) often deal with executive dysfunction, or the inability to handle even the most basic steps of daily life, like making toast. Sleep issues, particularly around early wakeup times, are a significant problem for many with ADHD. As many as 75 per cent of ADHD adults describe themselves as night owls, according to a 2019 editorial in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Force someone with ADHD to work a specific schedule not suited to their brains, like a 9-5, and they might end up going to work exhausted. All of this weighs on a company’s productivity.

“Pushing through doesn’t make you any more productive,” Ms. Boersma says, “and you’re not going to get your work done. As a manager, you’re now paying for them to come in for an eight-hour day, and they’re just going to sit at their computer because they have no energy.”

At Sticky Brain Studios, Ms. Boersma says there is no one start time to the day. Everyone’s ‘on’ time does overlap in the early afternoon to ensure the company can schedule all-hands meetings, but employees are otherwise free to adjust their own working hours. (Nearly all of Sticky Brain’s ADHD employees work the late shift). If that means someone is exhausted and needs the afternoon off to rest, not a problem – so long as they hit their weekly goals, that’s totally fine with Ms. Boersma.

These flexible work arrangements are something that Samuel Dunsiger, a 36-year-old neurodivergent writer and accessibility consultant, says are crucial. Neurodivergence can often be episodic, he says. Sometimes, someone with a neurodivergence like autism, ADHD or even Tourettes can power through work as fast as their neurotypical colleagues. Other times, they may struggle to keep up.

“For me, in my neurodivergence, there are times in the day where I pretty much crash and I can’t do a single thing,” he says. If managers understand this dynamic, Dunsiger adds, they can better accommodate neurodivergent workers.

Not everything at Sticky Brain Studios comes easy. “There’s a bit of a balance between being [the] boss and telling them what to do next,” Ms. Boersma says. “At the same time, they’re very smart people.” She says achieving this balancing act requires a lot of strong project management. In a larger company, it might not be possible.

Techniques like agile management, a methodology originally designed for the fast-paced tech world, can work well because they break larger tasks into small, manageable chunks over the course of a two week ‘sprint’ period – perfect for someone with ADHD who struggles with balancing multiple competing objectives and boredom.

“We don’t prescribe to it that strongly,” Ms. Boersma says, “but we use a lot of the logic of it.”

For some with ADHD, she says, getting too focused on one task, a situation known as ‘hyperfocus’, can make it extremely difficult to shift to another piece of a project. By breaking a project into pieces, workers can power through whatever suits their attention at a given moment.

But one of the most important characteristics of Sticky Brain’s approach to neurodivergence centres around its approach to hiring – and who is doing it. Ms. Boersma says companies looking at a prospective candidate who they suspect is neurodivergent should focus on whether they can do the job, rather than what their condition is.

During Sticky Brains’s onboarding process, Ms. Boersma discloses her own conditions to a new hire and then asks them about whatever they might need. Discrimination on the basis of disability is illegal in Canada, as is asking about disability in an interview beyond the bare minimums necessary to do a job. However, by giving her own experience and phrasing it as a way to discuss disability, she opens the floor for a candidate to describe what they need to a boss they know is neurodivergent.

“It needs to be normal,” Ms. Boersma says, “where you just trust that the person applying for the job can do the job, and they can manage it as long as they can do the job to the quality that you need – as long as you have the accommodations to support them.”

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