Disabilities, Employee Relations, Human Resources, Leadership

Learning Disabilities and the Workplace

The number of children and adults being diagnosed with learning disabilities continues to increase each year because of availability of information and testing, but there are still many that go undiagnosed.  This is going to talk about the three most common learning disorders and how it affects adults in the workplace so that you, as their Manager, can better understand.

Attention Deficit/Hyper Activity Disorder (“ADHD”), Autism Spectrum Disorder (“ASD”), and Dyslexia are three of the most common Learning Disabilities that you may encounter with your employees or co-worker.  They are considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 but in some cases you may not even know if your employee is struggling with ones of these because either 1) they don’t know they have it even as adults and 2) they may be afraid to share with you because of the social stigma that still exists about someone having a “disability” and therefore being a negative to have in the workplace.

Hopefully, the social stigma surrounding disabilities continues to go away, but in the meantime, here is some information regarding each to consider about how you can best interact with your employees.

Attention Deficit/Hyper Activity Disorder (“ADHD”) is among the most common mental disorders in children and teens, but plenty of adults have it too. It’s estimated that adult ADHD affects more than 8% of adult Americans. Many of them don’t even know it. Several studies suggest less than 20% of adults with ADHD are aware that they have it. However, many are actual high achievers due to their working twice as hard as their colleagues especially if they have never been diagnosed. 

Their traits may include hyperfocus, resilience, creativity, conversational skills, spontaneity, and abundant energy. Many people view these benefits as “superpowers” because those with ADHD can hone them to their advantage. People with ADHD have a unique perspective that others may find interesting and valuable.

Adult with ADHD may struggle to focus, organize, manage time, prioritize tasks, and make decisions. Because those with ADHD also have difficulties with social skills and reading other people’s social queues, they may be viewed by others as not sympathetic, or someone who is bubbly and energetic and a risk-taker.

Those with ADHD are extremely sensitive to disapproval, rejection, and criticism. They might interpret a colleague’s reaction to something as criticism, disapproval, or even insult, when none was intended. As a Manager, you may find they tend to react self-defensively, or worse, angrily. Rejection sensitivity is extremely common in people with ADHD.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (“ASD”) affects just over 2.2% of adults in the US.  Severe forms of ASD are diagnosed in children early in life, but those that are considered “high-functioning” (what used to be called Asperger’s) may not be diagnosed until later in life as adults if ever even diagnosed. 

Adults with Autism have difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling; have trouble interpreting facial expressions, body language, or social cues; have difficulty regulating their emotions; may have trouble keeping up during a conversation and maintaining the natural give-and-take one expects; are prone to monologues on a favorite subject; tend to engage in repetitive or routine behaviors; and follow strict, consistent routines and when disrupted or changed without notice lead to outburst.

Here are some things you may encounter with your Autistic employees:

  • When you’re having a conversation with your employee, they may look at the wall, their shoes, or anywhere but directly into your eyes.
  • Co-workers may comment that they speak like a robot.
  • They may be really good at math, or software coding, but struggle to succeed in other areas.
  • They are direct and blunt when talking with you or co-workers but don’t see anything wrong in that.
  • During meetings, they may make involuntary noises, like clearing their throat over and over.
  • When talking with you, they have difficulty telling if you is happy with your performance or mad at you unless you tell them directly.

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that can cause many difficulties, especially problems with reading and writing. People with dyslexia have trouble matching the letters they read to the sounds those letters make. 20% of adults in the US are affected by Dyslexia and, like with many other invisible disabilities, many adults are undiagnosed. 

Adults with Dyslexia may have low self-esteem, experience shame, humiliation, or lack confidence in their ability to perform at work or school.  They may appear highly intelligent or score well on intelligence tests but underperform at work or school.

Some things you may notice from employees with Dyslexia:

  • Adults with dyslexia have visual problems when reading so they may be highly sensitive to glare, or to the color of the paper or words. Changes in a font, color, or other characteristics of the words may make it more difficult for them to read.
  • Adults with dyslexia have difficulty focusing when reading and may frequently lose their place, feel like the words are moving or jumbled, or find reading very stressful.
  • Many dyslexic adults who love learning may avoid reading, preferring other modes of learning instead.
  • They have difficulties with written communication or tests. They might be highly competent at their job but you will find them reluctant to take a written test to advance to the next level. You may find that co-workers or managers complain about their reports or other written communications.
  • Confusing very similar words or letters when writing or reading.
  • Adults with dyslexia may forget what they were writing, struggle to follow a train of thought, or incorrectly transcribe a message.
  • Confusing left and right, or otherwise struggling with spatial reasoning.

Being in a supportive environment will help a person with a learning disability to better work around their condition. So as a Manager, what can you do?

First of all: You cannot ask them if they have a learning disability or suggest they may and need to be evaluated.  You can only talk about it and ask them questions if they first share with you that they have a learning disability.  Remember: there is still this social stigma hanging over people with conditions labeled as “disabilities” that they will be viewed as difficult or an employee not worth having especially if they ask for accommodations.  The purpose of sharing this information is for you to keep in mind if some of these situations seem to be what you are encountering with an employee so that you can shift your approach to help them or even make them feel comfortable to talk to you about it.  You may encounter employees with similar issues that don’t have these learning disabilities so it’s important not to assume or label if you don’t know.

Do you have employees that have already disclosed to you that they are working with the above conditions?  They may have shared that they have one of these conditions but maybe not much more beyond that.  Hopefully, the information I shared will help you better understand their condition and your interactions with them as they are still an asset to your company (sometimes even more so than others).  If they have disclosed to you, have a conversation with them and share that you would like to learn more about possible ways to help them in the office environment.  For example, if some shared that they have Dyslexia, a glare blocker on their computer screen may be something simple you could provide to help them – but ask them if it would help, don’t assume.  Asking instead of just providing helps build that trust between the two of you.

Take some time to think about your interactions with each of your employees.  Have any of them displayed some of the reactions I shared?  Remember, just because they may have doesn’t mean they may have a condition. It would be good to take some time to think about and review your actions and communication with all of your employees.  A person with a disability, visual or invisible, does not want to be singled out or given special treatment but rather wants to be treated the same as others – at least perceptually – so looking at how you interact with all of your employees may help you uncover some changes to make in your overall approach that will help strength the bond and trust with all of them.

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